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Sephardic Jews in America: A Diasporic History

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Sephardic Jews in America: A Diasporic History. By Aviva Ben-Ur. (New York University Press, New York and London: 2009. Pg. x, 321. B & W Illustrations.) ISBN: 978-0-8147-9982-6.

Reviewed by Simon Bonim - April 17, 2009

Sephardim, which is a rubric that covers Jews of Spanish, Portuguese or North African descent. Unlike Ashkenazic Jews, whose history has been extensively studied, Sephardic Jewish history has been largely overlooked. In Sephardic Jews in America: A Diasporic History, Aviva Ben-Ur helps to rectify at least a part of this oversight by providing an in-depth and captivating account of the history of Sephardic Jewry in America. Within the course of this study, Ben-Ur also examines how Sephardic traditions differ from that of Ashkenazim (Jews who come from primarily European backgrounds), and who make up the bulk of Jews currently living in America. Ben-Ur also touches upon the history of the Mizrahim in America and how their history diverges from that of the Sephardim. Mizrahi Jews come predominately from Arabic-speaking countries and though they are often identified as Sephardim, they actually come from a different cultural background, and Mizrahi Jews have many ritual practices and traditions that differ from both Sephardic and Ashkenazic Jews. Ben-Ur also highlights perhaps the smallest minority within the Jewish world - Romaniotes - Greek speaking Jews that trace their origins back to the Byzantine Empire.

Ben-Ur is an Associate Professor of Judaic and Near Eastern Studies at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. She also works as an Adjunct Associate Professor in the university's history department and in the school's Spanish and Portuguese programs. In writing this book she has incorporated material garnered from a wealth of sources including oral histories, primary source documents, including articles from the Ladino press (such as La America and La Vara), and existing historical records and archival documents. Ladino is a Judeo-Spanish language spoken by Sephardic Jews and is on par with Yiddish, a language spoken by many Ashkenazic Jews. [Click Here for a short history on Ladino.]

Sephardic Jews were the first Jews to reach the New World, and Ben-Ur traces their history from the arrival of the first Sephardic Jews in 1654 through to the present. In addition, Ben-Ur examines Sephardic identity and ethnicity, as well as immigration patterns to the United States. She details the various communities they created, their communal structures, and their relationship with both the predominate Ashkenazic community and the much smaller Mizrahim one. Most important, Ben-Ur provides a detailed analysis of why Sephardim are ofttimes not even identified as Jews, especially by their Ashkenazim counterparts, and how this dichotomy has created a rift between the two groups that still exists to this day. She also explores why the history of Sephardic, and by extension Mizrahi Jews, has been overlooked for so long by the academic community.

Sephardic Jews in America: A Diasporic History is an intriguing and academically rigorous book that should be required reading for anyone studying Jewish American History, or who is engaged in any field related to Jewish Studies. It provides an invaluable survey into an overlooked component of the Jewish American experience and it provides keen insights into the religious dislocation between Ashkenazic and Sephardic Jews in the United States, and by extension, world wide. Although this book lacks a bibliography, a list of useful books and resources regarding the history of Sephardic Jews in American can be gleaned from Ben-Ur's extensive endnotes.

Related Reviews:

Encyclopedia of the Jewish Diaspora, edited by M. Avrum Ehrlich.
This three-volume encyclopedia examines the origins, experiences, and culture of the Jewish Diaspora from its earliest manifestation through to the modern day.

The Jews of the United States, 1654 to 2000, by Hasia R. Diner.
Offers a general survey of Jewish life in America, covering both historical, religious, and social milestones.

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