When my grandfather came to the United States from Syria in the early twentieth century, he brought with him the mores and values of a Middle Eastern Jewish culture that has not been protected and secured for his descendants. The literary texts as well as the documentary history of his world have been almost completely forgotten amidst a sea of adaptation to a very different way of seeing things. My grandfather was heir to many traditions that were to him a very intimate and organic part of the world in which he grew up: a world that was increasingly collapsing and falling prey to new modes of identification.

My grandfather was, as I am, a Sephardi Jew. We are the descendants of Spanish and Portuguese Jews who lived in the Iberian Peninsula before the great expulsion of 1492. In the wake of the expulsion Jewish families like that of my grandfather moved east, back into the Ottoman-Arab world where they remained part of the Muslim civilisation that had once flourished in Iberia.

Sephardim wrote the first page in American Jewish history, even though they now seem to have been written out of that very history. In 1654 the first Jews who stepped on the shores of America were Sephardic while the first synagogues of colonial America, Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island and Shearith Israel in New Amsterdam, were also founded by Sephardim.

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