The Guardian Angel of Sephardic Heritage in America
by Gad Nahshon
She views herself as the guardian angel of the Sephardic heritage and legacy in America. She is challenging years of ignorance. It is not easy for her to accomplish her mission or to challenge many problems. But she certainly radiates optimism and belief. Vivienne R. Roumani-Denn is the newly National Executive Director of the American Sephardic Federation, a member and a partner of the center for Jewish History (15 W. 16th St., NYC)
'Mr. Sephardic Federation' Leon Levy, the founding father and the President of this Federation, believes that the fact that the Federation is in this 'center' means, first of all, a non-sephardic recognition of Sephardim in America by the Jewish establishment. Ms. Roumani, a charming friendly director, plans to develop an awareness of Sephardic Jewish ethnicity and culture inside the American Jewish community. She believes in ethnicity which is part of the multi-ethnic picture of the Jewish society here or in Israel. Ms. Roumani is against isolationist ethnicity against extremism. She loves the beauty of a multi-cultural Jewish society: "I am willing to fight for the preservation of the Polish-Jewish heritage, the same as I am willing to fight for the preservation of my heritage," Roumani remarked in our interview at her office in the 'center.'
Roumani just came back from the International Conference of Libyan Jews which convened in Jerusalem. Roumani was born in Libya (Benghazi). She is an expert on the history of this Jewry and loves to lecture on this topic: "We do not have a record of this history. People are ignorant. The Jews of Libya did not think about history. So how can you develop awareness without records. Let me tell a personal story. One day I found an unusual present - my mother wrote her autobiography. After she died, I found it. It was a great present for me, a real record of Jewish life in Libya. One event, I lectured on these Jews in Queens, then one Israeli told me: 'I never heard about Jews in Libya.' Let me tell you that many Libyan Jews do not know about their own heritage! Indeed, there is more literature about Jews in Morocco. Jews from Libya were killed by the Nazis," Roumani told me.
Is this ignorance typical only to the topic of Libyan Jewry? "Of course not. In this country very little has been written about Sephardim! The irony is that the first Jews in America were Sephardim! The first Jewish ethnic culture in America was Sephardic. My goal is to change this situation, to dismantle the ignorance: first among the Sephardim themselves and then among the American Jews at large!" What are the roots of this ignorance? "I think that we, the Sephardim, have the ability to easily integrate into the mainstream. So for many years we did not identify ourselves as Sephardim. It was not a result of shame. We are proud people. We thought that our heritage was a marginal thing in our life. We tend to build synagogues but not schools so that by education we could preserve out heritage. Here in the 'center' the message is clear: The American Jewish history is not just Ashkenazi history, but also Sephardic history!" Roumani stated.
In a recent letter to The Jewish Week she protested against a Rabbi who believes that Sephardic ritual cannot be enjoyed by Ashkenazi Jews. She wrote: "The rich cultures of the Jewish communities from around the world, Sephardic and Ashkenazi alike, offer a mosaic that is unmatched in any other people. Those who have made the effort to learn something of the culture and practices of their Jewish brethren from other communities have been much richer for the effort." She believes in the ethnicity which unites us and cements the Jews, and not in the ethnicity which develops discrepancies among the Jews.
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