Though the first wave of Jewish immigrants to America were Sephardic–tracing their roots to Spain and Portugal–subsequent waves were dominated by Ashkenazim from Germany and Eastern Europe. As the following article demonstrates, however, the Sephardic influx did not end with the arrival of Ashkenazim. Reprinted with permission from A History of Jews in America, published by Vintage Books.
In the winter of 1916, a group of immigrant Jews in New York’s Lower East Side petitioned the city council to remove the "Turks in our midst," whose drinking, gambling, and carousing were creating havoc "in our respectable neighborhoods." "Who are these strangers," complained the Yiddish-language Jewish Immigration Bulletin that year, "who sit inside coffee houses, smoking strange-looking water pipes, sipping from tiny cups, and playing at backgammon and dice, games we are not familiar with?"
The "Turks"–the "strangers"–were Sephardic Jews. Yet they were Sephardim who bore little resemblance to the ancestors of Jewish settlement in the New World. The original forebears, it is recalled, were Western Sephardim, descendants of former marranos [Jews who, during the Spanish Inquisition, outwardly adopted Christianity but privately retained their Judaism] who returned to Judaism and established émigré communities throughout Western Europe and the West Indies, and eventually on the American mainland. By contrast, these 20th-century carousers belonged to Levantine, or "Eastern," Sephardic communities.
As descendants of Iberian Jews who had settled in the Ottoman Empire–and particularly in Syria, the Balkans, and North Africa–the Levantines in later centuries shared with the surrounding Muslim world a gradual atrophy of economic and cultural resources.
Then, from 1890 on, the Eastern Sephardim joined the stream of Greeks and Lebanese migrating to the Western Hemisphere. By 1908, some 2,700 of them had made their way to the United States. A few did quite well. Their earlier overseas connections enabled Meir Ben-Ghiat, Samuel Coen and the Mayohas brothers to establish lucrative oriental carpet and antique businesses. The Schinasi brothers opened a cigarette factory using "genuine Turkish tobacco."
Most of the Near Easterners subsisted as petty traders, however, and were quite poor. Even poorer were the Jews who arrived after the Young Turk Revolution of 1908, those without sufficient funds to buy their way out of Ottoman military service, and others who were caught in the maelstrom of the Balkan Wars of 1912-13. Some 10,000 of these latter departed for America between 1908 and 1914. After undergoing the even grimmer trauma of World War I, another 15,000 Levantine Jews shared in the westward exodus, between 1920 and 1924. By the end of the decade, the number of Sephardim in the United States approached 30,000.
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.
Pronounced: seh-FAR-dik, Origin: Hebrew, describing Jews descending from the Jews of Spain.