Two Moroccan Jews from Casablanca now head that most Ashkenazi of food manufacturers - Manischewitz. A whole new community of Sephardi Jews is emerging on to the US scene, says Jonathan Sarna in The Forward: (with thanks: Sylvia)
Today, the Manischewitz Co. has moved far from its Eastern European roots. Indeed, its Moroccan-born co-CEOs, Alain Bankier and Paul Bensabat, reflect the changing face of America’s increasingly diverse and polychrome Jewish community. Sephardic Jews with roots in the Middle East, often known as Mizrahi Jews, form part of a sub-community that now comprises somewhere between 4% and 10% of all American Jews. And their numbers are growing.
America’s earliest Sephardic Jews arrived back in 1654. They maintained close ties with the Iberian-Jewish diaspora, incorporated Portuguese into their prayers and, in many cases, preserved memories of time spent practicing Judaism underground, as crypto-Jews in the face of Jewish expulsions. By the American Revolution, however, Central European Ashkenazim, with whom they tended to intermarry, outnumbered this elite group of Sephardim (today known as Western Sephardim). Few of their descendants maintain Sephardic traditions today.
A second group of Sephardic Jews arrived early in the 20th century from the collapsing Ottoman Empire, places like Salonica, Monastir (today known as Bitola), and the islands of Rhodes and Marmara. These Levantine Jews (today known as Eastern Sephardim) spoke Ladino and numbered in the thousands, but were dwarfed by the more than 2 million Yiddish-speaking Eastern European Jews who arrived at about the same time. For years, Ladino-speaking Jews harbored grievances against insensitive Ashkenazim who questioned their Jewishness, viewing them with disdain. In cities like New York, Seattle, Los Angeles and Atlanta, they proudly maintained their distinctiveness by establishing synagogues and sub-communities of their own.
Alain Bankier and Paul Bensabat represent the arrival of a large third wave of Sephardic Jews, with roots in Arab lands. These Jews, like so many before them, came to America seeking opportunity and to escape persecution and privation. Descending from families that have, in many cases, generations of experience in business, they appreciate the freedoms that America extends to them. Now that this immigrant group has mastered English and even begun earning advanced degrees (both Bankier and Bensabat boast MBAs from New York University), they are rapidly climbing the ladder to success.
So it is more than just a curiosity that an Eastern European Jewish firm named Manischewitz is currently headed by two Moroccan Jews from Casablanca; it is a sign that a whole new community of Jews is emerging on the American scene. While the “world’s largest matzo” may have been ephemeral, the rise of Mizrahi and other immigrant Jews will change the face — and the tastes — of the 21st-century American Jewish community.
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