A Celebration of the Jews the World Forgot

Sephardic Jews Are in the Process of Rediscovering Their Language, Their Literature and Their Ties to Each Other

4 Nov., 1996 | Los Angeles Times | By Jordan Elgrably

As intermarriage and assimilation erode the already small numbers of Sephardic Jews in America, the struggle to preserve their ancient heritage is getting a boost from a modern trend: ethnic chic.

An upcoming anthology will bring new visibility to the 10% of America's Jews who are descended from those cast out of the Iberian Peninsula five centuries ago.

 Spanish Jews joined or returned to existing communities...

Spanish Jews joined or returned to existing communities...

At the head of the movement to celebrate this heritage is the Sephardic Educational Center, founded here in 1980 by Dr. Jose Nessim, a Paraguayan gynecologist who practices in Beverly Hills. It now has 18 chapters throughout North and South America.

"The SEC's highest goal," Nessim says, "is to assure the future of the next generation."

Young Angelenos of Sephardic origin are coming back to their roots. Says Elanit Saati, 27, a Cal State Northridge graduate of Iraqi origin, "There is so much warmth, laughter and music during Sephardic holidays. Even if there's bickering, it's erased in those moments when I celebrate with my family and I hear them speaking Arabic. It makes me feel whole again."

At the eighth International Sephardic Youth Conference in L.A. last month, about 300 young Sephardic and Arab Jews gathered to celebrate their cultures. They danced to Judeo-Arabic music and lifted their spiritual leaders—Nessim and philanthropist Ray Mallel—high on chairs, shouting their appreciation.

Danielle Dahan, a young Sephardi whose family moved here from Morocco in the '70s, said the warm atmosphere of the conference reminded her of her childhood in Morocco. "We were so tight, you went next door to the neighbors like it was your own home. Here I feel like we've lost that sense of community."

 Ladino singer  Sarah Aroeste

Ladino singer Sarah Aroeste

One thing that sets Sephardim apart from other Jews is their spicy, exotic cuisines—the Ladino bourreka or meat pie, for instance, or the Iraqi t'bit, an aromatic dish of chicken, burnt rice and cardamom. And the various schools of Sephardic music all have a strong Near Eastern element that is at once lyrical and dissonant in the tradition of Arabic quarter tones.

More importantly, Sephardic Jews practice Judaism with their Minhag Sepharad, or Sephardic Rite, a series of liturgical customs that include an emphasis on poetry and song.

But Rabbi Daniel Bouskila, 32, who heads Temple Tifereth Israel, L.A.'s largest Sephardic synagogue, insists that what makes Sephardic Jews unique isn't merely a rich gastronomy from more than 20 countries, nor exotic liturgical tunes, but an abiding ideology in which they strive to be "ben-adam, or moral and ethical beings."

Nessim says one of the main differences between Sephardic Jews and their Ashkenazi counterparts—who originated in countries such as Germany, Poland and Russia—is that the Sephardic culture has mostly been created by secular people and not by rabbis.

"We teach Judaism with moderation and tolerance," he says. "And that's why we never had a need to split into sub-groups {such as Orthodox or Reform} as the Ashkenazim have. . . . Ironically, assimilation [into mainstream society] is proportionately much greater among Sephardim than among Ashkenazi Jews"—who make up 90% of America's Jewish population.

They came here from countries as far-flung as Brazil, Morocco, Turkey and Yemen—even, most recently, from India and Burma—to reinvent themselves once again as Americans.

These disparate emigres had one thing in common: their Sephardic heritage, carried through the generations following their persecution in Spain in the late 1300s and final expulsion in 1492.

As a result of the Inquisition, some 200,000 Jews from the Iberian Peninsula ("Sepharad" in ancient Hebrew) fanned out to settle in North Africa, Italy, Turkey and Greece, especially on the island of Rhodes. Some traveled to Persia—now, Iran—and points farther east, joining already established communities of Mizrahi (Oriental or Near Eastern) Jews, including the Babylonian Jews in Iraq. Sephardic Jews later came to the United States.<

Los Angeles is now the second-largest Sephardic-Mizrahi community in North America, after New York. The numbers are difficult to fix, but the consensus is that roughly 100,000 Jews of Sephardic and Middle Eastern origin make their home in Los Angeles, with Persians making up the majority.

Over the years, Nessim has sunk much of his personal fortune into the SEC. He founded the organization, he says, "in the knowledge that there wasn't a single world educational center with a Sephardic orientation. There was no place for leaders to be trained, there was no pooling place where people could communicate and be in touch. So, it was a rich culture without a central address and a phone number."

Nessim, whose family migrated from Spain to Palestine before settling in Paraguay, calls the Sephardic community "gypsies, because everybody is fending for himself. Up till now a Sephardic Jew cares about this: one, his family, and two, his work. There are many very successful Sephardim economically, but they never cared about their own community or about the people as a whole."

While Nessim at times comes across as a naysayer, he acknowledges a national movement in which Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews are gaining greater visibility, in part through the publication of such studies as Daniel J. Elazar's <em>The Other Jews: The Sephardim Today</em> (Basic Books, 1993) and Norman Stillman's <em>Sephardic Religious Responses to Modernity</em> (Gordon and Breach, 1995).

