October 18, 2018

Sephardic Moms-to-Be Are Not Superstitious

Photo from Max Pixel.

Ashkenazi Jews in the shtetl believed that proud talk when a pregnancy barely was established would invite catastrophe.

Like other Jews, they feared the evil eye, expecting it to do harm when their affairs were prospering.

In contrast, Sephardic Jews often have celebrated a first pregnancy. This celebration has been named “the cutting of the swaddling clothes.”

The ceremonial cutting of a cloth to make the baby’s first outfit, which is the same for a girl or a boy, is an old Sephardic custom still continued by some Jews in Istanbul.

When a Jewish woman reaches the fifth month of her first pregnancy, her family invites all her female relatives and in-laws, as well as friends and neighbors.

Liqueurs and chocolates, tea, cakes and sugared almonds are set out on the best china, on hand embroidered tablecloths. The cloth is of excellent quality.

Traditionally it comes from the expectant woman’s dowry. A relative who is a mother and whose own parents are still alive (a good omen for long life) receives the honor of making the first cut in the cloth.

At the moment of the cut, the pregnant woman throws white sugared almonds onto the cloth, to symbolize the sweet and prosperous future she wishes for her child.

Algeria and Morocco
Sephardic Jews in Algeria and Morocco celebrated the cutting of the first layette when a woman was in the final trimester of her first pregnancy. The pregnant woman’s parents provided lengths of cloth on a copper tray covered with a silk scarf.

In Algeria, the person who made the first cut was similarly a woman whose parents were still alive and who clearly lived in a happy home.

In Morocco, the midwife cut the cloth into swaddling clothes in the presence of female friends and relatives who offered their good wishes and shared tea and cakes.

Sephardic Jews often have celebrated a first pregnancy. This celebration has been named “the cutting of the swaddling clothes.”

In the early 20th century, Jewish women in Amadiya, Kurdistan, also celebrated a first pregnancy. When a young woman was certain that she had conceived, she went to her father’s house, where her mother and female relatives sewed clothes for the expected baby.

They bestowed the honor of making the sheets for the cradle on an old woman who had delivered many babies. The women invited musicians, sang and danced, and offered the mother-to-be tidbits of advice about childbearing. In the evening, they prepared a feast for the men in the husband’s house.

Yemen and Aden
Jews in Yemen and Aden prepared clothes for the newborn in the seventh month of a woman’s pregnancy, but without ceremony. Each woman sewed what she would need for her baby.

Modern Traditions
Unlike the bat mitzvah at puberty and the wedding, both of which signify a change in status, no Jewish ritual marks the new role of becoming a mother.

Some women have sought to create a new ceremony, in the style of a Jewish ritual, to express their feelings of spirituality and Jewish identity at this milestone in their lives.
For example, one woman chose Rosh Chodesh, the first day of the new moon (a day when women have abstained from heavy work), as a good time for a pregnancy ritual at home. In this ceremony, she recited benedictions over candles and had a challah and sweet wine as well as special blessings for the occasion, just as in other Jewish celebrations.

She also incorporated symbolism into the celebration, with motifs of fertility and birth.

In such a ceremony, a woman acknowledges her responsibility for creating a new life, prepares herself to accept her new role, and commits herself to fulfilling it within the framework of Judaism.

This story originated at www.kveller.com

At Valley Beth Shalom, a Sephardic Service With a Twist

Asher Levy. Photo courtesy of Asher Levy

It was Friday night at Valley Beth Shalom (VBS) when Rabbi Ed Feinstein explained the difference between how Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews pray. “Sephardim bring their bodies with them to temple,” he told the 100 or so congregants, “while Ashkenazim usually leave their bodies at home.”

The next hour and a half proved Feinstein right.

Welcome to VBS’ Sephardic Service, led by Asher Levy, 23, the synagogue’s musician-in-residence, who played a lute-like instrument called an oud and sang the hypnotic pizmonim (chants) of the Aleppo Halabi community. The congregants — a mix of Sephardim and Ashkenazim — caught the infectious spirit of the service and sang enthusiastically, swaying and clapping in rhythm.

Though Levy’s Syrian-Jewish family has been in the United States for generations, his Hebrew prayers — sung Middle Eastern-style, where a single syllable of text sometimes gives rise to a dozen musical notes — bore the strong guttural aspirants of Arabic. Levy not only has natural gifts as a musician and singer with a haunting tenor voice, he also has immersed himself in the prayers, songs and accents of his Syrian ancestors.

Levy gained his familiarity with Sephardic tradition from his grandfather and his father, Rabbi Jay Levy, formerly the rabbi of Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel. “I learned a lot from elders in the community, who taught me to pray in the Sephardic nusach,” the style of the prayer service.

Asher Levy sees his current task as the “preservation and proliferation” of Sephardic music and culture.

As Levy (and the congregants) chanted poetic homages to God, to Shabbat, and to life itself — more and more intensely with each repetition — the result was a trancelike liturgical/spiritual experience. It was deeply religious, but it could have been part of a secular performance of Middle Eastern music.

Besides Levy, there were three others in the group: Jamie Papish played a doumbek, a goblet-shaped drum, and  his soulful drumbeats felt like they were in sync with the listener’s heartbeat. Phil Baron, VBS cantor, played tambourine and recited poetic prayer passages in English. Rabbi Jay Levy, Asher’s father, played harmonium and baglama, a small stringed instrument.

Rabbi Levy had his own way of explaining the distinction between styles of prayer. An Ashkenazi cantor “is like an opera singer the congregation passively listens to,” he said. “In a Sephardic service, the cantor leads the congregation in communal chants where everyone participates, chanting along and clapping to the rhythm.”

The VBS Sephardic service isn’t only different from an Ashkenazi service, Asher Levy said, it also contrasts with a typical Sephardic service: It’s egalitarian and liberal (men and women sit together and participate equally), and musical instruments are used, with electronic amplification.

“What I’m trying to do here is bridge the two worlds I grew up in,” the younger Levy said. “The musical instruments and the egalitarian practice of liberal Judaism joined with prayers of various pan-Sephardic communities: the Jews of Syria and Egypt and Morocco and Iraq, and the Ladino Jews of the former Ottoman Empire. I want to bring those practices and that music and that ineffable feeling … to a liberal Jewish space. And we’re doing it with traditional instruments, with instruments of the Sephardic Diaspora.”

Valley Beth Shalom’s Sephardic Friday night service, known as T’marim (Hebrew for dates), won’t return until January, recurring after that on the fourth Friday of each month. The service starts at 6:30 p.m., preceded by a 6 p.m. mezze (hummus, tahini, vegetables, pitta, fruit).

Asher Levy sees his current task as the “preservation and proliferation” of Sephardic music and culture. “My goal … is to revitalize and bring new music into the spiritual life of this community. The way I do that is by bringing the music of my upbringing into a community where the music has been overwhelmingly Ashkenazi.”

With VBS’ significant population of Sephardic and Mizrachi Jews, including many Persian Jews, he welcomes the opportunity to offer the traditional Sephardic prayer service in a contemporary context.

“Blending the modern and the traditional is something that’s really unique,” he said, “and it’s uniquely suited to this community.”

A Second, Quieter Festival Explores the Sephardic Journey

It’s hard to describe the pull of nostalgia. I left Casablanca, Morocco, when I was 8, and grew up in Canada and the United States. I’m a proud U.S. citizen and I love my country. When I travel overseas, I skip over Morocco and usually go right to the Jewish homeland of Israel, which I also love.

So, how do I explain my nostalgia for Morocco, an Arab-Muslim country? How can I be attached to a country that feels so foreign, so distant?

It’s true that with the passage of time there’s a tendency to romanticize our past. The very idea of romanticizing feels Moroccan to me. The mystical deserts where Jewish holy men are buried; the souks of Marrakesh; the drama of Tangiers; the French flavors of Casablanca; the Arabic music I still love; the Arab expressions my mother still uses — all of those things dance in my mind as I try to make sense of my attachment to the country of my ancestors.

But there’s something else — the “Moroccan Judaism” I grew up with. This is a Judaism that elevates celebration, aesthetics, holiness, neighborliness and tolerance. I didn’t grow up with the trauma of the Holocaust. I grew up dreaming in the deserts and beaches around Casablanca. What I most recall about our Jewish neighborhood was cozying up with family and neighbors during Shabbat and Jewish holidays.

It was an intimate and happy Judaism — one you could touch, feel and smell. We were Jews in a non-Jewish land, and we had to hug our Jewish rituals and each other to feel alive and whole.

Are my memories idealized? Probably. But here’s the thing: They feel real to me. The pull of my Moroccan past feels genuine.

This pull of nostalgia is one of the areas explored in the Los Angeles Sephardic Film Festival, which runs Nov. 5–12. While the buzz in the city will be around the larger and more established Israel Film Festival — which we feature in this week’s cover story — it’s worth paying attention to this other festival, especially if you enjoy the story of wandering Jews.

In a way, it makes sense that both festivals are happening simultaneously, because there’s one place where they clearly intersect: Israel. The Jewish state has played a major, even transformational, role in the recent history of Sephardic Jewry. In fact, the film premiering at the Sephardic festival, “Back to Casablanca,” could well have been featured at the Israel Film Festival.

The film tells the story of Ze’ev Revach, an Israeli actor and director born and raised in Morocco. As described on the festival’s website, “He sets out on a journey back to Casablanca, in search of a Moroccan actor to star alongside him in his next film, which he dreams that he’ll be able to distribute around the Arab world. He connects with his mother tongue, discovers the commonalities between the two cultures, but his mission is not a simple one.”

