Sephardic Jews in Washington

  • By Taryn Harris
  • Posted 4/24/2014
  • Essay 10778
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Sephardic Jews, descendants of Jews expelled from Spain in 1492, first settled in Seattle in 1902. For generations after the expulsion, Sephardim lived throughout the Mediterranean lands of the Ottoman Empire, where they were able to preserve their religion and cultural traditions, and even developed a language, Ladino, based on the Spanish of their former homeland. Around the turn of the twentieth century, with the empire declining and increasingly unstable, a large wave of Sephardic Jews began immigrating to the United States. For a variety of reasons, a significant proportion of those immigrants settled in Washington, ultimately giving Seattle one of the largest populations of Sephardic Jews in the United States, so that "[s]ince World War I, Seattle has had the largest percentage of Sephardim compared to the total Jewish population of any U.S. city" ("Jewish Archives Collection"). In the century since the first Sephardim settled in Seattle, Washington's Sephardic Jewish community has maintained a strong cultural presence and contributed to the growth of the state's economy and Seattle's diverse artistic development.

Homeland and Expulsion           

Those who consider themselves Sephardic Jews in Seattle came primarily from cities and islands in the Ottoman Empire, but their origins are more far-reaching than the lands they arrived from. The first Sephardic immigrants to Seattle came from Marmara, an island in present-day Turkey, and Rhodes, an island that is now part of Greece. However, Sephardic Jews ultimately trace their ancestry to Spain. "Sepharad" is a Hebrew word for "the Iberian Peninsula." After centuries of co-existing with Christians and Muslims under Muslim rule in Spain, Jews, as well as Muslims, were expelled from Spain and the lands it controlled by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella in 1492. This exile from Spain undoubtedly impacted their collective psyche, especially since the centuries of living in Muslim Spain were a relatively prosperous time, sometimes referred to as a "Golden Age" in Jewish history. Forced to convert to Catholicism or leave, the hundreds of thousands of Jews who wanted to maintain their religious traditions and way of life departed to Portugal, Holland, and England, as well as Italy, the Ottoman Empire, and elsewhere throughout Mediterranean. Unfortunately for them, the Jews who fled to Portugal were also "forcibly converted to Catholicism" in 1497 (Ben-Ur, 13). The remaining Sephardim who had emigrated from Spain "carried with them the Spanish tongue, Spanish dignity, and distinction" together with their Judaism (Adatto, 5).

Sephardic Jews' descent from these exiled Spanish Jews differentiates them from the considerably larger population of Ashkenazi Jews, who are descendants of German, French, and Eastern European Jews. Despite forced exile, Spanish language and customs remained a crucial presence in the lives of Sephardim. This is most evident in their language, Ladino, which can be described as a fusion of Hebrew and Spanish. Like the Yiddish language of their Ashkenazi brethren, Ladino was not based on the language of the countries in which its speakers lived at the time of its development, but rather on their ancestral homeland. Yiddish is most similar to German, but it was developed primarily in Slavic lands, starting around 1000 C.E. Similarly Ladino, which is even closer to Spanish than Yiddish is to German, did not start to develop until after the expulsion from Spain in 1492, when descendants of Jews from Spain were living in the lands of the Ottoman Empire. The names of both populations ("Ashkenaz" is a Hebrew word for "German") suggest their origin, rather than the later homelands that fostered their unique identity.

Ladino's development and distinctness as its own language is due to the expulsion. Evolving outside Spain, Ladino differs from modern Spanish. Sephardic Jews combined their previous host country's language with Jewish influences, but the result was "most similar to Medieval Castilian," which created the foundation of its basic grammar and lexicon (Bunis, 402). The language was enriched "through adaptations from languages spoken by co-territorial peoples," such as Arabic, Turkish, Greek, Romanian, and Slavic, among others (Bunis, 418). Later Ladino in the Ottoman Empire was also influenced by French, when Western languages and culture came to be seen as more prestigious. The creation of a new language and maintenance of Jewish religious customs outside Spain served to anchor Sephardic identity, even centuries after the trauma of expulsion.

Life in the Ottoman Empire           

It was possible for the Sephardic Jews to maintain their Jewish way of life and some of their former customs from the country that exiled them because of the political and social conditions of the Ottoman Empire. For four centuries, Sephardic Jews "propagated their Spanish culture and lived their religious life in relative peace" under Muslim rule and tolerance (Adatto, 5). In return for paying taxes and the recognition of their status as second-class subjects, Jews were able to live with autonomy in the Ottoman Empire.

