Penserios de Nieta Installment 6: The Sepharadic "Big Apple": On the Occasion of the 100th Anniversary of New York City, by Amiga Serena 

Fiestozo Los Muestros del mi korason, Ya es bien savido ke este anio selebramos el aniversario de la sivdad de Nu York. Es dizir ke antes 100 anios, las diferentes partes de la sivdad (Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island i el Bronx,) fueron aunados para formar la grande sivdad de New York.

I es bien savido tambien ke los moradores de Nu York le asentaron munchas nombres a esta sivdad, donde el mas konosido es "La Grande Mansana," o, en Inglez, "The Big Apple."(2)

Many readers may wonder about the origin of this moniker. Why is it that New Yorkers call their city after an oversized fruit? New York's nickname was first popularized in the 1920's by John J. Fitz Gerald, a reporter for the "Morning Telegraph." Fitz Gerald had first heard this term used by African American stablehands in New Orleans in 1921 and applied the term to New York City's racetracks. But it was African Americans who first applied the term to New York City itself. In the 1930's, African American jazz musicians began to call New York, and particularly Harlem, "The Big Apple" when referring to the city as the jazz capital of the world. But by the 1950's the term had fallen into desuetude. Only in 1971 was it revived as part of a publicity campaign steered by Charles Gillett, president of the New York Convention and Visitors Bureau.(3) And so it is that while the first generation of Sephardic immigrants in New York had never heard of the term, "The Big Apple," it has by now become as American a apple pie!

The phenomenon of naming the City of New York after produce caught on in other circles as well. In the 1940's and 1950's, the population of Puerto Ricans in the city swelled to such an extent that New York City became known to some as "the Big Mango!"(4) I wonder what my Grandparents would have called New York had they been aware of this trend? Perhaps, "The Big Bureka?" "The Big Boyo?"

Whatever they may have called it, New York became, undeniably, the most important city in the United States for Ladino-speaking Jews. By the early 1920's, between 50,000 and 60,000 Levantine Jews had immigrated to the United States, the majority establishing homes in New York's most famous immigrant neighborhood, the Lower East Side. Upwardly mobile Sephardim began to settle in the New York suburbs in the 1920's, where they found new neighborhoods in Harlem from 110th to 125th Streets, between 5th and 1st Avenues, and in sections of Brooklyn.

Coming to New York was no easy task. My Grandmother, a native of Salonika, was forced to flee her homeland in 1913, after that city, which had been in the hands of Turkey for years, had been conquered by the Greeks. I still have a heart-wrenching poem written by her that year entitled, "Un Ultimo Adio a mi Sivdad Natala" ("A Final Farewell to My Native City.") Just as it was hard to leave, so too was it difficult to come. Writing in her advice column, "Palavras de Mujer,"(5) the very month of her arrival, my Grandmother remarked:

A la verdad del Dio, regalado lektor, ke non es poka koza el vinir del mundo viejo al nuevo. Ay! Viaj¡ por mares altas, navig¡ kon la fortuna. Esta mizma me akontesio a mi.(6)

If the sea journey itself was arduous, adjusting to New York City was even more trying. Sephardic Jews encountered great difficulties relating to the already established Ashkenazic community. This is largely because, according to Ashkenazic standards (i.e. looking "Jewish" and familiarity with gefilte fish and Yiddish,) Sephardim were simply not Jews! Both literally and figuratively, Sephardim and Ashkenazim in New York found that they had no common language. This created a huge gulf between the two groups and was largely responsible for the isolation of Sephardim from the rest of the New York Jewish community.

One of the ethnic groups with whom Sephardim could indeed communicate were Hispanics! Although Judeo-Spanish is very different from modern Spanish, in terms of grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation, there was enough affinity between the two languages for the two groups to understand eachother. These similarities are precisely what led my Grandmother to caution her readers to be very careful of what they said in public! Let me relate an incident she reported in a 1928 installment of her column, "Postemas de Mujer."(7) Two Sephardic women, returning from a trip to "Down Town" (the Lower East Side,) were riding the elevated (street car), returning to their homes in Harlem. What got these two ladies into trouble was their animated, candid conversation in Judeo-Spanish, when they thought no one around understood! As my Grandmother recounted,

Loke uvo de tafarok en la konversasion ke las mujeres en kuestion detuvieron en el elevado, fue ke la una de eyas avlo por una kuestion de marido kon mujer i ke la avladera lo dev¡a kontar asu amiga i muy avagar o kuando se topavan solas en sus kazas.(8)

What was their surprise when, getting off at 116 Street, a Puerto Rican gentleman who had been riding on the same elevated, got off with them, began to follow them, and made it clear that he had understood their conversation quite well! This embarrassing situation led my Grandmother to advise Sephardic women:

