October 15, 2018

Skirball’s Sephardic Festival

When you grow up in the States, all you know is Ashkenazi Jewish culture,” laments Moroccan-Jewish musician Ron Elkayam. “But that is such a small part of the continuum of Jewish life.”

Elkayam helped found the musical group Za’atar in late 1997 to bring U.S. Jews a taste of the Mizrahi music he grew up with: The music of Jews who lived for centuries in the Arabic world. The seven-piece ensemble will be a highlight of the Skirball’s third annual Sephardic Arts Festival on Aug. 1, which is dedicated to introducing Angelenos to every non-Ashkenazi group in L.A.

Next Sunday, you can catch Za’atar members performing swirling Middle Eastern melodies on oud (Arabic lute) and ney (cane flute) and dumbek (goblet drum). It’s music Za’atar founder John Erlich and colleagues have meticulously reconstructed by studying recordings secured in Israel and in obscure record stores.

Another musician who will appear at the Festival traces her family history to a different part of the world: To the Spanish Jews who were forced to convert to Catholicism in the wake of the Inquisition. Consuelo Luz, who will perform ancient Ladino songs from her new CD, “Dezeo,” was raised as a Catholic in a privileged diplomatic household in such countries as Greece, Peru and the Philippines. Her father’s family is descended from Spanish nobility; her mother’s from a medieval Spanish saint who is known to hail from a family of conversos. At the Skirball, Luz will sing the ancient Ladino ballads and prayers that are helping her to reclaim her Jewish roots.

Wander a short distance from the Festival stage, and you can check out Sephardic tales courtesy of professional storyteller Devorah Spilman or peruse Sephardic antique ketubot in the museum’s core collection. There will be henna hand-painting; make-your-own shesh-besh (backgammon); and two films, “Girona, Mother of Israel-The Jews of Catalonia” and “Morocco Body & Soul,” a documentary about Andalusian music.

If you’re hungry, munch the Tunisian veggie fritada, Spanish salmon paella or almadrote de berenjenna, a cheesy, baked eggplant savory that was created in the Jewish ghetto of Venice, Italy.

Parking for the festival, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.will be available at the Skirball and at auxiliary sites, with regular shuttle buses available on Aug. 1. Admission is $8 for adults and free to Skirball members and children under 12. For advance tickets, which are strongly recommended, call 323/ 655-8587.