Another film, “Journey from Tunisia,” deals with “the upheaval of centuries of roots for Jews and their Arab neighbors in North Africa, and the forming of new roots in Israel, soon after its rebirth as a nation.”

And then there’s “Why Do They Hate Us?” — a must-see from French-Jewish filmmaker Alexandre Amiel, who hails from Morocco. Shortly after the Charlie Hebdo and kosher market attacks, Amiel was shaken by his 11-year-old son, who asked, “Why do they hate us Jews?” His response was to produce a series on racism and anti-Semitism in France. It aired on French television and will be presented at the festival.

While the film festival is sure to attract Sephardic Jews, it’s also an opportunity for Ashkenazi Jews to learn more about their Sephardic brethren. This learning can’t happen as easily in religious institutions like synagogues, because most of us are attached to our religious customs, our style of prayer, our denominations and so on. Having said that, I know several Ashkenazi synagogues that now offer Sephardic services to their members. A great example is at Valley Beth Shalom, which you can read about in this week’s Journal, where Sephardic musician Asher Levy leads Middle Eastern-style services based on his Syrian roots.

A cultural event like a film festival is an ideal way to learn about different Jewish stories. Culture doesn’t ask us to change our ways, it just invites us to open our eyes and ears and hearts and experience a moment.

Although I’m deeply attached to my Sephardic roots, I have spent a good part of my adult life exploring Ashkenazi traditions, religiously and culturally, for the simple reason that I’m fascinated by the story of my people.

As with the story at Valley Beth Shalom, I’m noticing a similar interest among many of my Ashkenazi friends. Last Friday night, for example, after we sang the Ashkenazi version of “Shalom Aleichem,” one Ashkenazi guest asked, “What’s the Sephardic melody for that song?”

Singing that melody pulled me back to my childhood in Morocco. It’s ironic that an Ashkenazi Jew made me sing it, but that’s emblematic of our generation. We’re pulled by the nostalgia of our own past, but we’re fascinated by the past of other Jews we meet. After centuries of living apart, we’re discovering new Jewish stories, new Jewish melodies, new Jewish traditions, right here in Los Angeles. That’s something I could never taste in my Casablanca neighborhood, as much as I miss it.

‘Exile’ highlights the journey of Sephardic Jews

AJ Meijer performs Andre Aciman’s “The Last Seder” in “Exile.” Photo by Jan Berlfein Burns

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.

Spain naturalizes 220 Sephardim, including Jerusalem’s chief rabbi

The Sephardic chief rabbi of Jerusalem, Shlomo Amar, was among the latest group of recipients of Spanish nationality under that country’s law of return for descendants of Sephardic Jews.

The Spanish nationality was conferred on Amar Friday, according to the EFE news agency, along with 219 others. They were made Spanish nationals by a decree as per legislation that passed last year, under which descendants of Sephardic Jews with proven ties to Spain may naturalize as Spanish citizens. Over 4,300 have been awarded Spanish nationality under the law.

Hundreds of thousands of Jews fled Spain after 1492, when the Catholic Church and the country’s royal house instituted a campaign of persecution, forced conversion to Christianity and dispossession against Jews known as the Spanish Inquisition.

Spanish officials said they enacted a Sephardic law of return to correct that historical wrong. The legislation in Spain followed the 2013 passing of a Sephardic law of return in Portugal, where the inquisition began in 1536.

Portugal’s law for naturalization of the descendants of Sephardic Jews is less strict than Spain’s, which requires applicants demonstrate knowledge of Spanish culture and language. The Portuguese law makes no such requirements.

The legislation occurred at a time of economic crisis in Spain and Portugal, where unemployment is more than double the European median and in some parts as high as 40 percent among young workers under 25. Both countries have invested millions of dollars in attracting tourists to their Jewish heritage sites and, separately, have also offered residency and eventual citizenship to affluent investors in so-called golden visa programs.

Both Spain and Portugal are members of the European Union and their citizens may settle and work in any of the bloc’s 28 member states.

Many of the Jews who fled Spain and Portugal as refugees settled in North Africa, including the ancestors of Amar, a former Sephardic chief rabbi of Israel who was born in Casablanca, Morocco.

In a statement, his office said the Spanish government conferred honorary citizenship on him in recognition of his work on behalf of the descendants of the Jews expelled from Spain at the time of the Spanish Inquisition, adding that he had not requested Spanish citizenship.

Sisters from a prominent Sephardic family to get Spanish citizenship

It’s been more than 500 years since Yosef Elyashar, a rabbi in the Spanish town of Híjar, was expelled from his home country. Now, centuries later, two of his American ancestors are poised to become citizens again, thanks to a law passed one year ago by the Spanish government reaching out to Sephardic Jews.

“My whole life I’d heard about my family’s connection to Spain and how much my parents and my ancestors respected their cultural connection to Spain,” said Tamar Hurwitz, who, with her sister Sharón Eliashar, went through the last hurdle of the bureaucratic process to attain citizenship on June 2. Having completed the rigorous undertaking, the sisters have been advised by the notary representing the Spanish government that they will soon be conferred citizenship.

“It never occurred to me that I’d be able to return to Spain. It never occurred to me that we’d be welcomed back as Sephardic Jews based on our family’s history, and the fact that this law emerged sparked something in me,” Hurwitz said. “It was like lighting a match and having flames suddenly appear that connected me instantly and very strongly to my ancestral homeland.”

According to family lore — buttressed by official forms, timeworn letters and handwritten notations dating back hundreds of years — after being driven out of Spain in the late 15th century, Yosef Elyashar’s family wandered in exile in Europe until finally reaching the Holy Land. 

In Palestine, and eventually Israel, the Eliashars — a spelling Sharón prefers, though some descendants spell it Eliachar — have been a distinguished family for more than five centuries, featuring prominent rabbis, scholars and community leaders. Givat Shaul and Kfar Shaul, at the western entrance to Jerusalem, are hubs of Orthodox Jewish life; they were named in honor of Yaakov Shaul Elyashar, Sephardic Chief Rabbi in Jerusalem from 1893 to 1904, when Palestine was part of the Ottoman Empire. A street in downtown Jerusalem is named for Yaakov Elyashar, an 18th century rabbi of the same family tree.  

The Eliashar family thrived after being forced out of Spain, and like many Sephardic families, they don’t seem to have harbored resentment toward the country that exiled them. Instead, they took Spain with them. Among themselves, they spoke Ladino, a Judeo-Spanish dialect. They ate buñuelos and sofritos, staples of Spanish cuisine. In their poetry, they conjured up medieval Spanish life. Even the name Sephardic evokes fond memories of their ancestral homeland: Sefarad means Spain in Hebrew. 

Spanish Jews also carried sacramental colors and shapes with them when they went into exile. Lucia Conte, an expert in the history of Spanish Jewry, has written that when she first stepped into one of the oldest synagogues in Safed, Israel, built in the 1500s, it struck her how similar it was to the still-surviving shul in Híjar, Spain, not far from the city of Zaragoza. The Safed shul’s bimah was the same blue as that inside Híjar’s shul, and had the same contours. Conte was thrilled to hear the guide explain that the shul was “probably founded by the first Spanish rabbi to reach Israel, someone named Yosef, who was known as ‘the Zaragozan’ because he came from a town near Zaragoza.” Conte has written that Yosef Elyashar, who had been rabbi at the shul in Híjar, was surely the same person who built and led a shul in Safed in the early 1500s.

Sharón Eliashar said that Conte’s published account was one of the many pieces of evidence that she and her sister presented to the notary representing the Spanish government in the recent hearings to determine whether the sisters had made a credible case for receiving Spanish citizenship. 

Under the recent law passed by the Spanish government, regulations were enacted to make it easier for Sephardic Jews to attain Spanish citizenship. The requirements, however, are still cumbersome.

“We had to pass a Spanish language test,” said Hurwitz, who lives in San Francisco and works for the city as an environmental educator in the school system. “We also had to pass a culture and civics test to show we understood the laws and culture and customs of Spain. We had to procure birth certificates, marriage certificates, family documents and otherwise prove our Sephardic lineage, and also prove that we were from that lineage. We had to get letters from the Sephardic community in the U.S. to show we were Sephardic. Everything had to be translated into Spanish. There were all sorts of things we had to do to make our case.” 

During this process, the Eliashar sisters — whose father is Joseph Hurwitz, a rabbi for many years at Temple Isaiah in Palm Springs — have had Barcelona-based Maya Dori, an Israeli-born lawyer and academic, helping them navigate through the red tape. Dori, herself of Sephardic background, has dedicated herself to helping Sephardic Jews get their Spanish citizenship. 

“By the time we got in to see the notary,” Hurwitz said, “Maya had already done her work. The notary had already been through the process with Maya, to understand all the connections. So Maya really made the case on our behalf, which is why we needed her.”

In a phone interview from her home in Barcelona, Dori said the Spanish citizenship request made by the Eliashar sisters was special to her. 

“You have to understand what family these sisters are from,” Dori said. “When I grew up in Jerusalem, I’d go to Givat Shaul and other neighborhoods that were named for people in the Eliashar family. This is a family that’s part of Sephardic and Jerusalem history.”

The Eliashar sisters made it clear that getting their Spanish citizenship will in no way compromise their Jewish identity or their love for Israel. Instead, becoming citizens of Spain is a way of reconnecting a crucial Jewish link that had been broken for hundreds of years.

