The question of the hour: can a Sephardi-Ashkenazi romance survive?
The following letters originally appeared in a Ladino newspaper, La Bos del Pueblo. They were translated into English by Aviva Ben-Ur and are excerpted below from Sephardi Lives: A Documentary History 1700-1950:
In early-twentieth-century New York City, as elsewhere in the United States, immigrant communities of Yiddish-speaking Ashkenazi Jews and Ladino-speaking Sephardi Jews settled in the same neighborhoods. Many Yiddish-speaking immigrants had their first chance to meet Sephardim under these circumstances. Although young Sephardi and Ashkenazi immigrants often met on the street, in schools, and in the workplace, they spoke different languages, had different cultural mores and religious rites, and even pronounced Hebrew differently. As a result many Ashkenazim, who formed the vast majority of Jews in the country, had difficulties believing that their Sephardi neighbors were in fact Jews. Frustrated by their Ashkenazi coreligionists’ refusal to recognize them as Jewish, more than one Sephardi man reported being driven to desperation and contemplating offering proof of his Jewishness to incredulous peers by demonstrating that he was circumcised. The following source, written in the form of an advice-seeking letter, a genre that first appeared in New York in the Yiddish-language newspaper Forverts of Abraham Cahan (1860–1951) during this period, describes the various tactics Sephardi immigrants employed to try to gain the recognition and acceptance of their coreligionists.
To the editor of La Bos del Pueblo:
I am a Jewish girl born in Russia who came to America eight years ago. Although I am not remarkably well-educated, I have always wanted to marry a well-educated boy of the Jewish faith.
One of my girlfriends took me to the Oriental ball organized by La Bos del Pueblo, where I met a boy named Jack. . . .
At first glance I thought him Italian. The way he spoke, his countenance, and his gestures were like those of the Italians. But later, when we began seeing each other, he swore to me that he was a Spanish-speaking Jew.
Jack is well-educated, knows many languages, and has a good job. As he is in love with me, I too am in love with Jack, but my parents object to any union between us, since they do not believe that he is Jewish.
Now I beg you to tell me through your esteemed newspaper if it is possible that a Jew who doesn’t speak Jewish [Yiddish] and doesn’t look Jewish can nevertheless have a Jewish soul. I thought that in the case that Jack is Judeo-Spanish, there is no inconvenience in intermarrying. I am certain that you will respond affirmatively, being that my love for Jack is so profound that I have begun to study the Spanish language and can even read your newspaper with difficulty.
Thanking you for your future kindness, I remain respectfully yours,
[The editors of La Bos del Pueblo respond:]
The paper on which this letter was written did not indicate that any special care was taken, but the composition of the letter in English was grammatically correct. This indicates the education and sincerity of a serious girl.
Despite this, we regret seeing that such a girl, having such an education, is still not up to par with her knowledge on Judeo-Spaniards in America. We would love to believe that this is not owing to her ignorance, but to the fact that New York, being a big metropolis, does not offer the possibility of teaching the population about all of its [residents’] classifications.
Yes, Clara, the boy who speaks Spanish, has Italian gestures, who can read our newspaper, is Jewish. The language that you speak is not the Jewish language. It is the Yiddish jargon, as ours is the Judeo-Spanish jargon.
No, we don’t see any inconvenience in the intermarriage of the Sephardim with the Ashkenazim. There are many examples of Sephardim living with Ashkenazim in the greatest harmony. The important thing is that the two have the same level of education and that they be capable of adapting themselves to each other.