Account of the Origins of the Foundation for the Advancement of Sephardic
Studies and Culture
is never a beginning and an end to an era. One is a continuation of
Matarasso, 1889 - 1971
Although elements of the Sephardic community began to disperse by the
late 1940's it wasn't until several decades later that an interest in
our cultural roots began to surface. This cultural awareness, coupled
with a rather extraordinary event, destined to ignite the spark that
would create the Foundation for the Advancement of Sephardic Studies
began in the early part of the 1960's when many former students of Professor
Maír José Benardete began a movement
to honor him on the occasion of his retirement from the teaching profession.
For well over forty years Benardete, a noted Sephardic scholar and professor
of Spanish, had taught in the city colleges in New York. His academic
success, especially in the field of Spanish-Jewish literature and culture,
was renowned. As a monument to his scholarship, his students planned
a testimonial dinner and hoped to publish a book as a tribute containing
scholarly writings by colleagues, former students and friends.
was desperately needed for the publication and yet only a few Sephardim
were aware of this. In March 1963, an interesting and colorful profile
of Professor Benardete by a former student, appeared in a publication
called La Voz. The review was dedicated to Prof. Benardete and
contained an appeal for funds for the publication of the book.
the same time, the Sephardic Jewish Brotherhood of America had
invited a former president, and leading Sephardic writer, David
N. Barocas, to speak on the occasion of the presentation of their
scholarship awards. Barocas, who was aware of Benardete's retirement,
chose as the central theme of his speech "Our Neglected Scholars."
In his talk Barocas lamented sadly how some five or six Sephardic scholars
- scholars of long standing who had steadfastly dedicated their lives
to the preservation, perpetuation and advancement of Sephardic culture
- were completely neglected and ignored, and it was found to be most
difficult to raise money in order to honor one of them.
of those present, Louis N. Levy, a Sephardic
businessman, approached Barocas at the close of the ceremonies and offered
his services. Levy set out to acquire as many copies of the La Voz
review as he could and distributed them among many of the more prominent
Sephardim. The distribution of the article was soon followed by a letter,
signed by Barocas and Levy, asking for contributions. A considerable
sum was ultimately raised and contributed towards the dinner and the
dinner committee expected that perhaps only sixty or seventy guests
would attend, but as the date approached more people became anxious
to share in the festivities of the event, and the number of reservations
rose to over three hundred. The occasion ultimately became an historically
noteworthy event - never before in the history of Sephardic life in
America had any one of their own been honored for academic achievement.
The testimonial dinner and the presentation of the book took place on
Sunday, November 21, 1965, at the Plaza Hotel in New York. Those who
came to honor this outstanding Sephardic academician of the twentieth
century included relatives, friends, colleagues from the faculties of
many colleges and a great number of his former students. A former student,
Sam Levenson, hosted the evening, and David Barocas himself spoke on
the Sephardic Community of New York. In a stirring climax, Barocas
presented Professor Benardete with the memorial volume: 'Studies
in Honor of M.J. Benardete.'
impressive and unforgettable event was also one of momentous consequence,
for it served to stimulate the idea of continued collaboration in the
field of Sephardic studies. After the memorial tribute, Barocas and
Levy agreed to establish a committee, with the goal of further advancing
Sephardic studies and culture in their own times. And so it was, that
the Committee for the Advancement of Sephardic Studies and Culture
was created in 1965, under the auspices and guidance of David N. Barocas,
Louis N. Levy and Professor M.J. Benardete.
a short time thereafter, Levy and Barocas, along with Prof. Benardete,
began to publish and to put into circulation among the Sephardim of
New York, as well as among many Sephardic congregations around the world,
articles and pamphlets of interest. These were produced mostly at their
own expense and under the auspices of the Committee.
they raised funds to send Victor Laredo, an acclaimed photographer of
international accord, to Spain to photograph the Juderías - the
old Jewish quarters - in the principal cities of Spain. Laredo's work
was then featured in the 1967 photographic exhibition 'Sephardic
Spain' which was held at the Jewish Museum in New York City. The
exhibit was sponsored by the Committee, conceived and directed
by Prof. M.J. Benardete. The exhibition was subsequently featured on
CBS Television's, 'Look Up and Live' program about Sephardic
Spain in 1968, and Yeshiva University's first Sephardic Cultural
Festival on January 26, 1969 and again at their Sephardic Heritage
Award Dinner held at the Plaza Hotel on May 25, 1969.