" kuando se topan por las kaes o en los karos, elevados i subvays, se akaviden a no avlar gritando, siendo komo te lo dishe de antes, Nu York asemeja ala tore de Bavel. Aki ay puevlos i jentes ke avlan diversos linguajes, ke sin lo saver ni lo pensar puedemos ser oidas, antendidas i akuzadas departe deskonosidos, i lo mejor de todo es el tener komporto en el avlar..."(9)

These women found out the hard way that their Ladino was not exactly a secret language! This comical vignette is just a hint of the kinds of cross-cultural interactions that occurred in the City of New York in the first half of this century. And herein lies the greatness of the city and the secret of its grandeur. We have seen throughout history, particularly in Muslim Spain and the Ottoman Empire during its heyday, that some of the most accomplished, magnificent civilizations emerge out of the mutual influence of numerous peoples and cultures.

New York, an amalgam of so many immigrant groups, also reflects this phenomenon. I believe that it is the interaction and mutual influence of numerous ethnic and national groups which have made New York City the cultural capital of the United States and one of the greatest cities of the world.

New York also left its imprint on the Sephardic Jews hailing from the former Ottoman Empire. The city almost immediately established itself as the literary, cultural and organizational center of Sephardic immigrant life. New York is the birthplace of the American Ladino press. All but two of the nineteen known American Judeo-Spanish publications appeared in this city. New York was also famous for its Judeo-Spanish theater, which attracted huge audiences, many numbering from 1 to 2,000 members! And we must not forget that New York generated the national organizations of American Sephardim, including the now defunct Central Sephardic Jewish Community of America and the still active American Sephardi Federation.

New York has also been home to the largest population of Ashkenazic Jews in this country and, indeed, the largest Jewish community of the world.(10) By 1910, the estimated Jewish population of New York City was 1,100,000, representing 23% of the city's total population.(11) The enormous size of New York's Jewish community, coupled with its ethnic diversity and proximity to other ethnic groups, are among the factors most responsible for stimulating a literary and cultural efflorescence among all the city's Jewish inhabitants, Sephardim and Ashkenazim alike!

And so, as we celebrate the 100th anniversary of the unification of New York, let us save the most important toast for last. Here's to New York for its ethnic diversity, a diversity which brings vibrancy to all communities! Alevanto la kupa a la onor de Nu York, kon las kualas kedo, selebrando i akodrando, tu Amiga Serena.(12)



(1) "Anxieties of a Granddaughter." All translations are from the Ladino.

(2) "Festive Los Muestros of mine heart,

It is well known that this year we celebrate the birthday of the City of New York. That is to say, 100 years ago, the various sections of the city (Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island and the Bronx) were united to form the grand city of New York.

And it is also well known that the inhabitants of New York invented many nicknames for this city, the most famous of which is 'La Grande Mansana,' or, in English, 'The Big Apple.'"

(3) Gerald Leonard Cohen, "Big Apple," The Encyclopedia of New York City, ed. Kenneth T. Jackson, (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, and New York: The New-York Historical Society, 1995), 107.

(4) Clara Rodriguez, Gabriel Haslip-Viera (with David L. Gonzalez), "Latin Americans," The Encyclopedia of New York City, 655-666.

(5) "Words of a Woman." This was the name of the column when it appeared in the New York Ladino tabloid, "La Amerika."

(6) "Truth to tell, dear reader, it is no small thing coming from the Old World to the New. Ay! I traveled through high seas, I navigated through storms. This very thing happened to me."

(7) "Pet Peeves of a Woman." This was the name of the column when it appeared in the New York Ladino tabloid, La Vara.

(8)"The astounding thing about the conversation of the women in the elevated was that one of them spoke about a matter between husband and wife [i.e. sexual matters!] She really should have spoken about it with her friend very quietly or when they were alone in their homes."

(9) "...that when they find themselves on the street or in cars, on the elevated and subways that they take care not to speak in a loud voice, being that, as I told you before, New York resembles the Tower of Babel. There are people here who speak many languages, and without knowing or imagining it we can be overheard, understood and accused by strangers, and the best thing, above all, is to be dignified in our speech..."

(10) "Mother-Tongues of New York," The World (New York,) 21 February 1914, 10.

(11) Lloyd P. Gartner; Hillel Halkin; Edward L. Greenstein; Yehuda Ben-Dror, "New York City," Encyclopedia Judaica, vol. 12, (Jerusalem: Keter Publishing House, Ltd., 1971), 1062-1124; 1078.

(12) "I raise my glass in honor of New York, with which I remain, celebrating and reminiscing, your Amiga Serena."




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