In Honor of Parnas Emeritus and Distinguished ASF Board Member Leon Levy, Parnas and Distinguished ASF Board Member Eli Gabay, Esq., and Rabbi Albert Gabbai of Philadelphia’s Mikveh Israel, the classic Sephardic Synagogue of the American War of Independence and a Congregation near and dear to the ASF
Sephardi Ideas Monthly is a continuing series of essays from the rich, multi-dimensional world of Sephardi thought that is delivered to your inbox traditionally on the second Monday of every month.
For the month of July, Sephardi Ideas Monthly explores one of the most fascinating literary figures of 19th century American history, Emma Lazarus. Poet, playwright, critic, journalist, and a self-proclaimed “Jewish outlaw,” Lazarus (1849-1887) became famous for her sonnet, “The New Colossus,” a transcendent vision of American purpose that adorns the Statue of Liberty (“Give me your tired, your poor/ Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free….”). ASF Broome & Allen Fellow Leonard Stein—in “Jewish Spain in American Tongue: Emma Lazarus’ Sephardic Return,” his 2018 ASF Young Sephardi Scholars Series lecture at the Center for Jewish History co-presented by the American Jewish Historical Society and Leo Baeck Institute—offers a compelling, sensitive, and refreshing look at “the strong Sephardi woman” behind the famous words.
“Jewish Spain in American Tongue: Emma Lazarus’ Sephardic Return”
Stein’s own research compares medieval Jewish-Iberian identity with modern literature from the Sephardic Diaspora, and he currently serves as the Program Chair for the Society for Crypto-Judaic Studies (see: “Southwestern Crypto-Judaism: Fighting Opprobrium and Erasure,” Sephardi Ideas Monthly, March 2018). Stein brings these interests together in his lecture, arguing for Lazarus’ “Crypto-Jewish aesthetic.” This might seem to be a strange claim, considering that Lazarus was arguably the most famous Jewish American woman of her time. However, Stein means that Lazarus shared in the liminal character of Crypto-Jewish identity that leaves one neither here nor there. She was too obviously Jewish for the Christians, too (proto) Zionist for the Reform Jews, and too removed from observance for the Orthodox. Where, then, did she fit in?
Lacking any examples from contemporary Jewish life with which she could fully identify, and a 4th generation descendant of the Spanish and Portuguese Jews who established New York’s Congregation Shearith Israel, Lazarus returned to the Golden Age of Andalusian Spain to nourish her sense of self. But here it gets a little complicated, because while Lazarus had been educated by private tutors in the best of European culture; Hebrew wasn’t part of her education. Instead, her connection to her Sephardi heritage was mediated by 19th century German scholars and scholarship. In order to appreciate the depth of 19th century German-Jewish identification with the Andalusian Golden Age, take a look at the “Moorish style” synagogues that German Reform Jews built across Manhattan (see also UC Berkeley Koret Professor of History John Efron’s German Jewry and the Allure of the Sepahrdic). When Lazarus translated the Jewish poets of Spain’s Golden Age into English, she wasn’t working with the original Hebrew (at least, as Stein argues, not at first); she was translating from the existing German translations.
But that’s not all. Lazarus seems to have identified with an ambiguous sexuality that was often transmitted by the Spanish Jewish poets. Stein examines this obscure dimension of Lazarus’ oeuvre by offering an original and intriguing interpretation to one of her most enchanting works, “Assurance,” a poem of what Stein calls, “concealed longings, rooted in a tradition of Sephardic poetry,” that Lazarus’s sisters silently dropped from a posthumously published edition of her collected poems. In Stein’s reading, Lazarus offers a “series of intensifying questions that lead to a climax of awakening” that she based upon an Andalusian-Hebrew model.
For lovers of America and the American ideal, “The New Colossus” will guarantee Lazarus an enduring place in the pantheon of American poetry. Likewise, her dedication to helping Jewish immigrants to America while advocating for the Jews’ return to the Land of Israel will be fondly remembered by Jewish patriots. Stein’s sensitive exploration of Lazarus’ poetry and idiosyncratic connection to Andalusian Jewish culture add additional layers of depth and complexity to our understanding of this remarkable figure from American history. Sephardi Ideas Monthly is very pleased to introduce this dimension of Emma Lazarus’ life and work to our readers with Leonard Stein’s entrancing ASF Young Sephardi Scholars Series lecture, “Jewish Spain in American Tongue: Emma Lazarus' Sephardic Return.”
The featured sage for the month of July is the outstanding exemplar of Tunisian Jewish piety, Hacham Svi Didi (1929-1980).
Born on the island of Djerba, the main center of Tunisian Jewish scholarship, Svi Didi’s studies began with his father, Hacham Binyamin Mekiketz Didi, together with the Tunisian sage, Hacham Mordecai Sigron.
Hacham Svi Didi made Aliyah to Israel in 1949 when he was a twenty-year-old scholar and married father of two. His family settled in Tiberias where Hacham Svi taught at the local Or Torah Yeshiva, adjacent to Maimonides' Tomb. He also gave a daily class in ethics and Halakha at the Yad Binyamin Synagogue, named after his father, while his love of the Jewish People and the Torah propelled him every Shabbat to serve as the cantor and preacher of the Magen David Synagogue, even though the synagogue was located on a mountain crest.
Hacham Svi Didi’s responsa and original commentary on Torah and Talmud are collected in his sole work, Eretz Svi.
