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Unlocking a key to the Sephardic diaspora… in Stratford

By Cindy Mindell

STRATFORD – When Jason Guberman-Pfeffer was a kid growing up in Stratford, he would jokingly call his grandparents the “first Jewish settlers” of the town, because they had relocated there from Bridgeport in 1967.

“It’s not that there weren’t other Jews, but the Jewish community was very different than Bridgeport,” a once-thriving center of Jewish life, recalls Guberman-Pfeffer, who would go on to discover the real Jewish settlers of his hometown.

In 2008, at age 20, he co-founded Diarna, “our homes” in Judeo-Arabic, an online geographic museum dedicated to preserving and providing digital access to endangered Jewish heritage sites across the Middle East and North Africa.

Soon thereafter, he was asked by another organization to use Diarna’s digital-mapping technology to document a Colonial-era Jewish historical site in the tri-state area, but he couldn’t find a surviving structure. So, he started researching famous Jewish personalities from the period, thinking that they would lead him to a site. Among the most noted was Gershom Mendes Seixas, who had served as rabbi (or cantor) at Congregation Shearith Israel, the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue in New York, and who also served as one of the clergy at George Washington’s inauguration.

Seeking more information, Guberman-Pfeffer accessed Jewish Virtual Library, where he read that Seixas moved his family in 1775 from British-occupied New York “to his father-in-law’s home in Strafford [sic], Connecticut.” The typo has never been corrected.

“Obviously, there’s no such place, and I was wondering, is it Stratford, Stratfield, Stafford? Any one of these towns could be possible,” Guberman-Pfeffer says. Further investigation revealed that the place in question was, serendipitously, Stratford.

During the Revolutionary War, Guberman-Pfeffer’s hometown comprised a small Jewish population, which grew when Seixas temporarily relocated Congregation Shearith Israel members and Torah scrolls there. When Guberman-Pfeffer called the Stratford Historical Society to ask for help, a researcher responded, “You must want Meyer Meyers, the Jew.”

The archaic reference was to a famous Jewish silversmith from the town, listed by that name in a commemorative book published in 1889, when Stratford celebrated its 250th anniversary. From historical records, Guberman-Pfeffer could see when Seixas and Meyers had lived there, but he couldn’t figure out where.

Stratford was also home during the Colonial period to Isaac Pinto, who served as the Shearith Israel cantor and was described by friend and Yale president Ezra Stiles as “a learned Jew at New York.” Pinto is credited with writing the first Hebrew-to-English translation of the siddur published in America, probably the second English translation in the world. He based the 1766 work on a popular Spanish translation of the siddur, used by Jews in England, who were Sephardim. In fact, Guberman-Pfeffer says, because English Jews opposed the publication of an English-language siddur, Pinto turned to publisher John Holt in New York.

In the siddur’s introduction, Pinto justifies his translation, writing: “A veneration for the language sacred by being that in which it pleased Almighty God to reveal himself to our ancestors, and a desire to preserve it, in firm persuasion that it will again be re-established in Israel, are probably leading reasons for our performing divine service in Hebrew. But that, being imperfectly understood by many, by some, not at all, it has been necessary to translate our prayers in the language of the country wherein it hath pleased the Divine Providence to appoint our lot.”

Pinto’s 194-page siddur is among the books and artifacts included in “Sephardic Journeys,” a new exhibit on display at The David Berg Rare Book Room at the Center for Jewish History in Manhattan (cjh.org), which highlights the rich diversity of the Sephardic world and the tradition of scholarship and culture shaped by migration. The exhibit showcases the collections of the American Sephardi Federation (ASF) where Guberman-Pfeffer serves as executive director. Among the artifacts on display: a copy of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet in Ladino (1922), a first edition Hebrew-Latin-Italian dictionary dedicated to a Pope (1587), and an antisemitic tract by Paolo Medici after his conversion to Christianity (1752).

“Sephardic Journeys” is on display through June 30. Admission is free and open to the public.

A special opening event, “‘Sephardic Journeys:’ An Evening of Exploration,” on Thursday, May 28, 7 p.m., will feature live music and reflections by Dr. Marc Angel, founder and director of the Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals and rabbi emeritus of Congregation Shearith Israel: The Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue, and Yamin Levy, senior rabbi at Beth Hadassah, the Iranian Jewish Center in Great Neck, N.Y. and founder of the Maimonides Heritage Center in Israel. Sephardic refreshments and dessert will be served. Tickets: cjh.org/event/2661.

For more information on the exhibit and the May 28 event, visit cjh.org.

CAP: The first Hebrew-to-English translation of the siddur published in America was written by Stratford’s Isaac Pinto.

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