Sephardim and the West Coast: An internship project

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By Leora Singer, Former Research Intern

Biography and Author’s Purpose

I am
a New York City High School Student that completed a 5-week research internship at The Center for Jewish
History this past summer. After taking Advanced Placement Spanish in school, I
became interested in the history of Jews of Spanish descent. In addition, my
knowledge of Hebrew and Spanish (although it is limited) was an incentive for
me to look into the history and linguistic construction of Ladino
[Judaeo-Spanish] (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Judaeo-Spanish).  

When I researched Ladino
in the online catalog for the partners of the Center for Jewish History Library
and Archives Collections, I found a master’s thesis from a professor at the
University of Washington on the few remaining Ladino speakers in Seattle. The
study discussed a bit about the origins of Sephardim in Seattle, and how
Seattle Sephardim became increasingly detached from Ladino and sometimes even
their Sephardic culture. I decided to further look into the topic of Seattle
Sephardim. Through more research, I was able to broaden my topic to Sephardim
in the 19th-20th centuries from three cities on the West Coast: Seattle, Los
Angeles, and San Francisco.

I decided to organize my
findings into three blog posts  each of
which analyzes one research question for at least two of the three cities: Seattle,
Los Angeles, and San Francisco. Here are the questions:

1. How did the wealth and status of the Sephardim
in West Coast cities affect their development in the late 19th- early 20th
centuries? (Assessed for Seattle, Los Angeles, and San Francisco)

2. What was the relationship between Sephardim on
the West Coast and Ashkenazim on the West Coast in the late 19th-early 20th
Centuries? (Assessed for Seattle and San Francisco)

3. What was the relationship between Turkish and
Rhodesli Sephardim on the West Coast in the late 19th-early 20th Centuries?
(Assessed for Seattle and Los Angeles)

The goal of this project
is to compare and contrast the status and development of Sephardic Jews in
Seattle, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. In addition,  I explore the relationships between different
groups of Sephardim in those places, as well as  how Sephardim there related to Ashkenazim and
even non-Jews. My research was largely based on books held by the American
Sephardi Federation (ASF) and the American Jewish Historical Society (AJHS). I
learned that Sephardim started moving to Seattle and Los Angeles around the
same time, at the beginning of the 20th century, and the vast majority of the first
generation of Sephardim in these cities immigrated directly from other
countries. However, the first Sephardim came to San Francisco during the Gold
Rush period, and many of them were born in the US. In my posts, I explore this
contrast and how it affected the growth of each Sephardic community.

What was the Financial and Social Status of the
Sephardim in West Coast Cities and How Did This Affect Their Development in the
Late 19th- Early 20th Centuries?

This
is my first blog post in a series of three posts in which I discuss the theme
of Sephardim in the West Coast in the 19th-20th century. In this post, I
compare and contrast the wealth and prominence of Sephardim in each of the three
cities: Seattle, Los Angeles, and San Francisco.

Seattle:

The first Sephardic
immigrants to Seattle, Solomo Calvo and Jacob Policar, came directly from the
island of Marmara in 1902 (Adatto, 55-56). They came searching for jobs in the
fishing industry that would make them enough money to sustain themselves and
ensure a happy life for themselves. Calvo and Policar soon brought over family members that were
also searching for a more financially comfortable lifestyle. These family
members spread the word about the opportunities available in Seattle, so soon
enough dozens of Turkish Sephardim living in poverty  arrived in Seattle, searching for a better
future (Adatto, 60). The first few generations of Sephardim living in Seattle
were uneducated (Adatto, 30) and took up jobs as unskilled laborers. Many of
them worked in the fish industry, or as tailors, shoe shiners, or cigar rollers
(Sidell, 578). However, they worked hard and encouraged their children, so the
next generation was more prosperous (Angel,  564). As their prosperity
grew, the Sephardim of Seattle had more time to engage with secular and Jewish
intellectual ideas, and they focused more on educating the next generation. The
Sephardic Talmud Torah improved (Angel, 571). At Bikur Holim, one of the two
Sephardic synagogues that still exists in Seattle today, there is a thriving
adult education program filled with interesting lectures by guest speakers (Read more about these synagogues in my third
blog post). In addition, there is a large library at Bikur Holim.

