Seattle Sephardim: Early Beginnings

  • By Lee Micklin
  • Posted 10/16/1998
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 864

In June 1902, the first Sephardic Jews, Solomon Calvo (1879-1964) and Jacob (Jack) Policar (d. 1961), arrived in Seattle from Marmara, Turkey. In 1904, Nissim Alhadeff arrived from the Isle of Rhodes. As economic and political conditions in the Ottoman Empire deteriorated, and as Jews became newly subject to the draft there, immigration increased. By 1914, Sephardic Jews had founded three synagogues in Seattle.

Origin of Sephardic Jews

Sephardic Jews are descendents of Jews who thrived in Spain from the third century onward. When Muslim Arabs, invading from Morocco, took over Spain, the Jews welcomed them, and, generally speaking, Jewish religious and secular culture thrived. The Jews of Spain adopted the Arabic language. Under the Muslims, Jews became scientists, philosophers, government officials, merchants, poets, musicians, and so on. There was a great flowering of Jewish culture.

Later, Christian princes pushed out the Muslim rulers of Spain, and persecution of the Jews began. In 1492, as part of the Christian Spanish Inquisition, Jews were expelled from Spain. Many historians attribute the decline of Spain as a world power to the destruction of this community, with its wealth of contributions. Jews suffering in this diaspora went to North America, Holland, Italy, and especially to Turkey, where the Sultan welcomed them.

The first Sephardic Jews to arrive in Seattle in the early twentieth century were descendents of the Spanish Jews who moved to Turkey and lived within the Ottoman Empire. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as economic and political conditions in the Ottoman Empire deteriorated, and as Jews became newly subject to the draft there, they immigrated to America in increasing numbers. By 1914, Sephardic Jews had established three Sephardic synagogues in Seattle.

Calvo's Chance Encounter

The origins of Seattle's Sephardic community can be attributed to a chance encounter in Turkey during a far shorter trip than the one that brought Solomon Calvo and Jacob Policar to Seattle from Marmara, Turkey, in 1903.

Solomo Calvo only intended to travel the short distance from his hometown of Marmara, Turkey, to the neighboring town of Galemi, where his brother had a clothing store. But the trip triggered a longer trip when Calvo ran into a Greek (non-Jewish) family with whom he was somewhat acquainted. In conversation with the woman of the family, Calvo learned that her brother had just returned home for a short visit from an American town named Seattle.

Calvo met with the brother and decided he wanted to accompany him on his return trip to Seattle. Calvo was a young bachelor with no obligations; the business opportunities in the saltwater atmosphere of Seattle were good. Within a few days his friend Jacob Policar decided to join him. Their originally reluctant parents provided the necessary funds.

A Question of Identity

Policar, Calvo, and their Greek friend arrived in Seattle via New York shortly before the holiday of Shavuot. It was June 1903. The next day their Greek friend brought them to another Greek who operated a fish market near the waterfront. Calvo and Policar were inquiring about employment at the fish market when some Ashkenazi Jews -- Jews of European origin -- stopped to purchase fish for the holiday. The fish market proprietor knew that both parties were Jewish and undertook to introduce them.

It took a long time for Calvo and Policar to convince the skeptical Ashkenazi that they were, in fact, Jewish. They spoke no English and no Yiddish. Calvo opened his valise and showed his tefillin (phylacteries) and Hebrew prayer book. He opened his shirt and showed them his tsitsit (fringed garment).

Jacob Kaplan, a 13-year-old boy, was working in a second-hand store on the waterfront when he heard the ruckus and noticed a crowd had gathered in the fish market. He ran over to see what was the matter and found the two men having a difficult time explaining themselves. "Yahudi! Yahudi!" ("Jew! Jew!") they were saying and showing their tefillins.

Finally they convinced the Ashkenazi, who told them to wait and some one would call for them in a short time.

