What Can a Census Tell Us about Sepharadim in America?

What Can a Census Tell Us about Sepharadim in America?

From the Book of Genesis to 23andMe, Jews have always been irresistibly drawn to the practice and study of genealogy. Whether filling out a family tree, finding lost relatives, or hoping to reveal some long-hidden chapter of one’s ancestry, genealogy and genetic testing have given individuals a more concrete and biologically-based grasp on their place in history and the world – accompanied by all the ethical issues arising from such dubiously reliable claims. For Ashkenazi Jews, there are plenty of opportunities and options – but far fewer for Sepharadi subgroups. This availability and relative ease for Ashkenazi genealogy parallels the wide array of historical and scholarly materials available for those Jews – while the inverse is, unfortunately, true for Sepharadim. The tools and skills needed to research Sepharadi history are therefore different, and arguably, more demanding. But it is this extra work that reveals the complexity of Sepharadi life.

So, if we want to uncover the Sephardic past, especially that of our own families, we might first turn to our genes. However, genes can only explain so much. Many of the popular DNA-based genetic testing services only have specific markers identifying Ashkenazi/Eastern European Jewish background. For example, Ancestry.com has eight subcategories under “European Jewish,” while none for Middle Eastern, North African, or Iberian-origin Jews. 23andMe only has Ashkenazi-specific labels. Only a few, like the thorough Family Tree DNA, include detailed results for markers labeled as Sephardic. Alternatively, MyHeritage includes, aside from Ashkenazi, “Sephardic Jewish – North African,” “Yemeni Jewish,” and “Mizrahi Jewish – Iranian/Iraqi” labels. Despite incomplete resources available and limited explanatory power of DNA results, not to mention the margin of error for these tests, there are alternatives that can shed more accountable and specific information on the Sephardic past – albeit for a much smaller slice of history. Publicly available US records like census data, naturalization forms, and immigration and port-of-entry information can tell us a lot about Sephardic Jews in the US, especially before 1940 (the 1950 census will not be publicly available until 2022). Often used for genealogical research, especially through Ancestry.com, these sources provide a seldom-seen window into the first generations of Sephardic life in the 20th century United States.

But you have to know what to look for.
In my research on Sephardic Jews in Los Angeles, two competing narratives and strategies have impeded the visibility of this population in existing studies on the city. Studies and surveys of Jews have typically used the demographic designation Distinctive Jewish Surnames (DJS), which, aside from the ubiquitous Cohen, Levy, and Israel – are all Ashkenazi. Other studies of LA and California which examine ethnic, racial, and immigrant groups often use Spanish surnames – many of which are also shared by Sephardic families, like Cordova, Perez, or Castro. Of course, some Sepharadi individuals married into Ashkenazi and non-Jewish Latino families, adopting their surnames. But this was relatively uncommon. Thus, Sepharadim have fallen through the cracks or been unwittingly assimilated into different groups by otherwise worthwhile research. The techniques and strategies needed to parse out Sepharadim in official US documentation must be specifically tailored and distinct from those used for others, especially Ashkenazim. In the process of working out how to find these Jews, we reveal a world of transnational, border-crossing, and peripatetic Sepharadim.

Since my research is primarily – but not exclusively – on Ladino-speaking Jews and Jews from Ottoman lands in the 20th century, my techniques apply mostly to them and their descendants. And since, with the exception of Syrian Jews, other “Sepharadi” populations like those from North Africa, Iraq, or Iran came in larger numbers later in the century, the available records tend not to cover those groups because of their relatively small size before 1940.

To get a better sense of the overall profile of Sephardic Jewry in Los Angeles in 1930, I undertook a survey from that year’s Federal Census of 1,112 individuals I identified as living in Sephardic households, which gives us several key pieces of data that both confirm anecdotal information and provide new perspectives previously unavailable. A survey of 239 individuals from the 1920 census was also conducted and used comparatively. I used ancestry.com’s search function for these documents, partly because the number of available search options and configurations allow for flexibility and room for error.

