Christmas lights — brought to you by a Jew from the Muslim world

to comment

Americans spend more than half a billion dollars each year on 150 million units of imported Christmas lights. US News & World Report ranks the best Christmas light displays. And ABC’s reality TV show, The Great Christmas Lights Show, recently premiered its 10th season. In short, Christmas lights are not only ubiquitous, but also mainstream in American culture.

However, this was not always the case. The man who popularized Christmas lights in the early 20th century, Albert Sadacca, never celebrated Christmas. In fact, he was a Jew from the Muslim world.

How Sadacca (1901-1980), his brothers and other Jews from the Ottoman Empire started Christmas light markets a century ago, reveals the dark side of their history – shaped by nativism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and labor exploitation. Those forces removed Sadaqa’s Ottoman Jewish origins from our understanding of the holiday and the twinkling lights that illuminate it.

Sadacca, his parents and five siblings were from Canakkale, a town across the Marmara Sea from Istanbul on the Asian side of the Dardanelles. They came to the United States between 1907 and 1911, as the Ottoman Empire entered a cataclysmic decade of war. They were among the 60,000 Jews who arrived from the Ottoman Empire – present-day Turkey, Greece, Syria and elsewhere – in the first quarter of the 20th century. A small group compared to the 2 million Eastern European Jews who arrived in the same era, Ottoman Jews shocked immigration officials and their new neighbors. They were mostly descendants of Jews expelled from Spain in 1492 who found refuge in the Ottoman Empire. These Sephardic Jews developed a language known as Ladino, which fused Castilian Spanish with Hebrew, Turkish, Greek, and Italian, which they wrote in Hebrew letters. Eastern European Jews on New York’s Lower East Side could not imagine Jews who did not know Yiddish. Instead, Sephardic Jews gravitated to Puerto Rican communities in Harlem because of the similarity in their languages.

Were these newcomers “Hebrews” according to the era’s eugenics-inspired racial classification? Or “Turks”? Nevertheless, immigration authorities saw them as part of an “invasion” from “Western Asian countries” that threatened to undermine the country’s white, Protestant character. Some were confused by immigration laws that excluded Muslims by banning those who practiced polygamy or came from polygamous societies. Debates raged in the press and in the courts over whether Ottoman residents should be granted naturalization, a privilege legally available to “whites,” an always-contested category.

Also Read :  Banksy unveils Ukraine mural in town bombed by Russia

Ottoman Jews, who called themselves Turks in Ladin, sought solace among their own people. They founded coffeehouses, mutual aid societies, synagogues, religious schools, Ladino newspapers, theater companies, and social and political organizations in New York and cities across the country, from Atlanta to Indianapolis, Los Angeles, and Seattle. In New York, some found work as dressers, shoemakers, postcard sellers, or theater concessionaires. Many worked in the clothing industry or in battery, flashlight, and light bulb factories.

Some Turkic people from towns near Istanbul worked as solderers, fixing lids on cans to produce a local delicacy: yogurt. This experience helped them occupy Thomas Edison’s light bulb factories in Orange, NJ and Long Island City. Conditions in the battery factories were so terrible, with 54-hour work weeks and low wages, that 900 Turkmen went on a major strike in 1916. They joined the metal workers union; some joined the Socialist Party. Ladin’s first American short story, Simon Nessim’s America! America!” (1917), dramatized the strike and the anxieties and aspirations of the Turkic people during the First World War.

The Sadaks relied on their Turkish community, settling first on the Lower East Side until 1911 and then in Harlem. Patriarch Haim and older sons Henri, Nissim and Leon initially worked in the ice cream shop while young Albert attended school. When several family members died prematurely, the mutual aid society Dardanelles Source of Life organized a funeral at a Sephardic cemetery in Queens.

Henri was the first to make commercial waves based on community experiences. Ladino’s New York weekly La Amerika praised him in 1916. for opening a flower shop on an Atlantic City boardwalk that quickly expanded to sell artificial flowers, including synthetic roses that glow with batteries. He patented his invention and moved the business to New York, where he and his brothers opened a French novelty shop at 130 W. 23rd St. They recruited fellow Turks who also invested in the company.

