Sephardi Women in the United States
Sephardic Jews constitute only a small proportion of American Jewry. Although they comprised the majority of American Jewry during the colonial period, that majority never exceeded twenty-five hundred prior to the American Revolution. The Sephardim of Holland, the Caribbean, and England may have formed the vanguard of colonial pioneering, yet it is difficult to isolate any special role of Sephardi women or even to arrive at more than an estimate of their numbers. Although the first settlers and their congregations were Sephardic, the notable economic, political, and organizational achievements of the pioneering generation are largely devoid of Sephardi female luminaries. Achievements of Jewish women were not generally documented. To the extent that Jewish women rose to prominence in the colonial period, it was Ashkenazi women whom history remembers.
By the nineteenth century, the Sephardi community was vastly outnumbered by Ashkenazim. Nevertheless, a few outstanding Sephardi personalities captured public notice. Penina Moïse (1797–1880), the first American Jew to publish a volume of poetry, also conducted a private school and wrote movingly of the travails of the Jews at the time of the Damascus Blood Libel (1840). Her hymnal was published and utilized by Congregation Beth Elohim of Charleston, South Carolina. Maud Nathan (1862–1946) was a multitalented woman, distinguished for her active involvement in the life of the Spanish and Portuguese synagogue of New York, Congregation Shearith Israel, as well as in the wider New York community. She served as a founder of the Consumers League of New York and the movement for woman suffrage. During her short life, Emma Lazarus (1849–1887) gained immortality through her evocation of the immigrant’s dream of America in her poem “The New Colossus.” Her Sephardi connection was through the prominence of her family in Congregation Shearith Israel rather than through any distinguishable attachment on her part to Sephardi tradition.
The colonial family of the Nathans included another significant public figure, Annie Nathan Meyer (1867–1951). A playwright, novelist, and editor, Meyer left her mark through her active campaign at Columbia University that led to the founding of Barnard College in 1889. In 1891, she edited the volume Woman’s Work in America.
With the twentieth-century Sephardi migrations to America, a new Sephardi sensibility emerges in American Jewish history. Immigrants from the Arab world and the disintegrating Ottoman Empire arrived with a knowledge of Ladino, a language essentially the domain of women at the time. Unlike earlier Sephardi immigrants, this wave of immigration came from traditional Near Eastern societies, where women’s roles had been severely circumscribed. In the newfound Ladino press, some of the hopes and aspirations of anonymous Sephardi women emerge—their fascination with the social activism and economic productivity of Ashkenazi women, their awareness of the greater literacy and synagogue skills of their Ashkenazi counterparts, and their self-consciousness about “Old World” mores. The new Sephardi immigrants were assisted in their efforts at Americanization by the Sisterhood of the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue of New York.
Post–World War II Sephardi immigration from Muslim lands has brought a critical mass of Sephardim to American shores. Although Jewish women were largely confined to the domestic sphere in places such as Syria or Central Asia, the organized Sephardi community in America (the American Sephardi Federation, founded in 1972) has enjoyed new professional and leadership opportunities. Access to higher education has enabled Sephardi women to overcome traditional limitations on their involvement in the broader society. The second president of the American Sephardi Federation, Liliane Shalom, has assumed a leadership position within what was essentially an exclusively male organization. With the expansion of the Sephardi day-school educational network, it may be only a matter of time before Sephardi women have a significant impact on Jewish cultural life in America.
Angel, Marc D. La America: The Sephardic Experience in the United States (1982); Papo, Joseph. Sephardim in Twentieth Century America (1987).