“Meeting with the notary was a profound experience for me,” said Sharón Eliashar, a musician, singer and composer who lives in Santa Fe, N.M. “Our mother flew in for it, and our brother, as well. So it was a meaningful event for our whole family. They were there inside the room, as well, at the table with us. … The Eliashar family has had a Spanish identity for at least 500 years, handed from generation to generation, both as part of an oral tradition as well as in documents. It’s this identity that connects us to our ancestors, and each generation passed on the story of our having come from Spain. It’s almost like the haggadah, which passes on a story of origins and urges each new generation to keep the story alive.”

Though she doesn’t doubt the Spanish government’s sincerity in reaching out to Sephardic Jews, Dori said that “less than 15 people have been able to receive their Spanish citizenships under the new law during this past year. … According to the Spanish Jewish Federation, during the first year of the law, 1,026 people have been granted the certificates that will allow them to start applying for Spanish citizenship.” Dori said that the actual number of applicants who will go through the requirements will be “much lower.”

“So far, the number of people who have gotten their applications approved … is not very large,” Eliashar said. “We’re grateful that the Spanish government has offered us this opportunity, but we hope that they expand and extend it so that it has a real impact.”  

New citizenship law has Jews worldwide flocking to tiny Portugal city

Five years ago, this city’s tiny Jewish community was so strapped for cash it couldn’t afford to fix the deep cracks in its synagogue’s moldy ceiling.

The Jewish Community of Porto was also too poor to hire a full-time rabbi because of its small size (50 members) and the paucity of donors in a country gripped by a financial crisis.

But last month the community, situation 200 miles north of Lisbon, showcased its stunning turnaround. Hosting the biggest event in its history, it drew hundreds of guests from all over the world to the city’s newly opened kosher hotel and newly renovated synagogue. The community also has a new Jewish museum and mikvah ritual bath, and there are plans to build a kosher shop, Jewish kindergarten and school.

The money, community members say, came from a massive influx of Jewish tourists that coincided with the implementation of Portugal’s 2013 law of return for Sephardic Jews and their descendants.

The law named the Porto community, founded by a handful of converts to Judaism, one of two institutions responsible for vetting citizenship applications, providing the Jews in this little-known city of 230,000 with tens of thousands of dollars in income and turning Porto into a destination for Jews from around the world.

“This law not only gave us new funds but put us on the world map,” said Emmanuel Fonseca, a 53-year-old Orthodox convert to Judaism. “In no time, we went from a tiny group struggling to exist to a well-to-do congregation with local and international standing. I never thought I would live to see this.”

Applying for membership in Lisbon and Porto’s official Jewish community costs $300-$560 and is a required step for a Jew to become a Portuguese citizen under the 2013 law. (Spain recently passed a similar law aimed at descendants of Sephardic Jews.) Each application must be checked by one of the two Jewish communities against their records and lists of lineages. Some of the hundreds of applicants to Porto have added handsome donations on top of the required fee.

So far, only three of the hundreds of citizenship applications have been approved, a wrinkle that Leon Amiras, an Israeli attorney handling citizenship requests and chairman of the Association of Olim from Latin America, Spain and Portugal, attributed to bureaucratic complications connected to last November’s elections in Portugal. Amiras said he expects hundreds of applications to be approved this year.

Meanwhile, Porto is becoming a more attractive prospective home for Jews with European Union passports, who can move here without obtaining citizenship. Yoel Zekri, a French Jewish student in his 20s who temporarily moved here last year from Marseille, where five Jews have been assaulted in three stabbing attacks since October, said he’s considering staying on after his studies “to help build the community.”

“I no longer feel comfortable in France,” Zekri said. “I would never wear a kippah on the street. Here people sometimes tell me they are happy to see the Jews return.”

Congregants praying at the Kadoorie - Mekor Haim synagogue in Porto, Portugal, May 2014. (Courtesy of the Jewish Community of Porto)Congregants praying at the Kadoorie – Mekor Haim synagogue in Porto, Portugal, May 2014. Photo courtesy of the Jewish Community of Porto

Porto hasn’t seen a single anti-Semitic incident over the last decade, according to the mayor, Rui Moreira, who spoke last month at an event at the synagogue and obliquely referenced the rising anti-Semitic violence elsewhere in Europe.

“This synagogue was built when others across Europe were being burned,” he said. “Today it again offers shelter from the bad winds blowing around us.”

Alexandre Sznajder, a Jewish businessman from Rio de Janeiro with a Polish passport who was in town for the kosher hotel and synagogue celebration, is thinking about moving to Porto with his wife and son.

“The economic situation in Brazil is deteriorating and personal security is terrible,” said Sznajder, an importer who said he was kidnapped for ransom two years ago. “If I can keep doing business from here, where it’s safe, Porto could be the place for us.”

Some applicants for Portuguese citizenship from non-EU countries want a Portuguese passport as an insurance policy, in the event things in their home countries go south. Hila Loya, a visitor from Cape Town, applied last year for that reason.

In South Africa, she said, “the anti-Israel, anti-Jewish atmosphere is worsening, and there’s a feeling things may turn for the worse in the near future.”

Last month, approximately 250 Jews from 14 countries convened here for a weekend retreat designed to introduce them to Porto and its Jews. Among those present were the president of Lisbon’s Jewish community, Turkish Chief Rabbi Ishak Haleva and 80 other Turkish Jews. Most of the applicants to Porto’s community so far have been Turkish Jews, including many of those who came for the weekend retreat.

Haleva, one of Sephardic Jewry’s most respected religious figures, said he came not to apply for citizenship – “I’m a Turkish Jew, period” – but to visit “this place where our roots are.” Many of Turkey’s Jews are descended from Sephardic Jews who fled northern Portugal after 1536, when Portugal joined Spain in applying the Inquisition’s expulsion orders against Jews, according to Haleva. And many of those who fled from Portugal to Turkey originally came from Spain, where the Inquisition began in 1492.

Turkish Chief Rabbi Ishak Haleva, right, talking to congregants outside Kadoorie - Mekor Haim synagogue in Porto, Portugal, Jan. 29, 2016 (Cnaan Liphshiz) Congregants carrying a Torah scroll into the Kadoorie – Mekor Haim synagogue in Porto, Portugal, Jan. 29, 2016. Photo by Cnaan Liphshiz/JTA

Tens of thousands of Jews stayed in Portugal and converted to Christianity. While many continued to practice Judaism in secret as anusim – Hebrew for “forced ones” — the Jewish presence ultimately vanished from this once heavily Jewish area. The Jewish revival was sparked in 1923, when a Portuguese army captain, Arthur Carlos Barros Basto, reached out to the descendants of the anusim, leading to the construction of Porto’s synagogue.

Built in 1939, the community’s Kadoorie – Mekor Haim synagogue is among the largest and most beautiful in the Iberian Peninsula, but it saw long periods of neglect until last year’s extensive renovations were completed. That helped put a new shine on the synagogue’s best features: Moroccan-style interior arches; heavy redwood interior and dazzling collection of more than 20,000 hand-painted azulejos, Portugal’s iconic ceramic tiles.

When Porto’s mayor dropped in at last month’s retreat, it was his second time at the city’s shul – a sign of the Jewish community’s increased significance in Porto, according to the local rabbi, Daniel Litvak.

Addressing 300 guests from the synagogue’s podium while wearing a kippah, Moreira, who himself is descended from an Ashkenazi Jew who settled in Porto in the 19th century, said Portugal’s new law of return was to “correct a historical wrong” — the 16th-century expulsion of Portugal’s Jews.

But, he added, “the law has future implications: We want you to come live here, with us, and share that future.”

King of Spain honors Sephardic Jews in ceremony recognizing citizenship law

Spain’s king honored Sephardic Jews at a ceremony recognizing a new law that confers citizenship on the descendants of those banished during the Inquisition.

“Dear Sephardim, thank you for your loyalty,” King Felipe VI told representatives of Sephardim from various countries at the royal palace on Monday, The Local-Spain news website reported.

“Thank you for having kept like a precious treasure your language and your customs that are ours too. Thank you too for making love prevail over rancor and for teaching your children to love this country. How we have missed you.”

Spain granted citizenship to 4,302 people who identified themselves as descendants of Sephardim a day after the law granting dual citizenship went into effect in early October.

Justice Minister Rafael Catala said there have been nearly 600 citizenship applications and 10,000 information requests since then, The Associated Press reported Monday.

The law is the result of a government decision in 2012 that described offering citizenship to Sephardic Jews as compensation for their ancestors’ expulsion from Spain in the 15th and 16th centuries by the Spanish royal house and church during the Spanish Inquisition.

Applicants need not travel to Spain, but must hire a Spanish notary and pass tests on the Spanish language and history. The Federation of Jewish Communities of Spain, or FCJE, vets the applications in Spain under the law in its capacity as consultant and partner of the government on matters concerning the so-called Jewish law of return to Spain.

Portugal passed and implemented a similar law with fewer stipulations last year.

New law offers Sephardim right of return to Spain

On June 11, the government of Spain unanimously passed a law that attempts to right a historic wrong: It offers descendants of Sephardic Jews who were expelled from Spain in 1492 a less arduous path toward Spanish citizenship. Under the new law, Sephardim seeking Spanish citizenship do not have to renounce their current citizenship, live in Spain or own property there, all of which were previously required for citizenship. 

To discuss this new law, Javier Vallaure, the Spanish consul general in Los Angeles, visited the Jewish Journal office. 