Also Read :  Messi, Ronaldo and the post-World Cup pursuit of commercial supremacy

Legend has it that in 1917, after learning of a devastating fire caused by candles attached to a Christmas tree, still a common form of lighting at the time, Albert inspected the products in the family store and connected a number of battery-powered lights. He guessed that tying them to the tree would create the same lighting effect, but safely. The truth is that Edison’s partner Edward Johnson had already created a similar design for Christmas lights, but it was only now that the concept gained traction as the devices became mass-produced and affordable.

Henry, Albert and Leon soon began producing lines of battery-powered and later electric lights. The Pens, Barocs, Fintz and Levy families—all Turks—and several Eastern European Jews also came into the expanding industry. in 1923 President Calvin Coolidge initiated the nation’s Christmas Eve celebration with 3,000 electric lights draped over the White House Christmas tree. Coolidge had just delivered his first presidential address, calling for severe restrictions on immigration and declaring that “America must be American.” Soon he signed the 1924 immigration act, severely restricting Jewish and all other immigration from Eastern and Southern Europe and beyond. Despite the increased nativism, Turkinians prospered as the demand for Christmas lights increased, and in 1925 Sadac founded a trade association, the National Apparel Manufacturers Association, known as NOMA. A year later, the members of the association merged into one company, NOMA Electric Co.

However, in 1928 the family scandal forced the Sadacs to hide their true identity. When a 17-year-old NOMA secretary became pregnant, her father threatened to kill Albert if he did not marry her. Lawsuits followed. Unfortunately, there was nothing unusual about an older man using his authority over an employee – except for how it was portrayed in the media. The media speculated that Sadacca was a “Turk” and said he ran a “harem” from a hotel room that contained “luxurious Turkish furniture.”

The scandal arose at a time of anti-Turkish sentiment. Relations between Turkey (the successor to the Ottoman Empire) and the United States were severed during World War I, and the image of the “Terrible Turk” came to the fore. Mass killings of Armenians by the Ottoman state in 1915-1916. strengthened the image. Opponents of the renewal of US relations with Turkey circulated the 1927 a pamphlet claiming that the leader of the Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, held hundreds of thousands of white Christian women captive as “slaves” in “Turkish harems”. The false accusations eventually dropped, and diplomatic relations were restored later that year. However, this did not prevent the image of the lecherous Turk from using the weapon against Sadacca.

Also Read :  Russia fires barrage of missiles, Ukraine condemns 'senseless barbarism'

Nevertheless, Sadacca and NOMA survived the scandal. Sadacca dissembled, claiming that he was not Turkish, but from Madrid. As a Spaniard, he could not be blamed for running a harem. His new origin story stuck. He repeated this for the rest of his life, whether to The Draft (1942) or Newsweek (1970). During the First World War, Ladino newspapers campaigned for their constituents to stop using stigmatized names such as “Turkish” or “Oriental”. They should claim to be the heirs of the Spanish Jews who had been expelled half a millennium earlier, the newspapers argued, and thereby claim European and ultimately white status.

After the onset of the Great Depression, NOMA stayed in business by arguing that during such difficult times, Americans needed the comfort and warmth gathered at home under the lights of the Christmas tree. NOMA expanded into freezers, stoves, dolls, heaters, screws and biscuits. During World War II, NOMA paused production of Christmas lights to produce war munitions, but the company was part of the post-war economic boom. Until 1947 NOMA’s sales exceeded 42 million. It was the largest manufacturer of Christmas lights in the world from the 1930s to the 1960s.

The NOMA brand continues today in Canada. But Albert Sadacca became a legend, and the family’s origins were obscure.

But their legacy lives on in households across the country. Irving Berlin, the Russian-Jewish composer of “White Christmas,” and Mel Tormé, the son of Polish Jews who composed “Chestnuts Roasted on an Open Fire,” have created a new Christmas soundtrack that is Christian-free.

The Sephardi Jews of the Ottoman Empire also gave the Sadaks a more secular image to the holiday: the Christmas tree illuminated by electric lights dazzled and delighted us for more than a century.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Related Articles

Back to top button