At Bikur Cholim

Kaplan, the boy from the second-hand store, took Calvo and Policar to the home of Rabbi Genss, the rabbi of Bikur Cholim, who welcomed them. Until 1906, when there were enough Sephardim in Seattle to form a minyan (quorum needed for prayer service), the first Sephardim participated in the Orthodox Ashkenazi services at Bikur Cholim.

Rabbi Genss often remarked that the Turkish Jews were more religious and devout than the Ashkenazim.

The wood shed behind the Bikur Cholim was converted into temporary living quarters, and Calvo and Policar provided janitorial services in exchange for rent. Policar worked in a butcher shop and grocery owned by Rabbi Genss. Calvo peddled fish until he started his own fish market in 1906.

More Arrivals

The following year, David Levy, convinced by letters to Marmara detailing the prospects for earning $10 to $15 a week in fish business, joined Calvo and Policar. Upon arriving in Seattle, the first thing he did was go to the waterfront and breathe the air deeply. Reassured it was salt water, he said, "I felt good, it was just like Marmara." (Marmara looks out on the Mediterranean Sea.) David Levy would later serve as a hazan (cantor) in the first minyans of Sephardim.

Unbeknownst to the three men from Marmara, there was another Sephardic Jew in the city in 1904: Nissim Alhadeff, from the isle of Rhodes. Alhadeff had become convinced of coming to Seattle -- just as Calvo had -- by Greek acquaintances returning home for a visit. It was in a Seattle Greek coffee house that Calvo, Policar, Levy, and Alhadeff first met. They were overjoyed to find each other and to learn they all spoke Ladino, the old form of Spanish that is the language of Sephardic Jews. Alhadeff came from a very large family and began to send for his brothers.

More Jews arrived and joined the community in Seattle. Sephardim from Constantinople and Rodesto joined those from Rhodes and Marmara. Bachelors traveled home to marry and returned, or they sent for their fiances.

Mutual Aid Societies Evolve into Synagogues

In Seattle mutual aid societies were formed to help the needy back home; these evolved into synagogues. In 1908 the first Sephardic child, Fortuna Calvo was born in Seattle. But the unification of the community into one body remained elusive. The year they broke with Bikur Cholim, they joined together in a rented hall at 9th Avenue and Yesler Way to hold their own high holiday services. It was an experience they swore they would never repeat, as no one was satisfied; each geographic base had its own particular religious customs and liturgy.

Before synagogues were formed and buildings were constructed, minyans met in homes and larger holiday gatherings took place in rented halls. But one thing that remained constant was the attachment to worshipping among others from the same geographic area.

Congregation Sephardic Bikur Holim, founded by Sephardic Jews from Turkey -- particularly Tekirdag -- incorporated in 1910. Ezra Bessaroth Congregation, evolved out of Koupa Ozer Dalim Anshe Rhodes, a fund to help the needy in Rhodes. The synagogue incorporated in 1914.

Ahavath Achim Congregation, founded in 1914, had a membership that called themselves, "Los Balkanes" from the Balkans, and it included the founders of the Seattle Sephardic community. David Levy conducted services (except for the reading of the Sefer Torah). Jacobo Policar was a charter member. And, 20 years after he displayed his tefillin and prayerbook in a Greek fish market to prove he was a Jew, Solomo Calvo laid the boards for construction of Ahavat Ahim. The Congregation lasted until the early 1940s.


Sources:

Albert Adatto, "Sephardim and the Seattle Sephardic Community," (master's thesis, University of Washington, 1939); Isaac Maimon, "History of the Ahavath Ahim Congregation," Nizcor: Washington State Jewish Historical Society Newsletter , (Spring 1996); Lorraine Sidell, "Historically Speaking: Sephardic Jews of Seattle," Nizcor: Washington State Jewish Historical Society Newsletter , (March 1992); Rabbi Roy A. Rosenberg, The Concise Guide to Judaism: History, Practice, Faith (New York: Penquin Books USA, Inc, 1991), 75-77.
Note: This essay was corrected on April 23, 2014.


Related Topics:   Jews in Washington | Religion | Roots

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