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Christmas Lights — Brought to You By a Jew From the Muslim World

Jews from the Ottoman Empire pioneered the Christmas lights market a century ago — but nativism, antisemitism and islamophobia obscured this history.

Americans spend more than half a billion dollars annually on 150 million units of imported Christmas lights. U.S. News & World Report ranks the best Christmas light displays. And ABC’s reality TV show “The Great Christmas Light Fight” recently premiered its 10th season. Christmas lights, in short, are not only ubiquitous but also central to American culture.

But that has not always been the case. The man credited with popularizing Christmas lights in the early 20th century, Albert Sadacca, had 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 pioneered the Christmas-lights market a century ago reveals a dark side of their story — one shaped by nativism, antisemitism, Islamophobia and labor exploitation. Those forces have scrubbed Sadacca’s Ottoman Jewish background from our understanding of the holiday and the twinkly lights that illuminate it.

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

According to the eugenics-inspired racial classifications of the era, were these newcomers “Hebrews”? Or “Turks”? Regardless, immigration authorities considered them part of an “invasion” from “Western Asiatic countries” that threatened to undermine the White, Protestant character of the country. Some became ensnarled by immigration laws that excluded Muslims by barring those who practiced polygamy or came from polygamous societies. Debates raged in the press and the courts over whether those from the Ottoman Empire ought to be eligible for naturalization — a privilege available to those deemed “White” by law, always a contested category.

Ottoman Jews — who called themselves Turkinos in Ladino — sought comfort among their own. They established cafes, mutual aid societies, synagogues, religious schools, Ladino newspapers, theater troupes and social and political organizations in New York and in cities across the country, from Atlanta to Indianapolis, Los Angeles and Seattle. In New York, some found work as coatroom attendants, bootblacks, postcard peddlers or theater concessionaires. Many worked in the garment industry or in battery, flashlight and lightbulb factories.

Some Turkinos from towns near Istanbul had worked as solderers affixing lids to tin cans for a local delicacy: yogurt. That experience landed them positions in Thomas Edison’s lightbulb factories in Orange, N.J., and Long Island City. In the battery factories, conditions were so terrible, with 54-hour workweeks and low pay, that 900 Turkinos organized a major strike in 1916. They enrolled in the metal workers union; some joined the Socialist Party. The first American Ladino novella, Simon Nessim’s “Amerika! Amerika!” (1917), dramatized the strike and the anxieties and aspirations of Turkinos during World War I.

The Sadaccas relied on their Turkino community, settling first on the Lower East Side by 1911 and then in Harlem. The patriarch, Haim, and older sons Henri, Nissim and Leon first worked at an ice cream parlor while young Albert attended school. When several members of the family died prematurely, the Source of Life of the Dardanelles, a mutual aid society, organized the burials in a Sephardic cemetery in Queens.

Henri was the first to make commercial waves by drawing on communal know-how. New York’s Ladino weekly, La Amerika, praised him in 1916 for opening a flower shop on the Atlantic City boardwalk that quickly expanded to selling artificial flowers — including synthetic roses that lighted up with batteries. He patented his invention and relocated the business to New York City, where he and his brothers opened the French Novelty Shop at 130 W. 23rd St. They employed fellow Turkinos, who also invested in the company.

Legend has it that in 1917, after learning about a devastating fire caused by candles affixed to a Christmas tree — still the common form of illumination at the time — Albert explored the wares in the family shop and connected a series of battery-powered lights. Stringing those on a Christmas tree, he surmised, would create the same illuminated effect, but safely. The truth is that Edison’s partner, Edward Johnson, had already developed a similar design for Christmas lights, but only now did the concept gain traction as the units became mass-produced and affordable.

Soon Henri, Albert and Leon began producing strings of battery-powered and then electric lights. The Penso, Barocas, Fintz and Levy families — all Turkinos — plus several Eastern European Jews, also entered the expanding industry. In 1923, President Calvin Coolidge initiated the country’s Christmas Eve celebration with 3,000 electric lights draped over the White House Christmas tree. Coolidge had just given his first presidential address, calling for strict immigration restriction and declaring that “America must be kept American.” He soon signed the 1924 immigration act into law, severely limiting the immigration of Jews and all others from eastern and southern Europe and beyond. Despite the heightened nativism, the Turkinos thrived as the demand for Christmas lights increased, and in 1925 the Sadaccas formed a trade association, the National Outfit Manufacturer’s Association, known as NOMA. A year later, the association members merged into a single firm, the NOMA Electric Co.

But a scandal that engulfed the family in 1928 forced the Sadaccas to conceal their true identity. When a 17-year-old NOMA secretary became pregnant, her father threatened to kill Albert if he would not marry her. Lawsuits followed. Unfortunately, there was nothing unusual about an older man taking advantage of his position of authority over a female employee — except for how it was portrayed in the media. The press jumped on Sadacca’s identity as a “Turk” and claimed that he was running a “harem” from a hotel room fitted with “lavish Turkish furnishings.”

The scandal broke at a time of anti-Turkish sentiment. Ties between Turkey (the Ottoman Empire’s successor) and the United States were cut during World War I, and the image of the “Terrible Turk” loomed large. The Ottoman state’s mass killing of Armenians in 1915-1916 reinforced the image. Opponents of resuming U.S. relations with Turkey circulated a 1927 pamphlet alleging that the Turkish republic’s leader, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, held captive hundreds of thousands of White Christian women as “slaves” in “Turkish harems.” Eventually, the false accusations receded and diplomatic relations returned later that year. But that did not prevent the image of the lascivious Turk from being weaponized against Sadacca.

Nevertheless, Sadacca and NOMA survived the scandal. Sadacca dissimulated, declaring that he was not a Turk, but rather from Madrid. As a Spaniard, he could not be guilty of running a harem. His new origin story stuck. He repeated it for the rest of his life, whether to the draft board (1942) or Newsweek (1970). During World War I, Ladino newspapers had campaigned for their constituents to cease using stigmatized designations like “Turkish” or “Oriental.” They should claim to be the heirs of Spanish Jews exiled a half-millennium before, the newspapers argued, and thus claim European and ultimately White status.

When the Great Depression hit, NOMA stayed in business by arguing that in such difficult times, Americans needed the comfort and warmth of family gathered at home around the lights of the Christmas tree. NOMA expanded to manufacture freezers, stoves, dolls, heaters, screws and biscuits. NOMA paused production of Christmas lights during World War II to make war munitions, but the company was part of the postwar economic upturn. By 1947, NOMA sales topped $42 million. It was the largest producer of Christmas lights in the world from the 1930s until into the 1960s.

The NOMA brand continues today in Canada. But Albert Sadacca has been reduced to legend while the family’s origins have been blurred.

Yet their legacy persists in households throughout the country. Irving Berlin, the Russian Jewish composer of “White Christmas,” and Mel Tormé, the son of Polish Jews who composed “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire,” produced a new Christmas soundtrack devoid of Christianity.

The Sadaccas, Sephardic Jews from the Ottoman Empire, also provided a more secular visual for the holiday: the Christmas tree illuminated by electric lights, dazzling and delighting us for more than a century.