Getting my Sefardi geek on

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Most of what I write on this blog is about technology or education, but what a lot of people don't know is that my formal education is not in Computer Science at all. My area of study at UC Berkeley was "Migration Studies" in the Interdisciplinary Studies Field major. And who's migration was I studying? Sefardi Jews in the Americas.

Sefardi Jews trace their family back to the Iberian Peninsula prior to the expulsion order of 1492 under the same "Catholic Kings", as they are called in Spanish, who funded the journey of Christopher Columbus to the Americas. Many of these families went through phases in which they had to hide their true identity, pretend not to be Jewish, even accept baptism and other Catholic rites, in order to survive. Some of the families that became "secret Jews" never came out of hiding, and continue to have their own set of traditions to this day. This is the group that fascinates me, for reasons too numerous to explain just now.

Since I was a kid, it has driven me crazy that most of the books about the history of Jews in America start with the 20th century and an influx of Ashkenazi (ie Eastern European) Jews. By the time I was in the 7th grade I knew that the first Jews in the Americas were Spanish and Portuguese Jews. The first Jewish community in New York, which was New Amsterdam back then, was a community of Sefardim who were expelled from Brazil when the Portuguese got the territory from the Dutch.

So, I got really excited when I learned about the Milken Archive of Jewish Music, and found that the first volume of Jewish Voices In The New World contains song and prayer from the colonial period and the 19th century. In other words, they didn't skip over the whole Sefardi period and jump straight to the migration of Eastern European Jews to America.

The music of the Sefardim is different from the Ashkenazi melodies that are familiar to most American Jews today. Both sacred and secular music has a different flow to it. I'm not an ethnomusicologist, so I couldn't begin to explain the differences, but you can hear them for yourself. Yes, sure, we're all Jews, but we have different cultures, different influences, and different artistic flavors. I love that!

The archive is supported by Jewish philanthropist Lowell Milken and has been around for two decades now, collecting recordings of Jewish American music from across our cultural heritage. In addition to the music, there are also 800 hours of oral histories, 50,000 photographs and historical documents, and thousands of hours of video footage. Like the Carnegie libraries of the early twentieth century, this is a gift that will enrich American culture for generations to come.