Sephardic Jewry & Racism in America: Spring Course

Online, on Zoom

Sephardic Jewry and Racism in America

Thursdays, April 29 - May 20; 7 - 8:45*pm (ET)

4 Sessions on Zoom

Blending pre-recorded lectures and live discussion facilitated by Sephardic scholars and community members, we will delve into questions about racialized experiences of Sephardic Jewry in the Unites States, the activism and achievement that emerged, and what implication this has for our future.


Prof. Devin Naar and the other guest lecturers will explore questions such as, are Sephardic Jews "white"? How do Sephardic Jews and a historically ambiguous status fit into the story of race and racism in the United States? The class will also explore the largely erased role that Sephardim played in seeking to transform systemic racism through: labor organizing, leadership in the communist and socialist parties, and in the promotion of civil rights.


All of Devin Naar's original lectures were sponsored and first aired by the Sephardic Jewish Brotherhood of America as part of their Sephardic Digital Academy series, a national partnership project.


*Note: the time has been extended from 8:30pm to 8:45pm to allow for more discussion.


Sequence of Classes: 

1. Confrontation: Prof. Devin Naar's pre-recorded first lecture will lay out the ways in which Sephardim encountered the U.S. immigration and naturalization systems, restrictions, and exclusions; racial and "civilizational" hierarchies; public perceptions about the Levant, the Ottoman Empire, Jews, Spanish-speakers; and how all these perceptions - and institutionalized policies - were shaped by widely popular (and since discredited) ideas about eugenics and "race science."


The group discussion will be facilitated by Fortuna Calvo-Roth, who brings an expertise on Sephardic identity in Latin American countries and will offer a brief presentation.



2. Navigation: Devin Naar's pre-recorded second lecture will be followed by a live discussion led by BWC member Leah Varsano. In the prerecorded lecture, Prof. Naar will share the many ways in which Sephardim sought to navigate the unjust and racist systems in place in the United States - and operative within the American jewish community - by creating their own mutual aid organizations like the Sephardic Jewish Brotherhood of America and by insisting that they call themselves, and be called, Sephardic or Spanish, rather than "Levantine" or "Oriental" or "Turkish."



3. Transformation: Devin Naar's pre-recorded lecture will highlight the largely erased role that Sephardim played in seeking to transform those very systems: through labor organizing with Latinx workers in Harlem; engagement with and leading roles in the social and communist parties; participation in anti-imperialist movements; promoting desegregation in the healthcare field; the promotion of civil rights, and how they met with bomb threats and racial epithets.


The post lecture discussion will be facilitated by Prof. Emerita and novelist Jane Mushabac, an expert in Ladino and Sephardic traditions, who will also offer a brief presentation.


4. Between Privilege and Peril - Jews and Structural Racism in the United States: Devin Naar joins us live for a lecture and to lead a discussion about his current book project which investigates the multifaceted experiences of Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews with American conceptions of race.



Dates: Thursdays, April 29 - May 20, 2021 (4 sessions)

Time: 7:00 p.m. - 8:45 p.m. (Eastern Time)

Location: On Zoom

Registration: BWC Members: $60 - $100 sliding scale | $80 - $120 sliding scale


(Cost should never be a barrier to accessing our programs. Our sliding scale covers the cost of our  teachers and overhead, in addition to keeping our courses accessible to participants of all income levels. However, please do not let cost prevent you from participating and, if this range is outside of your means, pay what you are able.)

Guest Lecturers: 


Dr. Devin E. Naar is the Isaac Alhadeff Professor in Sephardic Studies, Associate Professor of History, and faculty 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, Dr. Naar is the chair of 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 the best book awarded by the Modern Greek Studies Association. His current book project investigates the multifaceted experiences of Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews with American conceptions of race.



Fortuna Calvo-Roth. Born in Paris to Turkish-born Sephardic parents, Fortuna Calvo-Roth was raised in Lima, Peru, went to college in Missouri, and has lived in New York City since 1956, where she had a career in journalism, academia, business and theater. With son Stephen she owns Coral Communications Group, producers of the award-winning Nueva Onda Audiobooks. She worked for the Mission of Israel to the United Nations during the Sinai War, was NY correspondent of the Brazilian weekly Visao, editor-in-chief of Vision magazine, and editorial director of Vision, Inc., where she jumpstarted Vision Europe.


Later, she became a parter of Vista Magazine and Latinoamericana/Channel 2 in Peru, taught politics at Hofstra and NYU and was a board member of the Graduate Center/CUNY Foundation. She is the author of What, No Yiddish? in the anthology "Taking Root. The Lives of Jewish Women in Latin America." (Marjorie Agosin, ed.) A member of the Stella Adler Repertory Company, she produced a number of plays at different venues, among them at NY City Center Studios. In 2018, Calvo Roth had a lead role in Wait at the Hudson Guild in NYC. She was a member of The Jury Project, a task force that recommended reforms in the jury system of the state of New York. A former president of New York Women in Communications, she won a Medal of Honor from the University of Missouri School of Journalism in 2018, was selected as a Woman of Distinction by the NY State Senate in 2014, and recognized among the "50 Outstanding Latinas in the US" by El-Diario-La Prense in 2002.



Leah Varsano is an organizer and leader with Kavod Boston, a co-founder of Kavod's Jews of Color, Indigenous Jews, Sephardim and Mizrahim caucus, and a contributor to BWC's annual Purim Shpil since 2018. She is active in language reclamation efforts for Ladino, and recently co-wrote a one-act Ladino play with fellow presenter Jane Mushabac that premiered at the 2021 New York Ladino Day. She has a master's degree in Sustainable International Development from Brandeis University and is currently a Program Officer focusing on domestic policy and labor issues with Oxfam America.




Jane Mushabac. Writer Jane Mushabac's many awards include fellowships from the National Endwoment for the Humanities and the Mellon Foundation. Her work has been performed on National Public Radio, at Jazz at Lincoln Center and in cities here and abroad; her writing has appeared in Jewish Currents, The Village Voice, AJS Perspectives, and Chautaqua, and has been translated into Russian, German, Bulgarian, Turkish and Ladino. Co-author of A Short and Remarkable History of New York City, she currently writes about Turkish Jews - her own family on both sides lived in Anatolian Turkey for centuries, and before that in Spain.


She has written in Ladino, her work published in both its original and her English translation. Her acclaimed novel, His Hundred Years, A Tale, introduces a Turkish Jew, an everyman, a peddler in Ottoman Turkey and later in New York. Her writing has been called "bold and ambitious" (Sewanee Review). Morris Dickstein praised her novel's "crisp detail and dappled mosaic narrative," Ari Goldman said the novel "calls to mind the work of Ohran Pamul - it's that good"; Tovah Feldshuh called it rowdy and absorbing" and Gloria Ascher: "sensitive and gripping." Since 2018, Dr. Mushabac, Professor emerita of City University of New York, has curated the popular annual New York Ladino Day at the Center for Jewish History, this year on Zoom.


For questions about the course, please contact

Note: This course will be recorded.