Changing imperial and national boundaries where Sephardic Jews were born and lived often leave misleading traces in these records

To identify Sephardic individuals, a few methods were used. One was to compare membership lists from Sephardic communal documents written around this time and locate those individuals within the census tracts. Another method was to search for “Distinctive Sephardic Names” known to predominate in the community: Angel, Benveniste, Capelouto, Caraco, Notrica, Hasson, Varon, etc. Another effective method was selecting a birthplace of Turkey, Greece, or Italy alongside one’s mother tongue being listed as Spanish. Usually all three methods were used in conjunction, as Jewish surnames like Cohen, Levy, or Israel that are common among both Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews could be tied to Sephardic individuals if one or both of the parents were born in Turkey, for example. Even so, this might refer to an Ashkenazi family, as a substantial Ashkenazi community lived in the Ottoman Empire and made their way to LA, as attested to one local Los Angeles congregation catering to Ashkenazi Jews from Palestine. 1

Other times, a known Sephardic family – with a unique name like Hasson or Benveniste – might be listed as born in Italy, since Rhodes had been under Italian rule since 1912 (and the country of origin could be recorded simply as “Rhodes,” “Rhodes Island,” or misunderstood for the US state, Rhode Island). The changing imperial and national boundaries of where Sephardic Jews were born and lived often leave misleading traces in these records.

Picnic of the Sephardic Sisterhood of Los Angeles, June 1925. Photo courtesy of UCLA Special Collections from the Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel Archives.

Language is another key giveaway for identifying Sephardic Jews in the US Census. Almost always, individuals listed as born in Turkey with Spanish (referring to Ladino) as their mother tongue are Sephardic. However, Sephardic individuals listed with languages like Turkish, Greek, Italian, Hebrew, Yiddish, and “Jewish” do appear. Though we cannot say for certain, it is more than likely that what is meant by “Jewish” or “Yiddish” is Ladino. Other names given to the language by its speakers were Djidio or Djudezmo, literally meaning “Jewish,” and perhaps responsible for that translation. Furthermore, in official US Census instructions, Spanish and Yiddish were given as possible languages – but not Ladino – thus rendering invisible, at least in official records, the unique linguistic heritage of these Sepharadim. It is difficult to say if the 1920 and 1930 samples are representative of the community at large, especially since we are lacking more substantiating information or research.

In 1930, there were approximately 91,000 Jews residing in Los Angeles out of a total 1.3 million, making up 7% of the city’s total. This is a major increase from 1920’s estimate of 28,000 Jews in a city of 575,000. It is harder to estimate the total Sephardic population at either time, but by 1930 it likely did not exceed the 1,500 households estimated in Max Vorspan and Lloyd Gartner’s History of the Jews in Los Angeles, and certainly made up no more than 5% of the Jewish population. Most rightly assume that rapid growth in Southern California occurred in the booming years after World War II, but the city also expanded significantly in the decades beforehand, including a fair share of Jews, Sepharadim included.

In addition to name, age, and residential address, census records also recorded occupation, immigration year and citizenship status, marital status, level of education completed, native language of parents and their birthplaces, and veteran status. In both the 1920 and 1930 records, the Sephardic community appears remarkably young, with an average age of 24. Yet the prevalence of families increased within that decade. In 1920, about 34% of the population was unattached men, as compared to 1930 when the rate was about 23%. Most were single, but some were listed as married yet living alone, perhaps with wives living elsewhere in New York, Turkey, or Rhodes. There were close to zero unattached single Sephardic women in either survey. In 1920, about 35%  were female, and in 1930 the rate rose nearly to parity at 47%. The foreign-born – about 55% of the 1930 population – had only been in the country an average of 16 years, and in Los Angeles itself for likely less time. While in 1920, 75% were foreign-born and they had only been in the country for an average of eight and a half years. The diversity of the native-born population also increased between 1920 and 1930, speaking to the mobility of the Sephardic community in the US. If in 1920 roughly three-quarters of the US-born were from California, only 53% were in 1930, with 22% born in New York and 12% in Washington. It is common to find a family whose eldest child was born in Turkey, whose next child was born in New York, and whose youngest was born in Washington or California. While in 1920 most Sepharadim lived in the downtown LA area, east of Main Street, by 1930 a sizable concentration would develop in South LA, especially between Vermont and Main and 47th and 57th.

