Ladino (Judeo-Spanish) Press in the United States
Ladino-speaking Jews, descendants of the Iberian Jewish exiles of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, began to emigrate from the Ottoman Empire (Turkey and the Balkans) to the United States in the 1880s. By 1924, thirty thousand had settled in the United States, with the largest concentration (approximately twenty thousand by the early 1920s) in the city of New York. By the 1930s, the American Judeo-Spanish press estimated the total Ladino-speaking population nationally at roughly fifty thousand. Sephardic historian Joseph Papo has written that in 1916 approximately 10 percent of the twenty thousand Sephardim of New York were women. (This figure seems low, particularly given Jewish immigration statistics indicating that women comprised forty percent of Levantine newcomers in 1913. While Papo is most likely correct that female Sephardic immigrants were initially outnumbered by their male contemporaries, as were female immigrants of many other non-Jewish ethnic groups, the ratio seems to have evened out by the 1920s.)
Sephardic Jews, with their unfamiliar physiognomy and languages, coupled with their ignorance of Yiddish, were often not recognized by their Ashkenazi brethren as Jews. One of the independent media Sephardim formed in order to remedy their social isolation and create their own channels of community self-help was the Judeo-Spanish press. The American Ladino press, printed in Hebrew letters, from 1910 through 1948 included nineteen known publications, and, with the exception of one Los Angeles bulletin and one tabloid published in New Brunswick, New Jersey, appeared exclusively in New York. Although Ladino literacy was more prevalent among Sephardic men, Judeo-Spanish publications did assume some female readership. Though its editors were male, and while men comprised the overwhelming majority of its contributors and readers, the American Ladino press is not only an important source of information about the social status and activities of Oriental Sephardic women, but also illuminates the ways in which “Turkinas,” as they were internally known, were perceived by their male contemporaries.
The female dimension of the Ladino press can be roughly divided into three categories: daily activities (communal activism and role in the work force), conceptual approaches (discourses on the social and economic status of women in the Sephardic community), and fictional portrayals of women (serialized novels featuring Sephardic female characters and humorous advice columns directed at Sephardic women). This article considers all American Ladino periodicals and bulletins that have been preserved in the major archives in the United States. (Several Judeo-Spanish periodicals, whose existence can be ascertained through references in surviving Ladino newspapers, have been lost.)
One important publication was that of the Sephardic Brotherhood of America, a New York burial society founded in 1915 by thirty (male) immigrants from Salonika, which by 1923 had expanded to an organization of mutual aid and communal activities offering services to over a thousand members and their families. The brotherhood’s bulletins focused on the history and activities of the organization and generally did not consider women in its articles. This is partly because women received membership benefits through their husbands or late husbands, and thus were assumed to have little incentive to become active members themselves. Yet women were active members of the organization from early on, and many of their communal activities are recorded in the brotherhood’s publications. In addition, a few female leaders of the brotherhood published articles pertaining to Sephardic women and the organization’s sisterhoods.
Among the early activities of women recorded in the brotherhood’s reviews are those of the Committee of Education, which in 1922, under the direction of Fannie Angel, Rebecca Nahoum Amateau, and other women volunteers, organized a series of lectures of “general interest” that succeeded in attracting hundreds of listeners. (These lectures included a discussion given by Angel in 1924 on “love and sex,” for which she was congratulated by the serious-humorous Ladino tabloid La Vara [The staff] as “the first of our Sephardic women to speak with courage in public.”) The Sisterhood of Uptown (Harlem) was founded in 1922 by Rebecca Amateau, who in 1928 served as president with the assistance of Rashel Amariyo (vice president), Suzan Nahoum (secretary), Lina Perahia (treasurer), and Fannie Angel (trustee). The committee of the Uptown Sisterhood was involved in both social and educative endeavors, including organizing lectures and aiding the sick and indigent. Upon the dispersal of many of its members, and especially its three most important leaders (Amariyo, Angel, and Perahia), the Uptown Sisterhood discontinued its activities temporarily. In 1929, the Sisterhood of Downtown (Lower East Side) was organized, headed by Mme. Kuenkas, Mme. Elvira Rubi, Mme. Dudun Kohen, and others who “have given all of their time for the success of this Brotherhood institution.” The Downtown Sisterhood was especially active in the distribution of clothes among Sephardic orphans. By 1935, the sisterhoods were cited in the brotherhood’s reviews as the solution to the problem of waning interest and activism among brotherhood members.
