Sephardi Voices UK was founded with the mission to record and capture the experiences of the Sephardi and Mizrahi Jews from the Middle East, North Africa and Iran who settled in the UK. Our filmed interviews document the fascinating history, rich culture and vibrant traditions of the communities our interviewees left behind.
Our work allows the families of our interviewees to connect with their past, whilst simultaneously allowing both researchers and members of the general public a window into the histories of these unique communities.
It is estimated that about 850,000 Jews left the Middle East and North Africa post 1948, many of them settling in Israel, the USA, and France. A small number of these Jews came to the UK. Today about 15,000 Sephardi-Mizrahi Jews live in the UK, which means they constitute around 6 per cent of British Jewry. Despite their relative small number, the Sephardi Mizrahi Jews represent the largest group of post-WW2 Jewish migrants, they have transformed the nature of the pre-existing Sephardi communities, and have made a great impact on British society in fields from philanthropy, to business, to the arts.
A Message from Our Executive Director
Dr Bea Lewcowicz
My first encounter with a Sephardi Community dates back to the late '80s, when I arrived in the Greek city of Thessaloniki as a student. At that time there were no signs or monuments recalling the illustrious history of the Jewish community.
In the many interviews with members of the Jewish Community which I was fortunate to carry out for my PhD research, I set out to understand how the interviewees defined themselves and how they narrated their history (See: The Jewish Community of Thessaloniki: History, Memory, Identity. Vallentine Mitchell: 2006). During my research, I became aware that testimonies are collected within a certain context. The more biographies, interviews, exhibitions, monuments that are produced that
deal with the history of a particular group of people, the more confident and encouraged individuals feel to participate in this process.
In 2009 I attended a conference in Jerusalem where I met Dr Henry Green, who wanted to put a project together collecting the stories of the Sephardi/Mizrahi Jews who were dispersed worldwide, following the different waves of emigration post 1948. I had just finished the first stage of a major oral history project, the AJR Refugee Voices Archive, and became very excited about the possibility of turning my attention to another ‘forgotten’ aspect of Sephardi/Mizrahi history, the migration of Jews from North Africa, the Middle East and Iran to the UK, whose story had not been told. The late historian Sir Martin Gilbert, whom we interviewed at the beginning of our journey, supported our endeavour: ‘The Jews from Arab Lands have become part of many different nations and cultures […] Their stories need not just to be told, but to be recorded and available’.
Sephardi Voices UK became a charity in 2011 and since then we have managed to carry out the important work of collecting testimonies, producing films, creating a wonderful website and plenty of content for social media. We were also able to co-curate a major exhibition at the Jewish Museum, entitled Sephardi Voices, in 2017.
We are grateful to our interviewees who have shared their memories of growing up in cities such as Baghdad, Casablanca, Tangiers, Alexandria, Cairo, Esfahan, Benghazi, Beirut, and Teheran, and who have also shared their memories of leaving their homes, often under difficult circumstances, and going to new places, building new communities and forging new identities.
Today, we are more aware than ever of the importance of the representation of diversity, in our communities and across the nation. We are also conscious of the rights of minorities in nation states. In the current political climate, where religious minorities are under threat in the Middle East, it is of utmost importance to learn that Jewish communities existed for many centuries in North Africa, the Middle East, and Iran, and that they were an integral part of the societies they left behind.
We are in the fortunate position to have gathered a treasure trove of diverse experiences and stories from the Sephardi and Mizrahi world, to change the memorial landscapes and the narratives of the countries our interviewees left behind, but also to integrate their memories and histories into the British Jewish collective memory.
Our aim today is therefore to not only to continue to conduct interviews. but also to disseminate our materials as widely as possible. We are constantly updating our website, producing short films, working hard on our social media and feature a regular column in the Jewish Renaissance Magazine. In addition to this, we have responded to current events and have hosted a number of online events featuring our interviewees and plan to continue this going forward.
To expand our reach, we are building partnerships with a number of organisations and projects. At both the British Library in London, and Beit Hatfutsot (the Diaspora Museum) in Tel Aviv visitors can access our interviews in full. We are also excited to be featured in the Board of Deputies ‘Hidden Treasure’ archive project.
Please support our urgent work and help Sephardi Voices UK to preserve the precious Sephardi and Mizrahi heritage and transform Jewish memory and historiography. Thank you!
– Dr Bea Lewkowicz, Executive Director
A Message from our Chairman
I have personally lived in four countries since leaving Egypt after the Suez crisis, and regrettably only became interested in that heritage when it was too late to interrogate my parents.
Sephardi Voices UK has already completed dozens of video interviews, which are deposited in the British Library for open access, subject to any restriction imposed by the interviewee.
With memories fading and the elders leaving us, it is essential that these personal recollections of religious traditions, lifestyle, relationships, exile,
resettlement and identity are preserved for research, education and future generations.
Thank you for visiting us. Feel free to explore, and please help us achieve our goal!
– Alec Nacamuli, Chairman. May 2017.
A Message from our Deputy Director
I joined Sephardi Voices UK in 2017 after meeting Dr Bea Lewkowicz at the Sephardi Voices Jewish Museum exhibition. I feel incredibly lucky to be part of an organisation that allows me to work in a field I am passionate about. It is always an honour to hear the experiences of our interviewees first hand, and to be trusted to share these important stories within the Jewish community, and beyond.
As the first generation of my family to be born in the UK, I have always felt slightly disconnected from the wider Jewish community, largely due to my
Middle Eastern background. I am proud that Sephardi Voices UK is playing a key role in changing this, ensuring that Sephardi and Mizrahi experiences are heard and included alongside those of our Ashkenazi fellows.
The experiences and customs of ordinary people like my grandparents have largely been overlooked, and yet there is so much that we can learn from the experiences of Jews who grew up in the Middle East, North Africa and Iran. From the impact of anti-Zionist rhetoric on Jewish communities, to the cultural significance of forms of dress, to unique religious customs; the Sephardi Voices UK interviews are a key resource and testament to the power of oral history.
- Daisy Abboudi, Deputy Director