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The migration of rhodian Jews to Africa and the Americas from 1900-1914

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The migration of rhodian Jews to Africa and the Americas from 1900-1914


Yitzchak Kerem

The Begining of New Sephardic Diasporic Communities
Due to economic instability in the Balkans under Ottoman rule, the first decade of the 20th century was the beginning of a period of great emigration.
Then, the Jewish migrs of the territories, within the confines of present-day Greece, including Rhodes, made a significant impact on Sephardic life in the Americas and Africa, and were pioneers in the newly developing areas where they settled. With little hope for the future, in the small and limited Dodecanese islands, where agriculture and commerce seemed dismal and confining, the sparsely educated male teenage Jewish youth from Rhodes sought their future in newly developing areas such as Rhodesia, the Belgian Congo, and the west coast of the United States, i.e. Seattle, Portland, and Los Angeles.
Ready for adventure, and willing to go great distances, at the same time they also established themselves in Buenos Aires, Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo, Brazil, Montevideo, Uruguay, and in the south of the USA - in Atlanta and Montgomery, Alabama. Following Greek-Orthodox townsmen and friends, the Sephardic Jews arrived in Seattle and South America. They established most of their independent communities and congregations in the United States, but their settlement and presence in Africa and South America was no less significant.
The 1890s and first decade of the 20th century were decades of uncertainty, strife and turmoil. The Turkish wars with Russia, Italy, and the Balkan states had caused considerable economic and physical damage (1). As the end of the Ottoman Empire became nearer and more lands were lost or in question, the young Sephardic Jews of Rhodes, like the other Sephardim of the Balkan Peninsula, were fearful of military conscription; in particular after its introduction following the Young Turk revolt of 1908. They also feared general political instability; alternative sovereignty to the Ottoman that they cherished; and continuing economic hardships in the light of political instability and change.

The Jews of Rhodes were youth in their teens and twenties, who were seeking their fortunes in 'virgin' newly settled areas of the Americas. They started to arrive on America's shores already at the beginning of the century. They were not fleeing Rhodes, because Ottoman rule was replaced by Italian rule, but because the island had great limitations economically. They were unskilled and uneducated, but hardworking and adventurous. After beginning as pedlars, in the course of time, many developed to be affluent merchants and businessmen. The wave of emigration from Rhodes began in the second half of the first decade of the 20th century, but the trend was paved by the exodus to Africa of several youngsters who under coincidental circumstances established themselves in pioneering commercial enterprises in Central Africa.
The first Rhodian Jews to settle in Africa, were the brothers Mousa and Salomon Gabriel Benatar who arrived in Salisbury, Rhodesia in 1895 (2). In the first years only a few individuals arrived. It was only from 1905 onwards, during pronounced years of economic strife and uncertainty that a much larger influx of Rhodian Jews arrived. From modest beginnings in remote, primitive outposts like Chakari, Gatooma, Darwendale, Shamva, Eiffel Flats, Que Que, Openhalonga and Bindura, that they eventually established themselves in larger enterprises in the capital city of Salisbury (3). Enduring long hours, flooded rivers, and adventure, they found their niche as merchants in newly developing areas. These general stores that they set up, eventually would be commercial stepping-stones for many future wealthy Sephardi Rhodesli Jews. The below description sheds light on their development in the outposts :
With a limited knowledge of English, the early Sephardim were forced to settle in the bush areas, normally as small traders carrying on business near mines or in farming areas. But their humble beginnings bore promise for the future. First, they were determined to establish themselves and to make good. Second, the local European population - mainly Anglo-Saxon - encouraged the setting up of trading stores while they engaged largely in farming and mining. And third, the African population, exposed the European ways, began to buy readily from the stores. But naturally in the course of time these scattered 'outposts' became unsatisfactory. The desire grew among the Sephardim to be close together as they had been on Rhodes Island. As wives were brought to the new colony, the need to educate children became urgent. Gradually, therefore, the Sephardim began to leave their isolated trading stores and move into the towns. Most of the Sephardim settled in Salisbury (4).
Kosmin explained that like the Jewish Livak and Rumanian immigrants, the Rhodians were involved in a 'patron-client form of chain migration' : One member of a family would go ahead and become established in the new land and he would then send for younger relatives and advance money for their fares, put up a guarantee if necessary, and often offer the newcomer a job. In return the immigrant normally agreed to pay off his debt by working for his patron over a certain number of years. During his indenture ship the newcomer hoped to learn the ways and language of the new country and build up the contacts and capital so that he could eventually establish himself as an independent businessman, perhaps to become a patron himself. Most of the men were single and they would send home for a wife whereas a married man tried to establish himself so that he could bring out his wife and family (5). Moussa Benatar created the foundation for the first chain, and he was followed by B.S. Leon, Mario Alhadeff, and Isaac Benveniste. In 1904 there were only four Sephardi Jews in the country, but by 1911 their numbers increased to 29 males and one female (6). The immigration laws favoured guarantee of job or proof of support, while also compelling a literacy test in a European tongue under the Immigration Ordinance of 1904. Unlike the Ashkenazi Jewish immigrants, whose Yiddish qualified as a European language, these Judeo-Spanish speaking Sephardi Jews had difficulties in qualifying in Spanish and Italian, due to their medieval Spanish dialect. Thus, the Sephardi Rhodeslis had a higher percentage of prohibited immigrants than the other Jews, and many went to the Belgian Congo where entry regulations were more flexible.