Two women were particularly vociferous regarding the social status of Judeo-Spanish women. In 1931, Rebecca Nahoum Amateau, niece of the chief rabbi of the Ottoman Empire and first wife of prominent Sephardic activist Albert Amateau, published an article in the Sephardic Brotherhood Review entitled “The Relationship Between the Sephardic Immigrant Mother and Her American Children,” in which she urged Ladino-speaking mothers to educate themselves in order to prevent a cultural gulf from developing between themselves and their Americanized children. “Mothers, it is not too late!” she wrote. “We still have the time to repair our life and win the hearts, the friendship and the respect of our children. It is no shame to go to night school and to learn enough to be able to read the English papers and to be informed of what is going on around us.” Fannie Angel, in her article “Appeal to our Sephardic Sisters,” published in the same issue, counseled Sephardic women to emancipate themselves and organize sisterhoods within their societies.
According to the brotherhood’s constitution (revised in 1922), sons and daughters of members could themselves become members from the age of sixteen. This by-law helped to encourage female activism among the younger generation. By 1935, six of the eleven members of the Temporary Executive Committee of Juniors were women: Ester Alaluf, Emily L. Bueno, Fannie Esformes, Pearl Eskenazi, Silvia Florentine, and Eta Matatia. The Junior League was in fact seen as “the nucleus of the future Brotherhood.” That same year, Silvia Florentine was appointed by the brotherhood’s Central Executive Committee to contribute an article in English for El Ermanado on how the brotherhood could assist juniors in organizing themselves. Her words, addressing the older members of the brotherhood, epitomize the distinct gender roles adopted by men and women active in the New York Sephardic community: “Amongst your sons you will find your leaders of tomorrow. Amongst your daughters you will find the helping spirit and co-operation that will make possible the realization of your goal, that will surge forward into different fields—social working, sisterhoods, etc.”
The only surviving Ladino organ published outside of New York is El Mesajero [The messenger], a monthly Los Angeles bulletin reporting community activities and local and international Jewish news, and published by the publicity committee, composed of Sephardic youths. El Mesajero addressed itself to both male and female readers. Like the brotherhood’s reviews, the female dimension of El Mesajero is generally confined to descriptions of the communal activities of Sephardic women. The Komité de las Damas Auxiliar [Auxiliary committee of women], founded in 1919, was identified by El Mesajero as one of the most important Sephardic organizations of Los Angeles. The auxiliary organized “card parties” to benefit the secret fund (a society distributing aid anonymously to needy families), sponsored dances to support Jewish hospitals and impoverished Sephardic communities abroad, raised money to benefit the local Sephardic Talmud Torah, and arranged dinner dances to finance a synagogue building for the Los Angeles Sephardic Hebrew Center. In 1933, efforts to organize the community’s Baruch Spinoza Library were directed by Matilda Kadranel, who actively sought donations of literature in Hebrew, English, Judeo-Spanish, Italian, and French.
In contrast to community bulletins, Ladino periodicals are much more comprehensive in their coverage of women, providing abundant information on not only female communal activism but also on women in the labor force. While Sephardic society could be very conservative with respect to married women as wage earners, Ladino tabloids constantly published want ads seeking both male and female laborers. Certain occupations consistently distinguished along gender lines, most notably the position of domestic servant to Sephardi families living in the suburbs or Harlem, who specifically sought “Sefaraditas.” The garment industry often specifically solicited girls to operate Singer machines at apron factories or to sew children’s clothing, kimonos, lace, curtains, or petticoats. Both boys and girls were invited to apply for positions at electric battery factories. Women were almost never cited as owners of their own businesses. A few exceptions were Turkish midwives, who served clients both “uptown” (Harlem) and on the Lower East Side (1915, 1924), and Madame Gilda Malky of the Bronx, who in 1938 advertised herself as a European-style seamstress and importer of ladies’ brassieres, and who claimed prior working experience in Salonika and Istanbul. The Ladino press encouraged both men and women to attend classes in Castilian, designed for those interested in employment in businesses dealing with Spanish-speaking countries and for those seeking positions as correspondents and secretaries in export houses. In 1924, La Vara announced a public lecture, “Mexico and Its Opportunities,” on the commercial and political aspects of Mexico and of the Jews of that country, and specified that women were also invited.
