March 8, 2024

Sephardic Art and the First Modernist Sephardic Artists

By Devin E. Naar

Ketubbah, Istanbul, Turkey, 1853. (Courtesy of The Israel Museum, Jerusalem.)

Editor’s note

This is the first in a series of essays about the largely invisible yet dynamic world of art created by Sephardic Jews— a topic that sits at the intersection of my scholarship and personal life. My father’s identities as an artist and as a Sephardic Jew spurred my exploration of the place of art in Sephardic communities and the general absence of Sephardic Jewish artists from scholarship and public consciousness about Jewish art. In pursuit of this topic, alongside my own research, I spent a lot of time in moabet (lively discussion) with scholars of Jewish art and artists. In this series, I share the results of this exploration.

Part 1 delves into the history of the engagement with the arts among Sephardic Jews, examining why so little has been written on the topic, and then asks: What makes art “Sephardic”? Is it different from “Jewish” art? Parts 2 and 3 will look at five twentieth-century visual artists—mostly modernists—of Ladino-speaking background, whose lives varyingly stretched from the Ottoman Empire to Europe, Israel (itself a post-Ottoman state), and the United States. While one or two of the artists are well-known today, this essay constitutes the first attempt to bring them into conversation with each other. It is the first time one of the artists, Angel (Angelo) Castro, has been written about ever, and it is certainly the first time that all five artists have been discussed through a specifically “Sephardic” lens.

PART 1: What is Sephardic Art?

Growing up, perhaps no two domains were as significant to me as Jewishness and art. My younger brother and I spent much of our childhood sitting on the floor of our father’s studio at home, watching him paint still lifes of conch shells and sensuously sliced pears laid out on a table, or wooded landscapes inspired by our parents’ visits to the Jersey shore, Florence, and the Caribbean, while we drew and painted on our own. When our friends came over to play on Friday afternoons, they could be sure of two things: they would immerse themselves in art, and they’d be invited to stay for Shabbat dinner. But these two domains—Jewishness and art—were largely parallel, rarely intersecting, tracts in our lives. 

Devin Naar and his brother, Aaron, now a filmmaker, painting with their father, Harry, in his studio in Lawrenceville, NJ, c. 1992.

My father was—and still is—a representational painter who visited with the figurative painter Jean Hélion from 1969 to 1970 in Paris and taught drawing, painting, printmaking, and art history at the university level for nearly half a century. He did not weave overt Jewish themes into his work, and certainly not specifically Sephardic ones—although as the director of his university’s art gallery, he collaborated with the school’s Holocaust center and organized several exhibitions about Holocaust art.

But things changed recently. Joining me in 2019 for a visit to his own father’s city of birth, Salonica (now Thessaloniki, in Greece), my father produced several studies of sites of historical Jewish interest, which became the basis for a series of ten watercolor illustrations called “Echos of Sephardic Salonica.” When he debuted the series at “Muestros Artistas,” an event celebrating Sephardic artists at the University of Washington in 2023, my father resisted characterization as a Sephardic or Jewish artist. Even if he had produced images dealing with Sephardic Jewish themes, he asserted that his style—no doubt shaped by numerous influences—remained his own. He prefers to describe himself as an artist who happens to be a Sephardic Jew, rather than a Sephardic artist.  

An image from Harry I. Naar’s series, “Echoes of Jewish Salonica.”

The question as to whether or not there is Jewish art has been asked frequently—and often answered, quite Jewishly, with additional questions about the very meanings of the words “Jewish” and “art.” Has anyone ever asked whether there is such a thing as “Sephardic art” or “Levantine Jewish art”? If so, does it encompass a set of aesthetics, styles, politics? What would we call those who produce it? Would our understanding of “Jewish art” or “Jewish artists” change if we took into account the art, aesthetics, social contexts, and worldviews of artists with roots in the Ottoman Empire rather than France, Germany, or Russia? 

