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  • From the "Jerusalem of the Balkans" to the Goldene Medina:Jewish Immigration from Salonika to the United States*
  • Devin E. Naar (bio)

Who are these strangers who can be seen in the ghetto of the East Side, sitting outside of coffee-houses smoking strange-looking waterpipes, sipping a dark liquid from tiny cups and playing a game of checkers and dice, a game that we are not familiar with? See the signs on these institutions. They read: "Café Constantinople," "Café Oriental," Café Smyrna," and there are other signs in Hebrew characters that you perhaps cannot read. Are they Jews? No it cannot be; they do not look like Jews; they do not speak Yiddish. Listen; what is that strange tongue they are using? It sounds like Spanish or Mexican. Are they Spaniards or Mexicans? If so, where did they get the coffee-houses, an importation from Greece and Turkey? -Samuel M. Auerbach, "The Levantine Jew"


Writing in The Immigrants in America Review, Auerbach offered an image of "Levantine Jews" as "strangers" within the context of a predominantly Yiddish-speaking, eastern European Jewish culture on the Lower East Side of Manhattan during the first decades of the twentieth century. Auerbach, like his contemporaries writing in English or Yiddish, provided a perspective that he felt would resonate with his readership.2 Subsequent accounts of American Jewry have echoed descriptions [End Page 435] such as Auerbach's insofar as they have treated Jews from the eastern Mediterranean-described alternatively as "Levantine," "Oriental" or "Sephardi"-as marginal figures in their narratives. Others have omitted completely from their accounts the experiences of these Jews, who stray far from the mold of "normative" American Jewry. In addition to differences in language, culture, geographic origin, and religious traditions (minhagim), the relatively small demographic weight of Jews from the eastern Mediterranean also has contributed to their marginalization in American Jewish historiography. Perhaps as many as sixty thousand Jews from the eastern Mediterranean arrived in the United States between 1880 and 1924, whereas over two million largely Yiddish-speaking Jews from eastern Europe arrived during the same period.3 As a result, Jews from eastern Europe often have stood symbolically for American Jewry of the early twentieth century.4

Recent works, such as those issued in conjunction with the 350th anniversary of Jews in America, pay scant attention to Jews from the eastern Mediterranean. They do begin their narratives of American Jewish history with the tale of the twenty-three refugees who fled from the Inquisition in Recife, Brazil, and settled in New Amsterdam in 1654.5 These "Old Sephardim," however, constituted a group distinct from those Jews who arrived from the eastern Mediterranean during the early twentieth century, and whom scholars have labeled the "New Sephardim." Some members of Shearith Israel, the Spanish and Portuguese synagogue of the "Old Sephardim" in New York, initially argued in the 1910s that [End Page 436] the newcomers should not be categorized as "Sephardim" at all. Rather, they advocated labels such as "Levantine" or "Oriental," both terms with derogatory connotations, so as not to muddy their own reputation as the "noble," well-established "Sephardim," the true heirs to the legacy of the Spanish golden age.6 Contributors to the Ladino and Anglo-Jewish press in America debated and polemicized over the terms "Levantine," "Oriental," and "Sephardi," some distinguishing among the Jews from the eastern Mediterranean according to linguistic community-Ladino, Greek, and Arabic-and viewing only Ladino-speakers, the perceived descendants of medieval Iberian Jewry, as "Sephardim" in a strict sense.7 The only terms of identification not contested during the early twentieth century were those based on city or town of origin that the newcomers gave themselves and utilized internally.

A few scholars have succeeded in giving voice to the Jews from the eastern Mediterranean who lived in early twentieth-century America. They have filled important lacunae by focusing on the efforts of these [End Page 437] immigrants at communal organization, their interactions with the "Old Sephardim" and "Ashkenazim," and their creation of a Ladino press in New York.8 Such scholars point out city-based identity but often represent it as a source of conflict and an obstacle...