The Arrival and Disappearance of the Little-Known Spanish Jews of New York

By Shelomo Alfassa

At the Golden Door of New York's harbor, stands the Mother of Exiles who for 125 years has offered a promise of comfort to refugees with the words, "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free." These eloquent words were written by Emma Lazarus, a young Jewish woman who's ancestors had fled the Iberian Peninsula, escaping persecution from the Inquisition. Emma's family had arrived in New York during the Colonial period, but the words of her heart warming sonnet would go on to welcome her distant 'cousins,' the Spanish Jews who arrived in New York City, from Turkey and the Balkans, in the early 20th century.

In the late 15th century the Jews of Spain and Portugal were forced to flee the Iberian Peninsula because of mounting religious persecution. The greater preponderance of these people, the 'Sephardic' Jews, found a welcome refugee among the Turkish people of the Ottoman Empire. A large majority of these Jews settled in Ottoman cities such as Sarajevo, Sofia, Salonika and Constantinople. Retaining their proud Hispanic roots and their hidalgo traditions, these Jewish Spaniards, blended well and thrived alongside Muslim society. Living in an Islamic land, for over four centuries, these Iberian refugees kept their language, cultural, religious traditions and foods, as they had existed in Spain and Portugal.

The early 20th century saw a shifting Europe coupled with armed conflict and economic decline. These are two of the primary factors that triggered a mass migration of many different peoples of varied backgrounds away from the continent. It was during this period that a large number of Spanish Jews that were living in Turkey and the Balkans, would migrate to the United States, long seen as a place of religious freedom and economic stability. While Europe would 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.

From the turn of the century to a peak in 1920, Spanish speaking Jews arrived at Ellis Island almost daily. They arrived from the former Ottoman Balkan towns and cities found throughout Thrace, Macedonia, Belgrade, Bosnia, Bulgaria, Greece, Turkey, and other locations where Sephardic Jews had lived for hundreds of years. They moved into the crowded and stuffy tenement buildings of New York City's Lower East Side. There, among their co-religionists who had come from places such as Germany, Poland, Romania and Syria, the Spanish Jews established their residences. Living in tight enclaves, they could feel as if they were not completely uprooted from their past. 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 (coffee houses), ate their Spanish-style Balkan and Turkish foods and sung their old Spanish romantic songs. Before there were Cuban, Puerto Rican, Honduran or Mexican immigrants on the Lower East Side, a "Spanish" grocery store would have been a "Jewish" grocery store.

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 small brotherhood groups, burial societies, community clubs, then large multifaceted social organizations. The Spanish Jews established a sophisticated press on 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 (Ladino), the later papers were issued in Spanish using Roman 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…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 the Spanish Jews would move to the outer boroughs and assimilate among main stream America. Eventually, the large Spanish Jewish 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 Spanish descent went on to obtain respectful positions in mainstream society, education, business, and government all across America.

But with this new status, came the loss of their 1,000 year old culture, language, and way of life. The break up of the Spanish Jews who once lived together in unified communities, led to wide-spread religious and cultural assimilation, and from 1960-2000, every community of American Jews that were descendant of those who fled Spain and Portugal in the 15th century, have vanished. Today, there are no surviving original Spanish-speaking Jewish communities remaining in America.


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