Sephardic households mapped onto contemporary Los Angeles. Red points indicate 1920, while blue indicate 1930. Note the relative absence of Sepharadim in Boyle Heights, often noted as the center of Jewish life in Los Angeles at this time.

The occupational distribution of the community also shifted considerably. From an employment rate of 43% of individuals in the 1920 sample, only 31% had jobs listed in 1930. Of those with listed occupations, almost all men, three in particular attracted the most Sepharadim in LA. 1920 saw a whopping 38% of employed Sephardic men working as shoe shiners or with shoes. Another 18% worked in the fruit, produce, and grocery business, and 8% in flowers. 1930 saw greater diversification and business success, listing many more individuals as proprietors and owners of businesses. The same professions, however, still tended to color the occupational choices a decade later, but with different proportions. 22% of those employed worked in the fruit, produce, and grocery industry, and another 22% in flowers. Only 7% still worked as shoe shiners or in the shoe business, but with more owners and operators than in 1920. New trends also emerged by 1930. 5.5% worked in dry goods, 2% in insurance, and 2% as tailors.

the strong Seattle link is uniquely Sephardic

What do these statistics tell us? For one, it’s immediately clear from this cross-section of Sephardic Jews that they differ considerably from their Ashkenazi co-religionists living elsewhere in Los Angeles. Sepharadim tended to concentrate not in the Boyle Heights neighborhood so commonly associated with early Jewish life in the city, but rather in South LA. Secondly, it reveals the close connection between the Washington (specifically, Seattle) and LA Sephardic communities – a relationship that exists to this day through family and friend networks. While LA and New York Jews have always maintained connections, the strong Seattle link is uniquely Sephardic. Occupationally, Sephardic Jews seem to have been attracted to a far different set of wage-earning jobs than the typical Ashkenazi tailor or white-collar clerk. They managed to stake a considerable foothold in the local produce and grocery business, and in the wholesale flower trade.

It’s easy to complain about how “Ashkenormative” models of Jewish history leave out other kinds of Jews and paper over intra-Jewish differences in the name of a unified Jewish experience, especially about the over-mythologized American immigration story. But what I’ve outlined above, I hope, are some of the methods and results of what it might look like to include – in this case, Ladino-speaking, Ottoman – Sephardic Jews in a substantial way. For all the nonsense and back-and-forth vitriol behind the perennial “Are Jews White?” question, only recently have people specified that they mean Ashkenazi Jews. But, instead of insuring against their exclusion of other Jews, it highlights how little we know (and care?) about Sepharadim in America. If we want to fix this problem, we first need to ask the right questions and know who, how, and where, to ask them.

Due to the variable nature of our posts and the wide spectrum of ideas exchanged, we feel it is important to clarify that the thoughts and opinions shared in posts and articles reflect the opinions of the author and are not representative of our contributors as a whole.


  1. Max Vorspan and Lloyd P. Gartner. History of the Jews of Los Angeles. San Marino, California: The Huntington Library, 1970. P 116
August 19, 2018

About Author

Max Daniel Max Modiano Daniel is a PhD student in the History department at the University of California, Los Angeles. His dissertation will be about the multiple meanings of Sephardic community in the postwar United States. At UCLA, he is the director of ucLadino, a student group dedicated to studying Judeo-Spanish, and helps organize their annual Ladino symposium. He is also the project manager of UCLA’s Sephardic Archive Initiative.

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