I had never asked these questions before my father began his series; I only began to investigate the topic to prepare the present essay. It is the result of hours of moabet—conversation—with my father, and also with my mother and brother; conversations with art historians like Shalom Sabar at Hebrew University, and research into available scholarship and primary sources in English, Ladino, Hebrew, French, and Spanish.   

As is the case for other aspects of Jewish history, culture, or politics, I was not surprised that in the arts, too, scholars and Jewish institutions have generally neglected the roles played by most Sephardic Jews. Figures like Amedeo Modigliani and Camille Pissaro, born into Sephardic families from Tuscany and the Caribbean, respectively, are famous exceptions. Yet their families hailed from “Western Sephardic” communities that, after being expelled from the Iberian Peninsula in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, remained in Europe and the Atlantic world and never settled in Muslim societies. The Sephardic Jews at the center of this series, however, stem from “Eastern Sephardic” communities—established after 1492 in the Ottoman Empire, in Muslim societies in the eastern Mediterranean region—and grew up in Ladino-speaking families. 

Amedeo Modigliani, “The Jewish Woman,” 1908.

The “Western” and “Eastern” branches of Sephardic Jewry interacted rarely in recent centuries, to such an extent that when their heirs converged in places like New York City in the early twentieth century, Western Sephardic Jews, who were described as “Spanish and Portuguese Jews” and were long-recognized as the aristocratic “grandees”1 of the Jewish community, initially refused to acknowledge the new arrivals from the Ottoman Empire as fellow Sephardic Jews at all. Instead, these new immigrants were designated dismissively as “Levantine” or “Oriental” Jews by the Western Sephardic community and the Ashkenazi Jewish establishment alike; some Ashkenazim did not even recognize them as Jews at all!2 Such Eurocentric and Ashkenormative approaches have generally rendered Ladino-speaking Jews from the Ottoman Empire invisible in scholarly and popular discussions of Jewish art. While a similar project must be undertaken for other Sephardic Jews—from Arabic, Persian, Greek, and other language backgrounds—I hope this series will introduce an awareness of the topic to scholars and the broader public, provoke further research, and challenge and reimagine narratives about “Jewish art” and “Jewish artists.” 

Despite the lack of attention toward their cultural pursuits, Ladino-speaking Sephardic Jews played noteworthy roles in the arts. They spearheaded the design and production of Judaica in the Ottoman Empire, became antiquarians whose Judaica collections formed part of the foundation of the holdings of institutions like Jewish Museum in New York City, and were key figures in the modern art scenes that stretched from Paris to Tel Aviv, Sarajevo, New York, and beyond—some well-known, but others forgotten. My colleague Adair Rounthwaite, the chair of art history at the University of Washington, helped me understand why most of the figures I discuss here (my father included) ostensibly never identified themselves as “Sephardic artists”—because they likely considered themselves modernist artists first and foremost. While several drew inspiration from and depicted Jewish or specifically Sephardic imagery, as modernist artists, they primarily concerned themselves with aesthetic and perceptual experimentation, and with innovation aimed at a broad or “universal” audience. But as we look at these artists and their worlds anew, are there any clues that they, or their contemporaries, considered them to be “Sephardic artists”?

Sephardic Jews and Art

As a first-generation American, my father embarked on a career in the arts that was initially incomprehensible to his family. Beyond the question of whether one could earn a living as an artist, an additional concern emerged for my father’s parents, if not from my father himself: What role models were out there? Yes, there are famous painters of Sephardic background, like Modigliani, from Livorno in Italy, and Pissaro, from St. Thomas, one of the Virgin Islands. But was there anything particularly “Sephardic” or “Jewish” about their art? Moreover, they did not come from Ladino-speaking communities of the former Ottoman Empire, like my family. I doubt my paternal grandparents even knew who these artists were, let alone that they were “Sephardic.”

