20 December 2009

Sephardim: Oral history project launched

Five thousand oral histories of Sephardic Jews are sought by the end of 2015 in an ambitious project to give voice to this community, regardless of whether they immigrated or were born here.

"Sephardic America Voices: A Jewish Oral History Project,” is sponsored by the American Sephardi Federation (ASF) in New York, with the University of Miami and Hebrew University.
The New Jersey Jewish Standard carried the story.

Organizer Carlos Benaim is an ASF board member born in Tangiers, and created the project after participating in a Barcelona conference. The event featured author Helene Trigano's film with testimonies of Sephardic Jews living in France.

There was no such initiative for the US Sephardic community, said Benaim, so he decided to preserve these stories that could be lost forever.

A New Jersey resident who also serves on the ASF board, Raquel Benatar (born in Tetuan, Morocco), said the project is a unique opportunity for American Sephardim to convey their history, customs, and traditions of diverse countries of origin, reasons for immigration to the US, and to help preserve Sephardic heritage. She may help conduct some of the interviews.

ASF executive director Stanley Urman says that nobody is capturing the history of Jews who fled, emigrated, escaped, or were expelled from countries throughout Europe, North Africa, the Middle East, and the Gulf region, and this is an important chapter in Jewish history.

As with Steven Spielberg's Shoah interviews, this project has a time element as the elders of this community are getting older. Information needs to be recorded as soon as possible before it is lost forever.

Using New Jersey as an example, there are some 20 Sephardic congregations in various towns (Fort Lee, Teaneck, Englewood, West Orange, Highland Park, Long Branch, and Deal), but not major Sephardic communities, except in Deal, where the Syrian Jews are some 16% of the residents.

People always ask about the definition of Sephardic. There are two definitions, the narrow and the broad. The narrower one limits it to Jews (and their descendants) who come from the Iberian Peninsula and settled around the Mediterranean or Ottoman Empire after 1492. The broader definition includes those who follow Sephardic liturgy, didn't originate in Iberia, and includes Jews who come from Asia or North Africa (known as Mizrahim, "easterners").

The project includes those who are Sephardim in the broader sense.

In 2002, the Institute for Jewish and Community Research, headed by the late Gary Tobin, estimated that there are some 600,000 Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews in the US.

The first "pilot" phase began in August and ended in October and a handful of people were interviewed. Urman is looking for those who want to be interviewed as well as for those who wish to be trained to be interviewers. ASF has already trained, as interviewers, 16 students of the Magen David Yeshiva High School in Brooklyn.

The third and final phase of the project will run from June 2010 to December 31, 2015 and hopes to reach the target of 5,000 interviews.

According to Urman, foreign-born parents may be interviewed with American-born children. In other interviews, children will share stories about their parents and stories from their grandparents. Each subject receives a DVD copy of the interview, which may be up to two hours long. The interview will be archived at the ASF. There are plans to publish educational materials, such as books and videos at the completion of the project.

Shelomo Alfassa is coordinator and did conducted the initial interviews. There are, he said, two different questionnaires. One is for Jews from Arab countries, and one for Jews from the Balkans, Turkey and Greece.

NOTE: One of Tracing the Tribe's pet peeves is that Jews from Iran are included in the first group when Iran is not an Arab country, although it is Moslem. Tracing the Tribe continually informs ASF and other news sources that this is a misnomer, and should be called Jews from Moslem countries, not Arab countries. ASF agrees, but finds that news media prefers to use the other designation, although it is wrong.

In the US, the questionnaire was designed by ASF with professors Henry Green (University of Miami Jewish Studies Department), and Margalit Bejarano (Hebrew University's Oral History Division, Hartman Institute of Contemporary Jewry).

Questions include the subjects' lives in their home countries, the need to leave when life became difficult, life in other countries prior to settlement in the US, and how they rebuilt their lives.

Although the article detailed immigration of Sephardic Jews to the US back to 1654, when 23 refugees arrived in New York from Recife, Brazil, as well as communities in such places as Newport, Rhode Island; Philadelphia; Charleston, South Carolina; and Savannah, Georgia; the 3,000+ Ottoman Empire Jewish immigrants (1885-1908), and 10,000 Turkish Jews after 1908; the story does not mention the huge Persian Jewish community that arrived in both New York and Los Angeles following the Iranian Revolution in the late 1970s-early 1980s.

For a bit of New Jersey history, the most well-known Sephardic congregation was Etz Ahaim, founded in 1929 in New Brunswick. Earlier Sephardim showed up in even earlier according to records, such as Aaron Louzada (Bound Brook, 1698), Daniel Nuñez (Piscataway town clerk, early 1700s), and David Naar, born in St. Thomas, Virgin Islands (Elizabeth mayor, 1843).

Tracing the Tribe readers are invited to participate as both interviewees or interviewers. For more information, send an email to the ASF.

Read the complete story at the link above.

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