|A photograph of Sephardic Jews in southern Europe collected by ASF.|
Somewhere in New Jersey there is a collector who owns a rich collection of correspondence – about 800 pieces, mostly written in Ladino – that originated in Vienna and the Ottoman Empire between 1840 and 1940.
Almost all of the correspondence comes from merchants, but not all of it deals exclusively with business matters. Some is about family issues. The collector, whose name has not been made public, was discovered during a survey conducted by the New York-based American Sephardi Federation.
The survey was aimed at finding archival collections held in synagogues, state archives, or cultural organizations, or by individuals, in six Mid-Atlantic and New England states, related to Sephardic, Mizrachi and Bukharian Jews. Another objective of the survey, whose results were released recently, was to set the basis for collaboration with institutions on projects that will increase the accessibility of key documents about those communities.
The history of Sephardic and Mizrachi Jews in the United States hasn’t been well understood, according to Randy Belinfante, librarian and archivist at the ASF’s National Sephardic Library. “American Jews, in general, are unaware of Sephardic history,” he said. “Even the American Historical Society, which has a large collection of Jewish material, is unfamiliar with Sephardim, as are many Jews in New York City, where a large community of Syrian Jews live.”
Sephardic Jews, who have roots in Spain, spread all over the Mediterranean basin and through parts of western Europe, particularly Portugal and Holland, after their expulsion from Spain in 1492. They have been part of American history from colonial times. Twenty-three Sephardic Jews fled Recife, Brazil, in 1654 and landed in New Amsterdam, now New York City. It is believed that a Sephardic Jew, Aaron Louzada, settled in Bound Brook, in Somerset County, as early as 1698. Another Sephardic Jew, Daniel NuÃ±ez, was town clerk in Piscataway, Middlesex County, in the 1700s.
Mizrachi Jews, who trace their origins to such Middle Eastern countries as Syria, Iran, Iraq, and Lebanon, started migrating to the United States at the beginning of the 20th century. Deal, in Monmouth County, is home to a community of Syrian Jews. The only institution that holds items related to Bukharian Jews, who originated in Central Asia, is the Bukharian Museum in Elmhurst, Queens, project archivist Katie Ehrlich said. Most of the holdings consist of artifacts, she added.
According to Ehrlich, ASF sent out 300 surveys to institutions in New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island between February and May 2012. The surveys asked the recipients to identify the types of archival material they hold; 104 surveys were filled out and sent back. ASF also got in touch with the institutions by phone, email, and mail, and staffers visited some of them.
In New Jersey, 13 institutions were contacted, among them Englewood’s Congregation Ahavath Torah, which has a Sephardic minyan; Congregation Etz Ahaim in Highland Park, and the New Jersey State Archives in Trenton.
In its survey results, the ASF noted that Ahavath Torah’s Sephardic minyan, established 28 years ago, “did not have any archival materials of which it was aware at the time of this survey.” Congregation Etz Ahaim, on the other hand, has by far the richest archival material of all synagogues and institutions in the state, and it has given some of it to the Jewish Historical Society of Central Jersey in New Brunswick. Stored in 90 folders, the holdings include minutes, some in Ladino, dating back to 1933, as well as programs, photographs, bylaws, and a cookbook titled “Comer es bueno” (Ladino for “Eating is good”). Other material, including records from 1935 to the present, are kept at the synagogue, which was founded in 1916.
Most New Jersey institutions, including the New Jersey State Archives and the Jewish Historical Society of MetroWest, in Trenton and Whippany respectively, don’t have any Sephardi and Mizrahi collections, the survey found. The state that yielded the most collections was New York, and there are six private collectors who call it home as well. One of the richest collections is that of the Yeshiva University Museum in Manhattan. The museum owns material in English, Ladino, and Hebrew, dated between the early 1500s and the mid-twentieth century.
Joy Zacharia Appelbaum, who now lives in Hackensack but spent many decades in Teaneck, is the former executive director of the International Sephardic Education Foundation, the former director of public relations for the Sephardic Home for the Aged, and the author of “The History of the Jews of Teaneck. She donated several items to the museum. The items include two tallitot crocheted by her paternal grandmother, Estamou Mevorah Zacharia, who came from Kastoria, Greece; documents and photographs from her grandfather, Rabbi Isaac Menahem Zacharia; an alphabet sampler, hand-stitched by her maternal great”“grandmother, Esther Papo Ouriel, who came from Florence, Italy, as well as her own undergraduate thesis, “The Ladino Dialect of the Jews of Kastoria, Greece,” written in 1958 at Brandeis University.
“I donated my library to many Jewish organizations for the perpetuation – not just preservation – of Sephardic culture,” she said.
The survey also asked for donations of oral stories from Sephardic Jews, but “there was not much fresh material because congregations and community groups had already recorded stories,” Belinfante said. One of the largest collections of oral stories in the states surveyed comes from Etz Ahaim, which published them in book form in 2007 as “Voices of Etz Ahaim: Interviews with Members of Congregation Etz Ahaim.” The survey findings note that the congregation “has gone to great lengths to preserve its history.”
The survey received a matching grant of $43,000 from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission. The results can be found at http://sephardicarchives.org.