Aniconism, the biblical prohibition against graven images of human and animal forms, is an entrenched concept in popular understandings of Judaism. Scholars, however, suggest that the Second Commandment did not proscribe the creation of images in general, but rather the worship of images. The first book of Kings, for example, describes the decorations that beautified the Temple in Jerusalem: not only sculpted palms and lilies, but also oxen, lions, and winged cherubim.3 The Dura-Europos synagogue in present-day Syria, built in the third century CE and now known to be one of the oldest known synagogues in the world, includes elaborate frescoes depicting biblical scenes with human figures, from the binding of Isaac to Moses leading the Israelites across the Red Sea. Some scholars suggest that other sociological factors limited Jews’ creation of visual arts over time, including periods of persecution, or exclusion from craft guilds by dominant societies. Only in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries did Jewish communal leaders emphasize a more totalizing view of Judaism’s prohibition of graven images to curry favor with dominant European Christian society.4

“The Feast of Sada,” Folio 22v from the Shahnama (Book of Kings) of Shah Tahmasp, painting attributed to Sultan Muhammad Iranian, ca. 1525. (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Islamic Art Collection.)

In the context of Muslim societies, like in the Ottoman Empire, Jewish concerns with visual imagery were compounded by similar prohibitions in Islam. Those dynamics frequently—but not always—barred anthropomorphic depictions in Islamic religious art until modern times. An elaborate culture of Persian, Mughal, and Ottoman miniatures, largely sprouting from beyond an overtly religious realm, nonetheless flourished for centuries. The Shahnama (“Book of Kings”), for example— one of the most extensive epics in world literature, featuring fifty thousand rhymed couplets—chronicles the feats of the Iranian kings from the seventh to eleventh centuries and was retold in manuscripts with elaborate illustrations. Ottoman sultan Selim II received a copy of one manuscript, including 259 miniatures, as a gift from the court of the Safavid Shah Tahmasp I in the sixteenth century. When it came to Jewish art produced in Muslim contexts, the cautious view of Maimonides, articulated already in the medieval Mediterranean context, tended to prevail as the ideal: he acknowledged the power of visual art to spiritually inspire, and approved of Jews and Muslims working together as goldsmiths in workshops, where they embellished ceremonial objects with leaves and stars—but he discouraged artistic production that glorified human figures.5 

The confluence of these dynamics may explain why the first Ladino-speaking Sephardic Jewish artist of the twentieth century may have been a fictional character. Among the dozens of Ladino novels written in the Ottoman Empire, Ben Izak Sacerdote’s Refael i Miriam: Novela de la Vida de los Judios del Oriente, published in Istanbul in 1910, introduces the theme of the tragic artist—a kind of Sephardic antecedent to Chaim Potok’s coming-of-age novel about a Hasidic Jewish boy and aspiring artist in New York, My Name is Asher Lev (1972).6 In Sacerdote’s novel, Refael Alvo and Miriam Arditti run away from Istanbul, not because one is Jewish and one is not, and not only because one is poor and one is rich—but because Refael wants to become a painter and Miriam’s wealthy family does not approve. Refael is criticized by Miriam’s family as a fantastical idealist who will never make a living and who has no grasp of the harsh realities of the world. They travel to Vienna, and then to Italy, where Refael tries his hand at success as a painter. Alongside the story of their romance, the narrative traces the fate of the first portrait Refael paints of his beloved Miriam.7 The novel reflects the position of the artist as essentially the craziest and least practical profession imaginable in the Ottoman Jewish world of the time. Notably, the novel’s preoccupation is not about graven images, but rather the economic viability and social standing of the artist.

The contested place of the artist in Sephardic Jewish life reemerged decades later in one of the only films depicting the world of Ladino-speaking Sephardic Jews: Novia que te vea (1993), based on the novel by Rosa Nissán, herself born in Mexico City to Sephardic Jewish parents from Jerusalem and Turkey.8 The film traces the tale of a Turkish Jewish family that immigrated to Mexico in 1927 and the efforts of the granddaughter, Oshinica Mataraso, in the 1960s, to navigate traditional demands imposed by her family (in particular, that she marry and start a family) with her own desire to pursue an education, romance, and most of all, a career as a painter. Although a half century separates the settings of Refael i Miriam from Novia que te vea, the opposition of the Sephardic parents to their children’s artistic aspirations remains constant, perhaps ramified even further in the film given that Oshinica not only prioritizes education over marriage (a provocative enough decision) but also that she specifically opts to become a painter—perceived, once again, as an impractical profession, and a dishonorable one, especially for a Sephardic Jewish woman expected to raise a family.

