Rabbi Alberto Amateau, a Sephardic Jew born in the former Ottoman Empire in the late 19th century, was a brilliant man and a tireless advocate for the Sephardic community in the United States. He studied law at the prestigious University of Istanbul before immigrating to America at the turn of the century, and spoke 5 languages, including his native Ladino. Yet that did not preclude him from facing disgusting racism from both the United States government and his fellow Jews.
When he arrived in the port of New York in 1910, he asked to be taken to where the Jews are, with the understanding that they would surely help a fellow Jewish compatriot. Of course, he was told to go to Manhattan’s Lower East Side. He went to two or three boarding houses, all Ashkenazi owned. The owners, consistently confused by a strangely-accented, dark-skinned man with a “non-Jewish” name (by which they meant a non-Yiddish-sounding name) asked Amateau if he was really Jewish. As he told it, one boarding house owner dove a little deeper:
“What’s your name?”
“Your Jewish name.”
“That is my Jewish name.”
“That’s no Jewish name. That’s a goy.”
“Well, I’m not a goy, I’m a Jew.”
At this point the owner led Amateau into the bathroom to check if he was circumcised. “Take your pants off. Let me see,” he said. Even after he checked, the owner still didn’t believe Amateau.
“No, no, nah… This fellow is a gringo of some kind. I don’t know, he may be Mohammadian or something. He’s not a Jew.” So he threw Amateau out.
Sephardic Jews have a long yet largely untold story in the United States, especially when it comes to race. According to Dr. Devin E. Naar, the Isaac Alhadeff Chair of Sephardic Studies at the University of Washington, the United States government actively sought to limit Sephardic immigraton to the United States and discriminated against Ottoman and Middle Eastern Jews because of their skin color and language. Americans, and the Ashkenazi Jewish community in particular, saw these “strange Ladinos” as racially inferior and even sub-human. American immigration courts in fact actively deported Sephardic Jews back to their nations of origin in droves due to a lack of whiteness. (Judges made decisions on citizenship based on peoples’ ability to claim to be white. There was even a racial scale immigration officials and courts referred to when deciding who passed the threshold.)
Even within the Jewish community, Sepharadim were notoriously shunned to the sidelines in all aspects of Jewish life. Major Ashkenazi Jewish institutions like The Forward newspaper denied Sepharadim a voice and perpetuated racist stereotypes against this community. (The additional “a” in the spelling of Sepharadim is not a mistake; it is the correct transliteration of the Hebrew word. The missing second “a” in the standard spelling is a bastardization by Ashkenazim since they couldn’t pronounce the extra syllable.)
Yet Sephardic Jews did not just accept the status quo, neither in the Jewish community nor in American society at large. They attempted to build their own communal institutions to serve their social, educational, and religious needs, such as the Sephardic Jewish Brotherhood of America. Incredibly brave Sephardic leaders stood up for racial and social justices for Black people during the civil rights era, often at threat to their own lives.
For example, Rabbi Solomon Acrish of the Ladino-speaking Etz Ahayem Sephardic Synagogue in Montgomery, Alabama publicly supported the Montgomery Bus Boycott and denounced segregation. Unfortunately, the Rabbi was unable to speak out for very long, as threats of firebombing his synagogue and violence against him personally eventually forced him to tone down his rhetoric.
Sephardic Jews were also advocates of workers’ rights and believed in the need for strengthening our diverse American democracy. Amateau himself helped to found the Sephardic Democratic Club of New York and directed a voter registration drive among immigrants.
Despite facing racism themselves, Sephardic Jews were, and still are, not immune from perpetuating systems of racial oppression in the United States. Indeed, many of the Spanish and Portuguese Sephardic Jews—the Western Sephardic Jews from communities like Amsterdam, London, New York, and the Caribbean—were active participants in the slave trade and owned slaves. Judah Benjamin, a Southern politician and one of the first Jewish U.S. senators, became the first Secretary of State of the Confederacy and later Secretary of War. Amateau was not without his own problems, as he was a vehement denier of the Armenian Genocide his entire life.
Addressing the complicity of Sephardic communities in racially oppressive systems and their work to fight against them, as well as the historic exclusion and erasure of non-European Jews, particularly the Ladino-speaking Sepharadim, is critically overdue. This continuous exclusion, both through political systems and historical narratives, is a manifestation of a broader American society that privileged whiteness, European origin, and Christianity as requirements for citizenship.
Being American, or being an American Jew, still in many ways means looking, sounding, and speaking nothing like Alberto Amateau once did.
Be’chol Lashon will host a Ladino Kabbalat Shabbat service, inspired by the Sephardic traditions of Salonica, online on Friday, August 28, 2020. Click here for details.