 One of the few anthologies that has collected American Sephardic writings

One of the few anthologies that has collected American Sephardic writings

Most Americans are familiar with the canon of Jewish American literature that includes writers such as Saul Bellow, Isaac B. Singer and Philip Roth—Ashkenazi Jews all—but who can name a single Sephardic American writer?

An anthology due from Brandeis University Press in December will attempt for the first time to introduce writing from the smaller Sephardic canon. Entitled Sephardic American Voices: 200 Years of a Literary Legacy, it is edited by Diane Matza, a professor at Utica College in New York.

"The Sephardic intellectual class isn't huge, but it's growing and becoming more prominent," Matza says. "Politically the climate is right for attention to smaller [ethnic] groups that people haven't paid that much attention to."

The anthology includes writing by Emma Lazarus, whose poem is inscribed on the Statue of Liberty, as well as contemporary fiction, essays and poetry by Sephardim of national reputation such as Victor Perera and Ammiel Alcalay. Perera is the author of the recent memoir The Cross and the Pear Tree, while Alcalay's After Jews and Arabs: Remaking Levantine Culture, has shaken up academic circles by insisting that the history of Jewish literature and intellectual tradition is deeply indebted to the accomplishments of Sephardi and Arab Jews.

 Essential reading from Ammiel Alcalay

Essential reading from Ammiel Alcalay

Speaking from his office at City University of New York in Queens, Alcalay says that there is a new willingness to examine and validate Sephardic-Mizrahi culture.

"The reception to my own work is some indication," Alcalay says. "I've gotten a kind of legitimacy in the last year or two that I haven't felt in many years. I think part of it has to do with the peace process [in the Middle East], which has opened up some possibilities to Jews from the Arab world."

Professor Lev Hakak, who coordinates the Jewish studies department at UCLA, is an Iraqi Jew and author of several scholarly works as well as books of poetry and fiction. He recognizes that a new generation of Sephardim are coming of age in the United States and beginning to make their mark.

"Basically," he points out, "the first thing immigrants do is try to make a living, to survive. Once they overcome that, then they deal with other issues, such as their image, their heritage, their traditions and so on."

Hakak publishes a newsletter addressed to L.A.'s community of approximately 5,000 Babylonian or Iraqi Jews, called Yosef Hayim, named after a major Iraqi thinker.

There is also the bimonthly Lashon, which addresses the community of Sephardim who speak Ladino, 15th century Spanish infused with elements of Hebrew, Italian, Turkish and Greek. They immigrated here from Turkey, Greece and Egypt. In his memoir, Perera describes Ladino as "a living archive of the wisdom and the prejudices as well as the fortunes and misfortunes of our tribe."

Albert M. Passy, a salty 75-year-old ex-Marine sergeant who lives in Venice, is the managing editor of Lashon and has published several editions of the Sephardic Folk Dictionary, a Ladino/English/Hebrew lexicon. Just as Ashkenazi Jews have struggled to keep Yiddish alive after the Holocaust, so are Passy and a handful of scholars hoping to pass knowledge of Ladino on to younger Sephardim.

A documentary film shot here last year, Island of Roses: The Jews of Rhodes in Los Angeles, records the local history of the Ladino-speaking community and in particular, the family of Rebecca Levy, whose I Remember Rhodes (Hermon Press, 1986) inspired her 26-year-old nephew, Gregori Viens, to take an interest in his heritage. Viens' film won the Silver Screen Award at the U.S. International Film and Video Festival in Chicago. In it, young Sephardi Leah Levy comments, "It's cool to be different nowadays and have your own heritage."

In the search for spiritual and cultural roots, real estate investment banker Henry Manoucheri, whose family came to L.A. from Iran after the Islamic Revolution, established the Halkeinu Foundation in 1995. Halkeinu holds a lecture series that has attracted about 4,000 people.

Manoucheri, 33, says Halkeinu addresses contemporary issues facing young professionals, but also encourages Sephardic singles to get to know each other and their culture. Some Persian Jews, he says, "are discovering that there's more to life than making money and having a good time. They want to go back to their roots. People are turning to their inner life now, more than at any other time."

The view that first-generation Americans of Sephardic or Mizrahi descent are exploring their roots is voiced by Juliana Maio, an entertainment lawyer and producing partner at Michael Phillips Productions in Beverly Hills.

Maio, who is of Sephardic background by way of Egypt, says, "Now that my generation is successful, we're coming into our own, and it's brand-new. We're starting to make a difference and take an interest in our own heritage. Some of us, like me, totally walked away from that and assimilated within the larger American culture. But now I think that people should know about us and realize that not everyone from countries like Egypt and Morocco is Arab. We are close to the Arabic culture in some ways," Maio amends, "but we really have our own traditions."

The most active Sephardic temple in the San Fernando Valley, Em Habanim, serves as an encounter point for Jews from Morocco, Turkey, Iraq, Yemen, Tunisia and even Libya. Headed by Rabbi Haim Louk, Minhag services at Em Habanim tend to be major vocal performances, as Louk is a gifted Hazzan (cantor) and a virtuoso of classical Andalusian music.

While social critics argue that today's emphasis on ethnic allegiance is undermining the idea of a shared American culture, Nessim and others interviewed for this story see it differently. Even as they worry that their heritage is in peril of dissolving in the American melting pot, the politics of multiculturalism may have granted Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews a new means of survival.