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In Memory of Lena Russo, A”H, one of the last of 35 Holocaust survivors from Kastoria, Greece. The pre-war community had numbered 1,000 Jews. Sent to Auschwitz, Lena  recited the Shema to prove her Jewishness to the skeptical Yiddish-speaking inmates. These and other experiences from her remarkable life are immortalized in Trezoros, an exceptional documentary by Larry Confino and her son, Lawrence Russo. She received the praise of Greece’s Consul General at New York, Dr. Konstantinos Koutras, and an appreciative standing ovation from the audience for her inspiring words at the 20th NY Sephardic Jewish Film Festival’s screening of Trezoros
21 August 2017
Sephardi Ideas Monthly  is a continuing series of essays from the rich, multi-dimensional world of Sephardi thought that is traditionally delivered to your inbox on the second Monday of every month.

This month’s featured essay, “The Island within an Island: The Cuban Jewish Story of Survival,” is an original contribution to Sephardi Ideas Monthly, penned by the accomplished art and travel writer, Irene Shaland. In her article, Shaland explores the history of Jewish Cuba from Crypto-Jews who sailed with Columbus, through different waves of Jewish immigration, to today’s small Jewish community. 

An internationally-published art and travel writer, educator, and lecturer, Irene has a life-long passion for travel with a higher purpose. 
(Photo courtesy of Irene Shaland

Irene Shaland

Shaland begins by tracing Crypto-Jewish history back to Christopher Columbus’ maiden exploratory voyages. Columbus, of course, thought he was sailing to Asia and, once there, he hoped to find some Hebrew-speaking Lost Tribes of Israel. Needing a Hebrew-language translator, Columbus hired Yosef ben Levy Ha-Ivri, who, after converting to Christianity in order to get the job, became Louis de Torres. Shaland writes that while de Torres didn’t find any lost tribes in Cuba, “he did find a strange native custom of drying leaves, inserting them in pipes, burning them, and inhaling the smoke.”

Crypto-Jewish history is necessarily difficult to discern with any clarity, lost as it is amidst various levels of dissimulation and accusation. Nevertheless, its presence was still heavily felt in Cuba through the second half of the 20th century. How so? Well, Fidel Castro, the country’s former Caudillo, apparently found it expedient to spread rumors of a crypto-Jewish ancestry.
Click here to read “The Island within an Island: The Cuban Jewish Story of Survival” by Irene Shaland
After all, such ancestry could provide convenient cover for rabid anti-Zionism, hosting and training of terrorists (Abu Nidal, Carlos the Jackal, Fatah, and PFLP) who murdered Jews, deploying 3,000 Cuban troops to the Syrian front during the Yom Kippur War in 1973, and holding the American Jewish humanitarian worker Alan Gross hostage for helping the Cuban Jewish community use the Internet. However, it is also true that there were some strange incongruities to the socialist dictator’s behavior.  

Unlike much the rest of the Soviet bloc, Fidel did not fully embrace Holocaust denial. After seizing power he left standing Latin America’s first Holocaust memorial, and he openly spoke out about his sympathy for Jewish suffering. Still, there were limits: Castro still allowed anti-Semitic Soviet propaganda to proliferate in the Cuban regime-controlled media, and he never missed an opportunity to exploit the Holocaust to make crude analogies and otherwise delegitimize the Jewish State.

Recent issues of Sephardi Ideas Monthly have explored the 20th-century history of Eastern Mediterranean Jews in America, but not all the Jews escaping forced conscription into the Turkish army fled to the United States. Some arrived, instead, in Cuba, and as Shaland notes, “These Ladino-speaking Sephardim had a relatively easy time assimilating to their new home.” Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe had a more difficult time assimilating. Thanks to their foreignness, they were classified, as a whole, as “Poles.”  
Feature Photo:
The ruins of Cuba’s oldest synagogue, Union Hebrea Chevet-Ahim, which was founded in 1914 to serve Sephardi immigrants from Syria and Turkey, 407 Calle Inquisidor (Inquisitor Street), Old Havana, Cuba, 2005 (Photo courtesy of Chrystie Sherman). To learn about the synagogue's last guardian, see: “Cuban Jews dwindle to a precious few,” UPI, 9 August 1987
Shaland’s essay takes us through five hundred years of Cuban-Jewish history and the successive waves of Jewish immigrations, before concluding with Cuban-Jewish life today. Her conclusion? The great irony of Cuban Jewish history, writes Shaland, is that, “ The political and social pressures of 20th century Cuban Jewish life produced a remarkable achievement. A tiny remnant of the tiniest of the tiny minorities on the island has survived, after half a millennium of struggle, with a shared sense of Jewish identity.”