“It was a long process,” Vallaure said. “It started on the first day that we expelled the Jews in 1492. I think many people in Spain felt guilty for doing that. … The Jewish community in Spain was an important community, so important that many historians say that 150 to 200 years later, Spain was still suffering the consequences. Jews were important in philosophy, in the development of language, in banking, in finance, in the arts.” 

The expulsion of Sephardic Jews, Vallaure said, “was the beginning of [Spain’s] decline.”  

Vallaure — whose charm, tact and graying hair bespeak his long career representing the Spanish government in many parts of the world — said the current law makes it easier than ever for Sephardim to get Spanish citizenship. 

The new rules may still be daunting to some applicants. The law states that the process can be started online (beginning Oct. 1) and costs 100 euros ($112) to apply, whether the applicant ends up receiving citizenship or not. Each applicant will have to: present documents verifying Sephardic background; show some connection to Spain, having visited the country or having friends or family there; demonstrate basic knowledge of Spanish language, culture and history; and come to Spain to have the application and original documents notarized. (This last requirement can be waived if the applicant is disabled or under 18. In either of these cases, a legal representative will have to attend the interview.) This path to Spanish citizenship will be in place during a period of three years and could be extended for one additional year. 

The law itself does not spell out specific requirements for demonstrating Sephardic roots; each application will be evaluated in its totality (valorado en su conjunto). Applications can include supporting documents from a rabbi at a Sephardic synagogue or from leaders of Sephardic organizations. They also should include birth, marriage or death certificates, or any other official document that provides evidence of Sephardic origin, such as Sephardic names in the family. All documentation must be translated into Spanish and will first be assessed by the Madrid-based Federation of Jewish Communities in Spain. 

The level of knowledge of Spanish language required for citizenship will be what’s known as A2: familiarity with commonly used words and expressions, both written and spoken (those who come from Spanish-speaking countries are exempt). However, no one is exempt from being tested on his or her knowledge of Spanish history and culture. The Cervantes Institute, a cultural division of the Spanish government that has branches all over the world, including in various cities in the United States, will administer these exams.

“These conditions look complicated,” Vallaure said, “but they are not. You don’t have to present all of these papers and all of these documents. Just some. Not just that your name is, for example, Toledano [a common Sephardic name], but that you have kept [up] some relationship with Spain throughout the years. The idea is to make the process easy for Sephardics, not to put obstacles in the way.”

Sara Elena Loaiza, founder and managing partner of Latino Consultants, an L.A.-based “social-cause marketing” firm, told the Journal that, whatever the obstacles, she’ll be applying for Spanish citizenship under the new law. She said she feels very much at home in Spain, a country she visits every year. “My ancestry is from Santander, so I would prefer to go there to apply for this, especially since I understand the culture and speak the language. It’ll be a beautiful memory, to apply for citizenship in Santander, where my family is from.”

Loaiza’s mother’s maiden name was Mortera. The Spanish government, as part of this offer, has issued a list of 5,000 last names which can be used as a factor in showing Sephardic roots. Mortera is on the list, spelled in its variant form, Morteira. 

Another name on that list is Nahom, a variant of Nahoum. Bonita Nahoum Jaros has carried on a double career as an academic administrative professional at Santa Ana College and as a singer. She  has traced her family roots back to “specific cities in Spain. … During a trip to Spain, we even found a ketubah [Jewish marriage contract] in Toledo with the name Nahoum on it — my maiden name.” 

Jaros grew up in New York in a “Ladino-speaking enclave” and said her most recent recording, “Kantigas de Mi Chikés” (“Songs of My Childhood”), is “a compilation of 34 [Ladino] songs, each dedicated to a different friend or relative, all of Sephardic background.”

She intends to apply for Spanish citizenship because of her “longing for the motherland,” while also trying to understand why “we Jews became aliens from the land we lived in for centuries and to which we contributed mightily.”

In the run-up to the law’s enactment, some opined that Spain is taking this step because of contributions Jews might make to the Spanish economy. Vallaure pointed out that the path toward citizenship does not require applicants to have a certain economic status: Sephardim can apply regardless of income or net worth. Moreover, he said, the application fee covers Spain’s administrative costs to process an expected 90,000 applications.  

Vallaure made clear that, from his country’s point of view, this is a “spiritual matter.” 

“[The] Spanish are … a very sentimental people,” Vallaure said. “So we ask ourselves: Why did we do that to the Jews? They were nice people who contributed to society. So, why? That’s why there was no debate in the Spanish Parliament or in the media.”

Even though there were no dissenting votes, there was, in fact, some debate. During discussions about the proposed act, one member of the Spanish Parliament asked why the Jews are being offered this option and not the Muslims (or Moors), who were expelled at the same time.

It has been pointed out that — unlike the Jews—Moors invaded Spain in the eighth century as conquerors. They were expelled 800 years later when Spain unified under Ferdinand and Isabella. Given the bloody battles between Catholics and Moors — Spanish leader El Cid is the symbol of that struggle — it’s likely that the Spanish people’s residual memory of Moors is different from how they remember the Jews who once lived among them. Even the Parliament member who raised this question did not vote against the law.

Moreover, it’s clear that Sephardic Jews, during their Diaspora, have maintained emotional ties to Spain. The preamble to the law expresses this in a poetic way. 

“Wherever they’ve lived,” the preamble states, “the children of Sepharad have remained nostalgic about Spain. … They’ve used the language of their ancestors [Ladino or Haketía, which are Spanish dialects] for their traditional prayers and recipes, for their games and poetry. They’ve carried on their Spanish customs, they’ve used last names that invoke their Spanish places of origin, and accepted without rancor the silence of a country that had all but forgotten about them.”

As Vallaure sums it up: “As King Juan Carlos has said many times, [Sephardim] are Spaniards. … It’s not that we want the Jews to feel nostalgic about Spain, or to feel [as if] they are at home in Spain. No! When Sephardic Jews are in Spain, they are home.”

Spanish Congress to vote on final amendments to Jewish citizenship law

Spain’s congress is poised to vote on final amendments that would make it possible for descendants of Sephardic Jews to apply for citizenship.

The Congress of Deputies is scheduled to vote on the amendments on June 11, according to a statement published on the congress’ website on Monday.

Under the amendments, approved by the Spanish senate on May 27, applicants would be able to apply without traveling to Spain, as proposed in previous amendments which did not pass, but are required to hire a Spanish notary and pass tests on the Spanish language and history.

Applicants can study for the tests and take them at the facilities of the Cervantes Institute, a government entity that offers courses on Spanish culture and its language in over 20 countries, including Israel.

“The procedure for acquiring Spanish nationality regulated in this law will be electronic,” the amendments read. “The request will be in Spanish and will be overseen by the General Directorate of Registrars and Notaries.”

In addition, candidates will need to apply to the Federation of Jewish Communities of Spain, or FCJE, which will vet applications along with government officials, the amendment states. If passed by the congress on Thursday, Spain’s law for nationality for descendants of Sephardic Jews will come into effect in October. The law will expire after three years, though it may be extended another year if deemed necessary.

The law is the result of a government decision from 2012 that described offering citizenship to Sephardim as compensation for their ancestors’ expulsion from Spain in the 15th and 16th centuries by the Spanish royal house and church in the Spanish Inquisition. Portugal passed a similar law, which went into effect earlier this year. It is open-ended and does not require proven knowledge of Portuguese.

Whereas the law passed unanimously in Portugal, in Spain it prompted opposition leaders to accuse the government of discriminating against other minorities, including Muslims, who were expelled from Spain during the Inquisition. It is nonetheless expected to pass in the congress.

Jesús Enrique Iglesias, a former communist and lawmaker for the United Left party, told the EFE news agency that the government was “relativizing grievances” with its new law.

And Jokin Bildarratz of the Basque Nationalist Party called the law a “historical injustice” if it is not extended to Muslims that were expelled.

Some historians have disputed the comparison, citing the presence of Muslims in Spain as occupiers who were driven out of Spain back to their lands of origin.

Turkish newspaper tries to save dying Jewish language

Every time she prepares her newspaper for print, Karen Sarhon has her pick from dozens of submissions she receives daily from writers around the world.

A desirable situation for any editor-in-chief, Sarhon says it is nothing short of unbelievable for her monthly, El Amaneser, which is the world’s only newspaper in Ladino — a Jewish-Spanish language teetering on the brink of extinction.

“In the 1970s, Ladino was truly a dying language, but El Amaneser is among the relatively new initiatives giving Ladino a new lease on life,” said Sarhon, a Turkish-Jewish linguist who launched the Ladino publication 10 years ago as part of her work at the Turkish Jewish community’s Ottoman-Turkish Sephardic Culture Research Center.

Sarhon’s center was founded as Jews worldwide, and especially in Israel, grew alarmed at the prospect of Ladino’s disappearance and mounted an international effort spanning four continents to preserve it. The effort to preserve the language also has gotten a boost from Spain’s push to export its culture and language abroad through its Cervantes Institute – and from popular nostalgia for Sephardic culture.

Ladino is spoken by about 100,000 people, most of them in Israel, according to Israel’s Association of Translators. Other estimates say the number of Ladino speakers worldwide may be more than twice that number. Whatever the exact figure, Ladino is not being passed on to the next generation – partly because these Ladino speakers are dispersed in countries dominated by other languages.

Starting in the mid 1990s, language classes and online forums promoting Ladino began popping up in Israel. In 1996, Israel’s National Authority of Ladino was established, and in the early 2000s two Israeli universities, Bar-Ilan and Ben-Gurion, began teaching the language.

