Hey it's me, click me to go to the main page, not too hard!
B'siyata d'shmaya - With the help of Heaven

The Forgotten Jews of the Lower East Side: Greeks, Turks and Syrians

Syndicated by Reuters on their International News Website on US News Blog Posts [Image]

by Shelomo Alfassa / April 8, 2008

Written for the Gotham Institute, New York City

By the first quarter of the 20th century, some 30,000 Sephardic Jews had arrived in New York City, consisting of three independent groups, all three groups which have been often overlooked by most modern historian and authors.

The largest group consisted of the Turkinos (as they called themselves). They were Ladino (Judeo-Spanish) speaking Jews they hailed from Turkey and former Turkish administered cities such as Adrianople, Belgrade, Bucharest, Istanbul, Kastoria, Monastir, Rhodes, Sarajevo, Sofia, Salonika, and others. These Hispanic Jews' ancestors had been made refugees during the 15th century. They had been expelled some 425 years earlier by Spain and Portugal during Iberian Inquisitions. Once welcomed with open arms into cities under the administration of the Turkish Sultan, these Jews had once again become displaced, and would come to find shelter among the crowded streets, stuffy brick walkups and rough cobblestones of the Lower East Side.

The others groups to establish themselves in New York City were the Greek Yanniotes (as they called themselves), and the Jews of Ottoman Syria. The former were Romanoite Jews, indigenous Greek speaking Jews that had lived in Greece since ancient times. They were the descendants of the Jews who were slaves brought to the Roman lands from Palestine while it was still under Roman rule. These Jews had developed their own customs, and they spoke a language known commonly today as Judeo-Greek. These Jews established and left behind the only Romanoite synagogue (Kehila Kedosha Janina) in the Western Hemisphere, one that still stands today on Broome Street. The Turkish and Greek Jews fled because of the Turko-Italian War (1911), the Balkan Wars (1912-1913), the crumbling effects of the Ottoman Turkish Empire and the subsequent World War (1914-1918). Because of these three factors, instability and conflict came to dominate most cities in the Balkans, Greece and Turkey.

Kehila Kedosha Janina Synagogue, the last non-Ashkenazi Synagogue on NY's Lower East Side

The Syrian Jews, much more substantial in number than the Greek Jews, had arrived in New York mainly from the cities of Aleppo and Damascus, where many had existed since ancient times. While some Syrian Jewish families posses ancient roots, others have a history of arriving in Syria following the 15th century Inquisitions, although these latter Jews would soon lose their Spanish tongue and assimilate into the greater society. Syrian Arabic speaking Jews had arrived at Ellis Island because over several decades, their economy had turned sour following the opening of the Suez Canal which destroyed the overland caravan routes. In addition, anti-Semitism reared its ugly head when Syrian Arabs blamed the Jews for helping to build the Canal which eventually destroyed the local economy, and this was compounded when the Turks demanded that young Jewish boys serve in the Army. Some of the earliest families to arrive in New York were the Beyda, Blanco, Chabbat, Bracha and Sitt families from Aleppo.

While Europe would later struggle with economic and political recovery during the years following the Great War, this was not the case in the United States. Left virtually unharmed by the war, the United States was able to experience a decade of peace and prosperity. The largest of the Sephardic groups, the Turks, quickly established burial societies in New York City. In a way, the societies acted as social services support groups, based upon the geographical location they had emigrated from. Some of these groups were known the Chain of Life Association of Constantinople; the Brotherhood of Adrinople, and the Salonikan Brotherhood of America.

The heart of the original Sephardic colony (as it was known to the locals), was generally in the area sandwiched between Chrystie Street to Allen and Delancy Street to Grand. Living in tight enclaves, they could feel as if they were not completely uprooted from their past. There, among the rumble of the Second Avenue elevated train that once clamored down what is today the west side of Allen Street, they frequented kavanes (Turkish coffee houses), ate Arabic, Balkan, Greek and Turkish foods, sung their old songs, and spoke in their native languages. Kavanes and Sephardic grocery stores once dotted the Lower East Side. Mr. Habib had his Sephardic grocery store on Rivington; Mr. Cohen on Stanton; Mr. Massod has his coffee house on Allen, so did Mr. Crespin and Mr. Namir.

The Syrian, Greek and Turkish Jews often intermingled during social functions, and although they were different, there were similarities. This was because either they-or their fathers, had all lived under Turkish rule. In addition, Sephardic religious minhag (rite) shared much in common, whether it was Greek, Turkish or Syrian, because these three groups had shared ideas and found similarities through religious rulings and customs which developed over time as they all lived in Muslim lands. All three groups were members of the same organization, the Federation of Oriental Jews of America, organized in 1912. A total of 21 Sephardi groups came together in 1913 to incorporate the Oriental Jewish Community of New York, in which Greek, Spanish and Arabic was spoken to the constituents, it was known as the Kolel. The Turks later formed the Sephardic Jewish Community of New York, and upon their purchase of a new building in May of 1927 on West 115th Street, members of the Greek and Syrian community offered greetings.

When Rabbi Dr. Nissim J. Ovadia escaped the Nazis and arrived in New York City in 1941 to become Chief Rabbi of the Central Sephardic Jewish Community of America, over 1,500 people came to greet him. Rabbi Ovadia gave a stirring appeal for unity to which the Jews from Aleppo and Damascus, now living in New York, were responsive to. Joining Rabbi Ovadia in the effort of communcal unity was Issac Shalom, a leader of the Syrian community, who in 1944 went on to form the Magen David Federation, the pre-cursor to the Sephardic Bikor Holim and other major New York based Sephardic charitable organizations. At the dinner was Hakham Jacob Kassin, Chief Rabbi of the Syrian community, who addressed the audience in Hebrew and called for further unity of all the Sephardim in New York.

