‘Exile’ highlights the journey of Sephardic Jews
Homesickness and nostalgia are similar, but there’s a subtle difference. Homesickness is when you miss a place you can go back to, and when you do go back, what you’re homesick for will likely still be there. Nostalgia, on the other hand, is a place you cannot go back to because it’s rooted in the past, and you know, deep inside, that the past cannot be lived again.
Nostalgia is a running thread in “Exile: Kisses on Both Cheeks,” a Jewish Women’s Theatre (JWT) show that opened March 18 and runs through April 3 in various venues, including synagogues and private homes. Directed by Susan Morgenstern, “Exile,” like other JWT shows, is a staged reading — performed by professional actors — of more than a dozen thematically connected personal stories and songs that evoke laughs, smiles of recognition and more than a few tears.
The subject matter of “Exile” — the journey of Sephardic Jews — is at times tragic or hilarious and always touching. Sephardim were forced to leave Spain and Portugal more than 500 years ago, after which they settled in far-flung places, from Central America to South Asia, but mostly in North Africa, Turkey, Greece and the Middle East. Over the years, often after being forced into exile again, most Sephardim have found safety in Western Europe, the Americas or Israel, but their history has taught them that safety may not be permanent: However secure a haven may seem, it could eventually turn out to be temporary.
“The motif that I saw repeated is being in a place for a generation or two, North Africa or Turkey, then having to move someplace else for a generation or two, and then having to go someplace else,” said Ronda Spinak, the JWT co-founder and artistic director who adapted and produced this show. “A sense of nomad, that there really is no home. … What you see in a couple of the pieces [in “Exile”] is the sense of, ‘OK, we’re here now, but how long will it be before we have to move someplace else again?’ ”
In a piece called “Becoming American,” Gladys Moreau expresses the uncertainty that many Sephardim carry in their DNA. Born in Egypt, Moreau moved to Italy with her parents, lived there for years, and as a schoolgirl, immigrated to the U.S. In a touching piece in which Moreau talks about Ashkenazi friends who had never met a Sephardic Jew, she writes that she has always felt secure here, but “I don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow, and this feeling of, yeah, I’m in America, but still … I don’t know.”
The Sephardic writers of the pieces seem to be “groping,” not only to find a place where they can feel secure and at home, but also toward an identity.
In “Living Between the Question Marks,” Ruth Knafo Setton writes: “I dream in French, write in English, mysteriously know Spanish, curse in Arabic, cry in Hebrew,” an apt summary of Sephardic history’s interwoven strands. “I exist between languages, roam between countries, write between genres. … In a sense, I’m always writing in translation.”
That feeling of an uncertain future is captured in “The Last Seder” by Andre Aciman, whose Sephardic ancestors left Iberia, lived in Turkey for generations, then settled in Egypt. The story takes place during Passover in Alexandria in the 1960s after then-President Gamal Abdel Nasser has ordered Aciman’s family and other Jews to leave the country. The piece poignantly expresses a 10-year-old boy’s pain at being uprooted from a place he loves and will never forget.
In “Both Jewish and Arabic,” a young father whose Sephardic family lived in Syria and is now in the U.S., tries to teach his daughter Arabic, which he himself barely knows, and is gratified when she responds. Even though he knows they’ll never go back to Syria, her counting to 10 in Arabic is a symbolic return to a land where his family once felt at home.
An issue that Sephardic Jews have had to confront, after leaving Morocco or Turkey and coming to North America, is the interaction with Ashkenazi Jews.
“I wasn’t aware that many Sephardim have a sense that Ashkenazis consider them second-class,” Spinak said, “that [Sephardim] are not the real Jews. … So part of this show is trying to get at how much we are alike. … To acknowledge from the part of Ashkenazis, that, yes, we’ve done that to you. And for the Ashkenazis who are being shown this for the first time, that there is a whole different type of Jewish culture that is equally valid and equally Jewish.”
“Differences,” performed by the ensemble, was, according to program notes, “assembled from the internet” and pokes fun of cultural divides between Sephardim and Ashkenazis, while “A Sephardi Air,” by Ruth Behar, zeroes in on the customs relating to the sensitive issue of child-naming — Sephardim name a child after a living relative, while Ashkenazis do not — to highlight divergences and similarities between these two Jewish groups.
Spinak said that she and some others at JWT had wanted to do a Sephardic-themed show for some time. She met with UCLA Sephardic Studies professor Sarah Stein, who “was helpful in giving me a list of books to read about Sephardim: their history, their journey, as well as books of poetry and literature. She suggested different writers, so then I … did a lot of reading.”
While watching “Exile,” it’s no great leap to hear references to current events. “The play’s themes of loss and uncertainty about being forced to leave one’s home resonate deeply … at this day and age,” she said. “The Sephardic story is one that every Jew needs to hear.”
“Exile: Kisses on Both Cheeks” is adapted and produced by Ronda Spinak, and directed by Susan Morgenstern. Funding for the project was provided by the Maurice Amado Foundation. There is also an art show on Sephardic themes at the Braid, JWT’s home base, at 2912 Colorado St., No. 102, Santa Monica, with works created by artists Rene Amitai, Jaco Halfon, and Sarah True. For dates and venues, please go to jewishwomenstheatre.org or call (310) 315-1400.