The following passage from Eretz Svi illustrates the imperative to love of all Jews, regardless of their spiritual station:
‘When you see the ass of your enemy lying under its burden and would refrain from raising it, you must nevertheless raise it with him’ (Exodus, 23:5). This would be, it seems to me, a covert reference: ‘the ass of your enemy’ means the individual who follows the counsel of their evil inclination, which is termed ‘enemy’, as our sages of blessed memory said, concerning ‘The wicked watches for the righteous’. In other words, one who pursues the world's impure matter and follows the evil inclination's passions. Should you see such a person, sinking and collapsing under the burden of the evil inclination, and would refrain from raising him up – do not say to them 'what do I care? I leave you in peace’. ‘You must nevertheless raise it with him’. Try to help that person and draw him closer to the Shechina's canopy.
“‘Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!’ cries she
With silent lips. ‘Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!’”
The Marriage of Figaro (Le Nozze di Figaro) is a comic opera that pits the philander Count Almaviva against his wily valet, Figaro (David Serero), and his wise fiancée Susanna. Love, humility, and forgiveness triumph in harmonious song. Music by Mozart. Italian libretto by Lorenzo di Ponte, a Sephardi playwright in Italy.
The American Sephardi Federation and The Sousa Mendes Foundation present:
The New York première of the documentary film, Nobody Wants Us, 2019
Sunday, 11 August at 2:00PM
Center for Jewish History
15 W 16th Street
New York City
General admission: $20 Sponsor ticket: $120 includes VIP luncheon before the event. $100 of this ticket price is tax-deductible.
Money raised will help bring the film and educational materials into schools throughout the United States.
In 1940, a ship called the S.S. Quanza left the port of Lisbon carrying several hundred Jewish refugees, most of whom held Sousa Mendes visas to freedom. But events went terribly wrong, and the passengers became trapped on the ship because no country would take them in. Nobody Wants Us tells the gripping true story of how Eleanor Roosevelt herself stepped in to save the passengers on board because of her moral conviction that they were not undesirables (as the US State Department labeled them) but rather were future patriotic Americans. This is an episode in American history that everyone needs to know.
The film, which is 35 minutes in length, will be introduced by the filmmaker Laura Seltzer-Duny and followed by a panel discussion moderated by Michael Dobbs of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, author of The Unwanted.
Other participants will include: Blanche Wiesen Cook, the leading world expert on Eleanor Roosevelt and the author of her three-volume biography.
Annette Lachmann, who was a passenger on the Quanza in 1940.
Kathleen Rand, whose father, Wolf Rand, was the passenger who successfully filed suit against the shipping company, forcing the vessel to remain in port until the conflict was resolved.
Stephen Morewitz, the leading world expert on the Quanza story, whose grandparents Norfolk, Virginia law firm of Morewitz & Morewitz was hired by Wolf Rand and successfully litigated the case.
Significance of the story:
According to Michael Dobbs, The Quanza incident is a timely reminder that individuals make a difference. Without visas supplied by the Portuguese diplomat Aristides de Sousa Mendes, many of the Jewish passengers on board the Quanza might well have been stranded in Nazi-occupied Europe. Without the legal brilliance of a maritime lawyer named Jacob Morewitz, the ship would have been obliged to sail back to Europe. Without the intervention of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, the passengers would not have been permitted to land. It took three people, from entirely different backgrounds, to save dozens of lives that might otherwise have been lost.
The American Sephardi Federation & Consulate General of Spain at New York present:
Visados para la Libertad (Visas for Freedom)
Thursday, 13 June at 7:00PM Exhibit Opening (RSVP Required)
On view until July Center for Jewish History
15 W 16th Street
New York City
“The history of the Holocaust is not merely one of villains and their victims. There were also those who did not want to stand idly by in the face of tragedy; driven by their conscience, they decided to take action. Among these are the heroes, those who risked, or even sacrificed, their own lives to save others. However, there is also another group of individuals, whose actions behind the scenes, albeit more modest, are no less deserving of remembrance and tribute. They took advantage of the scope of Influence offered by their position or profession to protect and help, as far as was at all possible, Jews condemned to extermination in Europe. This was the case of some Spanish Diplomats. In the aftermath of the World War II, The Spanish government would claim that the regime’s official policy was devoted to humanitarian concerns, which they either tolerated or hindered. It was, rather, individual diplomats, those to whom this exhibition pays homage, who did what was possible, and sometimes impossible, to save Jewish lives during the Holocaust.”
Center for Jewish History
15 West 16th Street
New York City
About the Photographer
In addition to Morocco, Joan Roth traveled to Ethiopia before Operation Moses and again afterwards, Yemen, Bukhara, India, Israel, and photographed extensively in the United States. Her photographs of Jewish women are published, exhibited, and collected by museums and collectors worldwide. Some of Joan’s photographs are published in the book: Jewish Women: A world of Tradition and Change (Jolen Press, 1995).
Gloria Steinem has written the following appreciation: “Joan Roth has looked at the Jewish world as if women mattered, and therefore as if everyone mattered. Across all the boundaries of geography and language, there is not only a common world of belief, but a common world of women. We see into its intimacy through her eyes.” Roth richly depicts the personal and historical dimensions of these women as they preserve and adapt centuries-old traditions amid varied cultural surroundings. The effect, in the words of Rocky Mountain art critic Mary Voltz Chandler, “is like opening a jewelry box filled with so many secrets women know but never told each other.”
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