Ladino continued to evolve, and regional variations and dialects of the language emerged in the different cities of the Ottoman Empire. Surrounding languages affected the phonetics and vocabulary of local Ladino dialects. City and town distinctions in the Sephardic world would remain significant as Sephardic communities later appeared in the United States.

The Ottoman Empire contracted in the nineteenth century and ultimately dissolved in the aftermath of World War I. The relative peace and prosperity that Sephardic Jews had enjoyed for centuries after their expulsion, compared with their Ashkenazi counterparts in Europe, waned as the empire became increasingly unstable, both in war and in its economy. Nationalism within the empire was another destabilizing factor, as well as strong driving force behind numerous minorities rebelling to receive independence and statehood, which many eventually achieved.

However, the Jews of the Ottoman Empire did not rebel, "whereas Christian populations actively sought to liberate themselves from Ottoman rule ... [the Jews'] leaders opposed the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine [long under Ottoman rule] until a very late stage" (Naar, "Turkinos Beyond the Empire," 6-7). A variety of factors caused many Sephardic Jews to immigrate to America at the turn of the twentieth century, among them political turmoil, economic difficulties, rising anti-Semitism, and the mandatory Ottoman military draft. However, the Sephardic Jews' relationship with the Ottoman state was not particularly hostile; in fact, many public displays of loyalty from Sephardic Jews to the Ottoman Empire occurred, including "a fete organized by the Ottoman Jews in 1892 [that] celebrated the 400th anniversary of their ancestor's arrival ... and the elaborate reception orchestrated by Salonican Jews in honor of the sultan's visit to that city in 1911" (Naar, "Turkinos Beyond the Empire," 8).

Immigration to America

The Sephardim who departed Ottoman lands for America between 1880 and 1924 constituted a second wave of Sephardic migration, after a first wave of Sephardic Jews who had come from Holland, England, and the Spanish Americas in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The Sephardic Jews did not cease to associate themselves with the Ottoman Empire with their immigration to America, and "more frequently, the characterization of Ottoman Jews as 'Turks' or even 'Muslims' did not vanish once they succeeded in being 'liberated' from the 'prison' of Ellis Island" (Naar, "Turkinos Beyond the Empire," 21). It was not until dissolution of the empire that Ottoman-born Jews reevaluated their identity and community.

The second wave of Sephardic migration around the turn of the twentieth century included immigrants from cities throughout the Ottoman Empire, such as Constantinople, Salonika, Aleppo, Baghdad, the islands of Marmara and Rhodes, Gallipoli, Rodosto, Dardanelles, various towns on Mediterranean shores, and Balkan countries. Many, though not all, entered through Ellis Island in New York. The first and largest center for Sephardic Jewry was New York City, which still has the largest population of Sephardic Jews in the United States. But by 1900 Sephardic Jews were also migrating to other U.S. cities. Seattle became "the largest Sephardic community outside of New York City" because, according to Albert Adatto (1911-1996), the first historian of the Seattle's Sephardic Jews, Sephardic immigrants were accustomed to a "salt water atmosphere" (Adatto, 31). The West proved to be fruitful for many Sephardic Jews economically, due to the pioneer culture that existed during that time. But Seattle was unique:

"[Its] presence of a large number of Sephardim relative to the whole Jewish population lent a richness and diversity to Seattle Jewry. The Sephardim formed a critical mass that allowed them to maintain their traditions, customs, and language to an extent not seen outside of New York" (Family of Strangers, 150).

Other cities also became large centers of Sephardic Jewry, including Los Angeles and Atlanta. Eventually, the Los Angeles community grew to overtake Seattle's title as the second-largest Sephardic community in the United States in absolute numbers (although Sephardim remained a higher percentage of the population in Seattle).