Sephardi Ideas Monthly is happy to introduce our readers to the fascinating story of Cuban Jewry with Irene Shaland’s colorful and enlightening essay, “The Island within an Island: The Cuban Jewish Story of Survival.”
American Sephardi Federation
American Sephardi Federation
Upcoming Events:

The American Sephardi Music Festival

August 24, 27, and 28
Center for Jewish History
15 W 16th Street
New York, NY 10011

Dynamic and diverse performances by world-class artists will be heard at the first edition of The American Sephardi Music Festival. Hosted by The American Sephardi Federation and directed by David Serero, the Festival will take place over three days.

Tickets range from $20 to $40 ($20 Tax-Deductible Donation)
Click here for sponsorship, media, and other inquiries 


August 24:
7:00 p.m.: Gerard Edery – Three Religions, Three Faiths
9:00 p.m.: Francoise Atlan – An intimate evening of Andalusia and Sephardi music

August 27:
1:00 p.m.: Sarah Aroeste - Ladino Music Transformed from Yesterday to Today
3:00 p.m.: Gerard Edery – Treasures of World Song
5:00 p.m.: Nashaz – Arabic Jazz Ensemble
7:00 p.m.: Adam Maalouf and the Future Tribe - Where the Ancient Meets the Modern
9:00 p.m.: Steven Chera – A Sephardi on Jazz!

August 28:
7:00 p.m.: Itamar Borochov – Jazz Between Middle Eastern Traditions
8:45 p.m.: David Serero – A Sephardi on Opera!

Please click here for additional information

SOLD OUT - Hidden in Plain Sight: Forgotten Jewish Architects and their Famous Creations

Wednesday, August 23
7:00 P.M.

The Diarna “
Situation Room”
at ASF
Center for Jewish History
15 W 16th Street
New York, NY 10011

From the first grand, modern market in the heart of Cairo to a majestic and storied hotel in Isfahan, Jewish architects have made landmark contributions to public spaces across the Middle East and North Africa. While their buildings are well-known, the architects have been forgotten and in some cases even erased from historical memory. 

This presentation is being made possible by the generous support of The Cahnman Foundation and The David Berg Foundation. 

Join us for an evening of exploration as we tour these sites and illuminate their little known history. 

Please click here to be be notified first about future Diarna Geo-Museum presentation dates

Nosotros: Strengthening Bonds Between Jewish and Latino Communities

Thursday, September 7
4:00-9:30 P.M. (Viewing hours)
7:30 P.M. Remarks

Center for Jewish History
15 W 16th Street
New York, NY 10011

The Philos Project and American Sephardi Federation cordially invite you to “Nosotros," an art exhibit featuring the work of three renowned Latino artists--Juan Bravo (Dominican Republic), Angel Urrely (Cuba), and Carlos Ayala (Puerto Rico)--as a symbolic recognition and “step forward” to improving Jewish-Latino relations. Each piece reflects the shared roots of Jewish and Latino communities and expresses hope for a more positive future from the perspective of each respective artist.

Each artist has displayed their works in hundreds of exhibits in both the US and Latin America, having many of them included in some of the most coveted collections in the world. We are very excited to bring them and their works to celebrate the importance of uniting us (or Nosotros), the Jewish and Latino communities, and having this art displayed in a very powerful way at the American Sephardi Federation at the Center for Jewish History.

Juan Bravo emerges as the veteran. Many are the broken brushes that this Dominican artist has in his repertoire. Juan Prefers the large formats and can impress anyone—not only by the agility of his strokes, but also by the persuasion with which he succeeds in submerging in them. We must be careful, for at any moment, we might see ourselves within one of his works without notice.
Angel Urrely is to the point. This son of Cuba does not beat around the bush. At least not for what the brush comes to reveal—his theory is clear and sharp. Each frame creates a specific, assertive and brutal connection. The reading of his work is—from the perspective of the viewer—very simple, to the point that if you assume an interpretation of what you are reading, believe me: Urrely is addressing exactly what you are thinking. Urrely has something to tell you and will let you know one way or another.
Carlos Ayala presents himself as the “Benjamin” of the tribes, the youngest of them all. This son of Puerto Rico presupposes that his youth may seem an obstacle to you, so he shows you his clutched fists from the introduction. This young man is fierce. Carlos shows us the deepest pains experienced by man, and brings them to an entertained, distracted and ill-bred public. He does not sit down to dream on the Caribbean coast and wait for boats loaded with promises. He does not have the time for it, but rather wants to remind you that even at the best moments pain is present. And at any moment it can befall us.
We look forward to having you join us!

