Welcome to this centenary exhibit marking 100 years of Sephardic life in Los Angeles! This landmark project, a product of the Alan D. Leve Center for Jewish Studies and the Sephardic Archive Initiative at UCLA, with the cooperation of UCLA Libraries and Special Collections, aims to showcase the vibrancy of Sephardic culture in the City of Angels and to shed light on its astonishing diversity past and present.
But what and who is Sephardic? What role does Los Angeles play in this story? And how have these two cultural forces—one Jewish, Mediterranean, and Middle Eastern, the other the global crossroads of Southern Californian—shaped one another?
We have chosen, in designing this exhibit, to frame “Sephardic” in its broadest possible terms, inclusive of communities that don’t always claim the title for themselves. We explore, here, the intersecting migratory, cultural, and urban histories of Jews from across the Mediterranean and Middle East, from Iraq and Iran to North Africa and Ottoman Anatolia and the Balkans (as well as the post-Ottoman states of Turkey, Greece, Yugoslavia, British Mandate Palestine, Israel, Syria, and more), and beyond.
Many of the families who made their way to Los Angeles from these places of origin traveled first through other homes, including Paris, Shanghai, Singapore, Kolkata (Calcutta), Montreal, New York, Seattle, Havana, and Mexico City. Some stayed for the rest of their and their children’s lives, while others remained just a few months or passed in and out of the city over decades. Many continued to return to erstwhile homes, and/or belonged to families, institutions, businesses, or communities that spanned cities, regions, and countries. In short, Los Angeles’ Sephardic citizens were global by nature, much as is the city of Los Angeles itself.
In Los Angeles, Jews of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern background lived lives that crossed cultural lines. Immigrant Sephardim from Salonica, Izmir, and Istanbul, most speakers of Ladino, settled in the immigrant enclaves of downtown Los Angeles, where they lived alongside other immigrants from Mexico, Asia, and Southern and Eastern Europe. Jews from (Ottoman and subsequently Italian) Rhodes who entered in the regional flower business worked closely with women and men of Armenian and Japanese ancestry who were their business partners, friends, and competitors. Iranian Jewish musicians practiced, performed, and partied with Iranian Muslim musicians who shared a musical history and repertoire. In time, these Jews joined with Moroccan, Tunisian, and Baghdadi Jews to build synagogues, youth groups, and institutions, and craft new rituals together. Sephardim married Ashkenazim, rearing children who honored both traditions, seamlessly. And as the class status of all these Jews rose, they moved to new, mostly white and middle-class neighborhoods where they could embrace the Los Angeles ideal: neighborhoods with driveways wide enough for their large American cars, gardens lush enough to host multi-generational parties. As the immigrant generation gave way to first-, second-, and third-generations, L.A.’s Sephardic children grew up with the indelible imprint of their city.
Our goal is not to tell a thorough history of Sephardic L.A. but to offer a tour of some of its most unique and intimate aspects. We have aimed to be inclusive but not comprehensive, privileging stories of families over those of institutions so as to offer glimpses of private lives rather than more familiar, public-facing histories. We offer you, here, a picture of how L.A.’s Sephardic community worked and relaxed, socialized and served their city, prayed and performed, came to understand themselves as Jews, and as Angelenos.
The online platform suits this history well, allowing you to explore in a meandering fashion, pursuing whatever itinerary you prefer. Identified are a few overlapping thematic frames that cut across the essays, but we encourage you to seek out connections of your own as you navigate through the material. We hope this digital collection will be the beginning of a conversation, not the end.
To think about southern California’s Sephardic history is to think about our region and city in new ways and to rethink the arc of American Jewish history.
The Jewish history of Los Angeles has, until now, been framed as an Ashkenazi story. That is, most books and exhibits on L.A.’s Jewish past have centered the lives and experiences of Jewish immigrants from Central and Eastern Europe and their descendants. The stories captured in this collection redirect us to an entirely different set of migratory journeys. “100 Years of Sephardic Life in Los Angeles” challenges our sense of L.A.’s Jewish geography, its centers, its origin points, its relationship to a wider world. A Sephardic history of Los Angeles also challenges the established chronology and rhythm of California’s Jewish past, highlighting pivotal events, relationships, and leitmotifs that have been ignored in other accounts. In this way, this exhibit offers a first history of Sephardic L.A. and necessarily rewrites the Jewish history of Los Angeles at the same time.
