Devi Mays

Faculty Spotlight

Tell us about yourself. What were the most recent positions you held prior to JTS, and what classes do you teach here? Why did you choose to teach at JTS?

My name is Devi Mays, and I am currently a postdoctoral fellow in Jewish Studies here at JTS. A fortuitous encounter as a teenager with a Sephardic scarf merchant in Istanbul, and the numerous conversations I had with this man and other Turkish Jews scattered throughout the world over the subsequent years, propelled my interest in modern Sephardic history. In June 2013, I completed my PhD in History and Jewish Studies at Indiana University, and came to JTS shortly thereafter. During the fall semester of 2013-2014, I taught The Sephardic Diaspora and, in the spring semester, I will teach Introduction to Ladino Literature and Culture. I was thrilled to have the opportunity to come to JTS, a place that values teaching, researching, and upholding various aspects of Jewish experience and tradition. I have found here an eminent and warm collective of colleagues and bright, engaged, and dedicated students.  

Describe your work and philosophy. Why did you choose your particular area of expertise in Jewish studies? What has been your best teaching moment at JTS?  

I am a historian of modern Jewry whose primary interests are in transnational Jewish networks and the modern Sephardic world. As a researcher and teacher, I am invested in bringing to light the diversity and complexity of Jewish historical experiences, exploring Jewish lives in unexpected corners of the world, and reconsidering the contours of modern Jewish history. My dissertation, which I am currently revising into a book manuscript, focuses on early 20th-century Sephardic migrants from the Ottoman Empire and its successor states-tracing their itineraries and networks, which stretched from the eastern Mediterranean to France, and from there to Mexico, Cuba, the United States, and sometimes even as far as Shanghai. I came to this project by chance, having been interested in the ways that World War I altered Sephardic life through the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire and the rise of new national states. I went to Cuernavaca, Mexico, to study Spanish to form a foundation for my study of Ladino, and there encountered a group of Sephardic Jews, or turcos. Curious about how this community arrived in Mexico, I looked for scholarship on this topic, only to find that there was almost none. So I decided that I could be the one to explore this history. I want my students to come away from my courses with a greater appreciation for the roles that Sephardic Jews have played in modern Jewish history, and for Jewish culture outside of areas that are commonly thought of as the central hubs of Jewish life. This past semester, I had a number of heritage students in my class on the Sephardic Diaspora, and at the end of the semester, the class put together a Sephardic-themed Shabbat dinner. Many students prepared family recipes from Morocco, Italy, Cuba, and Syria, while other students researched and prepared Sephardic recipes from elsewhere. I can't imagine this happening anywhere other than JTS.

Is there some particular question or issue you'd like to resolve or gain insight into? Tell us more about your current research and upcoming projects.  

The book manuscript I am currently working on explores the ways in which transnational Sephardic networks linking the eastern and western Mediterranean with the Caribbean world provided Sephardic Jews the tools of coping with-and circumventing-increasingly stringent immigration restrictions that often excluded them. This project is propelled by the central question of how Sephardic Jews accommodated the transition from empire to nationalizing states when they often found themselves on the uncomfortable peripheries of national imaginings. For many such individuals, geographical mobility proved to be a means of upward social and economic mobility, all of which depended on well-traversed Sephardic networks that extended across seas and oceans. But during and in the wake of World War I, this geographical mobility often depended on navigating ever-tightening immigration laws, and I trace how Sephardic Jews developed strategies for dealing with these restrictions, often by acquiring fake documents, falsifying family relations, or drawing upon their linguistic repertoire to pass as French, Spanish, or Italian. I am also capitalizing on JTS's rare collection of early 20th-century Ladino periodicals from Istanbul to conduct research for my second project, which will focus on late-19th and early 20th-century Constantinople as the crucial connection between the Jewish Black Sea and the Jewish Mediterranean. It will seek to reorient modern Jewish history by looking at Constantinople as the central stage upon which Jewish and imperial affiliations collided and coalesced.  

What is the most important thing that studying Judaism has taught you? What advice do you have for students just beginning their journeys in Jewish Studies?  

I grew up in Fairfield, Iowa, the US center of the Transcendental Meditation movement, where I learned Sanskrit as a foreign language starting in third grade and meditated twice daily. My family was not observant at all, but I became drawn to learning more about Judaism, Jewish history, and how my family fit into Jewish history-and into US history as Jews-when I was a teenager. I majored in Religious Studies in college, studied biblical Hebrew extensively, and took every course I could related to Jewish Studies. For me, Jewish Studies was (and is) a way of learning about a fascinating and complicated people, but also of learning about myself and reaffirming my place in this long, rich history.For me, the study of Jewish history is simultaneously a professional interest and something very personal. For students entering Jewish Studies, my greatest suggestion is to take advantage of every possible opportunity to learn and to ask questions-and not only from books or from professors. Many of my research questions have come about as the result of fortuitous encounters and casual conversations, whether with a Sephardic shopkeeper in Istanbul about growing up as aJewish boy in Turkey in the 1950s, or with a Turkish friend's grandmother at Pesah about her recollections of a cousin bearing the same name who visited Turkey as an adult after having grown up in Mexico, or in Mexico City over Father's Day lunch with a close friend from college and his fiancée as we searched for the country code to call her family in Turkey to celebrate Turkey's winning streak in the Eurocup.  

Discuss lectures, activities, and events at JTS or elsewhere and any topic or information that you want the various communities to know about you and your work.  

I led a JTS Faculty Lunch and Learn in February, in which I explored new material that I drafted for my book manuscript. This talkfocused on the figure of Mauricio Fresco, an ardent Mexican patriot who initiated his diplomatic career through advocating for Mexican women abandoned by their Chinese spouses in Shanghai, and who later rose to even greater prominence as the individual responsible for granting over 20,000 Mexican visas to Spanish refugees fleeing Franco's regime. However, despite all of the documentation that Fresco provided reflecting his Mexican origins, he was actually a Turkish national, a Sephardic Jew, and the youngest son of the editor of the most prominent Ladino-language newspaper in Constantinople, who got his initial diplomatic post in part due to connections with other Sephardic Jews in Mexico. I will also present on Sephardic responses to the Turkification efforts that accompanied the first decades of the Turkish Republic at Columbia University in early March as part of the Ottoman and Turkish Studies University Seminar series.