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Exploring Sephardic—and Seattle—History

Story by
Nancy Joseph
September 2013Perspectives Newsletter

When Devin Naar was in college, he envisioned a career as an attorney or artist.  But a set of letters dating back to the late 1940s led him in a different direction.

The letters, written by a family friend, described the fate of relatives during the Holocaust. One problem: they were written in Ladino, a language historically spoken by Sephardic Jews but for which the written form had been all but forgotten.

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Devin Naar holds an 1897 wedding contract, or kettubah, from Tekirdag, Turkey, written in Hebrew and Aramaic. The kettubah, courtesy of Rabbi Solomon Maimon, is part of the Seattle Sephardic Treasures digital archive. Media credit: Mary Levin

Naar taught himself to read Ladino in the traditional script, translated the letters, and was soon engrossed in the history of Sephardic Jews—particularly those from Salonica, Greece, like his own family. 

Today Naar, assistant professor of history and international studies, and the Marsha and Jay Glazer Endowed Chair in Jewish Studies, heads the UW’s Sephardic Studies Initiative (SSI), which offers symposia, internships, performances, and a digital archive that explore the history and culture of Sephardic Jews. The initiative is based in theStroum Jewish Studies Program in the Jackson School of International Studies, with ties to other units across campus including Spanish and Portuguese Studies, Hellenic Studies, Middle East Studies, and Near Eastern Languages and Civilization.

Naar explains that while most Jews in the U.S. are of Ashkenazi descent, with roots in Eastern Europe, Sephardic Jews, or Sephardim, can be traced to the Iberian Peninsula. After being expelled from Spain in 1492, they settled throughout the Mediterranean, including what was then the Ottoman Empire.  Many immigrated to the U.S. during the past century, with Seattle as a popular destination. In fact, Sephardic Jews numbered among the first vendors at Pike Place Market. Seattle is now estimated to have the third largest Sephardic population in the country.

The Ladino language reflects the migration of Sephardim across the Ottoman Empire. The written alphabet resembles Hebrew but the language is based on medieval Spanish, with added bits from other languages spoken in the former Ottoman Empire such as Turkish, Greek, and Bulgarian.  “A Spanish speaker would be able to comprehend a lot of spoken Ladino,” says Naar. “It would be like me talking to you in Shakespearean English.”

Naar developed the idea for SSI's archive, Seattle Sephardic Treasures, after joining the UW faculty in 2011. Members of the local Sephardic community learned of Naar's knowledge of Ladino and sought him out to translate documents. “Someone brought his grandfather’s Last Will and Testament from 1942,” Naar recalls.  “He’d never been able to read it.  Others brought postcards with little messages on them. I realized that people have held on to some interesting materials.”

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This 1823 book from Istanbul, titled Meam Loez, was the first book in Ladino with a popular explanation of Jewish and Sephardic culture and traditions, presented in the form of a commentary on the Bible's book of Genesis.  Courtesy of Congregation Sephardic Bikur Holim. Media credit: Mary Levin

After Naar expressed an interest in creating an archive, more items poured in. It helped that he was willing to borrow items for digitization and return them. “This project does not require people to relinquish family heirlooms,” says Naar. “I realize that there can be intense connections to these documents. They represent their parents’ and grandparents’ world.”

Materials have ranged from a Sephardic political tract on Judaism and socialism published in 1914 to a Sephardic magazine from New York City dating to the 1920s. Translating the latter from Ladino, Naar discovered a half-page advertisement for his own family’s Harlem grocery store on the back cover. Other surprises have included a Jewish book of ethics from 1742, its inside cover patched using a Safeway bag. “As far as I know, there’s only one other copy of that book in the world, and that’s at the Jewish National Library in Jerusalem,” says Naar.  The largest collection of materials—several hundred items dating back to the 1600s—came from the family of Albert Adatto, a UW alumnus who wrote his 1930s master’s thesis about the history of Sephardic Jews in Seattle.

This is a unique partnership between the University and the local community, both having a passionate interest in exploring and preserving Sephardic history. I want to make the University a resource for the community, just as the community is a resource for us.

With the help of research assistant Ty Alhadeff (BA, Political Science, 2001), about 600 items have been digitized and catalogued since the archive was launched in 2012, making it among the largest collections of Sephardic materials in the U.S. “It is possible that Yeshiva University has more,” says Naar, “but we definitely have more than Harvard or the Library of Congress.” He adds with a grin, “Not bad for one year.”

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Above, the title page of a scrapbook compiled by Albert Levy, who was editor of La Vara, the longest lived Ladino newspaper in America, and principal of the Sephardic religious school in Seattle during the 1930s.

Beyond the archive, the Sephardic Studies Initiative looks forward to a wide range of upcoming offerings. David Bunis, chair of Ladino Studies at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, will spend the 2013-2014 academic year at the UW as a visiting scholar, thanks to support from the Schusterman Foundation. There also will be numerous public events, including photographer Laurence Salzmann discussing his images of Jewish life in contemporary Turkey; oral history scholar Rina Benmayor reflecting on her 1970s field research in Seattle’s Sephardic community; and UW alumna Maureen Jackson (PhD, Comparative Literature, 2008) discussing Jewish music in the Ottoman empire, accompanied by a Turkish musician playing an ud.

These SSI activities are funded almost exclusively through private support.  Joel and Maureen Benoliel and Harley and Lela Franco provided much of the seed money for the initiative, with Becky Benaroya, Howard Behar, and other prominent Seattleites also donating generously. 

“There’s a mutual interest here,” says Naar. “This is a unique partnership between the University and the local community, both having a passionate interest in exploring and preserving Sephardic history. I want to make the University a resource for the community, just as the community is a resource for us.“

To learn more about the Sephardic Studies Initiative, visit jewdub.org/the-sephardic-studies-initiative. To be informed about upcoming events, contact Lauren Spokane at laurenjs@uw.edu or 206-543-0138 to be added to the Stroum Jewish Studies Program's mailing list.

In this video, Devin Naar explains the twist of fate that led him to piece together his own family's experience in the Holocaust and inspired him to learn Ladino and delve further into Sephardic history. The talk was part of a series of JewDub talks, presented by the Stroum Jewish Studies Program in the Jackson School of International Studies.