Sephardic Jews' arrival in America resulted in them socializing with Ashkenazi Jews, who were greater in population. Jews who spoke Yiddish and were of Eastern European descent were at the forefront of "mainstream" American Jewry and the differences between Sephardim and Ashkenazim in liturgical practices, language, and customs created a cultural divide between the two populations, complete with separate synagogues. The dominance of Ashkenazi culture in American Jewish life resulted in the marginalization of Sephardic Jews in the United States. They were sometimes not considered to be Jews or were seen with suspicion, and "this denial of Jewishness was a defining experience for Eastern Sephardic immigrants ... Jewishness has tacitly been assumed to be synonymous with Germanic or Eastern European descent" (Ben-Ur, 2). The attitudes of the two groups were also very different based on their past experience, as Albert Adatto conceived it, for "Sephardim carry Judaism in a more buoyant manner ... spiritually they have not been frustrated" like the Ashkenazim who were subjected to ghettos and pogroms in Europe (Adatto, 15).

Furthermore, Sephardic Jews themselves were not a homogenous population, since Sephardic Jews from different places, like Rhodes or Marmara, maintained their own separate cultural and religious norms. These differences made it difficult for United States-wide organization among Sephardic immigrants, so Sephardic communities remained relatively isolated from each other within the United States.

Sephardim in Seattle           

The first Sephardic Jews to settle in Washington, part of the second wave of Sephardic immigration to America at the start of the twentieth century, were two young men, Solomon Calvo (1879-1964) and Jacob (Jack) Policar (d. 1961), "who arrived almost by chance" (Family of Strangers, 60). They had been invited by a non-Jewish Greek friend who spoke of the economic opportunities in Seattle. Calvo and Policar came from the island of Marmara, then part of the Ottoman Empire. Upon arrival in Seattle, unable to speak English "and eager to find other Jews, they stood on the waterfront street near a second-hand store saying 'Yahudi, Yahudi' ('Jew, Jew')" (Family of Strangers, 60). A 13-year-old boy named Jacob Kaplan took them to Rabbi Hirsch Genss (1855-1928), who wrote to the Jewish community of New York to seek confirmation that they were, indeed, Jewish. Satisfied with the response and armed with the new knowledge of their Sephardic heritage, Rabbi Genss introduced Calvo and Policar to members of the Orthodox congregation. Their friend David Levy joined them in the fall of 1903, announcing that the Puget Sound air "was just like Marmara" (Family of Strangers, 61). In 1904, they befriended Nissim Alhadeff, who founded a Sephardic community from the island of Rhodes in Seattle, and the Alhadeffs "soon constituted the largest family unit" of Sephardim in Seattle (Family of Strangers, 63).

Ashkenazi Jews already established in Seattle also helped the first Sephardic arrivals find employment. Immigration in fact provided the economic opportunities they sought, with new arrivals shining and repairing shoes, and working as barbers and in the fish, vegetable, and flower markets of what would soon become Pike Place Market. Some descendants of Seattle's Sephardic immigrants continue to work as vendors in Pike Place Market in the second decade of the twenty-first century. Early Sephardim opened produce stalls, fish markets, and restaurants. But the first generation in Seattle was not particularly wealthy by any means -- they "labored long hours for little pay, and many families lived in poverty through the Great Depression" (Family of Strangers, 66).

Sephardic newcomers also encountered difficulties in socializing with the Ashkenazi Jewish community of Seattle, in part because they spoke different languages. Moreover, unlike Ashkenazim, Sephardim "came from a Mediterranean culture, dominated by Islam yet scrupulously Jewish, a society whose form was not unlike the Spanish communities of their ancestors" (Family of Strangers, 68). Nevertheless the few Sephardim initially settled in the existing Ashkenazi community, thereby finding themselves a minority within a minority. Differences between the Ashkenazim and Sephardim were vast. The Sephardim smoked water pipes, drank Turkish coffee, and were more religious. Sephardim named their children after living relatives; Ashkenazim named their children after deceased relatives. The two groups pronounced Hebrew differently from each other and developed different liturgical customs.

Still, the Sephardic community continued to grow, and had tripled in size by 1907. Forty Sephardic families lived in Seattle by 1910. By the time the U.S. adopted strict immigration limits in the 1920s, the Seattle Sephardic community numbered more than 3,000. Common Sephardic surnames in Seattle included Alhadeff, Calvo, Policar, Peha, Hazan, Israel, Ezkenazy, and Benezra. During this time, through the end of the 1920s, the local Sephardic community was concentrated in Seattle's Central Area in the blocks between 12th and 14th avenues and Jackson and Spruce streets. Only a few Sephardim settled outside Seattle, and many who did eventually migrated to Seattle to join the larger Sephardic community.