These conditions allowed El Amaneser to recruit writers from Turkey, France, Argentina, Chile, Israel, the United States and Britain, who every month send in far more material than the paper can print in its 24 pages.

With no more than 2,000 readers in Turkey and another 300 worldwide, El Amaneser is not exactly a moneymaker. It exists as a nonprofit, like most other bodies that were set up over the past 30 years to save Ladino from oblivion.

But whereas most of these bodies have state or university funding, El Amaneser exists thanks to the resources of Turkey’s small Jewish community and Salom — the country’s Jewish weekly, which prints El Amaneser and houses its offices in its building. Unlike most Diaspora Jewish newspapers, Salom actually generates a profit, and, aside from funding El Amaneser, Salom distributes the Ladino paper for free to Salom’s 4,500-odd subscribers. It’s not clear how many of them actually can read Ladino. Originally written in Hebrew letters, the language has been transliterated into Latin letters for the past 30 years.

For Turkish Jews, preserving Ladino is a historical obligation, says Sami Aker, a journalist at Salom. He notes that Ladino was developed in the Ottoman Empire by Sephardic Jews who arrived as refugees in the 15th century after fleeing the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions.

“Contrary to common misconceptions, Sephardic Jews didn’t speak Ladino in Spain and Portugal; they spoke their local dialect over there,” Sarhon said. Only after they came to the Ottoman Empire did they begin using Ladino, “which is very much an Ottoman language,” she said.

While most immigrant populations lose their native language within four generations, Ladino has survived for centuries. It was so widely spoken among Turkish Jews that it was chosen over Turkish as the language for Salom when the paper was founded in 1947.

But Ladino readership diminished as young Turkish Jews either left for Israel or integrated into Turkish society. Salom switched to Turkish in 1984, keeping Ladino alive only in one weekly page and in the framed, yellowing front pages that adorn the walls of the paper’s headquarters in downtown Istanbul.

Ladino did not fare any better in Bulgaria, where Jews spoke the language until recently (Bulgaria, too, used to also be part of the Ottoman Empire). Claire Levy, a Bulgarian Jew, recalls how the language died out within her family, like many other Jewish families, when everyone left for Israel in the 1950s except for one Ladino-speaking aunt.

“Later on, she married a Bulgarian guy and stopped speaking Ladino altogether,” Levy said on TalesofLadino.wordpress.com in 2012.

In Turkey, preserving Ladino is not the most pressing issue for a community concerned about its future amid rising Islamism and the anti-Israel – and, some say, anti-Semitic – tirades of Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and his cronies. After two Istanbul synagogues were bombed in 2003, Salom added new security measures at its headquarters, which are now housed in a nondescript building under constant guard and equipped with massive, blast-proof doors.

Turkish Jews’ stake in preserving Ladino — a language rich with humorous expressions, songs, jokes and poetic metaphors – is understandable considering how intricately woven into their communal identity the language has become. To this day, Ladino phrases pepper the conversations of Turkish Jews, not unlike the way American Jews or Israelis use Yiddish. Turkish Jews use Ladino references for everything from domestic items (“pantofeles” for slippers) to insults (“jandaracho,” which can mean floor mop, or a submissive person).

Though El Amaneser has relatively few readers, the fact that it is published at all is itself an important element of Ladino culture, says Eliezer Papo, a scholar on Balkan Jewish history at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Israel.

“The amount of Ladino-language papers printed in the Ottoman Empire was staggering and completely outsized when compared to the output of other minorities,” Papo said. “We’re talking about up to eight or nine publications per medium-sized community of Ladino speakers.”

Fitting for a language famous for its humor, each community had at least one satirical publication.

“No one depends on El Amaneser for their news, because hardly anyone speaks Ladino as a first language,” Papo said, “Yet from a nostalgic point of view, Ladino needs at least one newspaper to stay alive.”

In explaining what El Amaneser means to Turkish Jews and Ladino speakers, Papo recalls the origins of the paper’s name: A Ladino saying that speaks of how the night’s darkest hour occurs just before the break of dawn.

“Just as Ladino disappears into the darkness, its devotees at El Amaneser and elsewhere are making sure it has more time in the sun,” Papo said.

Spain’s lower parliament passes Sephardic return bill

Legislation in Spain that would naturalize Sephardic Jews was approved by the country’s lower parliament.

The legislation approved Wednesday goes to the country’s Senate for a vote. It is expected to go into effect in May.

The draft bill was introduced in February 2014 by Justice Minister Alberto Ruiz-Gallardon, who told JTA at the time that it was meant to “repair a historical error” — a reference to the Spanish Inquisition that began in 1492. The Inquisition forced hundreds of thousands of Jews to flee the Iberian Peninsula or convert to Christianity in an attempt to escape religious persecution led by the Catholic Church and the Spanish royal house.

Under current Spanish legislation dating back to 1924, Jews may apply for citizenship if they reside in Spain for more than two years and can prove family ties to expelled Spaniards. Each request is evaluated individually and approved or rejected by a senior Interior Ministry official.

The new draft bill proposes to do away with the demand for residence and to make the application process automatic and not subject to the ministry’s discretion for candidates who meet all the criteria.

Spain’s Council of Ministers, the Spanish Cabinet, approved the draft law last June.

Under revisions introduced in December, applicants must be certified as Sephardic by Spain’s Federation of Jewish Communities, and then tested in Spain by a government-approved notary on their knowledge of Spanish and Sephardic culture. If they pass, applicants would need to return to Spain at a later date for another procedure.

The Spanish government estimates that about 90,000 people of Sephardic heritage will apply for citizenship, though they may not all qualify, according to the Financial Times.

Reclaiming Sephardic music, culture on road to Spanish citizenship

When Maya and Noa Dori were kids growing up in Israel, they used to spend Shabbat with their grandmother Lisa Romano. One night, as Maya tells it, they walked outside and “started to pinpoint the stars.” Their grandmother quickly swatted Noa’s hand, furious. 

“She said, ‘It’s forbidden,’ ” Maya remembered during a recent phone call from Spain. 

When Maya and Noa asked why, their grandmother told them, simply, that horrible things would happen to their fingers if they counted the stars. For years, the mystery behind this star-crossed obsession vexed the sisters. 

As they grew up, Maya and Noa became more and more interested in their grandmother’s Sephardic heritage, until finally, a decade ago, Maya decided to try reclaiming her Spanish citizenship. As part of her research, the answer to the star-counting mystery finally revealed itself. 

During the time of the Inquisition in Spain, Maya explained, “They were hunting people that said they converted to Christianity, but at home preserved their Jewish customs and heritage. [The Inquisition authorities] stood at the corner of the street, [on] Shabbat, waiting for those trying to pinpoint three stars.” 

Those who were caught “were instantly recognized as Jews, and the Spanish would do terrible things to them,” she continued. The fear of counting the Sabbath stars was then passed down through the generations, all the way to Maya and Noa’s grandmother.

When Maya went before the Spanish authorities to reclaim her citizenship, she told them the story of her grandmother and the stars. Now, Maya and Noa are hoping to help other Jews of Spanish descent reclaim their birthright by applying for Spanish citizenship. To do so, they’ve founded an organization, Lisa Advisors, named after their grandmother. 

They’re holding a special evening of music and learning at the Roxbury Park Community Center in Beverly Hills on Jan. 29 at 6:30 p.m., hoping the Los Angeles Sephardic community will turn out to hear about their stories and to listen to some wonderful music.

“Two years ago, the Spanish government announced a big project about giving Spanish citizenship to Sephardic Jews,” Maya said. “A lot of people don’t know that they have a lot of things inside of their memory, inside of their family culture and history, that can be used as proof.”

Regaining Spanish citizenship is a different process than the process to regain German citizenship lost during the Holocaust. Because no one really has papers from the 1400s — when Jews were expelled from Spain — modern-day Spanish authorities rely upon a mix of information in making their decisions. Everything from family names, to Sephardic ketubahs, to knowledge of Ladino can be used as “proof” of Spanish ancestry. 

The proposal announced in 2012 would ease some of the current restrictions to seeking citizenship: residency in Spain will no longer be required, and dual citizenship will be permitted. In June 2014, Spain’s Council of Ministers approved the draft law. It is expected to pass in Parliament later this year, Maya said.

Once passed, “[The] law is only available for two years,” Noa stressed. “So you can imagine what kind of a mission we are on.”

When Maya began the process for herself 10 years ago, almost no one knew the process, she said.

“The clerks here in Barcelona were looking at me in a puzzled way, and called their manager because they didn’t know what to do with me,” she said.

Maya’s story was entered into evidence, along with a family Sephardic ketubah and some other items. 

“It was part of my case, and they sent it to Madrid,” she said.  Soon after, the Spanish authorities granted her request and gave her citizenship. 

Noa, who lives in Los Angeles, has been acting and singing since she was a child, first in Israel and later in the United States. She’s appeared on TV shows such as “Castle” and “Days of our Lives,” and performed duets with the likes of Adam Lambert. But even today, she recalls that her grandmother always wanted her to sing Ladino music more than anything.

“My grandma used to ask me why I was yelling,” Noa said by phone, of her grandmother’s reaction to the opera songs she would sing as a teenager. “She’d say, ‘Sing Morenica,’ ” referring to a popular Sephardic song. Although Noa went on to sing with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra and at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow, she never forgot her grandmother’s words.

While Maya handles the academic and legal aspects of Spanish immigration — something that comes naturally to her as she’s a lawyer and has a doctorate in economics — her sister takes care of the cultural side. 