Beyond the fictional worlds of Refael and Miriam in 1900s Istanbul and Oshinica Mataraso in 1960s Mexico City, the aspiring Sephardic artist in the twentieth century confronted additional obstacles: namely, the entrenched perception—shaped by deeply Eurocentric and orientalist assumptions internalized by mainstream (i.e., Ashkenazi) Jewish society—that Jews from the Ottoman Empire were not “cultured” enough to produce their own art. The Jewish Daily Forward, which was the most widely read Jewish newspaper in the United States and reached a wider circulation than the New York Times a century ago, made this point clearly and callously in an exposé on New York’s “Turkish Jews” in 1926:

In the “old country” [i.e., the Ottoman Empire], they [the Sephardic Jews] had no cultural life of their own worth speaking of. They had no common body of customs and traditions, no common literature, no knowledge of or curiosity about their past … They had been a backward people in a backward country, and how could they hope to progress in this country?9

While the Forward did not outright claim that Sephardic Jews could not produce visual arts, the dismissive attitude toward their ability to produce “culture” of any kind surely positioned them at a disadvantage. The Forward’s sentiment echoed the B’nai B’rith Messenger’s claim in 1919 that Lisa Varon—the well-known theater actress in Cairo, Jaffa, and later New York, originally from Ottoman Jerusalem, who performed in Yiddish and became one of the first stars of the Hebrew stage—could only emerge as an artist after she “threw off the half-slavish customs of the Sephardim and began to find herself.”10 This sentiment persisted in the fictional world of the novel Novia que te vea, in which the family of Oshinica Mataraso’s Eastern European Ashkenazi Jewish best friend insults Sephardic Jews as ignorant, uncultured, and uncivilized, and as having fallen from the heights of their forebears like Maimonides and Spinoza.

Photo portrait of actress Lisa Varon, Federal Theater Project, 1935-1939. (Library of Congress.)

These denigrating depictions of Sephardic Jews—and of Sephardicness itself as a liability—mirrored the disparaging antisemitic rhetoric, dating back to the nineteenth century, which claimed that Jews in general did not have their own culture, nor the ability to produce any. The German composer Richard Wagner most infamously articulated this claim in his 1850 essay, “Jewishness and Music,” in which he denounced Jews for what he described as their parasitic nature that deprived them of a true creative spirit, tropes that reemerged in Nazi Germany’s war against “degenerate” and “Jewish” art. Ironically—indeed, tragically—these same patterns of disparagement and belittlement emerged among Jews, in this context, expressed by Ashkenazim towards Eastern Sepharadim. These denigrating views only solidified the perception that Sephardic Jews were ill-equipped or totally unable to produce art. But, as we’ll see, art created and curated by a range of Sephardic Jews has in fact been central, even if not recognized as such, to the history of Jewish art in general.  

Jewish Arts from Spain to the Ottoman Empire

Of course, Jews everywhere have a rich history in all domains of cultural production. And, although rarely acknowledged, Sephardic Jewish art has had an instrumental role in the story of Jewish art as a whole. The celebrated Sarajevo Haggadah, which was produced in Spain before 1492 and later resurfaced in Sarajevo, provides a famous example of a medieval illuminated Jewish manuscript adorned with human figures enacting biblical scenes and is stained with wine—evidence of its use at actual seders.11 One of the miniatures depicts a synagogue scene in which the inlaid wooden tiq (cylindrical case) for the Torah scroll can be seen in the ark—an illustration that depicts yet another form of artistry that was typical among Iberian Jews and Jews in Muslim societies. In 1898, the Haggadah became the first Hebrew illuminated manuscript to be published in a facsimile edition and sparked an ongoing quest to uncover other Jewish manuscripts and arts.12 During World War II, the Bosniak (Muslim Bosnian) librarian of the National Museum of Sarajevo, Derviš Korkut, smuggled the Haggadah to a mosque in a mountain village, where it survived far from the reach of the Nazis and their fascist Croatian Ustaše collaborators.