The Rhodeslis were confined to being shopkeepers to enter other professions, and they lacked a previous knowledge of English. Since they entered as indentured immigrants to relatives and immediately went to work in rural stores, they had no chance to learn English or pursue other forms of employment. They clung much more to their native language of Judeo-Spanish than the Ashkenazic settlers to Yiddish, and according to Kosmin, "overal they appeared less adaptable and opportunistic" (7). From a wider historical perspective, while it is true that these diasporic Rhodian Jews retained their Sephardic culture and language and unusually much more so than other Balkan and Mediterranean Judeo-Spanish Sephardim, their experience in the Belgian Congo by no means conforms with the above inference concerning adaptation and opportunism.
Circumstances and coincidence led Rhodian Jews to Africa and the Belgian Congo, but it was their intuition, resourcefulness, calculation, and flexibility that led to their success and massive socio-economic contribution to the development of the Belgian Congo and the later Zaire. The chain of events began when in 1895 at age 12, Salomon Benatar left Rhodes as a stowaway ship passenger and arrived in Islamiya, Egypt, where he established himself by first selling cigarettes and then opened a kiosk. After attracting two brothers, Moussa and David, to resume his activities there, as a stowaway he headed for the southern part of Africa, where he heard about its diamonds and gold. After arriving at the Port of Beira, in the Portuguese Colony of Mozambique, he opened the first shop for white people. He also prospered financially by receiving from the local government a five year concession in 1898 for the rights of oversee the bridge crossing the Zambezi river at the Rhodesian border. A year after the outbreak f the Boers War in South Africa (1899-1902), his revenues were further increased when the British army transported supplies, equipment, artillery, and soldiers via the bridge. He eventually sold his concession to the bridge and together with a Jew named Daniels, he opened up a store in Umtali, Rhodesia (8).

Salomon married in Rhodes, sold furniture for three years in Cairo, and returned to Umtali, where his brother Moussa maintained their store and had married in the meantime. Since the store could not support two families, Salomon began to look elsewhere. In great pursuit, he set out in an expedition to the Belgian Congo. After a train ride, his entourage, consisting of 80 armed men, a tent, and food supplies, went by foot 800 kilometres to Elizabethville (9). The town was already populated by Ashkenazi Jews arriving from South Africa in 1907. When the city developed in 1910 and became the capital of the Katanga region, the construction of a railroad turned it into a very important centre since it was a junction for railroad travel to Salisbury, Rhodesia to the south, and the Lobito port, in Angola, to the west at the edge of the Atlantic Ocean. The Belgian Governor encouraged Salomon to settle there and open up stores for the 150,000 mine workers of the Union Minire and the 40,000 railroad workers, who previously had no way to purchase goods locally.
There was a great need to set up 15 stores for this purpose. After consultung with the project engineers, he requested to receive a lot between the train station and the post office. He promised the Governor that he would return within 6 months in order to make preparations and then build the stores upon his return. He convinced his brothers Avraham and Yitzhak to leave Southville, Rhodesia, and assist him with this new operation. Upon returning to Elizabethville, they built a store out of clay and Potopoto wood. Shortly afterward, they were so successful that they ran out of merchandise. There amassed several of their relatives from the Benatar, Alhadeff, Franco, Capeluto, and Israel families. In 1911, they established the Communaut du Congo Belge et Ruanda-Urundi.
After being separated from his wife for four years, Salomon returned to Rhodes in 1914 to see her. He returned to the Congo at the beginning of the First World War and was requested by the Governor to organize supply for the Belgian Army to the border with Burundi, which was conquered by the Germans. He organized the transport on the river with small boats called piraguas - one of the only available means of communication available at the time (10).