On Eldridge Street, Turkish Jews established a community center which was visited by all of the Sephardic Jews. This included members off Congregation Shearith Israel, members of the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue which was uptown, a community of "distant cousins" which had originally settled in New York City in 1654 by refugees fleeing the Portuguese Inquisition. Rabbi Dr. David De Sola Pool, then the assistant rabbi of Shearith Israel, on more than one occasion slept on the Lower East Side in order to help the Syrian community have proper services in their tradition. The Greeks, Turks and Syrians all had their own schools, yet, Greek Jews were known to attend Syrian schools, Syrian Jews went to Turkish coffee houses, and Turkish Jews attended Greek synagogues.

The initial immigrants were extremely poor and most jobs consisted of selling fruit, candy, peddling small items, or shining shoes. Eventually, they fell into better jobs such as seamstresses, clothing pressers, and factory workers. They would go on to develop community clubs such as the Dardanelles Social Club and Oriental American Civic Club as a means of supporting each other. They experienced a significant degree of prejudice from the German and Russian Jews which did not understand their Greek, French, Spanish, or Arabic languages.

Though having no formal education or wealth, these immigrants went on to do well for themselves. They developed newspapers in their languages, opened small business, and were even able to save money and donate back to their communal organizations. As fresh New Yorkers, the Turks established a sophisticated press in the Lower East Side, consisting of many independently owned newspapers such as, La Bos del Pueblo, La Epoca, El Progresso, La Amerika, La Luz, and La Vara. While the first newspapers were printed in the Spanish language utilizing Hebrew letters, the later papers were issued in Spanish using Latin letters, and eventually they were published in mostly English. Learning the English language was important to these new Americans, as we can see from this October 30, 1915 excerpt from La Epoca:

La Epoca is happy to call the attention of the people to the fact that English Classes have been opened solely for the well being of our people… We say so, because every one, eager to learn the language of the country, should attend any class irrespective of whether or not the teacher is Spanish, Italian, Polish etc...The English language is of paramount importance to all now living in this country and it ought to be learnt; because America expects from every American what every American expects from America.

By the mid-1930's, New York and the rest of the country was beginning to recover from the Great Depression. Both opportunity for greater education and jobs were becoming available, and soon New York would have its first Sephardic Lawyer, Dentist, and Teacher. Many families (even the poorest ones) sent money to their families back in the old country who were still experiencing poverty. Many Turkish families moved north to Harlem, and others east to New Lots and Coney Island in Brooklyn. On the Grand Concourse in the Bronx, there was a thriving Sephardic colony, synagogues, Jewish schools and kosher butchers. Syrian Jews moved uptown too, but most went to Bensonhurst, and much later to Ocean Parkway in Midwood.

As immigrants from various countries continued to funnel into New York, employment opportunities became increasingly difficult, and soon the large Turkish community atomized across the United States. As the children and grandchildren of these first immigrants assimilated with modern American culture, their drive for modern education increased, and by the 1940's and 1950's, a sizeable population of the second and third generation were completing college. Jews of Turkish descent went on to obtain respectful positions in mainstream society, education, business, and government all across the United States.

The late Joseph Papo, a New York Turkish Jew and author of one of the few books on the Sephardim that settled in New York City (Sephardim in the Twentieth Century), wrote that the Syrian Jews were focused on family closeness and a through religious education; that the Greek Jews maintained their individualism even within their framework of their own group; and that the Turkish Jews were spurned by a desire to regain their historic status while attempting to assert their equality to the Ashkenazi Jews.

Today, we can only see the disquieting results of their aspirations: The Greek and Turkish Jews are almost wholly assimilated into American culture (like the overwhelming majority of Ashkenazi Jews), leaving behind less then five synagogues nationwide, and communities which, within a decade, may go from being placed on the 'threatened' list to the 'extinction' list. In 1916, of the 28 New York City Sephardic synagogues founded by these three immigrant groups, 3 were established by Greek Jews, 4 by Syrians, and 21 by the Spanish speaking Turks. Today, there remains 1 Greek synagogue (functioning in a limited religious capacity); less then 4 "Turkish" synagogues (only two posses a trace of their traditional Judeo-Spanish in their services); and there are over two dozen Syrian synagogues (with others being built).

The Syrian Jews have remained unified, religiously cohesive, and strong. They have grown exponentially from a community of some 5,000 to over 75,000. The Syrian Jews remain one of the most influential and independently strong Jewish communities in the world and have become the largest and strongest Sephardic community in New York City, as well as in all of North and South America. Joined by Jews that arrived in America from Lebanon and Egypt, the overall Sephardic community in Brooklyn, New York, clearly stands as one of the largest religiously based Sephardic communities in the world.

New York was a refuge for Sephardic Jews in the 17th century as it was in the 20th century. As the offical greeting on the Statue of Libery, Emma Lazarus (a Sephardic Jew) wrote: "Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free," little did she know she would one day be welcoming her distant cousins. Today, Sephardic Jews live all across the United States, but it is New York City, the jumping off point, which remains a city of memories. It is the city that offered them refuge, and a safe place to do the hardest thing they ever had to do, start over.




© Shelomo Alfassa