The interior of a synagogue showing tiqim in the ark, as depicted in the Sarajevo Haggadah, circa 1350.

Although it was saved by a Muslim, the Sarajevo Haggadah was likely produced in Catalonia in the fourteenth century, after the Reconquista brought Muslim rule in the region to an end, replacing it with Christian rule that more readily accepted anthropomorphic images. However, after the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, the Sephardic Jews who settled in the Ottoman Empire did not continue producing such extensive art with human and animal representation, likely in deference to the broader expectations of the dominant Islamic culture of Ottoman society. While there was not a total ban on anthropomorphic representations in Muslim societies, anxieties about the prospect of idol worship limited the kinds of acceptable human representation. For example, representations of Mohammad were strictly prohibited, but, as mentioned, a tradition of painting portraits of Ottoman sultans utilizing the miniature technique dates to the sixteenth century. 

Rabban Gamliel (Gamaliel) as depicted in the Sarajevo Haggadah, circa 1350.

Given this broader context, Jews in the Ottoman Empire did produce some art with human and animal imagery. Illustrated Haggadot made on the printing press are a prime example. The first known edition of a printed and illustrated Haggadah (of which only a fragment survives) was clearly created by Sephardic Jews, although the exact origin is disputed: it was produced either in fifteenth-century Iberia (before the expulsion), or in Salonica or Istanbul in the first decades of the sixteenth century (soon after the expulsion).13 This Haggadah features woodcut illustrations, including a depiction of four guests around a table partaking in a seder. The famous exegete Don Isaac Abravanel—an Iberian Jew who fled to Italy after the expulsion of 1492, while his sons fled to the Ottoman Empire—composed a commentary on the Haggadah, preoccupied with themes of exile and redemption; it first appeared in Istanbul in 1505. While the Haggadah with Abravanel’s commentary does not contain human representations, it does include a woodcut border with elaborate fauna filigree encircling images of various animals—stags, dogs, birds, snakes.14 The designs likely drew on imagery that adorned Hebrew books in Spain before 1492. 

Centuries later, a renewed interest in illustrated printed Haggadot15 emerged in post-Ottoman Turkey and Greece. A Haggadah published in Ladino and Hebrew in Istanbul in 1932 featured woodcuts reproduced from earlier Venetian Haggadot. In Salonica, even after the Holocaust decimated the city’s Jewish population, the reestablished community issued a trilingual Haggadah with Ladino, Hebrew, and Greek text in 1970. Although it included no original images, it was filled with color and black-and-white reproductions of manuscripts and older printed Haggadot, as well as photographs of Jewish life in Salonica before and after the war. Historian Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi described it as “one of the most luxurious editions of the Haggadah to appear within recent memory.”16 

An illustration of “Had Gadya,” known in Ladino as “Un Kavretiko,” in the trilingual Ladino-Hebrew-Greek Haggadah from Salonica, 1970. (The University of Washington Sephardic Studies Collection.)

If the illustrated, printed Haggadah was known among both Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews, the illustrated ketubbah (wedding contract) was unique to all Sephardic Jews, whether in Amsterdam, Livorno, or Ottoman lands. The difference among the Sephardic ketubbot, however, was that those produced in Christian contexts, such as one from eighteenth Livorno, often contained ample representations of human figures, whereas those created in Muslim contexts depicted humans more rarely. The sixteenth-century rabbi Avraham Moshe de Botton, in Ottoman Salonica, was asked whether it was permissible to depict the bride and groom, as well as the sun and moon, on a ketubbah—a question that suggests that such illustrations were, in fact, being produced. While he advised against such images, he ruled that ketubbot already decorated with them would remain valid. His response did not resolve the issue permanently: a ketubbah from 1790 created in Salonica, for example, includes simple illustrations of the bride and groom beneath the arches of a structure flanked by Hebrew verses from the Song of Songs referring to King Solomon’s wedding canopy.17 In the mid-nineteenth century, Rabbi Haim David Hazan of Izmir reinforced the reigning opposition to human representation in the Ottoman context, a statement that suggests that these illustrated ketubbot were still being produced, and thus required some rabbinical intervention.18 Beyond the occasional depiction of human forms, Ottoman ketubbot frequently included fauna, celestial objects, birds, and elaborate cityscapes of Istanbul or Jerusalem. 