Issues regarding the position of women in Sephardic society were also addressed in the Ladino press. In April of 1911, Moise Gadol, in his paper La Amérika, published a series of articles under the pseudonym “a suffragette.” These articles dealt with discrimination against women, in particular, the mistreatment of females in Oriental society, and argued for suffrage and cooperation between men and women to work toward betterment of the female condition in America. Gadol also encouraged his female readers in 1913 to hold a strike protesting horrendous working conditions and low pay. He accomplished this in part by citing the efforts of Ashkenazic women, who, he asserted, succeeded in winning their demands by joining unions. The socialist-oriented newspaper El Progreso reported in 1915 that attempts undertaken two years previously to unionize the five thousand Sephardic girls of the Lower East Side had failed, since these “Turkinas” had, in the end, allowed themselves to be intimidated by their bosses and returned to work under the original harsh conditions. In 1917, La Boz del Pueblo (the new name of El Progreso since December of 1915) published a series of articles urging the emancipation of Sephardic women and launched a campaign for the “awakening of our women from the apathy into which a large part of them has sunk.”
Some of the most vitriolic debates concerning Sephardic women occurred in response to reports on the Sephardic immigrant community appearing in the Ashkenazic American press. In 1916, an internal debate among Sephardic male leaders was sparked after the journalist Celia Silbert, a librarian at the Educational Alliance , published an article on the Oriental Jewess in New York in an issue of the American Jewish Chronicle. The controversy, the highlight of Ladino newspapers for several weeks, focused on Silbert’s preference for the adjective “Turkish,” rather than “Sephardic,” to describe her subjects, and on the dismal picture she painted of the backward economic status of Oriental Jewish women.
The short-lived monthly magazine El Luzero Sefaradí [The Sephardic beacon], described by its editors as a national and apolitical review of science, art and literature, published an occasional women’s page, entitled “Para las Damas” [For ladies]. This column, offering advice to mothers concerning maternal duties and the discipline of children, demonstrates the extreme degree to which Sephardic mothers were seen as the determiners of their children’s emotional and physical well-being. “The child’s health is in the power of its mother,” the magazine cautioned. “It is the mother who should receive all credit if her little ones are healthy, and it is the mother who is to blame, in most cases, if her children fall ill” (1927).
The serialized novels of El Luzero Sefaradí and Ladino periodicals featured female characters, usually in secondary roles. These works of fiction, while of dubious literary value, suggest the development of a “Cult of Sephardic Womanhood,” in which women were often portrayed as insightful, self-sacrificing enablers. Of particular interest is the semiautobiographical novel published in La Luz in 1921 by Simon (Shimon) S. Nessim, a community leader who graduated from New York University Law School in 1923 and was admitted to the bar the following year. In this novel, a young Sephardic idealist of the Lower East Side falls in love with Roza, a Ladino-speaking immigrant who encourages him to organize Sephardic unions and, ultimately, to pursue his calling as a community activist.
