Amateau, Albert Jean

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AMATEAU, ALBERT JEAN (1889–1996), communal activist, businessman. Amateau was born in Milas, a town in rural Turkey. His family was part of the westernized middle class elite of the Turkish Jewish community. His father, a lawyer, was the son of the French consul in Izmir. His maternal grandfather, Rabbi Moses *Franco, originally from Rhodes, served as chief rabbi of the Sephardi community in Palestine. Amateau received his primary and secondary education from Jewish schools in Milas and Smyrna. In 1908 he graduated from the Presbyterian American International College with a basic teacher's diploma and, probably more importantly, the means to escape compulsory military service. Following the Young Turks Revolution in 1908, teachers were exempted from conscription. Teaching part-time, Amateau studied law at the University of Istanbul. In 1910, the government altered its conscription policy, prompting Amateau to flee the country. After a brief stint working as a dishwasher in Naples to raise money for his onward journey, Amateau arrived in New York in August 1910. His early employment in New York mirrored his experience in Naples, moving between a string of jobs that included selling lemonade, delivering bread, and giving English lessons to fellow immigrants. Polylingual and literate, Amateau's language abilities translated into more stable employment, and he got jobs as an interpreter for the Court and on Ellis Island, and later working for the Industrial Removal Office.

Even while struggling to support himself, Amateau became involved in the leadership of the Sephardi community of New York. Together with Joseph Gedalecia, Amateau founded the Federation of Oriental Jews of America in 1912 with the intention of coordinating the activities of the mutual aid societies within the disparate Sephardi community, an initiative spurred by the mass immigration of Jews from the Balkans and Turkey. Amateau became increasingly involved in Jewish communal life, working for the Society for the Welfare of the Jewish Deaf and, in his spare time, as an activist for the Federation, the Oriental Jewish Community of New York (a looser confederation of Sephardi groups), and the Sephardic Brotherhood of America, a mutual aid society. He also took classes in social work at Columbia University and in rabbinics at the Jewish Theological Seminary, receiving his ordination from the latter in 1920. He served as the rabbi of the first congregation of the deaf, delivering sermons and leading services using sign language. Amateau volunteered for the United States Army during World War i and was wounded while serving in Europe. In the mid-1920s, Amateau went into private business, only to be left unemployed by the Great Depression. He retrained as a lawyer, and worked in the insurance industry. At about the same time, Amateau became disillusioned with the failings of Sephardi communal life and began to devote much of his free time and organizational abilities working on behalf of the Democratic Party. In a further career shift, he left New York for Los Angeles in 1940, trading on his language skills to start a company which provided foreign language dubbing for Hollywood films. Amateau was active in both Sephardi and civic organizations in this new setting. He retained a fierce lifelong attachment to Turkey, publicly defending it against the accusation that it had orchestrated the Armenian genocide.


J. Papo, Sephardim in Twentieth Century America: In Search of Unity (1987); New York Times (Feb. 29, 1996).

[Adam Mendelsohn (2nd ed.)]