Ketubbah, Turkey, 1900. (Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University Library.)
A ketubah (marriage contract), richly decorated with leaves and flowers, with the Turkish green crescent moon and a red star at the top.
Ketubbah of the Bensussen family, Tekirdağ (Rodosto), Turkey, 1919. (The University of Washington Sephardic Studies Collection.)
Ketubbah, Istanbul, Turkey, 1853. (Courtesy of The Israel Museum, Jerusalem.)

Ottoman Jewish artisans also produced a range of Judaica in close dialogue with the practices and aesthetics of the surrounding cultures. Beyond ketubbot, these material artifacts included rimonim (finials), parokhot (ark curtains), kemayas (amulets), mezuzot, hanukkiot, punteros (yads), rabbinical seals, bookplates, decorative rugs, gold-embroidered wedding dresses, and a variety of other textiles, often with floral motifs, that served as the woman’s ashugar (dowry). Like some of the ketubbot, Torah binders and the finials of the Scroll of Esther sometimes included the star and crescent, symbols not only of Islam but also of the Ottoman state (the star and crescent were emblazoned on the first Ottoman flag in 1844). 

Fasha (Torah binder) with a crescent and star, Monastir, present-day Bitola, Republic of Macedonia. (The University of Washington Sephardic Studies Collection, courtesy of Elayna Youchah.)
Finial of a scroll of the Book of Esther with crescent, Ottoman Turkey. (The University of Washington Sephardic Studies Collection, courtesy of Al DeJaen.)

An Ottoman Jew who claimed descent from “an illustrious Spanish Jewish family,” Hadji Ephraim Benguiat, from Izmir, even became a celebrated collector of ceremonial and decorative Jewish art. Artifacts from his collection were displayed at the Chicago’s World Fair in 1893—the first items of Judaica ever displayed in public in the United States.19 Among the objects in his collection was a unique eighteenth-century embroidered parokhet that, fascinatingly, depicts Istanbul’s Blue Mosque. Benguiat’s collection formed the basis of the Smithsonian’s Judaica collection that then became, in 1925, the basis of the Jewish Museum in New York City. Although seldom recognized today, this history reveals how Ottoman Judaica, with its characteristic interweaving of Jewish and Islamic motifs, undergirds Jewish arts in the United States. 

Sephardic Artists and Artists who happen to be Sephardic 

Although Sephardic art and art produced by Sephardic Jews, especially in the Ottoman realm, has been largely neglected by art historians and Jewish scholars, their contributions to Jewish history have been invaluable, as we see above. Sephardic art offers a unique lens into the influence (sometimes subtle, sometimes not) of dominant cultures on Jewish aesthetics, including in the realm of material culture, which constitutes a recurrent theme in Jewish history. At the same time, the marginal position of Sephardic Jews in the context of the broader Jewish and general societies in which they lived and worked created particular dynamics that, as we’ll see throughout this series, often led commentators to emphasize their outsider status and cultural hybridity, as well as the “exotic” character of the art they produced. 

