The Genesis of Sephardic Jewry in California: Backdrop for an Elite Culture in Judaism, by M. I. Bob Hattem

Sepbardic Jews from the Ottoman Empire arrived in Los Angeles during the early part of the 20th century, more than 50 years after the first Sephardim arrived in Los Angeles in 1853, and in San Francisco as early as 1849. In the article, ‘The Historical Recovery of the Pioneer Sephardic Jews of California” by Dr. Norton B. Stem and Rabbi William Kramer1 it says in part, “The Sephardim began arriving in San Francisco as early as 1849. These Jews constituted elite; they were better educated, more proficient in the English language (virtually all were born in North America) and a large proportion of them were able to occupy professional roles unlike the overwhelming majority of their co-religionists. These Sephardim were integrated into American culture prior to their journey west ” Most of those Sephardim could trace their ancestry back to pre-revolutionary times and even beyond, to the year 1654 when the first handful of23 hearty souls set foot in New Amsterdam from Brazil.

Some of those early Sephardim2 who arrived in California during the Gold Rush period included Manuel M. Noah Henry Labatt,3 the three Bartlett brothers4 Joseph Simpson famed lawyer Joseph Brandon, Isaac M. Cardoza, Josepb Shannon, and the Reverend J. Mendes De Sola. These men were all professionals: journalists, attorneys, political office holders and clergymen.

The first organized Jewish community in Los Angeles came into existence on July 2, 1854, exactly 200 years from the time the first Sephardim arrived in North America. It was under the leadership of two Sephardic Jews: Samuel K. Labatt and Salomon Nunes Carvalho.6 The organization was known as the Hebrew Benevolent Society, which continues today under the name, Jewish Family Service. The first president of the Society was one of the organizers, Samuel K. Labatt, who arrived from New Orleans with his brother Joseph in 1853. Together they opened a dry goods store at the southwest comer of Main and Commercial Streets. Sephardic Jews began arriving in California from eastern cities: New York, Philadelphia, Charleston, South Carolina and even some from the West Indies, but as fate would have it they remained for only a few years before returning to the communities from whence they came.

In San Francisco, the first congregation was formed in 1853 albeit the first minhag was performed in a tent in San Francisco in 1849. Unfortunately the congregation was short-lived because of the active building fund campaigns of the two pioneer Ashkenazic synagogues: Emanu-El and Shearith Israel. It seems that they did not want to divide the Jewish community’s efforts inasmuch as the Sephardim had been involved in leadership roles in both congregations. It is interesting to note that the second president of Congregation Emanu-EI was Joseph Shannon, a Sepbardic Jew who served from 1851-1852.

Shannon, an outstanding pioneer of Jewish religious life in the west was present at the first High Holy Day Service in San Francisco held in Louis A. Franklin’s tent in 1849. He was also the dedicatory speaker at the first congregational-owned synagogue building in the west in Sacramento, California on September 3, 1852, and was chosen to serve as the first duly elected president of the Spanish-Portuguese Rite Congregation San Francisco in 1853. In 1851 Shannon was elected treasurer of the City of San Francisco.

Shannon, as well as other Sephardim, was part of a substantial number of Jewish individuals of Spanish-Portuguese origin and American birth who began arriving in California in 1849.7 Some additional Sephardim of pioneer American California were the Peixotto family, the Balasco family, David Mendes, Joseph Benrima, J. T. De Costa, and Abraham Tobias Ezekiel.

From the 1860s to the early 20th century there is a void as far as the Sephardim in Los Angeles were concerned, with one notable exception, David d’Ancona. In 1876 d’Ancona wrote in his diary on coming to Los Angeles, “Los Angeles is the Damascus of America.”8 As an aside it is well within the realm of possibility that Sephardim albeit Anusim, were in California as early as the 18th century. In an article I wrote, “A Matter of Conjecture” there is a quote which states, “For a long time were was a prejudice against pork, the people even refusing to use lard in their cooking, confining themselves to beef fat. Pigs were only fit to make soap of, they thought. Neither did they care to eat bear or sheep flesh (although the Torah permits the eating of sheep – Deut. 45:4); beef alone suited them.” Is this another clue to whether or not the early Californians were secret Jews?

Another instance where Sephardim (Anusim) were involved was when, in 1967, during an archaeological dig carried on at the ruined Royal Chapel site on the grounds of the Santa Barbara Presidio, Janet Karen, a student from the University of California, Santa Barbara, discovered a-complete chicken skeleton which had been resting there for nearly 200 years. Being Jewish, Janet remembered a rite known as kapparah, a rite that was performed usually before construction of a dwelling. Question: Were the founding fathers of California in fact Anusim? Names such as Carillo, a prominent Jewish family in Toledo, Spain, Ortega another prominent Jewish family from Burgos, and even Fr. Junipero Serra, who founded the Royal Presidio Chapel of Santa Barbara in 1782 and was a native of Petra, Mallorca, was of Jewish descent.

Meanwhile the Labatts returned east. Those remaining in Los Angeles blended in with the rest of the Jewish community. The real emphasis of the Sephardic community was not felt until the beginning of the 20th century, the predominant influx coming from the Ottoman Empire. They came from Salonica, Egypt, Constantinople and other points of the Middle East. Not only did these Sephardim have a different culture from their Ashkenazi brethren, but this remained (to an extent) the same within their own culture, primarily because of the distance that separated them from one area to the next. This also caused them to be disorganized, which in turn resulted in the lack of proper religious and educational facilities.

