September 22, 2019

UCLA to house large archive of Sephardic culture

The history of European Jewry has been well organized and cataloged, but until now there has been no large-scale effort to gather documents and other materials pertaining to Sephardic Jewry around the Mediterranean, according to Sarah Abrevaya Stein, UCLA history professor and holder of the Maurice Amado Chair in Sephardic studies. 

This situation is about to change. 

Stein heads the Sephardic Archive Initiative (SAI), which has partnered with the UCLA Library in housing what promises to be one of the world’s largest collections of materials relating to Sephardic life and history. Initially, the archive will focus on the rich history of the Ladino-speaking pioneers who settled in Los Angeles after emigrating from Turkey and the Balkans in the early part of the 20th century. Eventually, it will expand to include L.A.’s North African, Persian and other Middle Eastern Jewish communities.    

 “UCLA is the ideal institution to safeguard and steward a collection of such enormous significance,” Stein said. “We are in L.A., which is home to one of the oldest and largest Sephardic communities in the country, and we [at UCLA] have the world-class resources to pioneer a comprehensive and invaluable archive of Sephardic culture.” 

 SAI was launched in 2015 with the help of a grant from the Sady Kahn Trust. Also aided by other foundations, SAI has since acquired a trove of materials from Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel on Wilshire Boulevard, including many documents written in Ladino (Judeo-Spanish), the language of Jews exiled from Iberia more than 500 years ago.

Chris Silver, a UCLA doctoral student in Jewish history and SAI’s project manager, said the synagogue’s collection — institutional records, photos, research papers, newsletters, pamphlets, scrapbooks and newspaper clippings, as well as an audio-visual collection of reel-to-reel, cassette, and VHS tapes — initially was put together in 1981 by Maurice I. “Bob” Hattem, a descendant of one of the founding families of the L.A. Sephardic community. 

 “We’re looking to find more family collections,” Silver said, adding that anyone who has material can contact the project at “Documents [are] often buried in suitcases, in garages or under beds, waiting for someone to open them and to give them a voice.”

Stein said that while Hattem and Sephardic Temple were “good stewards” of these materials, moving them to the UCLA Library will preserve them for future generations. 

 “[Sephardic Temple] didn’t have the resources to catalog and archive these materials, or to digitize them,” Stein said. The aim of the project, Silver added, is to create an educational exhibit that is visually rich and historically informative. Though not all the materials can be digitized, many will be, and the archive will have an interactive feature available to users anywhere.

 “This is an education-driven project,” Stein said. “We hope it fuels scholarship by creating a repository of data for people who want to write about California history, about Sephardic history, about L.A. history. Because this history hasn’t been written, [scholars] will be able to come to UCLA’s special collection, consult its repository, and be able to produce narratives about Sephardic Jewish history and culture that will be used in the classroom.” 

Stein added that many in L.A.’s Sephardic community would like the younger generations to learn about its history. “This is especially true because the demographics of the community — and also of the Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel — have changed over the years,” she said. 

Both the community and the synagogue were founded by Ladino-speaking Jews, mostly from Greece, Turkey and Rhodes; today, the community includes Jews from North Africa and the Middle East, while Sephardic Temple is predominantly Persian-Jewish. 

Stein said that SAI’s special collections archive at UCLA will utilize “scholarly skills” to explore the L.A. Sephardic community’s rich stories. When Sephardic Temple celebrates its centenary in 2020, SAI will present some of those stories at the temple as part of that celebration.