The Mamboniks

A repository for articles and artifacts regarding the intriguing history of Jews in Latin music.

THE MAMBONIKS began in 2001 as research for a book that remains unpublished. I hope that sharing my interviews and materials will help broaden the understanding of this unique moment in Jewish cultural history.

All material copyright Mark Schwartz, 2006


Sephardim in Harlem

One observer of Jewish Harlem in its brief heyday was the Puerto Rican activist Bernardo Vega. An early migrant who reached New York in 1916, he notes in his memoir a restaurant called La Luz. “We were attracted by the Spanish name, although the owner was actually a Sephardic Jew,” he writes. “The food was not prepared in the style that was familiar to us, but we did notice that the sauces were of Spanish origin.” It’s a rare outsider’s reference to East Harlem’s other Jewish community. New York’s Sephardim – mainly Jews from the Eastern Ottoman Empire, some 40,000 strong in the 1920s, were descended from Spanish exiles of Columbus’s day. They spoke Ladino, a mixture of medieval Spanish with Hebrew, Turkish, Italian, Greek, and Portuguese, and wrote it with Hebrew characters.

Individual Sephardic families – the Hayses, Hendrickses, and Peixottos -- some with roots in New York dating to the 1600s, made up a Jewish aristocracy in the 19th century. They had little to do with a second migration from Turkey, Cyprus, and other Mediterranean ports, who swelled the community’s numbers and added spice to Jewish Harlem. Relations between the Sephardim and their Eastern European brethren were often fraught. For their part, the Eastern European immigrants were baffled by these Jews who didn’t speak Yiddish, looked Hispanic, and prayed in such strange accents. At times, the Sephardim found a warmer reception from their Spanish-speaking, non-Jewish neighbors. Caribbean immigrants could communicate somewhat with these Jews in their medieval Spanish tongue, and intermarriage was common enough that Sephardic newspapers warned gravely against it.

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