Sephardim in Seattle were divided into two main groups: those from Marmara and other locations in the Ottoman Empire that later became part of Turkey, such as Rodosto and Gallipoli; and those from the island of Rhodes, also part of the Ottoman Empire but which became part of Italy in 1912, and then Greece in 1947. So divided were the two communities that initially "a union between a Sephardic Jew from Rhodes and a Sephardic Jew from Marmara was considered intermarriage" (Family of Strangers, 64). Eventually the divide between the two caused them to split and create separate synagogues, both still in existence in 2014. The group of Sephardic Jews from Marmara, Rodosto, and Gallipoli formed Bikur Holim in 1914. The Sephardic Jews from Rhodes followed suit with the creation of Ezra Bessaroth in 1917. The two communities were similar in that neither Rhodes nor Marmara were cultural centers but rather "small towns where educational facilities were extremely limited and where the general level of culture was low in comparison to Sephardic centers of culture" (Adatto, 146).

Culture, Tradition, and Change

Nevertheless, Sephardic culture enriched Seattle's artistic life with theater and art. Leon Behar (1900-1970) produced many plays in Ladino. His first play, Dreyfus, was first performed in 1922 and was sponsored by Ezra Bessaroth, with its profits benefiting a Sephardic Hebrew school named Talmud Torah. Behar even produced The Massacre of the Jews in Russia, which was a play about Ashkenazi Jews, but performed by Sephardic actors who spoke Ladino, which "helped to bring Sephardim of different origins together" (Family of Strangers, 171). The first Sephardim also maintained their culture with "nochadas ... social nights with dancing, eating, and drinking to raise money for the synagogue or the Hebrew school" (Family of Strangers, 146). The rich Sephardic tradition of romansas, proverbs, and stories were also preserved in 1935 by Emma Adatto, with the assistance of University of Washington anthropologist Melville Jacobs.

Unfortunately, in the 1930s the Great Depression made it too difficult to continue funding the Sephardic Theater, which directly impacted the Sephardic Hebrew School, Talmud Torah. From the time of the first Sephardic immigrants to Seattle until the Depression, strides were made to conserve and maintain Sephardic culture through schools and art. But pressure to Americanize and to learn English for the purpose of business and education made it difficult to continue doing so, as did the financial pressures of the Depression, which saw a decline in contributions to the school. Ezra Bessaroth ceased giving sermons in Ladino in the 1930s. The Depression was part of the reason that the strong cultural foundations of the first and second generations of Sephardim in Seattle would not be maintained as strongly in subsequent generations.

Until World War II, distinctions between separate Sephardic communities generally persisted. But the crises and world events of the war, the Holocaust, and the creation of Israel, as well as the Americanization of the first and second generations' children in public schools, changed the Jewish community of Seattle. Distinctions between Sephardic communities blurred, and the distinction between Ashkenazim and Sephardim eventually did as well. Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews gradually became more united in fighting increased discrimination, and intermarriage between the two communities grew more commonplace, although the separate synagogues continued to exist. A large Sephardic community migrated to the Seward Park neighborhood in South Seattle during the 1950s, with some Ashkenazim following them. By the 1960s, the general Jewish neighborhood had broken up. Sephardic Rabbi Solomon Maimon further bridged the Sephardic and Ashkenazi gap, since he was fluent in both Yiddish and Ladino. By the 1970s, distinctions between the Ashkenazim and Sephardim became even less pronounced and intermarriage between Jews and non-Jews in general was more commonplace.

Although a relatively strong Sephardic population continued to exist in Seattle through the twentieth century and into the twenty-first, much of Sephardic traditions, culture, and language was lost with the passing of generations. As Albert Adatto understood the situation from his perspective in the 1930s, the Sephardic community in Seattle "underwent cataclysmic changes and underwent tremendous transition. From a semi-medieval Moslem environment they moved to the fastest-growing city in twentieth-century America" (Adatto, 162). Older generations did not make concerted efforts to teach their children Ladino, so parents spoke in Ladino while their children replied in English, and fluency in the language was not passed on to future generations.