In the Congo, the Rhodian merchants revolutionized white society by allowing blacks to purchase in their stores, by issuing credit, and by influencing black society to purchase European dress (11). In Rhodesia, B.S. Leon traded blankets and cast iron saucepans with the Africans. He aslo bought farms and grew tobacco (12). He and other Rhodian contemporaries made an impression on the Africans, since they were scrupulously exact in trading and honest (13). He had a general reputation of being always kind and generous.
Worthy of note is Maurice Alhadeff, who settled in Elizabethville, and who after working for the Benatars, opened his own store in 1912. He sold clothes, eventually opened up clothing factories, collected and traded ivory, and eventually became a billionaire (14). The largest numbers of Rhodian diaspora communities were formed in the United States. For the youth, who barely studied in primary school for a few years and had nothing to look forward to in light of dismal economic conditions, America symbolized a pioneering challenge.
These Jews were not immigrating to the USA for political freedom; since the Jews of the Ottoman Empire, after centuries of settlement, has attained great affluence and influence. They were not fleeing religious persecution and had maintained cordial relations with the local ruling Muslim population. Their ancestors had been welcomed as Spanish expulsees in the Ottoman Empire by Bayezid after the famous 1492 Spanish expulsion, and had lived in flourishing religious communities in the 16th century, but after the 17th century Sabbatean influences had struck their communities, their social and intellectual development stagnated.
Steven Hertzberg described the Sephardic Turkish Jews as follows :
Superstitious and highly devout, most were pety traders, artisans, and labourers. Their Orthodox services differed in liturgy, ritual, and Hebrew pronunciation from those in the West, and their complexion, culinary preferences, and outlook were, by European standards, distinctly Oriental. But their most distinctive trait was linguistic.
Whereas the Central Europeans spoke German and the Russian Yiddish (literally, 'Jewish'), the Sephardim spoke Ladino, a tongue that bore the same relationship to Spanish as Yiddish did to German (15). After a Greek-speaking fisherman, who had migrated to the shores of Puget Sound in Washington State in 1900, returned home to Marmara Island for a family visit in 1903 and influenced the Jews Solomon Calvo and Jacob Polikar to seek their future in Seattle, a Sephardi base was laid for future settlement there. A year later after a third Jew named David Levy, a tailor from the Marmara littoral, joined the preceding two Sephardi Jews, 'the grapevine of the Greek coffee house tipped the trio off to the arrival of a fourth Sephardi Jew in Seattle, Nissim Alhadeff, from the island of Rhodes (16). He, too, had talked to a lot of Greeks, but in Rhodes, about life across the sea and decided that it was in Seattle, where he wanted to try his luck. His brother Rahamim, who later followed his brother Nissim, in discussing his brother noted, "He was young, he was strong, he had no wife or children, and so he said his farewells and disappeared -sailed away to America" (17). Alhadeff established himself as a fish pedlarand shortly afterward, he was joined in this enterprise by a second Rhodesli Jew, his brother-in-law, David Israel. These three Marmaran Jews and two Rhodian Jews became the core of an eventual thriving Sephardi community in Seattle.
Before discussing the development of the Rhodesli communities on the west coast and in the south, a brief account of their communal life in New York Ciry will be presented. In the vicinity of 1912 and thereafter, the Jews of Rhodes were amongst a proliferation of Sephardic sprouting in the New York area. At that time the Jews founded the organization Yeshuah Verahamim (Salvation and Mercy) (18).