By the early twentieth century, several artists who grew up in Ladino-speaking homes and emerged from Ottoman or post-Ottoman contexts went on to make a name for themselves. By that time, as the Sabancı Museum Painting Collection in Istanbul reveals, European styles of art and painting had entered the Ottoman realm. Several of the empire’s nineteenth-century sultans had taken an interest not only in calligraphy but also in painting in the Western academic mode, including still lifes and portraits. Sultan Abdülaziz (r. 1861–1876) even broke the established taboo against anthropomorphic sculpture by commissioning an equestrian statue of himself, cast in bronze. This increase in engagement with the visual arts—enhanced by the arrival of European artists interested in painting “exotic” palace scenes, as well as quotidian life—gradually domesticated European art forms in an Ottoman context. The invention of picture postcards, including those colorized by hand, and their introduction into the Ottoman Empire in the late nineteenth century also produced extensive visual representations of Ottoman Jews made by Ottoman Jewish printers. They pictured men and women in traditional garb, in street scenes and even in synagogues (especially in Salonica), and popularized anthropomorphic depictions without provoking the ire of either the rabbis or the Ottoman state.20 These developments set the stage for the emergence of the first Ottoman-born modernist Jewish artists. 

Colorized postcard of Salonican Jewish women and man in Ottoman dress, c. 1910.

In parts 2 and 3 of this series, I’ll look at the life and times of five such artists: Jules Pascin, Raphael Avraham Shalem, Siona Tagger, Daniel Kabiljo, and Angel (Angelo) Castro. While over the years I have come across fleeting references to these five artists, this series is the first effort to consider their stories together. The artists include one of international repute, one of national significance, one niche artist, one artist who is barely known, and finally, one who has been completely forgotten. Even though most did not even know each other (or even know of each other), they shared several characteristics beyond growing up in Ladino-speaking homes. They all stemmed from roughly the same generation (all born between 1885–1900); they all rebelled against their families’ expectations in order to pursue art; most, but not all, came from middle-class or well-to-do families, and all came from urban centers at the geographic peripheries of the Ottoman Empire (Salonica, Sarajevo, Jaffa, or Vidin), and often became artists outside the Ottoman Empire—either because they emigrated, or because the empire had collapsed around them, in the years bracketing World War I. With one exception, all were men; they all spoke multiple languages—at least three and as many as eight; they were mobile and embedded in transnational networks that linked most of them to Paris and/or Vienna (and to a lesser extent, to New York, Jerusalem, or Tel Aviv); and they all engaged with the political imagination of their time, often as nationalists, but also as internationalists or anti-nationalists.

Their work was often orientalized, or considered orientalist (and sometimes both); the artists themselves tended to be exoticized, or viewed as domesticators of the exotic; they were seen as cultural and aesthetic hybrids that could not be pinned down to one “school” or trend; even the most successful among them tended to be perceived as “outsiders” in their various social milieux; and three of the five adopted pseudonyms to pursue their careers in the arts. Finally, they all depicted Sephardic Jews, real or imagined, at one point or another in their careers—although most of them were never considered “Sephardic artists.” 

More than their specific heritage as Sepharadim, we find that bohemianism, mysticism, orientalism, and political engagement shaped the life, legends, and work of the artists featured in this series. Far from a unified portrait, my brief explorations are intended to offer a polyphonic approach that recognizes the vast range of trajectories pursued by the first generation of Ladino-speaking Jews who became artists in the early twentieth century. Part 2 will look at Jules Pascin, who had been a member of the so-called Paris School that included most famously Picasso and Matisse, as well as Chagall and Modigliani; and Raphael Avraham Shalem, a printmaker and goldsmith who attended the newly established Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem when Palestine was still under the Ottoman rule.  


