Sephardic Jewish Immigrants: The Second Wave

A renewed influx of Sephardic immigrants around the turn of the 20th century.

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Like immigrants from Eastern Europe, they were taken in hand by the Jewish philanthropies. In the prewar period, approximately 1,000 of the newcomers accepted the guidance of the Industrial Removal Office and were resettled in the Midwest and West. Thus by 1914, perhaps 600 Sephardim were transplanted in Seattle, with smaller numbers in San Francisco, Portland, Los Angeles, and several inland cities. The Sephardim of Seattle and Portland tended to be from Rhodes; those of San Francisco from Aleppo and Damascus. Other communities were mixed. This was surely true of New York, where perhaps 90 percent of all Levantine Jews settled.

Essentially without marketable skills, living in the wretchedest of Lower East Side tenements, the newcomers eked out their existence as bootblacks, as candy and ice cream vendors in nickelodeons, as cloakroom attendants or waiters. Others worked for starvation wages in the cigarette factory of their kinsmen the Schinasi brothers. The women, all but illiterate, found intermittent employment in the garment industry but more commonly as maids or laundresses...

Up From Poverty

With the passing of the years, nevertheless, the immigrant Sephardic communities at least achieved a modest economic foothold. By the 1930s, many struggling vendors had become marginally respect­able shopkeepers. Waiters had become proprietors of cafés or small restaurants. Garment workers had joined the ILGWU [the International Ladies Garment Workers Union] and other welfare-oriented unions.

Rather more deliberately than the Ashkenazim, the Levantines began trickling out of the Lower East Side--to Harlem, to the Grand Concourse in the Bronx, to Coney Island and Bensonhurst in Brooklyn. Two thousand middle-class Greek, Bulgarian, and Turk­ish Sephardim even managed to establish homes for themselves among the truck farms of the New Lots section of Brownsville, border­ing that enclave's teeming Ashkenazic neighborhoods.

Their children by then were attending school regularly. It was not Hebrew school, to be sure. Well into the 1940s, the youngsters' Jewish education was more haphazard even than that of the East Europeans at the beginning of the century. It would require yet another, post-World War II infusion of Near Easterners to weave a Sephardic cultural thread into the fab­ric of American-Jewish life.

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Howard Sachar

Howard M. Sachar is the author of numerous books, including A History of Israel, A History of the Jews in America, Farewell Espana, Israel and Europe, and A History of Jews in the Modern World. He is also the editor of the 39-volume The Rise of Israel: A Documentary History. He serves as Professor of Modern History at George Washington University.