Brief History of Sephardic Jews in Los Angeles
Author: Maurice I. Bob Hattem
Published in: Los Muestros
On Friday night, 28 May 1976, an historic event happened in Madrid, Spain. Her Majesty, Queen Sofia, attended Friday Night Services at Madrid's only synagogue. It was a highly emotional event for many of the congregation that night since it was another Spanish monarch who expelled their ancestors some 500 years ago. It is within the realm or possibility, however unlikely, that a member of a royal Roman Catholic Family has even attended a Jewish religious service, albeit in an address she gave later, she said that it was part of a course she was taking in comparative religions: "to create an ecumenical experience that will help promote a harmonious and united Spain." Nevertheless, attend the service she did and history had been made. As an aside, eleven years later on I October 1987, their Majesties King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia paid a visit to Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel here in Los Angeles in a secular event in their honor. Once again emotion ran high throughout the congregation. For one brief moment it was Camelot, Sephardic style.
Before their expulsion in 1492, Jews had been living in the Iberian Peninsula since 500 years before the Common Era. They were living there before the Castillians, before the Moors, before the Visagoths, and even before the Romans. Their arrival dates back to the period during the Babylonian Exile. Only the Iberian descendants of the pre-historic Cro-Magnon's and before that the Neanderthals preceded them. Sephardic or Sepharad, the Hebrew name for Spain applies to all Jews or the Iberian Peninsula which included Portugal.
The first mention of Sepharad is found in the Book of Obadiah, verse 20 which reads: "And the captivity of this host of the children of Israel that are among the Canaanites even; unto Zarepath, and the captivity of Jerusalem which is in Sepharad, still possess the cities of the south." It is interesting to note that the Book of Obadiah is but two conflated pages in length i.e. Hebrew and English.
The current Jewish population of Spain numbers between 13,000 and 15,000 souls, the majority of whom live in Madrid and Barcelona. At the time of the expulsion in 1492, there were said to be about 400,000 Jews of whom about 240,000 converted to Christianity, 160,000 left he country, and 3,000 were condemned to death at the stake "in an act of faith" or "Auto de Fe" by the Inquisition. Before the expulsion Toledo was the center of Jewish life. There are two synagogues still standing albeit they haven't been used for religious services since the 15th century that is with one exception. On Tisha beav in 1992 services were held at the Synagogue of Santa Maria La Blanca.
During Spain's Golden Age, the Sephardim played an important part in science, medicine, mathematics, astronomy, philosophy, and cartography, the science of map making. Some were members or the Royal court. Luis de Santangel was chancellor of the Royal Household. He lent the court the money to outfit the three vessels: Nina, Pinta, and the Santa Maria, the fleet that Columbus used in his first voyage to the New World. It should be noted that it was Luis de Torres, one of the six Jews in Columbus's crew who was the first European to step ashore in the New World. Was it coincidence that when Columbus left Spain on his first voyage it was on 3 August, 1492 at 11:00 p.m., the last day, the final hour that Jews were allowed to remain on Spanish soil. In the book on the life of Columbus by Salvador Madariaga, and again in the book, Sails of Hope," by Simon Wisenthal, both authors point out many reasons that give credence - or was it coincidence to the fact that Columbus was indeed a Converso Jew. In the boos, "Cristobal Colon Y La Revelacion del Enigma, " and Cristobal Colon Era Noble Y de Sangre Real by Spanish author Gabriel Verd Martorell, he claims that Columbus was born on the Island of Mallorca of royal blood and he was the illegitimate child of Don Carlos, Prince of Viana and one Margarita Colom, a Jewess.
After the Expulsion, the Jews migrated to many lands including the Ottoman Empire, which included Turkey, Rhodes, Greece, some of the Slavic States, and most of North Africa. In addition, they went to Holland, some going to India, China and Japan. England would not be open to Jews until the time of Oliver Cromwell in the 17tli Century. 'They were expelled from England by Edward the First in the 14th Century. Since this is an overview of the whole Sephardic Experience, it is not intended to go into detail about each ethnic group per se, but I would like to touch upon a subject that was not only adopted by the Jews, but by the Christians as well. That is the Kabbala, the study of Jewish mysticism in the city or Gerona near Barcelona. Gerona is unique because it is as a 500-year-old vacuum had surrounded it leaving everything in tack, more or less - as it was at the time of the Expulsion. The house of Moshe Ben Nahman (Nachmanides) still stands. He and other great students of Kabbala such as the 13th Century cabalist, Isaac the Blind, flourished in Gerona since the 9th century.