There was an urgent need for a central community direction. Because of their cultural differences and customs, the Sephardim did not mix with their Askenazic counterparts. Their food, customs, and even their language was totally different from the Ashkenazic Yiddish.

The first known Jew to arrive in 20th century Los Angeles was Mordecai Zeitoun, a veteran of the Franco-Prussian War of 1871, a native of Algeria. He was an entrepreneur at the Louisiana Purchase Centennial Exposition at St. Louis, Missouri in 1904.9 “Papa” as he was affectionately known, along with his daughter Rose, arrived in Los Angeles during the closing months of 1904, probably in October or early November. They were followed by brothers Louis and David Bramy. David married Rose Zeitoun on March 6, 1906 and their son, Roger, delivered by a Dr. LaFoux was the first known Sephardi to be born in Los Angeles, on February 14, 1907.

At the time of their marriage, the Bramys resided at 316 West 7th Street. Subsequently the Bramys moved to San Francisco, being one of the first 20th century Sephardic immigrant families to reside there.

Another early Sephardic arrival was Jacob (Jack) Caraco, whose name appeared (along with 900 other supporters) on the honor roll of the first Jewish Federation dated 1912. Those 900 contributors to the first campaign of what is now the Jewish Federation Council of Greater Los Angeles were drawn from a total population of 10,000 persons.

Names like Baruch, Cohen and Levy appeared in the book as well as a listing of a “Portuguese Jewish Colony” which was probably the Avat Shalom Congregation founded in 1912.

Following the arrival of the Zeitouns, Bramys and Caracos, other families, future members of the Los Angeles Sephardic Community, began arriving from all points east. Some of these young immigrants were Marco Tarica, Morris Soriano, Joseph M. Mayo, Jack Notrica, Isadore M. Hattem, Isaac Raphael, Ovadia Haim, and Mandolino Levy. By 1912, the Avat Shalom society was founded.

In the beginning, for a few years the fledgling congregation flourished, but soon, with additional arrivals from various parts of the Levant, ethnic differences and parochial arguments ensued and it was just a matter of time before the Avat Shalom society was dissolved.

In 1917 the Peace and Progress Society was formed with members mostly from the Island of Rhodes, at the time still under the aegis of Turkey. Their first meeting place was a building formerly belonging to a B’nai B’rith Lodge on 17th and Georgia Streets in Los Angeles.

In 1935, they moved to their newly built temple, Ohel Abraham, located at 55th and Hoover Streets in Southwest Los Angeles. It was there they changed their name to The Sephardic Hebrew Center. Years later, the temple was sold and the community moved to a new temple building at 4911 East 59th Street.

Some of the dissenters organized the Haim VaHessed or Sephardic Brotherhood in 1920. In 1959, the Sephardic Brotherhood merged with the Sephardic Community of Los Angeles.

In order to attract the younger generation, several elders of the fledgling. Sephardic Community – those mostly from Turkey proper, decided that it was about time the Sephardim of Los Angeles were united into a large congregation, build a temple, and have an ordained rabbi. Unfortunately, this dream of the elders did not materialize, for the moment at least. They did, however, organize a formal community on Sunday, February 2, 1920.

Then and there 40 young immigrant souls bound themselves spiritually together and formed the Sephardic Community of Los Angeles, otherwise known as La Communidad. In 1932 amid the country’s greatest depression, La Communidad dedicated Temple Tifereth Israel, located at 1561 West Santa Barbara Avenue, now known as Martin Luther King Boulevard.

In 1993 the Sephardic Beth Shalom merged with the Sephardic Community of Los Angeles and the current name of the community is Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel, now located at the comer of Wilshire Boulevard and Warner Avenue in West Los Angeles. Once again, the fledgling community of Avat Shalom of 1912 is spiritually together again, after 81 years of separation. The Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel is now the second largest Sephardic community in the United States, second only to New York.

1. Western States Jewish Historical Quarterly, yol VIII, no. 1, October 1975 by William Kramer and Norton B. Stem.
2. The early arrivals came from families who had been established in America since 1654, mostly from the east coast.
3. From the Labatt family of Charleston, South Carolina.
4. Washington Bartlett, one of the Bartlett brothers, became governor of California in 1886.
5. His son, Justice Benjamin N. Cardoza, was appointed to the Supreme Court in 1932 by President Herbert Hoover to replace retiring Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes.
6. Solomon N. Carvalho was a member of the last Fremont expedition to California in 1853 and served as the artist! photographer of the expedition.
7. A California/Nevada Travel Diary of 1876 by David d’ Ancona, edited by William Kramer and published by Norton B. Stem, Santa Monica, 1975.
8. Don Francisco de Ortega, founder of Santa Barbara, discoverer of San Francisco Bay, and pathfinder of the Portola Expedition of l769.
9. Date of arrival coincides with the closing of the St. Louis Exposition.

Bob Hattem, a native born Angeleno, graduated from Manual Arts High, LACC, attended UCLA and Syracuse. He was in the food business over 40 years then changed vocations to writing. Now an archivist/historian at the Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel in Los Angeles, he is involved with a plethora of historical societies from San Diego to Sacramento. Hattem has been the past editor of five newsletters and a past president of Santa Monica Parlor, Native Sons of the Golden West. He has written two books of poetry plus numerous nonfiction articles in historical journals in addition to two books of short stories.