Ottoman Jews in New York:
Racism and American-Jewish History
In 1910, when Albert Amateau arrived in New York from Izmir, he tried to rent a home from a Yiddish-speaking landlord on the Lower East Side. Amateau was one of the millions of Jews pouring into New York at the turn of the twentieth century, and like his fellow Jews from Eastern Europe, sought lodging in the crowded tenements of the Lower East Side. The landlord did not believe Amateau was Jewish—”Amateau” didn’t sound like a Jewish name, after all. So he checked the best way he knew how. He took Amateau into a bathroom and ordered him to pull down his pants. Even after confirming, the landlord still said to his wife: “Nah. He may be a Mohamedan or something,” and told Amateau to go to the Ottoman consulate in New York. The consulate sent Amateau back to the Lower East Side, to a cafe on Rivington Street, where Amateau found what he had been searching for all along: an Ottoman Jewish cafe, transplanted from the Ottoman metropole to the kolonia on the Lower East Side.
Amateau was an early member of the about forty thousand Ladino-speaking Sephardi Jews (Turkinos) who left or fled the Ottoman Empire and settled in New York from 1908-1924. The Ottoman Empire was faltering, and faced a series of successive crises: first, the Young Turk Revolution in 1908; followed by wars with Greece, Italy, and the newly-independent Balkan states. Salonika (Thessaloniki), the “Jerusalem of the Balkans,” fell to the Greeks in 1913, and the resulting surge of Greek nationalism in Salonika drove fifty thousand Jews out of Salonika, over half the community. Other Ottoman Jewish cities across Greece and Turkey—Rhodes, Izmir, and Monastir (Bitola), to name a few of the largest—were similarly devastated by emigration.
New York was a popular destination, partially because of the lax American immigration laws of the time, but also because it represented for Sephardi Jews much the same promise it held for Ashkenazim: a chance to succeed through hard work in the New World, the shining city across the sea. But when they arrived in New York, they did not find the promised land.
Like all other immigrants, adjusting and Americanizing was a steep challenge for Sephardi Ottoman Jews. Though they quickly founded their own publications, burial societies, aid programs, and synagogues, often based on their city of origin, they struggled to survive on their own finances. The more established Jewish community often turned a blind eye or, worse, refused to believe that these Sephardim were Jews, like Amateau’s would be landlord. One Ashkenazi Jew, Samuel Auerbach, described:
Who are these strangers who can be seen in the ghetto of the East Side, sitting outside of coffee-houses smoking strange-looking waterpipes, sipping a dark liquid from tiny cups and playing a game of checkers and dice, a game that we are not familiar with? See the signs on these institutions. They read: "Cafe Constantinople," "Cafe Oriental," Cafe Smyrna," and there are other signs in Hebrew characters that you perhaps cannot read. Are they Jews? No it cannot be; they do not look like Jews; they do not speak Yiddish. Listen; what is that strange tongue they are using? It sounds like Spanish or Mexican. Are they Spaniards or Mexicans? If so, where did they get the coffee-houses, an importation from Greece and Turkey?
Louis Hacker, then a recent Columbia graduate, put it even more simply: Ottoman Sephardim were “almost as alien to their [Ashkenazi] kinsmen as are the negroes to the average white Southerner.” (Hacker later became an economics professor at Columbia, and would go on to found the Columbia School of General Studies.) Many Turkish Sephardim returned to the (by then former) Ottoman Empire, reasoning that there, at least, they would be treated as “real Jews.” Many of them were—by the Nazis. Others left to other Ottoman Sephardi communities in South America, especially Cuba.
Some Ashkenazim were sympathetic to Ottoman Sephardim, although often found themselves unwilling to help. But even these well-meaning philanthropists and service workers were full of condescension and racism towards the “Oriental Jews” they found among them. Reports on Sephardim published in major publications, including the American Jewish Chronicle, labeled them as “exotic flowers… completely under Oriental domination.”
They characterized Ottoman Sephardim as lazy, unenlightened, unwilling to be educated, and possessing an “inordinate pride,” even as these same Ashkenazim tried (and often failed) to provide education, aid, and funding to the impoverished Sephardim on the Lower East Side. Ashkenazim identified Ottoman Sephardim with the “Orient,” Islam, and the East, with language full of Orientalist racism and stereotype. Often, as with Amateau, their very Jewishness was denied, adding insult to injury.
As a result of their rejection by Ashkenazim, Ottoman Sephardim turned to non-Jews for jobs, community, and resources. They often spoke French, Italian, and Ladino speakers could converse with Spanish speakers, so they could blend with gentile French, Italian, and Latine immigrants. This allowed them to gain access to jobs, but also institutional resources: The first major Sephardic Studies program was founded under the Hispanic Studies department at Columbia. As Jews, however, they were never fully recognized by their non-Jewish peers, and so that was not viable in the long-term as a source of community.
But Ottoman Sephardim were not the only Sephardim in New York. The Upper West Side was home to Congregation Shearith Israel, a Sephardi congregation founded in 1654 by Brazilian Jews fleeing the Portuguese Inquisition. They were the oldest Jews in New York, and among the wealthiest. They were well-assimilated into New York high society, rubbing noses with Schuylers and other members of the New York elite.
They founded colleges (Annie Nathan Meyer, Barnard College), seminaries (Henry Peireira Mendes, JTS), sat on the Supreme Court (Benjamin Cardozo), and wrote some of the most famous American poetry (Emma Lazarus). David de Sola Pool, the rabbi at Shearith Israel from 1907-1955, was the author of two prayer books: one Ashkenazi and one Sephardi, both of which became ubiquitous within American Orthodox congregations. There could not have been a greater contrast between the well-educated, wealthy Spanish-Portuguese Sephardim at Shearith Israel and the impoverished Ottoman Sephardim.
Initially, the Spanish-Portuguese were not enthusiastic about welcoming the Ottoman Sephardim. In a report authored in 1913, de Sola Pool emphasized the Balkan, Levantine, and Orientalness of Ottoman Jews, even as Shearith Israel began to slowly open its doors to them. But Ottoman Jews refused to be set apart from their Sephardi cousins. In response to the Orientalizing discourse they heard from all quarters, Ottoman Sephardim abandoned their Ottoman past, replacing Turkino with Sephardi, emphasizing their Spanishness and Europeanness above their Asianness. They recalled their past as heirs of the Iberian Jewish Golden Age and its poets, philosophers, and halakhists.
By the 1920s, as a result of this campaign and the fall of the Ottoman Empire, Ottoman Sephardim were much more cohesive as a community and integrated into Shearith Israel and other Sephardi communities. By World War II, as the community integrated, intermarried, and assimilated into Ashkenazi and American Jewish life, the organized Ottoman Sephardi community faded into the broader Sephardi and American Jewish community.
In his 1908 play, “The Melting Pot,” Israel Zangwill imagined an America where “all the races of Europe are melting and reforming.” Jews who were not European, then, were obviously left out—never mind non-European gentiles. When confronted with Jews that did not look like them, American Ashkenazi Jews turned to the American racial framework, othering and isolating Ottoman Sephardi Jews, treating them as “Orientals” and “Asiatics.” They denied their Jewishness, excluding them from the organized Jewish community Ashkenazim had worked so hard to build. Racism is not a new problem in American Jewry. It has been a part of our communities since the beginning.
//ALYX BERNSTEIN is a Junior in Barnard College and the Jewish Theological Seminary and Managing Editor at The Current. She can be reached at email@example.com.