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Sephardic Jews in America: A Diasporic History.

Sephardic Jews in America: A Diasporic History. By Aviva Ben-Ur. New York: New York University Press, 2009. v + 321 pp.

This is a mistitled book. It is not a history of Sephardic Jews in America, diasporic or otherwise. The author, herself, denies the title: "The aim here is not to compose a linear history of the Sephardic community in the first half of the twentieth century or of the various institutions that Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews founded over the years. Rather this study has the thematic aim of exploring intra- and interethnic relations between the various groups that Eastern Sephardim, and, to a lesser extent, Mizrahi Jews encountered in the United States"(8). The book contains a great deal of information about relatively recent Sephardic immigration, much of it from interviews conducted by the author and from her research in obscure newspapers and other printed and manuscript sources that will be of value to any person who attempts such a history, which is surely one of the more apparent gaps in American Jewish history. The focus on relatively recent American Sephardic history reflects the work's origin in the author's 1998 Brandeis University dissertation, "Where Diasporas Met: Sephardic and Ashkenazic Jews in the City of New York, a Study in Intra-ethnic Relations, 1880-1950."

The book emphasizes what the author believes has been the "structural and scholarly exclusion" of "the Jews who weren't there" and it is this alleged intellectual discrimination that fuels and, I am afraid, distorts her vision (1). To her, the conflict, most evident in New York City, between Ashkenazic and Sephardic Jews, is a unreported major event in American Jewish history and anyone who has ignored it is taken to task, chiefly in some of the 1, 170 footnotes that accompany the 192 pages of text. Her targets include not only many of the major scholars of American Jewish history, but even immigration historians. Rudolph Vecoli is chastised for an encyclopedia article of nearly 6,000 words covering immigration in all of American history because "the Jewish immigrants who arrived in 1654 are not specified as Sephardim" (201, n. 12). In that essay Vecoli, as was his wont, stressed the diversity of American immigration from its outset and did not feel it necessary to refer to the Ashkenazic/Sephardic dichotomy, but did discuss the conflicts between German-speaking and Yiddish-speaking Jewish immigrants. (1)

That some, perhaps most, of the Sephardic immigrants of her period were insulted because at one time or another other Jews refused to accept them as fellow Jews is recounted effectively in several places. That this is made a kind of leitmotif is, it seems to me, unbalancing as is Ben-Ur's insistent categorization of all Jewish immigrants as either Ashkenazic or Sephardic, when many, perhaps a majority, never thought of themselves as either. A further weakness is a persistent attempt to provide precise numbers for various American Jewish populations and precise percentages of the numbers of Jews among the immigrants from various nations and of what kinds of Jews they were. Although the author, in introducing an "Appendix: Population Statistics of Non-Ashkenazic Jews in the United States," recognizes that "[s]tatistical ambiguity is characteristic of U.S. Jewish population [estimates] in general," nevertheless the text is literally peppered with overly precise numerical statements about both American Jewish population in general and of its component parts (32, 193). A further flaw is that many of her factual statements about American immigration are not to be relied upon. For example, persons denied admittance are not "deported" but "excluded," Benjamin Harrison did not veto a literacy test bill, and the detention rate at Ellis Island never approached 20 percent.

On the other hand, I found Ben-Ur's extended remarks on Ladino and on the significance of immigrant languages instructive and sensitive. I hope that my stress on what seem to me to be the serious flaws of this work do not cause other scholars to ignore her call for a more nuanced analysis of the ethnocultural variations of the American Jewish experience.

Roger Daniels

University of Cincinnati

(1.) I am not so chastised, although I could be. I am credited for an essay on immigration law that was written by Thomas Archdeacon (214, n. 10, II).
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Author:Daniels, Roger
Publication:American Jewish History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 1, 2008
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