Rachel Smith is a graduate student in the Department of History whose work explores ethnography and the Jewish experience in the late Ottoman Empire. Smith served as the Lead Researcher for the UCLA Sephardic Archive Initiative in 2018-2019 and contributed three essays to the Leve Center’s digital exhibit “100 Years of Sephardic L.A.” Her dissertation project explores how Ottoman Jewish scholars, travelers, teachers, and photographers constructed ethnographic knowledge in the late nineteenth century, when nation-states and empires used ethnography to better understand the populations living within their realms. By adopting and adapting ethnographic discourses, she argues, Jewish writers marshaled ethnography for reformist projects including the Jewish Enlightenment, Franco-Jewish emancipationist project, Ottomanism, and Zionism. Drawing on historical methodology, anthropological theory, and literary analysis, her work aims to explore these responses to modernity through the cultural knowledge they produced.

“For me, the project of historicizing ethnography is ultimately about helping to denaturalize the colonial ways of thinking and writing that continue to shape our society today, both in the Jewish community and more broadly… My hope is that by understanding them we can work to take them apart.”

We talked with Rachel this week about her research and her adult education course at the Skirball Cultural Center, “Photographing Jews: Race, Gender, and Power in the Mediterranean.”


First off, what has it been like to be a graduate student during this pandemic? How have you been adjusting your research strategies?

I finished all of my coursework and teaching requirements right as the pandemic ramped up, which meant that I couldn’t travel to libraries and archives to conduct research. Instead I’ve begun to delve into digitized archival collections and to think creatively about using historical sources that are available online. In this moment of isolation, I’ve also reached out to graduate students at other universities who are working on the history of Jews in the Ottoman Empire and started an online working group to read each other’s work and discuss the challenges we’re facing. Through the working group, we’ve supported one another by sharing historical sources that we’ve accumulated during previous archival trips and that we have access to through our different library systems. In this respect, the pandemic has led me to forge stronger connections with colleagues and help set up a network of mutual support in a way that I may not have otherwise. 


Can you tell us a bit more about your dissertation project? 

My dissertation explores the history of Jewish ethnography in the late Ottoman world. I’m interested in cultural narratives that created and naturalized ideas of racialized and culturally distinct Others. Reports of Jews in faraway places, encounters with Jewish Others in travel literature, and photography that emphasized difference were all popular within Ashkenazi and Sephardi scholarly writing, travelogues and memoirs, and in the pages of the press. 

My research looks at how Sephardi Jews in the Ottoman Empire were constructed as an orientalist object of study by European Jews, and how, in turn, Sephardi Jews have written ethnographically about Jewish communities, including their own. While engaging in similar racializing discourses, these writers crafted ethnographic narratives to bolster a wide array of reformist movements, ranging from Franco-Jewish emancipation to Ottoman nationalism to Zionism. 


How does your course at the Skirball fit into your project? What themes do you explore?

I’m teaching a course at the Skirball about the history of photography and Jews in the Mediterranean. The course traces the entanglements of photography, imperialism, and anthropology in the nineteenth century and how photography was used to construct images of remote and “uncivilized” people in the Middle East and North Africa allegedly unable to govern themselves. In class, we read orientalist images of Jews produced for the European commercial market against photographs that were privately-commissioned by Jews and scholarship on the lives of Jews. By contrasting the stories told by orientalist images with the stories that Jews told about themselves, we can see how photography became a tool to both advance and challenge colonial discourses. 

Photography is a rich source for thinking about ethnographic difference because the process of Othering often relies on visual markers, including physicality, clothing, setting, and use of cultural objects. Part of my dissertation will explore Jewish family photo albums from the Ottoman Empire, which provide a glimpse into how Ottoman Jews participated in visual ethnographic production by creating and curating their own ethnographic photographs. 


Tell us about the digital projects you worked on for the Sephardic Archive Initiative – how does that work reflect, reinvent, or work against the trends in the past you explore in your work?

I had the opportunity to work on a few essays for the digital exhibit “100 Years of Sephardic Los Angeles,” including one about “Sephardic Jews and the Democratization of Leisure,” which explores how they participated in new forms of leisure that marked their status as upwardly mobile Americans during the 1930s and 1940s. This mobility was contingent on their ability to transgress racial boundaries, which enabled them to buy suburban homes in white neighborhoods. There’s a similar racial ambiguity in the nineteenth century when Sephardi Jews in the Ottoman Empire were differentially racialized by others–or by themselves–based on context. When attending the Franco-Jewish schools of the Alliance Israélite Universelle, they were disparaged as “Orientals” in need of reform. When selling Oriental carpets or goods, or seeking to emphasize their belonging in the Ottoman Empire, they might self-identify as “Orientals.” When encountering Arabic-speaking Jews in Palestine or North Africa, they might cast the “oriental” label onto them, aligning themselves with colonial Europe. What we see in Sephardic history is, at times, their capacity to move strategically across racial boundaries in different contexts. 


Do you see any resonance with these ethnographic approaches you explore in your research in our contemporary times?

For me, the project of historicizing ethnography is ultimately about helping to denaturalize the colonial ways of thinking and writing that continue to shape our society today, both in the Jewish community and more broadly. Ongoing Jewish communal gatekeeping, “Ashkenormativity” and the marginalization of Jews of color, and the rise of social movements like Not Free to Desist all reflect persistent intra-Jewish prejudices often based on ideas about race from the nineteenth century. I want to help us understand where these ideas come from, how they have played out in the Jewish world, and how some Jews continue to uphold them. 

My hope is that by understanding them we can work to take them apart.