One of the most vibrant and socially revealing portrayals of women appearing in the Ladino press was an advice column written by the Salonikan-born immigrant Moise Soulam (1890–1967), under the pseudonym of “Tía Satula” [Aunt Satula] or “Bula Satula.” Variably entitled “Palavras de Mujer” [Words of a woman] and “Postemas de Mujer” [Pet peeves of a woman], this column appeared sometimes intermittently in the newspapers La Amérika, El Progreso, and La Vara from 1913 until 1934. Written in a popular Ladino idiom and peppered with humor, ironic proverbs, and slang, this column’s stated purpose was “to proffer good morals to the people, and to counsel women to take the right path in this blessed city.” The column dealt with issues such as gambling, bargaining in public marketplaces, rowdy social gatherings, and ostentatious dress and makeup. Though the column occasionally expressed nostalgia for the ways in which women celebrated Jewish holidays in Turkey, its primary message was to encourage the Americanization of its female readers and to persuade them to abandon the mores and mentality of the Old Country.
The Sephardic Jews in the United States never numerically rivaled the two and a half million Eastern European Ashkenazim who arrived on American shores from 1881 to 1924, nor did the readership of the Ladino press ever remotely match the quarter of a million plus who subscribed to the Yiddish Forward during its peak in the 1920s. Nevertheless, the Judeo-Spanish press of the United States, still largely unexplored, is the most vital and fertile source for the multifaceted history of Sephardic women in early twentieth-century America.
[Note: All transliterations and translations from the Ladino are the author’s.]
Note: All publications are in Judeo-Spanish except where noted.
El Ermanado 8th Annual Review (1928), 16, 20th anniversary issue (1935), and 17 (1938).
El Mesajero: Buletín Mensual Sefaradí. Edited by Dr. Robert Benveniste (1933–1934).
The Sephardic Brotherhood of America, Inc., 6th Annual Review (1923), 7th Annual Review (1927).
The Sephardic Jewish Brotherhood: 75th Anniversary (1991, English).
El Luzero Sefaradí: Revista Mensuala Ilustrada. Edited by Albert D. Levi and Moise Soulam (September 1926–August 1927).
La Amérika. Edited by Moise Gadol (1910–1925).
La Boz del Pueblo/El Progreso/La Époka de Nu York. Edited by Maurice S. Nessim (1915–1920).
La Luz (1921–1922).
La Vara. Edited by Moise Soulam, Albert J. Levi, and Albert J. Torres (1922–1948).
Angel, Marc D. La America: The Sephardic Experience in the United States (1982).
Ben-Ur, Aviva. “The Judeo-Spanish (Ladino) Press in the United States, 1910–1948.” In Multilingual America: Transnationalism, Ethnicity, and the Languages of American Literature, edited by Werner Sollors (1998).
Ben-Ur, Aviva. “Nuestra Kolonia: A Report on the Sephardic Community of the Lower East Side as Conveyed Through the Judeo-Spanish Press, 1910–1925.” Unpublished manuscript written under the direction of Dr. Jane S. Gerber for the Komunidad Project of the Lower East Side Tenement Museum (May 1995).
Papo, Joseph M. Sephardim in Twentieth-Century America: In Search of Unity (1987).
Holdings of Ladino Bulletins, Magazines, and Peridiocals
El Ermanado 8th Annual Review (1928). Harvard College Library, Judaica Division, and Yeshiva University, Sephardic Reading Room.
El Ermanado 16, 20th anniversary issue (1935). American Jewish Historical Society, Waltham, Mass., and Hebrew Union College.
El Ermanado 17 (1938). Harvard College Library, Judaica Division.
El Mesajero. Ben-Zvi Institute, Jerusalem, Israel, and Brandeis University Library, and American Jewish Periodicals Center, Cincinnati.
The Sephardic Brotherhood of America, Inc., 6th Annual Review (1923). Yeshiva University, Sephardic Reading Room.
The Sephardic Brotherhood of America, Inc., 7th Annual Review (1927). Harvard College Library, Judaica Division.
The Sephardic Jewish Brotherhood: 75th Anniversary (1991). Sephardic Jewish Brotherhood, archives, Queens, N.Y..
El Luzero Sefaradí: Revista Mensuala Ilustrada. Library of Congress, and Ben-Zvi Institute, Jerusalem, Israel, and Harvard College Library, Judaica Division, and Brandeis University Library, and New York Public Library, and Yeshiva University, Sephardic Reading Room, and Hebrew Union College.