“I’m not a lawyer,” Noa said. “I’m a singer and a performer, so really this evening is about bringing the Sephardic Jewish community together, not just for the information purposes of if they wish to get European citizenship … but also to reminisce and to celebrate the Ladino music that I’ll be responsible for.”

As someone who’s already gone through the process, Maya knows that she can help those seeking to reclaim their own heritage. 

“I want them to really understand that we are one big family,” she said. “In Israel for many, many years … being Sephardic was not something people used to be proud of.”

Living in modern-day Spain, Maya knows that she can make a difference. 

“The Jewish community here is very small, and it would be nice to see more and more people coming,” she said. “We were important. We’re still important.” 

STAR mixes tradition, values, fun for Sephardic teens

Who knew that playing paintball and taking trips to the Santa Monica Pier could be so … Jewish?

Since 1998, mixing social activities with Judaic values has been at the core of the nonprofit group Sephardic Tradition and Recreation (STAR). Thousands of the area’s young Sephardic Jews have mingled with others like themselves while learning about their roots — and having some serious fun in the process — thanks to the Van Nuys-based organization.

“We at STAR have one fundamental goal, and that is Jewish pride,” said Rabbi Yitzchak Sakhai, the organization’s program director. “As we like to say, empty pride is what has always been frowned upon by Judaism. We at STAR try to instill in our youth enough knowledge of their background, customs [and] history that when they do feel proud of their Judaism, it’s not just empty pride, but filled with history and knowledge.” 

The organization sponsors a host of activities for children ages 7 to 18, who are divided into four age groups. They gather for movie nights, parties, paintball, even trips to Israel — all in the hope of instilling a sense of pride in the younger generation of Jews. A trip to the Santa Monica Pier for Chanukah, for example, might also include arts and crafts or a show-and-tell on how to press oil from olives, Sakhai said. 

STAR is the brainchild of Hyman Jebb Levy, 88, a retired businessman and member of the Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel in West L.A., who saw a need to connect young Sephardic Jews to their Jewish heritage. (Ashkenazic Jews are welcome to take part as well.)

“I’ve always been interested in Jewish education, and I’ve always believed that if you don’t educate the youth about their Jewish roots, you have no future,” Levy said. “So when I retired … I saw there was no youth program in the Sephardic synagogues in the city, and so I got together with some friends in the community and we started STAR.”

The key to STAR’s success, he said, has been working with children starting at a young age, and gradually sharing the beauty of Jewish traditions and cultures with them through different activities. The program focuses on six principles: community, tradition, values, preservation, Israel and pride.

“At age 7 is when you want to start educating them about what it means to be Jewish, and they have a place where they can make other Jewish friends and just have fun,” said Levy, who hosted a Sukkot party at his Encino home that drew about 120 people. “Studies have shown that Jewish children who are more involved in the Jewish community at a young age typically tend to  remain connected to Judaism as adults and marry other Jews.”  

STAR’s leadership said they try to offer a friendly approach without coming across as aggressive.

“We do not want to come across as pushy or forcing religion on them,” said STAR’s executive director, Rabbi Menachem Weiss. “Our goal is to be their friend and invite them into a Jewish environment that is enriching to their lives and showing them the value of being a part of the Jewish community.”

The staff is hands-on, visiting young Jews in their homes to pass out custom-made Passover haggadot and offering teens opportunities at Shabbaton events to ask STAR’s rabbis about challenging issues from everyday life — anything from drug use to premarital sex to peer pressure.

“When the kids see that the rabbi is friendly and approachable, then Judaism becomes cool for them,” Weiss said. “So when kids can’t speak to their parents about something, they can come to us for guidance. Or sometimes, if the parents are seeing their children getting off track at school or hanging out with the wrong crowd, the parents can ask us to intervene because we have had this relationship with their kids for many years at STAR.”  

To create a more direct connection with the Holy Land, STAR has developed the Magen Leadership Program for teenagers. It involves a three-week trip to Israel, where the teens not only learn about the Jewish state, but they also volunteer for charitable causes and help groom a new generation of Jewish leaders.

STAR alumnus Justin Daneshrad, a UCLA graduate who is now 21, said the organization provided a transformative experience during his younger years.

“The most important thing for me in being a part of STAR was the sense of unity and friendship with other Jews my age that I felt while I was involved with their activities,” said Daneshrad, an Iranian-American Jew. “If I could sit down with Jewish parents today, I would tell them that by getting your kids involved in STAR, you are helping to instill in them moral guidance, Jewish values and a strong foundation for their future, because the people at STAR really care about us.”

 For his part, Levy said he has been delighted with the outcome of STAR’s activities for young Sephardic Jews in the city over the years, and he hopes the organization soon can establish its own youth center where Jewish students can hang out, study and participate in different activities.

“This entire experience has been very gratifying for me because when I go to synagogue, these kids involved with STAR come up and shake my hand or give me hugs,” Levy said. “So I really feel like I’m doing right by the Jewish community, and that’s the best part of it all.”

Shared history of persecution unites Mizrahi, Sephardic Jews

A band of young, Jewish musicians filled the halls of Hillel at UCLA with traditional Sephardic music as more than 120 local Sephardic Jews gathered at the center on Nov. 24 to commemorate Jewish refugees from Arab lands and Iran. Sponsored by the nonprofit Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa (JIMENA) and the Consulate General of Israel in Los Angeles, the event was designed to raise greater community awareness about the expulsion and flight of hundreds of thousands of Jews from various Middle Eastern and North African countries since the creation of Israel in 1948. 

“We have a responsibility to tell the world about the stories of our Jews that had been living for many centuries throughout countries in the Middle East and overnight became refugees by the Arab and Islamic regimes in those countries,” Israel’s Consul General in L.A. David Siegel said, calling upon those gathered “to teach your children about the near 1 million Jews who were left homeless and had everything taken away from them.” 

According to Norman Stillman’s book “The Jews of Arab Lands in Modern Times” (Jewish Publication Society, 2003), between 1948 and the late 1970s, nearly 900,000 Jews from Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Libya, Morocco, Syria, Tunisia, Lebanon and Yemen either fled their homes penniless because of pogroms by Arab mobs or were forced into exile by Arab regimes in their native countries. More than 200,000 Jewish refugees from Middle Eastern countries resettled in Europe and North America, while more than 500,000 settled in Israel. According to local Iranian-Jewish leaders, nearly 80,000 Jews have fled Iran since that country’s 1979 Islamic revolution.

The gathering at Hillel at UCLA came in conjunction with the Israeli Knesset’s recent designation of Nov. 30 as a national day of commemoration for the expulsion and flight of Jews from Middle Eastern countries since 1948. 

JIMENA’s local leadership said the event resonated with community members who experienced the violent pogroms that occurred from the late 1940s through the 1960s.

“Many members of the audience were former refugees themselves, and [they] felt as though we honored them personally and gave a voice to their story,” said Natalie Farahan, JIMENA’s Los Angeles program director.

JIMENA was founded in 2001 in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terror attacks, by a group of Bay Area Jews from Arab countries with the goal of educating the public about the history and culture of Mizrahi and Sephardic Jews. The group now has official chapters in San Francisco and Los Angeles and has held events in Chicago and New York in recent years, where Jewish Mizrahi former refugees tell their stories of escape and exile for both Jewish and non-Jewish audiences.

JIMENA was also created to share the story of Israel’s role as an ethnically diverse Jewish homeland and safe haven for Jewish refugees from Arab countries, Farahan said.

Perhaps the event’s most emotional speech came from former Libyan Jewish refugee Penina Meghnagi Solomon, who recalled for the audience the traumatic experience of fleeing rioting Muslim mobs outside her home in Tripoli during Israel’s Six-Day War.

“In June 1967, there were rumors of a war between Israel and the Arab nations, and we received news that there was pillaging of Jewish homes and businesses, and they were killing Jews in Libya,” Solomon said. “I saw crowds outside our home shouting ‘Slaughter the Jews, slaughter the Jews!’ as they rioted in the streets — it was truly a frightening experience.”

Solomon said she and her family were forced to leave Libya with just one suitcase, then, eventually, relocated to refugee camps in Italy with thousands of other Jewish refugees from North Africa.

Rabbi Daniel Bouskila, director of the Los Angeles-based Sephardic Educational Center, said the story of Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews fleeing Middle Eastern countries during the 20th century remains relevant because of the rising tide of anti-Semitism worldwide and Israel’s status in the stalled peace negotiations with the Palestinians.

“It is easy to forget, but we must tell our story and remember what happened to the Jews of the Middle East who fled oppression, pogroms and were exiled from their homes,” Bouskila said. “We must tell the world that we as Jews are not some foreign entity implanted in the Middle East during the 19th century, but our ancestors have been living there for many millennia.”

With the growing trend in recent years of Arab scholars and leaders denying the existence of Jewish populations in their respective countries, in 2010 JIMENA launched a campaign to video record and preserve the testimonies and narratives of Jews displaced from the Middle East and North Africa. Refugees in the videos tell their personal histories as well as stories of human-rights abuse, denationalization, displacement, material losses and resettlement in new societies in the West. In 2011, JIMENA began translating personal accounts of Mizrahi refugees into Arabic and Persian, with the help of Middle Eastern dissidents, and launched an Arabic Facebook page last year, which has 10,000 followers.