Los
Angeles:

Many of the early
Sephardim living in Los Angeles were from Rhodes. Like in Seattle, most of the
Sephardim living in Los Angeles in the early 20th century did menial labor
because they couldn’t speak English. Most of the profits made from their
menial labor were given to their struggling families in Rhodes. When their
family members back in Rhodes saw this money, many decided to come to Los Angeles themselves.
This led to more Sephardic immigration to Los Angeles. Many Rhodesli Sephardic
immigrants to Los Angeles came in order to become prosperous, and would have
stayed in Rhodes if they weren’t living in poverty there (Hasson, 384).

Similar to the Sephardim
of Seattle, first-generation Los Angeles Sephardim wanted their children to get
an education, find a job that did not involve menial labor, and assimilate into
American society. One of the ways they tried to ensure that their children
would be successful in America was by encouraging their children to speak English
instead of Ladino (Hasson, 387). Although this did help second-generation
Sephardim in Los Angeles to gain respect from others and to get high-paying
jobs, it led to the decline of Ladino. Since many second-generation Sephardim
in Los Angeles weren’t  used to speaking Ladino and thought it was not a
tool for success in the United States, most of them weren’t inclined to speak
it regularly with their children. With each passing generation, fewer and fewer
Sephardim in Los Angeles spoke Ladino.

San Francisco:

Sephardim started coming
to San Francisco during the Gold Rush in 1849. Unlike in Seattle and Los Angeles, most of the Sephardim that came to San Francisco
were natives of other parts of the United States. Most of them were prosperous
and highly educated (Stern and Kramer, 46). Many prominent politicians and
educators in California in the late 19th- early 20th centuries were San
Franciscan Sephardim. This allowed San Franciscan Sephardim to have a say in
establishing laws and social customs.

The Sephardim were never
able to have a congregation of their own (You can read about this phenomenon in
my second blog post). Therefore, they chose which of the Ashkenazi-run
synagogues to go to: Temple Emanu-El or Temple Shearith Israel. The Sephardim
were split between the two synagogues (Stern and Kramer, 48).  Due to the
fact that they were prosperous and their families had been in the US for a long
time, the Sephardim in San Francisco didn’t see themselves as a minority group
that needed to stick together. Stern and Kramer infer “…that both of the
synagogues must have been wealthy.” (Stern and Kramer, 48)

One of the prominent members
from this community was Joseph R. Brandon. An activist lawyer, Brandon was also a
member of the Sephardic congregation Sherith Israel in San Francisco. He was a
strictly Orthodox Jew, and he argued against the passage of laws that failed to
protect the religious freedom of the Jews. For example, he opposed the
recitation of the Christian Lord’s prayer in public schools, so he wrote a
20-page pamphlet stating that the rationale for saying the prayer had misquoted
the scriptures (Kramer, 78). Along with the retired state supreme court judge
Solomon Heydenfelt, also a Sephardic Jew from San Francisco, Brandon argued
against the law that stores must close on Sundays. Brandon and Heyden felt won
their case, and the law was not passed (Zerin, 19).  

Bibliography:Adatto, Albert. Sephardim and the Seattle Sephardic Community. Seattle: U of Washington, 1939. Print.Fitz Morris, Mary K., and University of Washington. Spanish Portuguese Studies. Degree Granting Institution. The Last Generation of Native Ladino Speakers? Judeo-Spanish and the Sephardic Community in Seattle (2014): Masters Abstracts International 53-04(E). Print.Angel, Marc D., Hasson, Aron, Kramer, William M., Maimon, Isaac, Samuels, Beth, Sidell, Loraine, Stern, Norton B. Sephardic Jews in the West Coast States : An Anthology. 1st ed. Los Angeles: Published for the Skirball Cultural Center, Los Angeles by the Western States Jewish History Association, 1996. Print. Western States Jewish History ; v. 28, No. 1-3.Stern, Stephen. The Sephardic Jewish Community of Los Angeles. New York: Arno, 1980. Print. Folklore of the World (New York).Zerin, Edward. Jewish San Francisco. Charleston, SC: Arcadia, 2006. Print. Images of America.

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