vusvus-festToday was the first day of the New York Jewish Music and Heritage Festival. Taking place from September 7-14, the byline reads A one-week cultural celebration of the 350th Anniversary of the first Jews in America. The schedule features lots of Klezmer music, a Cantorial celebration of the Yiddish art songs, performances by Neil Sedaka, Lisa Loeb, Jill Sobule, Philip Glass and David Broza performing the music of Carole King (??). Sweet huh?

Yes. But totally wrong.

See the first colonialist era Jews in America were predominantly Sephardic. They didn’t know Yiddish from Swahili. Yiddish speaking Ashkenazic Jews did not come to America in significant numbers until the 1880s. The byline of the festival should really read A one-week cultural celebration of the 124th Anniversary of the first Yiddish speaking Jews in America.

Granted there is some Sephardic content in the festival. For instance, we have Smadar playing tonight at Satalla (Moroccan Gypsy music). On the 8th we have Divahn – they rock out to authentic “Middle Eastern/Sephardic grooves” from their home base of err… Austin, Texas. Everything else is all Klezmer-Yiddish-Ashkenazic stuff that has little to do with the rag tag gang of Sephardic Jews from Brazil who first set foot on these desolate shores 350 years ago.

So desolate and isolated were these shores in fact that they called their first congregation “Shearith Israel” – the remnants of Israel (more commonly known as the Spanish and Portugese).

Jewlicious spoke to Rabbi Marc D. Angel, Senior Rabbi at Congregation Shearith Israel for his take on the “Ashkenazo-centric” orientation of the New York Jewish Music and Heritage Festival. He stated:

The festival is run by the 92nd street Y and they’ve drawn on talent that appeals to its own constituency. They haven’t really devoted much attention to Jewish music that would have been heard in the America between 1654 and 1880. Most of the festival’s music is that of the later arrivals from Europe in the 1880s when Jews of Yiddish background first came to the US in large numbers. But as with anything that promotes Jewish culture, I wish them well!

He continued:

Shearith Israel, a Sephardic congregation founded in 1654 in New York is the first Jewish congregation in North America and the only one till the 1730s. It would have been very appropriate for anyone doing a program on Jewish music in America to do a serious program on the Jewish music that would have been sung in America during colonial times – that was the only Jewish music that was here!

Oh well. Maybe next year guys?

UPDATE: My good buddy Kenny Silverman posted about an article that appeared in JTA that discussed the circumstances of the fist Jewish community in North America:

It was from Recife on Sept. 7, 1654, that a group of 23 Dutch-speaking Sephardim set sail for New Amsterdam in a desperate effort to escape the Inquisition imposed by Portugal, which had defeated Holland for control of Brazil.

Shortly after arriving, these 23 immigrants — the first Jews to land on American shores — established Shearith Israel, the first synagogue in New Amsterdam, the colony that eventually became New York.

The article goes on to describe contemporary Jewish life in Recife. It’s a good read…

About the author


Founder and Publisher of Jewlicious, David Abitbol lives in Jerusalem with his wife, newborn daughter and toddler son. Blogging as "ck" he's been blocked on twitter by the right and the left, so he's doing something right.


  • But the festival really never claims to be a celebration of the culture of the first Jews in America–it’s a celebration of the anniversary of the founding of American Judaism, which is now largely Ashkenazic, and therefore it’s much easier to find music performers with Ashkenazic heritage who are familiar with Ashkenazic music. And, like you said, there are Sephardic music events, probably a proportionate number to the number of Sephardic Jews in the American Jewish community.

    Let’s not be divisive–there’s much more to unite us than to divide us, and any celebration of Jewish culture, whether Sephardic or Ashkenazic, is a celebration for all of us. No matter where are our ancestors may have drifted in the past 2000 years, we’re all still just Jews.

  • I wasn’t trying to be divisive. I just wanted to point out that American Jewry was founded by Sephardic Jews – a fact that not too many people know apparently. And really, I wouldn’t mind just a little more sephardic content in mainstream Jewish culture. Just a teeny bit more. Is that so much to ask for? This post isn’t about being divisive – it’s actually a plea for uh… Jewish unity and stuff. Yeah, that’s it.

  • See the first colonialist era Jews in America were predominantly Sephardic. True.

    They didn’t know Yiddish from Swahili. I very much doubt that.

    What the Dutch and British Sephardi immigrants had in common with the German Ashkenazim that followed them was a revulsion for the backwards, Yiddish-speakin’, not-assimilatin’ East Europeans who suddenly arrived in droves. (Random account here. Yiddish wasn’t unknown; it was stigma.

    That wasn’t new; English and Dutch Sephardim and, to a lesser extent, German Ashkenazim had long looked down on their Ostjude brethren. (Random account here; Control-F on London.)

    Mind you, I’m not disagreeing here — I’m agreeing much more forcefully. Not know Yiddish? They despised it; this wouldn’t confuse them, it would anger and embarrass them a whole bunch.

  • Heh. Good points. I didn’t want to be as forceful – for fear of being divisive – but what the hell, history is history. Good links by the way.

  • A P.S. — you know, there is probably something to be learned from the way that the East European Ashkenazim dug right in, just explained that their stuff was “Jewish”, and kept at it until everyone agreed. Or the similar (and probably more impressive given, well, already-existing history) success of North African Sephardim in France, to the point where “Jewish” there is starting to mean Sephardi in a pretty matter-of-fact way.

    Which is the digging in part. Just call it Jewish, put it out there, and sooner or later it becomes part of the mainstream. (Not to generalise or anything.)

  • Does anyone know what Sephardi means? It’s Spanish in Hebrew. I see no mention of Spanish. It’s all German this, Dutch that. I love the ignorance when someone writes, “Dutch and German Sephardi” It should read, “Dutch, English, and Spanish Jews had common with the Ashkenazi, etc…

    Sephardic (Spanish) Jews were an original tribe of the Israelites. Ashkenazi’s can’t claim that. Basically, German (ashkenazi) Jews were immigrant jews from the Middle East who migrated to Germany, only to fall into the hands of Hitlers Nazi regime. I don’t speak Yiddish, I speak Ladino, which is the Sephardic Hebrew. Yiddish is bastardized German. I will never, and don’t acknowledge anything German – Jewish.

    The reason why German Jews are more common in America, is because the German jews were expelled and found safe haven in the U.S. Sephardic Jews still exist in America, but most of them either moved back to Spain, Israel, or melted into the American Dream.

    Rabbi Ramon

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