Sephardic Jews Are Fighting for Their History to be Represented

February 26, 2020
Digital page from the online exhibition “100 Years of Sephardic Life in Los Angeles.” Image courtesy of UCLA Alan D. Leve Center for

In 1952, on South La Brea Avenue, a restaurant called Robaire’s opened for business. It had stereotypical Parisian décor, a fantasized French atmosphere and a very French menu. 

But did you know the founder and owner was not French, but a Sephardic Jew who emigrated from Tunisia?

His story, along with dozens of others involving the mutual interplay between Los Angeles and Sephardic Jews, is part of an online exhibition called “100 Years of Sephardic Life in Los Angeles,” which, since Feb. 9, has been accessible via the internet.

The project is produced by the UCLA Alan D. Leve Center for Jewish Studies and Sephardic Archive Initiative at UCLA. Leve Center’s director, UCLA professor Sarah Abrevaya Stein, and the center’s associate director, Caroline Luce, co-curate. The digital exhibit’s opening was timed to coincide with the 100th anniversary of Tifereth Israel in Westwood, L.A.’s largest Sephardic temple.

Stein told the Journal the project has two main goals: “The first is to alert people interested in the history and culture of Los Angeles, to make them aware of the richness, cultural diversity and complex depth of the city’s Sephardic history. And the second goal is, conversely, to teach people who have an investment in Sephardic culture about the significance of Los Angeles and Southern California as a crucial [part] of Sephardic culture.”

She added the relationship between Sephardic communities and L.A. touches on important aspects of both: commercial history, the arts and the complex immigrant story. The aim of the project is to “put Sephardic communities into the City of Angels’ cultural map.”

Luce added those who created the digital exhibit have “tried, as much as we could, to represent every micro-community that is within the broad category of Sephardic. That is exceedingly difficult, so I don’t want to imply that we’ve actually done it.”

The “Welcome” page notes the project is “inclusive but not comprehensive” and the term “Sephardic” includes “communities that don’t always claim the title for themselves.” It also states the project’s segments explore “histories of Jews from across the Mediterranean and Middle East, from Iraq and Iran to North Africa and Ottoman Anatolia and the Balkans … and beyond.”

The Home page provides headings by which the segments can be grouped: Journeys; Landscapes; Leisure; Style; Sounds; Practices; Foundations. Since all 25 segments fit into more than one category, visitors may go in a number of directions. If Sephardic food, music or design is what you’re looking for, you easily can follow those groupings.

The site includes period photos as well as old videos and recordings of parties, gatherings, music and dance. Although the segments’ essays are written mostly by scholars and have been “peer-reviewed,” the site is easy to understand, since the segments focus more on human stories than on institutions or academic analysis.

“[One goal of the exhibit] is to alert people interested in the history and culture of Los Angeles, to make them aware of the richness, cultural diversity and complex depth of the city’s Sephardic history.”— Sarah Abrevaya Stein

Several of these human stories go beyond the 100 years of the title, and one takes place in the 1850s. Solomon Nunes Carvalho — a painter, photographer, author and inventor — was born in South Carolina in 1815. In 1854, he traveled as the official artist and photographer of an expedition headed by John C. Fremont. They trekked through Kansas, Colorado and Utah. After five months of visually documenting the trailblazing adventure to the West, Carvalho nearly died of frostbite, starvation and scurvy. He recovered, nursed by Mormons in Utah, then went on to Los Angeles, where he stayed for three months.

The author of the “Carvalho in Los Angeles” segment is Michael Hoberman, professor at Fitchburg State University. He writes that in Carvalho’s journals, the explorer described L.A.’s “delicious grapes [as well as] the unkempt social atmosphere, where acts of violence occurred on a daily basis.” Hoberman adds Carvalho “was remarkably prescient” in his observation that even in the L.A. of the 1850s, “true power lay in the hands of the tiny minority of its inhabitants who happened to be of ‘pure’ European ancestry.” During his time in L.A., Carvalho helped organize the small Jewish community and formed L.A.’s first Hebrew Benevolent Society.

It’s hard to imagine Ashkenazi Jews feeling nostalgic about Poland or Russia, but in segments called “American Days, Turkish Nights,” “Life of the Party,” “Little Jewish Morocco” and “Reading Ladino in Los Angeles,” there is a feeling some non-Ashkenazi Jews, while living in L.A., remained nostalgic about the home life and close-knit communities they’d once had. The exhibit includes photos of L.A. parties where participants wore fezzes, and there are many examples of these L.A. communities’ Arabic, Persian or Ladino music and art.

Luce said one of the reasons for this may be that non-Ashkenazi groups in L.A. have felt like a minority within the Jewish community, and retaining a tighter hold on some aspect of the life they’d had in the old country was a way of “maintaining their differences” from Ashkenazi Jews. “There’s a feeling among many Sephardim,” Luce said, “of not surrendering to a typical American Jewish identity, as defined by the Ashkenazis.”

One of the most moving segments is called “Sarajevo to the City of Angels.” Written by Rachel Smith, a UCLA graduate student, this segment traces the lives of Al and Rose Finci, a Sephardic couple who first met as children in Sarajevo but parted ways as their families fled the Nazi invasion during World War II. Their story involves internment, fighting alongside partisans and traveling across the Alps. In so many ways, their story of love — in spite of devastations and disruptions — encapsulates the horrors and triumphs of the 20th century.

“100 Years of Sephardic Los Angeles” features only a small part of the UCLA archive on this topic, but Stein feels there is a lot more to be found, and a great deal more to be said about the influence Sephardim have had on L.A. — and vice-versa. As the Welcome page to the exhibit says, “To think about Southern California’s Sephardic history is to think about our region and city in new ways and to rethink the arc of American Jewish history.”

“100 Years of Sephardic Los Angeles” is available online.

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