Shortly afterwards, Barocas, Levy and Benardete called upon four other
interested parties to join in the incorporation of this Committee,
and in 1969 officially established the Foundation for the Advancement
of Sephardic Studies and Culture. Those invited to join in this
venture were Ralph Matalon, an attorney, David E. Rousso, a businessman,
Albert J. Hasson, a certified public accountant, and Daniel Matarasso,
an insurance executive. Barocas and Levy continued to remain the driving
force behind the search for their Sephardic cultural roots, creating
what many were to later call 'a new era of Sephardic enlightenment.'
Foundation's initial plan had been to acquire a building to serve as
a 'Bibliotheca Sefardia' - a house of study with a library and
archives where the younger Sephardic generation could steep themselves
in "our history, our religion, our poetry, our philosophy and all
the other excellencies our ancestors achieved for over a thousand years"
in the hopes that it would encourage the Sephardic youth to continue
soon became evident that the enormous funds for such an ambitious project
were unobtainable, and the Foundation devoted its energy and
resources to the continued task of publishing tracts and monographs
on a variety of topics. The literary and scholarly aspects of these
publications, published under severe financial constraints, surpassed
anything which the American Sephardim had seen before. In the process
they brought to public light numerous aspects of our Sephardic culture,
religion language, history and community activities.
publications, as well as the endless pleas and correspondence conducted
by Barocas and Levy, aroused the interest not only of Sephardic intellectuals
in the U.S. and overseas, but also many Ashkenazi and non-Jewish scholars.
Candidates for academic degrees in related fields requested and received
every possible assistance, the correspondence and materials handled
personally by Levy himself.
between publications, the Foundation also sponsored works by
such noted Sephardic authors as Rabbi Marc Angel and the late Rabbi
Aryeh Kaplan. When Rabbi Kaplan approached David Barocas and the Foundation
with his intent to publish the first English translation of the great
Sephardic treatises, Me'Am Lo'ez, the Foundation stepped in,
offering advice, support and translations.
Foundation continued to co-sponsor events and publications throughout
the New York area, assisting Yeshiva University with their Sephardic
Community Activities Program and co-sponsoring some early publications
of their Sephardic Studies Program. The Foundation also
encouraged the progress of the American Society of Sephardic Studies
and such up-and-coming Sephardic authors as Professor Rachel Dalven,
David F. Altabe, Walter Weicker, Isaac Jack Levy, Joseph Papo, Victor
Laredo, Rachel Amado Bortnick, Diane Matza,
Vicki Tamir and Judith Misrachi.
the Foundation, Levy, Barocas and Benardete, along with Rabbi
Angel, were able to create in 1978, Sephardic House at Congregation
Shearith Israel, an independent institution initially created to fulfill
Levy's 'house of study' ideals. Many years later Mr. Levy and Albert
Amateau similarly founded the American Association of Jewish
Friends of Turkey with the support of many of those Levy and Barocas
had inspired throughout the years.
while the work of the Foundation was being hailed by many community
leaders, scholars and writers, it was evident that little attention
was paid by the general Sephardic population. Financial and moral support
continued to be received, but only from a handful of affluent people.
David Barocas wrote as early as 1971 of their predicament:
in the Foundation feel as though we are moving in a threatening storm.
Darkness is everywhere. Winds howl. Rains come in a downpour. We have
storm lanterns which we swing madly to see whether our dim lights
penetrate the darkness."
the seeming apathy, they persevered in their attempts to eliminate what
they called "the deep rooted cultural neglect and apathy of the
Sephardim," in the hope they could reawaken a sense of cultural
and social responsibility. While many individuals stood on the sidelines,
David Barocas and Louis Levy, in a quiet, humble and tireless way, created
an important body of material dealing with Sephardic history and culture.