Our contributing authors include artists and curators, graduate students and professors, historians, anthropologists, literary scholars, linguists, and musicologists. Some of our contributors are new to Sephardic history, or, indeed, to the history of Los Angeles. But all have brought to bear expertise that allows us a fresh look at the story of the Mediterranean and Middle Eastern Jewish world, and of the City of Angels. This exhibit includes audio and visual materials from UCLA Libraries and Special Collections, as well as materials from open-source digital archives and privately owned collections from across Los Angeles and the globe.
“100 Years of Sephardic L.A.” speaks to multiple audiences—those engaged with California’s diverse past and present; those engaged with Sephardic culture; those invested in the Jewish experience. We invite you to enjoy this collection of accessible, vivid, peer-reviewed works and to consider partnering with us to further preservation, investigation, and exploration of California’s rich and surprising Sephardic texture.
This project was supported by the UCLA Alan D. Leve Center for Jewish Studies, the Sephardic Archive Initiative, and Mapping Jewish L.A., in cooperation with the UCLA Library Special Collections, and with generous support from the Maurice Amado Foundation, the Maurice Amado Chair in Sephardic Studies at UCLA, the Michael and Irene Ross Program, and the Sady Kahn Trust.
Additional support provided by the University of California Humanities Research Institute (UCHRI), the Haynes Foundation, and the Viterbi Family Program in Mediterranean Studies, UCLA.
Special thanks to our Sephardic Archive Initiative Community Advisory Board members: Marie Altchech, Raquel Bensimonz, Art Benveniste, Rabbi Daniel Bouskila, Al & Rose Finci, Rochelle Ginzburg, Aron Hasson, Mike Hattem, Jim & Lori Keir, Elaine Lindheim, Hazan Haim Mizrahi, Carole Abrevaya Stein, Marcia Weingarten, Harry Zinn, and Jackie Slutzky (z”l). Additional praise is due to our foundational Project Manager, Chris Silver, and his successor Max Modiano Daniel.
Our friends at Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel deserve ample thanks for their support and trust, including Annette Goldsmith, Alex Rachmanony, Neda Mehdizadeh, Mireille Mathalon, Rae Cohen, Evelyn Steinberg, and long-time archivist Bob Hattem and the volunteers who assisted him in building the STTI archive.
This project wouldn’t have come to fruition without the collaboration of UCLA Library and Special Collections, and the support of Sharon Farb, Athena Jackson, Genie Gerard, David Hirsch, and Diane Mizrahi.
We are grateful for the genius and passion of our contributors: Regine Basha, Rina Benmayor, Aomar Boum, Julia Phillips Cohen, Max Modiano Daniel, Leslie J. Erganian, Maxwell Greenberg, Michael Hoberman, Maureen Jackson, Bryan Kirschen, Kateřina Králová, Mohsen Mohammadi, Simone Salmon, Chris Silver, Rachel Smith, Saba Soomekh, Richard Stein, Lior Sternfeld, Jessie Stoolman, Marie-Pierre Ulloa, and our editor Anna Cwikla.
The staff of the Leve Center for Jewish Studies has helped at every phase: Reina Chung, Vivian Holenbeck, and Chelsea White.
Finally, we are grateful for the individuals and institutions who lent us material from their collections and granted permission for its use: Dorothy Lainer, David Kornblum, Marciano family, Robaire family, Harry and Helene Zinn, Al and Rose Finci, Michael J. Locke, David Epstein and Gladys Sturman, and the Wagener-Erganian collection
Los Angeles Public Library, USC Digital Library, Western States Jewish History, Rhodes Jewish Museum, mahJ (Musée d’art et d’histoire du Judaïsme, Paris), Getty Research Institute, UW Washington State Jewish Archives, California Historical Society, Bancroft Library, Oakland Museum of California, Beit Hatfutsot, Museum of the Jewish People, National Library of Israel, Newberry Library, Museum of the City of New York, Mulholland-Scattergood Virtual Museum, Water and Power Associates, University of Nebraska-Lincoln Digital Library, Chicago Historical Society, San Diego Historical Society, Harvard University Library, Library of Congress.
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