For the last eight years, Devin Naar has been on a journey, seeking to discover his family roots and raise awareness of the culture of the Sephardi Jews of Greece.
Earlier this month, his journey took him home — to Lawrenceville, the town he grew up in, where on June 6 he shared the fruits of his research at the 10th Annual Dorothy Koppelman Memorial Holocaust Lecture at Rider University.
More than 130 people — many from the Sephardi communities of Mercer and Bucks counties — attended the program at the university’s Julius and Dorothy Koppelman Holocaust/Genocide Resource Center.
A doctoral candidate in Jewish studies at Stanford University, Naar, 27, has followed a quest that has taken him around the globe — from Salonica to New Jersey, where his explorations uncovered personal as well as historic connections. In Greece, he pored over hundreds of ancient documents, most in Greek and Ladino, the ancient language of the Sephardi Jews, which he taught himself to read. Throughout his research, Naar said, he also strove for fluency in Hebrew, French, German, Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, and Italian so that he would be better able to understand the material he found in the ever-changing languages of his ancestors. “It turns out that I’m one of the few people in the world who can read Ladino, which is somewhat sad,” said Naar, who plans to become a professor of Sephardi history and culture.
After the expulsion of the Jews from “Sepharad” in 1492 — following their centuries-old contributions to the Golden Age of the Iberian peninsula — Sephardi Jews were transplanted to the Islamic world, then reintroduced to the Western world.
Naar’s forebears settled in Salonica, where, a century ago, 90,000 Jews resided in a city of 170,000 people. Jews were so dominant in the local society that the commerce of Salonica closed on Shabbat. Close to 90 percent of the Jews of Greece were murdered by the Nazis. In Salonica today, 1,000 Jews remain in a city of one million inhabitants.
Naar said his research is motivated by his desire to introduce Americans to a rich and diverse culture he feels has been largely written out of history.
“Growing up in an Ashkenazi community in Lawrenceville, I have encountered a general lack of knowledge about my culture. I’d like to make some space in the context of world Judaism for this interesting culture that sits at the precipice between the East and the West.”
Naar’s father’s family left Greece during World War I and settled in New Brunswick, where his great-grandfather served as the rabbi of the Sephardi synagogue now located in Highland Park and known as Congregation Etz Ahaim. Sermons were conducted there in Ladino and Hebrew, and synagogue records were handwritten in Ladino until the 1940s.
Through his research, Naar discovered he shares ancestors, dating back to 16th-century Portugal, with Judge David Naar (1800-1880), a prominent political figure in New Jersey during the Civil War era, who served as the first Jewish mayor of an American town — Elizabeth.
Naar’s informative and moving lecture captivated the Rider University audience, said attendee Vicki Cabot, daughter of the late Dorothy Koppelman, whose memory the lecture series honors and who also shares roots with Naar — her mother also came to the United States from Salonica.
“Devin recognized the contributions of Sephardi Jewry and the tensions past generations encountered in trying to preserve their rich cultural and religious heritage while assimilating into American life,” said Cabot, who travels from her home in Phoenix, Ariz., every year to gather with many members of her family at the annual Rider lecture. “He also touched on the enormous losses suffered during the Holocaust, particularly with the decimation of the Jewish community of Salonica. After my grandmother emigrated, most of her family remained behind in Greece and perished in the Holocaust.”
Naar has published several articles and book chapters and lectured at Yale, Georgetown, Stanford, and Oxford universities as well as The Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Sorbonne in Paris. He said his voyage back in time has been worth the effort but his quest continues.
“Now, more than ever before, I am proud to be not just a Jew, but a Sephardi Jew, with identified and yet-to-be-identified ancient roots,” he said.