  1. The term was popularized in The Grandees: America’s Sephardic Elite by Stephen Birmingham (New York: Harper & Row, 1971), a flawed account of Western Sephardic Jews in the United States that advanced the prejudice described here.
  2. Aviva Ben-Ur, Sephardic Jews in America: A Diasporic History (New York: NYU Press, 2009); Devin E. Naar, “‘Impostors’: Levantine Jews and the Limits of Jewish New York,” in Daniel Soyer, ed., The Jewish Metropolis: New York City from the 17th to 21st Centuries (New York: Academic University Press, 2021), 115-146; Devin E. Naar, “Our White Supremacy Problem: Exposing the Roots of Intra-Jewish Prejudice,” Jewish Currents (Spring 2019): 8-21.
  3.  I Kings 7:30–37.
  4.  Melissa Raphael, “Judaism and Visual Art,” in Oxford Research Encyclopedias: Religion (Oxford University Press: 2016), See also the beautifully illustrated volume, Grace Cohen Grossman, Jewish Art (New York: Hugh Lauter Levin Associates, 1995).
  5. Vivian Mann, “Art of Islamic Lands,” in Norman A. Stillman, ed., Encyclopedia of Jews in the Islamic World (Brill: 2010). Raphael, “Judaism and Visual Art.” 
  6. Chaim Potok, My Name is Asher Lev (New York: Knopf, 1972).
  7. Devi Mays and Marina Mayorski at the University of Michigan are preparing an English translation of Refael i Miriam.
  8. Novie que te vea, directed by Guita Schyfter (Mexico, 1993). Based on the novel by Rosa Nissán, Novia que te vea, (Mexico City, Planeta: 1992). For more on Nissán, see: Darrell B. Lockhart, ed., Jewish Writers of Latin America: A Dictionary, Garland Reference Library of the Humanities, Vol. 1794 (Garland Publishing, New York: 1997).
  9. Nathaniel Zalowitz, “The Thirty Thousand Turkish Jews in New York—Who They Are, What They Do, and How They Life,” Forward – ⁨פארווערטס⁩, July 25, 1926⁩.
  10. “Talented Jewish Actress,” B’nai B’rith Messenger⁩, August 29, 1919⁩.
  11. An illuminated manuscript is one that is handwritten and hand-painted, generally created before the widespread use of movable type that made printing possible. Since they were expensive to produce, illuminated manuscripts were usually commissioned by wealthy patrons.
  12. Grace Cohen Grossman, Jewish Art (New York: Hugh Lauter Levin Associates, 1995), 9.
  13. Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi, Haggadah and History (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1975), plate 1.
  14. Yerushalmi, Haggadah and History, plate 5.
  15. In Sephardic Hebrew, Aggadoth. For more on Sephardic Hebrew pronunciation, see: Makena Mezistrano, “From the Collection: Magen David, a defense of Sephardic Hebrew,” October 2, 2020, Stroum Center for Jewish Studies, University of Washington.
  16. Yerushalmi, Haggadah and History, plate 199.
  17. Shalom Sabar, “Decorated Ketubbot,” in Esther Juhasz, ed., Sephardi Jews in the Ottoman Empire: Aspects of Material Culture (Jerusalem: Israel Museum, 1990), 219–237.
  18. Shalom Sabar, “Art and Folk Art,” in Yaron Ben-Naeh and Michal Held Delaroza, eds., The Old Sephardi Yishuv in Eretz Israel (Jerusalem: Ben Zvi Institute, 2023), 301–322; reference to Hazan on 303 (in Hebrew).
  19. Grossman, Jewish Art, 12.
  20. Tamar Alexander, Gila Hadar, and Shalom Sabar, “‘El ojo ve, la alma desea’: Jewish Postcards from Salonika,”  Jerusalem Studies in Jewish Folklore 27 (2011): 183-229 [in  Hebrew]. The University of Michigan has a new Jewish Salonica Postcard Collection.

Dr. Devin E. Naar is the Isaac Alhadeff Professor in Sephardic Studies and Associate Professor of History at the Stroum Center for Jewish Studies in the Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington. A former Fulbright scholar with a PhD in History from Stanford University, Naar founded and chairs the UW’s internationally recognized Sephardic Studies Program. His first book, Jewish Salonica: Between the Ottoman Empire and Modern Greece, won a 2016 National Jewish Book Award and the 2017 prize for best book awarded by the Modern Greek Studies Association. His essays have also appeared in the Washington Post, Jewish Currents, Jewish Review of Books, Tablet Magazine, and Public Radio International. While he conducts research in six languages, Dr. Naar speaks his ancestral language, Ladino, with his two children.