Before this they had tried as early as 1909 to form their own Rhodesli organization. In 1910 there enough of them to proceed to draw up a charter, but not until 1912 was the Agudah Achim de Rhodes - the Rhodes League of Brothers Aid Society, with 80 members, incorporated.
The first years were full of strife. There were problems of non-payment of dues, and the exasperated officers finally ruled that only natives of Rhodes, who were members in good standing, could attend High Holiday services. As a result, several members left the organization, and some broke off personal and business relationships with their antagonists. Eventually, the society overcame its growing problems and began several activities; one of them was a Federal Credit Union set up in 1935, which in the course of its twenty one year existence loaned out some $130,000. When members of the Rhodes League moved away from their old homes Downtown and the majority moved to Brooklyn, they joined the Temple Torah Israel. In 1960, the League with its 220 members, celebrated its Golden Anniversary (19).
The first Rhodesli young boys in Seattle established themselves in the fishing, fruit, and grocery store businesses, as well as the shoeshine business, a task requiring only a little English. They sent for sweethearts that they had left behind, or contacted family or friends in Rhodes or in other Rhodian diasporas concentrations, who helped them establish correspondence with eligible girls.
Pictures were usually exchanged and eventually these 'picture brides' made the crossing to America or were met at home and brought to the New World by their American beaux (20). During most of this period, the Seattle Sephardi community intended to make their fortune in America, and then return home to Rhodes or Marmara, but when the young brides arrived the community took on a more permanent nature. After being misunderstood by the Ashkenazim and only a first accepting the Hirsh reform synagogue, a common phenomenon, these Sephardi Jews would only attend Orthodox synagogues. After previously praying at the orthodox Ashkenazi Bikur Holim synagogue, in 1907 there was such an influx of Rhodian immigrants; many sent by the Industrial Removal Office (IRO), that the Sephardim rented a house on 10th and Yessler for the High Holiday services. In 1908, the Rhodeslis, were determined to form their own organization, as they were the most homogeneous of all the Sephardi groups. In 1909 they formed the philanthropi Koupa Ozer Dalim Anshe Rhodes. They separated themselves from the Marmara group, originating from Rhodosto, Marmara, Gallipoli and Istanbul.

In 1910 there were 40 Sephardi families in Seattle divided into two distinct religious organizations and three mutual associations. In 1914 the Rhodeslis founded the Ezra Bessarot Congregation, after they disbanded over disputes involving allocation of forms. They had no cemetery or Talmud Torah. In 1916 a third Sephardi synagogue was established by the Marmara Jews - Ahavat Ahim, whereas the Rhodosto Sephardim bought the former Ashkenazi Bikur Holim building and a space for a community centre. During World War I, the Sephardim strengthned their business and economic professions. They also became employed in shoema-king, tailoring, as bakers, and as barbers. They raised large families with five or more children. In World War I, sentiments turned toward the allies, even though they retained positive feelings toward the Turks, and they began to feel more American. By 1912 the community numbered 1,500 Sephardim. The first Sephardi Rabbi Aharon Benezra from New York City was shortlived. He lasted only tw years and left in 1916 in the midst of disparity. In 1924 the astute Rabbi Abraham Maimon arrived from Tekirdag, Turkey. Although he was well respected by the three congregations, he was unable to heal rifts and he served Bikur Holim solely.
Portland and Los Angeles were outgrowths of the Seattle Sephardic community. The young single Sephardim arrived in Portland from Seattle in 1907. They started the same businesses, grocery stores, produce, and the shoeshine trade. The Menasche clan increased the local Sephardi population. Most of the Sephardi Jews came from Rhodes. By 1912 there were 80 Sephardim in Portland. Those not from Rhodes came from Marmara and Tekirdag. They had difficulties in organizing religious services. After several unsuccessful attempts at communal unification, a new society was established in 1912 as the Hesed Israel Anshe Rhodes with Yitzhak Beno as president. It only lasted three years. Due to small numbers, the community had to integrate more with the Ashkenazim and they were helped by Ben Selling, an Ashkenazi Jew (21).
Yitzchak Kerem

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