By Zach Itzkovitz

In a multicultural age of political correctness and eroded barriers, those who investigate their past seek to isolate themselves in the pursuit of identity. Jews have always been ostracized from their
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countries of origin. To what extent has this exclusion aided our quest for self-understanding?

Professor Devin E. Naar addressed that question in a presentation titled “From the Mediterranean to America: The Legacy of Sephardic Jews in the United States” before a modest crowd at Congregation Or VeShalom in Brookhaven on March 29. He represented the University of Washington in Seattle, where he is the chairman of the Sephardic studies program.

“They came as representatives of the sultan in the Ottoman Empire,” Naar said of Sephardic immigrants to the United States. “They came to Chicago for the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893. This was the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ discovery of America in 1492 — it happened a year late.”

Naar said the World’s Fair provided the circumstance for an important cultural exchange between the United States and the Ottoman Empire, which claimed most land surrounding the Mediterranean Sea.

“They were coming here not as Sephardim, not even necessarily as Jews,” Naar said, “but as representatives of the Ottoman Empire. In order to represent the Ottoman Empire, they built a mosque because they wanted to show the culture of the Islamic world of the Ottoman Empire.”

Naar showed a ketubah (Jewish marriage contract) on which appeared traditional Hebrew writing around a star and crescent.

“These are the symbols of the Ottoman Empire,” Naar said. “These are the symbols of Islam. These are the symbols of Islam and the Ottoman Empire that Jews were placing on their own religious legal documents. … This is a world in which Jews and Muslims were part of the same cultural environment.”

In the Ottoman Empire, according to Naar, Jews were given many of the same rights as any other religious group. When the Ottoman Empire dissolved, borders were drawn that separated former Ottomans by ethnicity and religion. The new map resulted in a hostile environment for regional Jews, many of whom left for the United States.

“They were liable for military conscription,” Naar said. “They didn’t necessarily want to defend a country of which is wasn’t clear that they were really a part.”

Naar displayed images of American newspapers from the early 20th century written in Ladino, a Romance language based on Medieval Spanish but using Hebrew letters — the Sephardic equivalent of Yiddish.

One image Naar showed depicted a guide for newly arriving Mediterranean Jews. Another listed meetings of groups composed of other Mediterranean Jews.

“By the end of World War I, there were over 40 of these institutions created across the country,” Naar said, “primarily in New York, but in many, many places in different parts of the United States.”

Congregation Or VeShalom, Naar said, was one of the earliest examples of an American Sephardic institution, founded in 1914.

Through the Second World War, many more Sephardic Jews arrived in the United States as they fled Nazism and Fascism. Naar read aloud Ladino letters between Jewish relatives in America and Turkey. One letter, between an American girl and her Turkish grandfather, detailed the latter’s aspirations of escaping and asked for help in doing so.

“They continued to express connections with the countries, towns and cities from which they came,” Naar said. “They created new institutional life, trying to transform and promote their own sense of community and identity. They created a Ladino newspaper, a press, to unite the voices, the aspirations and the anxieties of that community — persistent until 1948.”

Many of the primary documents are available to view online as part of the Sephardic Studies Digital Library & Museum at the University of Washington (jewishstudies.washington.edu/sephardic-studies/sephardic-studies-digital-library-museum). They are available to anyone to use as vessels through which to travel back in time to a distant yet familiar universe.