JIMENA leaders said that in 2015 they are planning a variety of events, including a backgammon tournament, a local Sephardic music festival, a human-rights panel discussion about minority groups in the Middle East and a Mimouna celebration — a traditional Moroccan-Jewish event with music and food that begins at nightfall on the last day of Passover and continues the following day until sundown.

To read more about JIMENA’s event at Hillel at UCLA, visit Karmel Melamed’s blog at jewishjournal.com/iranianamericanjews.

Spain OK’s bill for Jewish return

Spain’s Jewish community congratulated the government for approving a bill proposing to facilitate the naturalization of Sephardic Jews of Spanish descent.

On Friday, Spain’s government approved the bill, which was filed last month by the ruling Popular Party and proposes to amend previous legislation that allowed for granting citizenship to Sephardic Jews who chose to apply for it.

Spain’s Federation of Jewish Communities, of FCJE, said in a statement Friday that it welcomed the move. “Justice Minister Alberto Ruiz Gallardon has kept his word,” FCJE wrote in the statement.

The bill proposes to allow dual nationality, enabling people who can prove Sephardic ancestry to also retain their other citizenships. Reports about the bill did not say when it would go up for a vote by lawmakers of Spain’s Congress of Deputies.

Spain already granted citizenship to individuals who applied based on previous naturalization laws for Sephardic Jews, but had no procedure in place to process such requests, the Terra Espana news site reported Friday.

Justice Minister Alberto Ruiz-Gallardon said the measure smooths the bureaucracy involved in obtaining Spanish citizenship. Applicants must be vetted by the government and FCJE.

Gallardon announced his intention to introduce new legislation in November 2012. His party, the Popular Party, introduced the bill in December 2013, after Portugal passed its own law of Jewish return in July.

Hundreds of thousands of Jews fled Spain and Portugal during the 15th and 16th centuries, when they were persecuted by the Catholic church and the royal houses of both countries.

Last month, the initiator of the Portuguese law, lawmaker Jose Ribeiro e Castro, urged the government to draft regulations to allow its implementation. Portuguese law gives the government 90 days to draft regulations for laws passed, but this did not happen in the case of Portugal’s law of return, the Lusa news agency reported on Jan. 20.

French philanthropist aid to Iranians comes full circle

Philanthropist Hubert Leven, a French Ashkenazi Jew who recently visited Los Angeles, has ties to the close-knit Iranian Jewish community that go back four generations.

More than 100 years ago, the Alliance Israelite Universelle (AIU), a nonprofit educational organization his great-grandfather, Narcisse, helped establish with six other French Jews, provided schools throughout Iran and elsewhere in the Middle East for Sephardic Jews. The educational opportunities AIU made available to the thousands of Jews in Iran between 1898 and 1979 forever changed their lives.

The generosity Leven’s ancestor extended to Iranian Jews came full circle when Leven visited Los Angeles this month, seeking financial support from Los Angeles Iranian Jews for his family’s new nonprofit organization in Israel, the Sacta-Rashi Foundation.

“I find it important, as well as natural, for French Jews to have helped Iranian Jews a century and a half ago, as it would be for Iranian Jews to help Russian or Ethiopian Jews,” Leven said in an interview. “Jews have always survived because of this solidarity.”

Leven, the retired head of a brokerage firm, lives in Paris and now devotes himself full time to his foundation, which offers hands-on educational, health and social welfare programs to benefit Israelis, one-third of whom currently live below the poverty line.

“Due to a lack of educational opportunities, there are still many youngsters who are still not able to integrate and become productive Israeli citizens,” Leven said. “It is only natural for those who benefited from the Alliance two or three generations ago to support the same organization, which is still fighting to save those who are at the bottom of the socioeducational ladder.”

For their part, local Iranian Jews were enthusiastic about supporting Leven’s organization, because of the special ties and nostalgia they felt toward the AIU for helping lift them out of their ghettos in Iran.

“If the Alliance schools had never existed, Iranian Jews would not have attained education and become so wealthy and well off as they are today,” said Elias Eshaghian, a former AIU school graduate in Iran and current chairman of the L.A.-based Iranian American Jewish Federation.

According to a 1996 book by Iranian Jewish AIU graduates living in the United States, the organization established both boys and girls schools in 11 different — and often remote — cities throughout Iran. Thousands of Jewish children attending AIU schools in Iran were given uniforms, food, inoculations and moral support.

“The schoolteachers of Alliance were not only teachers, but they were saviors, because they gave pride and dignity to Jews,” said Dr. Nahid Pirnazar, professor of Judeo-Persian history at UCLA. “The school also protected them from any maltreatment they encountered from the Muslim population.”

Eshaghian, now in his 70s, trained as a French language teacher at the AIU in Paris and returned to Iran, where he taught French, as well as serving as the school’s director in Tehran and other cities.

“I literally went from store to store of the poor Jews in the city of Yazd and had to drag their kids to get an education at the Alliance schools — many of those children today in the U.S. are among the most respected physicians, scientists, engineers and successful businessmen in our community,” Eshaghian said.

Among the graduates of AIU schools in Iran is diabetologist Dr. Samuel Rahbar, who works as a research fellow in the department of hematology and bone marrow transplantation at City of Hope National Medical Center in Duarte. Now in his late 70s, Rahbar is credited with many scientific breakthroughs in treating diabetes.

“Who knows what my life would have been like if I had not attended the Alliance school,” Rahbar said. “The school had a major impact on my life, since I learned French there that was very helpful to me when I entered medical school. And I later became the first Jewish professor at the medical school in Tehran University.”

Eshaghian said that while a number of Iranian Jews in New York and Southern California have long forgotten the aid of AIU, others feel a great deal of gratitude to the organization and are therefore willing to support Leven’s new foundation.

The Merage Foundation, a nonprofit organization based in Southern California and Denver, headed by the Iranian Jewish Merage family, has donated to Leven’s foundation and helped him forge new ties with the local Iranian Jewish community.elias eshaghian
Elias Eshaghian, chairman of the Iranian American Jewish Federation in Los Angeles.Photo courtesy of Elias Eshaghian

Group hopes Gaucher becomes household name

When Michael Margolis was 4, his doctor took his parents aside and told them he had a rare disorder called Type I Gaucher Disease. The disease, which strikes Ashkenazi Jews seven times more often than the general population, is a genetic disorder that robs patients of an enzyme that prevents a buildup of fatty tissues in the body. Victims develop a swollen spleen and liver, anemia-related chronic fatigue and debilitating bone pain.

In severe cases, the patient’s spleen sometimes swells so much that patient looks pregnant. Because the condition was considered incurable and untreatable until the early 1990s, Margolis and his family were told that all they could do was ignore it and hope for the best.

Doing so became harder as time went on. In their early 20s, Type I Gaucher (pronounced “go-shay”) patients typically start to go through “bone crises,” in which a buildup of fatty tissues blocks blood flow to the bones. The bones then die over a period of weeks in a gangrene-like process, leaving the patient in debilitating pain. Left untreated for a long time, patients develop weak skeletons and often need both hips replaced. They may also need their spleens removed to stop the progressively larger swelling of the organ that characterizes the disease.

All of that was happening to Margolis, who is 58 now and a television producer living in Valley Village. By 1991, when the FDA approved an enzyme replacement therapy for Type I Gaucher Disease he was only in his 40s, but he was looking at a future that included hip replacements, spleen removal and a weakened skeleton.

“If I had gone on without treatment … I’d have been in pretty sad shape right now,” Margolis, said recently. “I hate to see other people go through the same process needlessly.”

Margolis is on a mission to make sure no one does. Inspired by the success of the early-1980s campaign to raise awareness of Tay-Sachs Disease, he formed the Jewish-Associated Disease Action Committee (JADAC) this spring. The organization’s mission: To raise awareness in the Jewish community of Gaucher and other Jewish-associated genetic diseases, and to make them household names.

The committee’s first strike came last spring, when Margolis, whose professional credits include the 1990s reality show, “Crusaders,” used his professional chops as a TV producer to make an informational DVD about Gaucher Disease called, “A Message to Elijah.” Narrated by Elliot Gould, the DVD introduces new Gaucher patients to three Los Angeles-area patients who are living active, full lives with the disease. It has already reached 7,000 people, Margolis said, and JADAC plans to produce such a DVD for every Jewish-associated genetic disease. They list 15 such diseases on their Web site (Two neighborhoods reveal Orthodox community’s fault lines

Shavuot Food : Turn Torah Fest into a Veggie Feast

Shavuot, which marks the receiving of the Ten Commandments by Moses, was often referred to as the Jewish Thanksgiving or the “Feast of the First Fruits,” a time when farm bounty and grains were brought to the ancient Temple. The harvest often included wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives and dates.

In modern times, Shavuot inspires the preparation of many delicious and traditional recipes that usually feature a variety of vegetarian and dairy foods. Milk, eggs and cheeses of all kinds are used in abundance.

Blintzes are the most popular of the Shavuot foods and can accompany other foods or be served as a main course. They are thin pancakes or crepes, filled with interesting mixtures. I have included a classic cheese filling, enlivened with sugar-glazed, crunchy apple slices. It makes a perfect holiday dessert. The same basic blintz can be made with a spinach-ricotta combination, and served with yogurt, which adds a perfect dairy accent.

Stuffed Eggplant Rolls are a wonderful choice for your Shavuot lunch, brunch or dinner. Thin slices of eggplant are rolled around a filling prepared with three cheeses plus beaten egg whites. The spicy, garlicky herbed tomato sauce is a perfect accompaniment.