In some ways, the decline of Ladino paralleled the decline of Yiddish, but the decline in Ladino was more drastic. This is due in part to the sheer difference in numbers of speakers. In the first quarter of the twentieth century, across the world there were only 350,000 Ladino speakers and and more than 7 million Yiddish speakers. In addition, Hasidic Jews continued to use Yiddish on a daily basis. No equivalent Sephardic group maintained a steady number of speakers. By the second decade of the twenty-first century, most speakers of Ladino were older than 70, and the language was in danger of extinction. The drastic change toward Americanization forever changed Sephardic Jews, who were able to maintain and develop their traditions in the Ottoman Empire for centuries before immigrating to the U.S. Like any immigrant group in America, Sephardic Jews became more assimilated but, in a testament to their piety and dedication, their culture has survived in Seattle.

Seattle Sephardic Community in the Twenty-first Century

Despite declines in Sephardic traditions and the Ladino language since Sephardic Jews first came to Seattle, the Sephardic Jewish community in Seattle remains active and prominent. The strength of the community and a renaissance of interest in preserving Sephardic culture in Seattle have brought forth the possibility of maintaining tradition for future generations.

Sephardim and their institutions continue to play important roles in Seattle and statewide. Several Sephardic families in Washington have contributed much to the state as political and business leaders and charitable donors. The well-known Benaroya family donated substantially toward building the Seattle Symphony's Benaroya Hall in 1998. Both Sephardic synagogues, Bikur Holim and Ezra Bessaroth, continue to provide religious services to the community. Many community members have taken an active role in preserving Sephardic culture; for instance Cantor Isaac Azose produced a new prayer book that preserves the specific customs of both Sephardic congregations in Seattle. As of 2014, community members who speak Ladino met weekly in Seattle's Central Area to speak the language of their ancestors. The Seattle Sephardic Brotherhood also remained as a burial society and continued to serve both Sephardic synagogues; the Brotherhood also provided the community with medical services, a Welfare Committee to help the needy, and Sephardic youth activities. The Sephardic Adventure Camp in Seattle offered Sephardic cultural opportunities to youths.

 On the educational front, the early years of the twenty-first century saw a revival of interest in Sephardic culture and the Ladino language, with the publication of books, creation of an International Ladino Day in Seattle, and renewed academic interest. The University of Washington in 2011 created a Sephardic Studies Initiative, headed by Professor Devin Naar. Working to preserve Sephardic culture and its Jewish experience, including the Ladino language, the UW initiative mirrored similar efforts to preserve the Yiddish language at the Yiddish Language Center in Amherst, Massachusetts. The Sephardic Studies Initiative has contributed to the preservation of Ladino and Sephardic culture in Washington by holding an International Ladino Day, hosting visiting professors who are experts on the subject, and collecting documents for a Ladino library, to which Sephardic community members can donate materials written in Ladino in an effort to further study and preserve the language.

Sephardic Jews are still a minority not only in the general population of the United States but also within the total population of Jews. Despite this, Sephardic Jews in Seattle have been able to maintain a small and dedicated population of Ladino speakers, and an even larger number of Jews who follow Sephardic culture and traditions. Sephardic Jews and the greater Seattle community have had a reciprocal relationship over the last century and have mutually benefited each other in a variety of ways. Seattle remains an important Sephardic community and home to many Sephardic Jews, long after their immigration to America from the Ottoman Empire.

Sources: Albert Adatto, "Sephardim and the Seattle Sephardic Community" (master's thesis, University of Washington, 1939); Marc D. Angel, "The Sephardim of the United States: An Exploratory Study," American Jewish Year Book, 1973, pp. 77-138; Aviva Ben-Ur, Sephardic Jews in America: A Diasporic History (New York: New York University Press, 2009); David M. Bunis, "The Language of the Sephardic Jews: A Historical Sketch," in Moreshet Sefarad, vol. 2, ed. by Haim Beinart (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1992), 399-422; Molly Cone, Howard Droker, and Jacqueline Williams, Family of Strangers: Building a Jewish Community in Washington State (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2003); "Jewish Archives Collection," University of Washington Libraries Digital Collections website accessed March 21, 2014 (; Devin E. Naar, "From the 'Jerusalem of the Balkans' to the Goldene Medina," American Jewish History, December 2007, pp. 435-473; Devin E. Naar, "Turkinos Beyond the Empire: Ottoman Jews in America, 1893-1924," manuscript, forthcoming in Jewish Quarterly Review, Fall 2014.

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