The First American Ladino Novella: Shimon Nessim’s Amerika! Amerika! with Devin E. Naar

Presented on Zoom, August 17, 2021

Can you name a great Ladino author of fiction? So little is known about original Ladino fiction, whether in the Ottoman Empire or the United States, that the answer is probably "no." This talk delves into the history of Ladino fiction, explores reasons why so little is known about the subject, and focuses on the first original Ladino novella published in the United States, Amerika! Amerika! by Shimon Nessim. First serialized in one of New York's Ladino newspapers during World War I, Nessim's novella tells the story of a Sephardic Jewish immigrant named Alberto as he struggles to find his way on the Lower East Side, seeking out intermittent work in factories before embracing socialism and organizing his fellow Sephardic immigrants to go on strike and join the union. A fleeting romance and a foray at an American university lead to a gripping plot turn and conclusion. What does the novella tell us about Sephardic life, labor, and politics in early twentieth century New York? Should we read it as a kind of Sephardic American socialist manifesto? What is the novella's relevance today?

About the speaker:

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. As founder and chair of the Sephardic Studies Program, Dr. Naar has transformed the University of Washington into a major center for the study of Sephardic history, culture, and language as exemplified through the creation of the world's largest digital repository of Ladino texts and a robust digital humanities presence. 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 current book project investigates the multifaceted experiences of Sephardic Jews with regard to race, class, and politics in the United States.