And yet, what was extremely difficult for these two men to accept was
the knowledge that in addition to their financial limitations, individuals
lacking the necessary knowledge and experience in the field of Sephardic
history and culture were beginning to fill the vacuum of Sephardic studies.
Foundation set on a new course, and began to urge the Sephardim at large
that it was time for Sephardic scholars "to assume responsible
leadership in discrediting the works of writers who profess to be authorities
on our culture and tradition." Emphasis was placed on bilingual
texts of immortal Sephardic classics, advocating Sephardic scholars
to edit and write introductions for such works. "The Sephardim
are the ones who need it most; they are the ones to be influenced by
it; they are the guardians of their culture and the ones to transmit
it to posterity. A renewed flurry of monographs and correspondence followed,
criticizing and refuting works, articles and texts which they felt sought
to mislead or misrepresent Sephardic heritage and culture. A particular
issue was the sensationalist book The
Grandees, which had reached the best seller list, but which
had completely misrepresented both Sephardic life and heritage in the
United States. A scathing critique and review of the book by Barocas,
Benardete and Angel was quickly issued, and was distributed in published
continued to write and edit a number of tracts, and was working on the
English translation of the difficult Pirke Avoth portion of the
Me'am Lo'ez, up until his death in 1978. For some years, Rabbi
Angel continued to follow in his footsteps, editing the several books
and publications which were issued by the Foundation. In 1980,
they published a memorial volume dedicated to the memory of David N.
Barocas, with contributing material by many of the leading writers and
scholars, he had helped and inspired over the years.
the older Sephardic generation slowly disappeared, Levy occupied himself
with his continued correspondence, co-sponsoring activities and encouraging
a new generation of writers and scholars, who were eager to explore
and understand their Sephardic heritage and roots. By the early 1990's
Levy was actively involved in many of the Quincentennial commemorations
on the expulsion of the Sephardic Jews and their arrival in the Ottoman
lands. He divided his time between the Foundation and his newly
created American Association of Jewish Friends of Turkey, and
worked untiringly in his efforts to raise funding and awareness for
many of the new Sephardic organizations and their activities.
1994, with the untimely death of Louis N. Levy, the Foundation
saw the last of its founders pass from the scene. But the encouragement
and inspiration that the original founders sought were successfully
instilled within many who saw in Levy, Barocas and Benardete, the embodiment
of the cultural renaissance of Sephardic studies of the last decades
of the twentieth century. Since then, the Foundation has passed on to
a new generation of dedicated leaders, former officers of the Foundation
and members of the Sephardic community, who have been as passionately
active and involved in preserving and protecting our Sephardic heritage
nearly 40 years, the Foundation has been dedicated to preserving
and promoting the complex and centuries-old culture of the Sephardic
communities of Turkey, Greece, the Balkans, Europe and the United States.
we enter a new era, the Foundation continues to vigorously renew
and preserve the rich heritage, culture and legacy of our ancestors.
With extensive archives gathered over the decades from numerous sources,
including early leaders of the Sephardic communities, the Foundation
has been able to produce, support and enrich numerous research projects
and published works. Local community and organization events are sponsored
and new documentaries and presentations on Sephardic life and culture
are prepared and exhibited across the country. Older publications are
being reissued in English, and new works continue to be published, including
a series of memorial volumes dedicated to Sephardic communities and
cultures destroyed in the Holocaust. The long list of publications,
presentations and exhibitions attest to the enrichment of Spanish Jewish
culture in our times.
the mission of the Foundation for the Advancement of Sephardic Studies
and Culture remains essentially the same some four decades after
its founding: To encourage the appreciation and understanding of the
Sephardic heritage, language and experience, in an effort to preserve
and document it for future generations, before it disappears forever.