Survey reveals who owns collections of Sefardic, Mizrahi archival material in 6 U.S. states
By Daniel Santacruz
A survey of archival material related to Sefardic and Mizrahi Jews, whose results were made public recently, has revealed surprising results.
Between February and May of 2012, the New York City-based American Sephardic Federation (ASF) sent out 300 surveys to synagogues, state archives, cultural organizations and individuals in six northeastern states of the United States—New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and Rhode Island—asking them to identify the types of archival material they hold.
One hundred and four surveys were filed out and sent back. The institutions were also reached by telephone, emails and regular mail. ASF staffers visited some of them.
Another objective of the survey, according to Randy Belinfante, librarian and archivist of the National Sephardic Library of the ASF, was to set the basis for collaboration with American institutions on projects that will increase the accessibility of key documents about Sefardic and Mizrahi Jews in the United States.
“The history of those communities in the United States hasn't been well understood,“ he added. “American Jews, in general, are unaware of Sefardic history. Even the American Historical Society, which has a large collection of Jewish material, is unfamiliar with Sefardim, as are many Jews in New York City, where a large community of Syrian Jews live.“
New York is No. 1
The state that yielded the most collections in the 68 institutions surveyed there was New York, as well as six private collectors. One of the richest collections is that of the Yeshiva University Museum, in New York City, which owns material in English, Ladino and Hebrew dated between the early 1500s and the mid-twentieth century.
New Jersey resident Joy Zacharia Appelbaum, former executive director of the International Sephardic Education Foundation and Director of Public Relations for the Sephardic Home for the Aged, both in New York City, donated several items to the museum, among them two tallitot crocheted by her maternal grandmother, Estamou Mevorah Zacharia, from Kastoria, Greece, as well as documents and photographs relating to her family and her husband, Rabbi Isaac Menahem Zacharia.
Zacharia Appelbaum, author of The History of the Jews of Teaneck, also donated an alphabet sampler, hand-stitched by her maternal great–grandmother, Esther Papo Ouriel, from Florence, Italy, as well as her thesis, The Ladino Dialect of the Jews of Kastoria, Greece, written in 1958 for her graduation from Brandeis University.
“I donated my library to many Jewish organizations for the perpetuation and not just preservation of Sephardic culture,” she said.
The donation of the items, some which belonged to her father and grandfather, shows her commitment to Judaism, added Zacharia Appelbaum.”
Another surprise was a New Jersey individual who owns a rich collection of correspondence, about 800 pieces written mostly in Ladino, that originated in Vienna and the Ottoman Empire between 1840 and 1940. Almost all of the pieces come from merchants, but they do not deal with business matters exclusively. Others are family communications.
The ASF didn't reveal the name of the collector.
Part of American history
Sefardic Jews, who have roots in Spain, spread all over the Mediterranean basin and countries like Portugal and Holland following their expulsion from Spain in 1492, 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.
Mizrahi Jews, who trace their origins to Middle Eastern countries such as Syria, Iran, Iraq and Lebanon started migrating to the United States at the beginning of the 20th century. Brooklyn, a borough of New York City, is home to a large community of Syrian Jews, as is the town of Deal, in New Jersey.
The only institution that holds items related to Bukharian Jews, who originated in Central Asia, is the Bukharian Museum, in Elmhurst, Queens, another borough, said Katie Ehrlich, project archivist. Most of the holdings consist of artifacts, she added.
In New Jersey, 13 institutions were contacted, among them Congregation Etz Ahaim, in Highland Park, one of the oldest Sefardic synagogues in the states surveyed, and the New Jersey State Archives, in Trenton, the state capital.
Congregation Etz Ahaim has by far the richest archival material of all synagogues and institutions in the state, some of which it has deposited with 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 in 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 Sefardi and Mizrahi collections, the survey found.
Lack of fresh material
The survey also asked the institutions to donate oral stories from Sefardic Jews to the ASF, but “there was not much fresh material because congregations and community groups had already recorded stories,” said Belinfante.
One of the largest collections of oral stories in the states surveyed is that of Etz Ahaim, which published them in book form in 2007 as Voices of Etz Ahaim: Interviews with Members of Congregation Etz Ahaim.
The findings of the survey note that the congregation “has gone to great lengths to preserve its history.”
The holdings of the oldest synagogue building in the states surveyed are thouse of Touro Synagogue, in Newport, R.I., built in 1763. The city's Jewish population dates approximately from 1658, when 15 families of Spanish and Portuguese origin migrated there from Curacao and Barbados, in the Caribbean. The congregation that established Touro Synagogue was Yeshuat Israel, the second Jewish congregation founded in the United States. Its cantor was Isaac Touro.
According to the ASF survey, the congregation's archives, unprocessed as of January 2013, include a photo collection, commemorative paraphernalia and business records. Artifacts dating to the first days of Touro Synagogue, such as paintings, a visitor log book, chandeliers and a Torah scroll from the late sixteenth century are located in the building.
People interested in learning more about the holdings of the private collectors, some of whom are academics, should contact the ASF, said Ehrlich.
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.
© Daniel Santacruz