Madrid. The capital of modern Spain is the geographical center. It was made the capital in the year 1561 during the reign of Phillip II. It is a lovely city with broad tree-lined boulevards, sidewalk cafes, elegant shops, fountains, parks and hotels. Although the Royal palace is used for state occasions, the official residence of King Juan and Queen Sofia is located in the outskirts of Madrid. It is called, "El Palacio de la Zarzuela." The Prado Museum in Madrid ranks as one of the greatest in the world. It includes paintings by Goya, Valesquez, Murrillo, El Greco, and canvases by Italian, Dutch and Flemish masters. Another historic but infamous site in Madrid is the Plaza Mayor built by Phillip III in 1619. It was here that the public trials and "Auto de Fe" took place. An interesting sidelight is that when one was condemned to the stake he or she would be given the opportunity to confess their belief in the Christian religion thus being garroted to death before being burned. Those "heretics" included Marranos, Moriscos, and Moslem converts to Christianity. Quite a contrast to the current spirit of religious freedom now enjoyed by those Jewish residents in Spain today... at least by official government dictum. There is a revival somewhat of the Jewish community of Madrid. Over 3000 Jews, mostly from North Africa make their homes in Madrid. There is now a Sephardic Federation of Spain in Madrid that coordinates the activities of all the Jewish communities in Spain with attention given to outlying communities as Seville, Valencia, Alicante, etc. Sephardic literature is now readily available to students at Madrid's University City. It was one of these courses that prompted Queen Sofia to attend the Friday Night Service at Madrid's only synagogue.
Jews were in America as early as 1654 when a handful of 23 arrived from Brazil to Niew Amsterdam, now present day New York City. Rejected by the governor, Peter Stuyvasant, they persisted until he was forced by the Dutch West India Company to admit them. In another incident frowned upon by Stuyvasant was the use of a Jew participating in any military service. One Asher Levy pleaded the right of a Jew to serve his community. He eventually became the first Jew in American Jewish history to serve in the military service of his community albeit was for guard duty at the time. Seems that some influential Jews in Holland were members of the board of directors of the West India Company, owners of Niew Amsterdam. Asher Levy knew this and word reached Holland of Stuyvasant's intransigence and soon after he was made to include the small band of Israelites as burghers or citizens of New Amsterdam. As for Asher Levy, he would serve as a paradigm for future generations of the Jewish military.
From 23 souls who landed in New Amsterdam in 1654, there are between six and seven million Jews living in America today - over a half million in Los Angeles alone. It is with pride that these pioneers were all Sephardim. The first Jew arrived in Los Angeles in 1841 with the Rowland-Workman party. His name was Jacob Frankfort, a tailor. Though Frankfort wasn't Sephardic, it was only a dozen years later that some Sephardim did arrive from the eastern part of the country. Salomon Nunes Carvalho (pronounced Cavayo in Portuguese), a painter and photographer with the John C. Fremont Expedition to California the 1840s, was born in South Carolina in 1815 of Sephardic parentage. In 1854, just 200 years after the first Sephardim arrived in New Amsterdam, Carvalho opened a photographic studio in a building owned by the Labatt brothers, Samuel K. and Joseph, the only Sephardim in town at that time. The first native-born American Jewish adults were Samuel K. and Joseph Labatt who were also the first Sephardic Jew in Los Angeles, but more important, Samuel K. Labatt was the first president of the first Jewish organization to be established here. Their father, Abraham Labatt came to San Francisco in 1849. He was elected the first president of one of the two pioneer Western organizations, Emanu-El in April, 1851, and that same month he was elected one of the eight city councilmen who governed San Francisco. One of Abraham's son's, Samuel K., who had been born in New Orleans, came to San Francisco in 1850 where he opened a dry goods business with his brother Joseph, but soon returned to New Orleans where he was elected an officer of the Hebrew Benevolent Society there.
He returned to California in the spring of 1853 and came to Los Angeles along with his brother Joseph. They opened a store called, La Tienda de China, described as the Bon Ton dry goods store of that time.
When Los Angeles Jewry recognized the necessity of organizing in order to provide for religious services, a Jewish cemetery and Jewish welfare needs, they called for a meeting for 2 July 1854. At this meeting they formed the Hebrew Benevolent Society of Los Angeles, the first charitable group to be founded in the city. Samuel K. Labatt was elected president, not only because he had the language facility of a native-born American, but also because he had similar experience in New Orleans. The following year, the Hebrew Benevolent society established a Jewish cemetery in Chavez Ravine. 'this society still exists, now over 145 years old under the name of Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles having been active longer than any other such group in Southern California. As the first president, Samuel K. Labatt was responsible for local efforts in defending the fair name of Jewry against the 1855 anti-Semitic attack by William Stow in the California State Assembly. He saw to it that the lengthy and effective denunciation of Stow written by his brilliant lawyer brother, Henry J. Labatt of San Francisco, was reprinted in full in the Los Angeles Star of 7 April 1855. Samuel Labatt was thus the first one to undertake Anti-Defamation work in Los Angeles.
In 1860 the Labatt family moved to Galveston, Texas. Soon afterward Carvalho left Los Angeles and returned to the east where he became a successful businessman in New York. I should add that San Francisco Jewry began in 1849. The first High Holiday Service was conducted in a tent owned by one Mr. Franklin. One of those early Jewish arrivals was Washington Bartlett who later became Mayor of San Francisco and still later as Governor of California during the 1880s. Not only was he the only Jewish Governor of California but he too was of Sephardic parentage on his mother's side.