Please click here to reserve tickets

Iraqi Jewish Voices Project
cordially invites you to a festive event
celebrating and honoring its founding supporters:
Robert Shasha and Dennis Shasha

Monday, September 11
7:00 P.M.

Center for Jewish History
15 W 16th Street
New York, NY 10011

The Iraqi Jewish Voices Project tells the story of the last generation of Iraqi Jews and their integration into Israel and throughout the world through dramatic current and historical photography, film, and personal narrative.  It is a project of Sephardi Voices USA, whose mission is to collect and archive the life stories of Jews of Middle Eastern, North African, and Iranian origin to raise awareness of their displacement and appreciation for their contribution to Jewish peoplehood and world history.
The evening is hosted by the American Sephardi Federation, which supported the publication of Iraq’s Last Jews (Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), edited by Tamar Morad, Dennis and Robert Shasha, and is proud to be the home of the Robert Shasha Collection of Iraqi Jewish Oral Histories.
 The evening will feature a talk by Tamar Morad, who now spearheads the Iraqi Jewish Voices Project.

Please click here to reserve tickets

Let Our People Go!

Tuesday, September 12
6:00 P.M. VIP Reception
7:00 P.M. Awards Ceremony

Museum of Jewish Heritage
36 Battery Place
New York, NY 10280 

Join StandWithUS and the American Sephardi Federation as we honor those who took part in the historic rescue of  Yemenite Jews. ASF will be presenting Retired Captain Elgen M. Long, the last surviving Alaska Airlines crew member who was part of the airlift of more than 50,000 Yemenite Jews on “eagle’s wings’” to the re-established State of Israel, with the Maimonides Friendship Award in recognition of his important contributions to the Jewish People. StandWithUS will present Alaska Airlines with its Savior of Israel Award.  

Please click here for tickets

When Baghdadi Jews Baruch and Ellen Bekhor (née Cohen) succumbed to the camera’s gaze for their denaturalization pictures in 1951, they became stateless. Ellen was in her eighth month of pregnancy. Permitted to bring no more than a few kilos of belongings out of Iraq, Ellen carried their wedding picture and ketubah in her pocketbook. Laissez-Passer, Royaume D’Irak by Leslie Starobin (2016). 

The Last Address

Through September 2017
in ASF’s Myron Habib Memorial Display

Center for Jewish History
15 W 16th Street
New York, NY 10011

The American Sephardi Federation proudly presents excerpts from The Last Address, a multi-year, photo-montage series and oral history and book project by award-winning artist Leslie Starobin that explores the enduring texture of memory and culture in the lives of Greater Sephardic families from dispersed Jewish communities in Iraq, Libya, Yemen, Iran, and Lebanon.

Leslie Starobin is a Boston-area photographer and montage artist. Her work is in the permanent collections of many academic (Fogg Art Museum at Harvard University, Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University) and public (Jewish Museum, MoMA) museums. Starobin is the recipient of numerous grants, including from the National Endowment for the Arts, the New England Foundation of the Arts/Massachusetts Cultural Council, and the Memorial Foundation for Jewish Culture. Most recently, she received two Hadassah-Brandeis Institute Research Grants for this series, The Last Address.

Her exhibition in ASF’s Myron Habib Memorial Display is sponsored in part by CELTSS: The Center for Excellence in Learning, Teaching, Scholarship and Service at Framingham State University in Massachusetts, where Starobin is a Professor of Communication Arts.

Please click here for additional information and viewing hours

 and your tax-deductible contribution will help ASF preserve and promote the Greater Sephardi history, traditions, and culture as an integral part of the Jewish experience! 

Contact us by email or phone ((917) 606-8266) to learn about giving opportunities in honor or memory of loved ones

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The American Sephardi Federation is a proud partner of the Center for Jewish History (15 West 16th St., New York, NY, 10011). 

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