Between the 1850s and the 20th Century there was only one instance of a Sephardic Jew in the Los Angeles area. His name was David d'Ancona who traveled from San Diego to Los Angeles in the 1870s. There is a book written about him by the late Dr. Norton Stern and Rabbi William Kramer. The real entrance to Los Angeles by Sephardim in any appreciable size began in the early 20tli Century. 'The first to arrive from the Levant was one Mordecai Zitoun, originally from Algeria. He arrived in Los Angeles in 1904 direct from St. Louis where he had worked at the Exposition there. He fought in the Franco-Prussian War of' 1870-71. He was affectionately known as "papa". I had the pleasure of knowing him when I was a teenager.
On they came! From Turkey, from Greece, from North Africa and even some from the eastern United States. In 1912 the first religious congregation was formed. It was known as Congregation Avat Shalom. Its members were from Turkey and from Rhodes. Prior to building synagogues in the 1920s and early 30s, services were held in the member's homes or in. case of the High Holy Days, in some rented space. The first spiritual leader was Rabbi Abraham Caraco. There were 52 families in the congregation: 37 from Rhodes. In time, as happens in most families, the Rhodeslies and Turkinos, as they called one another split up due to shall we say, euphemistically for parochial differences.
In 1917 the Rhodeslies formed the Peace and Progress Society with Haham Haim Levy serving as the Spiritual leader and Morris Soriano as the first president. In 1919, Avat Shalom composed of Turkinos divided into three groups: The Sephardic community of Los Angeles, Haim VaHessed, The Sephardic Brotherhood, and Yaacov Tovee. The Sephardic Community of Los Angeles was organized on 1st February 1920 in Walker Auditorium near downtown Los Angeles with Abraham Caraco as rabbi and Adolph Danziger De Castro as their first president.
The Rhodeslies built a synagogue at the corner of 55 th Street and Hoover Avenue in 1935. It was called Ohel Abraham but the Community was known as The Sephardic Hebrew Center. Later the name was again changed to Congregation Sephardic Beth Shalom.
The Sephardic Community of Los Angeles dedicated their first synagogue at 1516 West Santa Barbara Avenue, (now called Martin Luther King Boulevard) on 21 February 1932. In 1959 The Sephardic Brotherhood (Haim VaHessed) merged with the Sephardic Community of Los Angeles. The new name became The Sephardic Community and Brotherhood of Los Angeles. Later the name changed again, this time to the Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel, the name by which it is known today.
In 1974, High Holy Day Services were conducted for the first time at the new Temple Center on Wilshire Boulevard in West Los Angeles. In 1994 Sephardic Beth Shalom and Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel merged. Apparently their parochial differences had been ameliorated to some degree after 80 years to everyone's delight. There are other Sephardic synagogues: Magen David, attended by the Syrians and Egyptians, Kahal Joseph, by the Iraquis, The Eretz Cultural Center by the Iranians and En Habonim by the Moroccans. Many Iranians attend Shabbat Morning Services at S.T.T. I. as well as Temple Sinai, an Ashkenazi synagogue two blocks east of S.T.T.i.. Though all of these groups follow the Sephardic Minhag, and keeping in mind that Sepharad in Hebrew means Spain and the Iberian Peninsula, some of these groups, for example, the Iranians, have been living in their country as long as the Sephardim have been in Spain 500 years before the Common Era.
There are other groups of Oriental Jews who use the Sephardic Minhag in their service such as the Yemenites, Bukharians in Southern Russia, Ethiopians who had only known the Five Books of Moses until they emigrated to Israel when they blended in with the regular course of service. The Sephardic Jews have given the world a rich and beautiful culture and have left a Heritage of which they can all be proud. Wherever they went they brought their culture with them and always a bit of old Spain is evidenced by the Spanish and Judeo-Spanish-Ladino they have managed to keep as they traveled from country to country these past 500 years. This is the key to their survival.
Maurice I. Bob Hattem is the archivist/historian of Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel in Los Angeles, California, the second largest Sephardic Community in the United States, New York being the largest.
Kramer, Wm. & Stern, Notion B. The Historical Recovery of the Pioneer Jews of California 'IL' Avenir de Sud de Los Angeles, California, 30 December 1905,
Stephen Stem's thesis, The Sephardic Jewish Community of Los Angeles, Amo Press, NY, 1980,
The Los Angeles Times, 29 May, 1926, Weisenthal, Simon, Sales of Hope) Macmillan, NY,
Lazar, Moshe, The Call of Gerona,
Hattem, Maurice I., The Military History of the Sephardic Jews in America - 1654-1864-El Shofar.
Hattem, M.I., The History of Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel from the book, The Royal Visit: An Anthology