Shavuot desserts are especially tempting and fun to serve family and friends. Desserts your family will enjoy include my Apricot Cheesecake, along with bowls of dried figs, dates and nuts.

Shavuot is a wonderful occasion to entertain informally and since this is an agricultural holiday, decorate your home or table with fresh plants and flowers from the garden. Some Sephardic Jews celebrate Shavuot as “The Feast of Roses” and use roses as the table centerpiece. As a treat for your guests, bake your favorite cookies and wrap them in rose-patterned paper for them to take home.

Blintzes (Savory or Sweet)

Basic Batter for Blintzes

3 eggs
1 1/2 cups milk
1 tablespoon melted unsalted butter
1 cup flour
1 teaspoon salt

Ricotta and Spinach filling (recipe follows)


Hoop Cheese and Apple Filling (recipe follows)

Unsalted butter, for frying

In a large bowl, blend eggs, milk and butter. Add flour, salt and herbs, blending thoroughly until smooth. Cover and set aside for one hour.

Lightly butter and preheat a 6-inch nonstick frying pan. Pour about 1/8 cup of batter in at a time to form a thin pancake, tilting pan and swirling batter to patch up holes. When lightly browned, gently loosen edges and turn out of pan onto towel or plate. Cool before filling.

Place 1 or 2 tablespoons of filling on browned side, in center of each blintz. Fold lower portion over filling; tuck sides; continue rolling to form a flat rectangle. Place on large platter and cover with plastic wrap until ready to cook.

Melt 2 tablespoons butter in large skillet. Cook blintzes on both sides, about three to four minutes, until lightly browned. Transfer to serving plates and serve immediately with sour cream, preserves or remaining Glazed Apple Slices.

Makes about 15 to 20 blintzes.

Ricotta/Spinach Filling

2 bunches spinach
2 cups ricotta cheese
2 cups freshly grated Parmesan cheese
3 egg yolks
2 tablespoons minced parsley
1 tablespoon chopped fresh basil
Freshly ground black pepper

Rinse spinach and remove stems. Place in salted boiling water and boil for 10 minutes. Drain and cool, then squeeze dry in cheesecloth; chop fine.

In bowl of electric mixer, combine spinach, ricotta, Parmesan cheese, egg yolks, parsley and basil. Add salt and pepper to taste. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate.

Cheese/Apple Filling

2 pounds hoop cheese, farmer or pot cheese
2 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon salt
2 eggs

Glazed Apple Slices (recipe follows)

In large bowl, combine hoop cheese, sugar, salt and eggs. Fold in 1 cup of the drained apple slices. Cover with plastic wrap and chill until ready to assemble blintzes.

Glazed Apple Slices

1/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup orange marmalade
1/4 cup orange juice
3 Golden Delicious apples, peeled, cored and thinly sliced
Juice and grated zest of 1 lemon

In large heavy skillet, combine sugar, marmalade and orange juice. Cook over medium heat, stirring until sugar and marmalade dissolve. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer two to three minutes, just until it begins to thicken.

Place apple slices in large bowl and toss with lemon juice to prevent them from discoloring. Add apples, lemon zest and lemon juice to syrup in skillet and toss to coat. Simmer, covered for 10 to 15 minutes, until apples are soft. Transfer to glass bowl and cool to room temperature. Cover with plastic wrap and chill.

Makes about 2 cups.

Stuffed Eggplant Rolls

1 pound Ricotta or hoop cheese
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
3 tablespoons minced parsley
3 tablespoons minced fresh basil or 2 teaspoons dried
2 eggs, separated
Salt and pepper to taste
8 ounces mozzarella cheese
2 medium eggplants
Flour seasoned with salt and pepper
3/4 cup olive oil
Tomato-Basil Sauce (recipe follows)
Fresh basil leaves for garnish

Cheese Filling: Combine Ricotta cheese, Parmesan cheese, parsley, basil and egg yolks. Fold in stiffly beaten egg whites. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Chill.

Slice mozzarella cheese into sticks 2 inches long and 1/2 inch wide by 1/2 inch thick. Set aside.

Slice eggplant in half lengthwise, 1/8 to 1/4 inch thick. Dredge in seasoned flour mixture, shaking off the excess.

Heat oil in a large heavy skillet over medium heat, and sauté eggplant slices on both sides until soft and lightly browned. Drain on paper towels. Cool.

Place 2 tablespoons of cheese filling across the narrow end of each eggplant slice. Press a stick of mozzarella into the filling. Roll up eggplant tightly around filling. Place rolls, seams side down, in buttered baking dish. Cover with foil at this point and store in refrigerator for one to two hours; do not freeze.

Spoon Tomato-Basil Sauce over each roll and bake at 350 F for 15 minutes, or until hot and bubbling. With metal spatula, carefully place one or two eggplant rolls on heated plates. Garnish with basil leaves. Serve immediately.

Makes about 16 rolls.

Tomato-Basil Sauce

3 tablespoons olive oil
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 onion, finely chopped
1 red bell pepper, stemmed, seeded and chopped
2 carrots, finely chopped
1 28-ounce can whole peeled tomatoes with liquid
1 cup dry red wine
2 tablespoons minced fresh basil or 1 teaspoon dried
2 tablespoons minced parsley
1/2 teaspoon sugar
Freshly ground black pepper

In a heavy skillet, heat oil. Add the garlic, onions, red pepper and carrots and sauté until the onions are transparent. Dice the tomatoes and add with liquid, red wine, basil, parsley and sugar. Bring to boil and simmer on medium heat, stirring occasionally until thick, about 30 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Pour into food processor or blender and blend well. Transfer to bowl, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate.

Apricot Cheesecake

1 6-ounce package dried apricots
1 1/2 cups apple juice
1 1/2 cups sugar

Sugar Cookie Crust (recipe follows)

3 8-ounce packages cream cheese
4 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla
Sour Cream Topping (recipe follows)

In a small saucepan, combine apricots, apple juice and 1/2 cup of the sugar. Bring to boil and simmer until tender, five minutes. Cool. Puree apricot mixture in food processor or blender and set aside.

Prepare Sugar Cookie Crust and refrigerate.

In bowl of an electric mixer, beat cream cheese and 1 cup of the remaining sugar until light and fluffy. Add eggs, one at a time, mixing well after each addition. Blend in vanilla and 1/2 cup of apricot puree. Pour into prepared springform pan.

Bake at 350 degrees for 50 minutes, or until center is set and top is golden. Remove from oven; spread with sour cream topping and return to oven for five minutes. Cool. Remove from spring-form pan; garnish with apricot puree and serve cold.

Sugar Cookie Crust

1 1/2 cups sugar cookie crumbs (oatmeal, coconut or vanilla)
2 tablespoons butter
1/2 cup apricot puree

In food processor or blender blend crumbs with butter. Transfer cookie mixture to 9-inch springform pan and press down firmly. Spread a thin layer of apricot puree over cookie mixture. Refrigerate at least 15 minutes.

Sour Cream Topping

1 pint sour cream
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla

In a small bowl, blend sour cream, sugar and vanilla. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate.

For more holiday recipes, visit www.jewishjournal.com/local/KosherEats.php.

Judy Zeidler is the author of “The Gourmet Jewish Cook” (Cookbooks, 1988) and “The 30-Minute Kosher Cook” (Morrow, 1999) Her Web site is members.aol.com/jzkitchen.


Avalon in August

Catalina is only 22 miles across the sea from Los Angeles, but to many visitors it feels like a distant land. For one particular community of Sephardic Jews, it’s that very feeling that has kept them coming back over the past 75 years.

To Rhodeslis, Ladino-speaking Jews from the Greek island of Rhodes, a trip to Avalon takes them halfway around the world.

Every third week in August, more than 200 Sephardim – some from the East Coast and Canada – travel en masse to Catalina for a cultural experience they don’t always get on the mainland.

“The first time I went there, I felt like I was in Rhodes,” says 91-year-old Rosa Franco. “It was beautiful.”The trip is an annual pilgrimage around which everything else is planned. Reservations are often made a year in advance, and there’s little that will make a Rhodesli consider canceling.”If you want to have low attendance at a wedding or a Bar Mitzvah,” says Clement Cohen, 65, “have it on the third week in August.”

While the island’s only city doesn’t always hold the public spellbound, Rhodeslis see Avalon as an opportunity to indulge nostalgia and spend quality time with loved ones.

“We spend half the time reflecting on old memories and the other half creating new ones,” says Sarita Fields, 57, whose family has been going to Avalon since 1925.

Most Rhodeslis who immigrated to the United States did so shortly after Italy took control of Rhodes from the Ottoman Empire in 1912. Those who came to Los Angeles settled primarily in Boyle Heights. By the 1920s, word of Catalina’s temperate climate, pebbled beaches and slower pace of life had spread through the tight-knit Rhodesli community. Avalon’s streets and fountain reminded them of Rhodes’ la Juderia (the Jewish quarter). Catalina was a taste of home, and the “Island of Romance” quickly became a honeymoon destination for the first generation.

The annual trip to Avalon was the only vacation many Rhodeslis took from their jobs as shoemakers, flower peddlers or grocers. Friends and families – among them the Hassons and Benvenistes – would meet at the Sephardic Hebrew Center on Hoover Street and discuss travel plans.

“Relatives from Rhodes would talk about Catalina all year long,” says 62-year-old Rose Benon.The trip from the mainland on the luxurious S.S. Avalon or S.S. Catalina was an event in itself. Most travelers spent the two-hour steamship trip ballroom dancing to big-band music, and dressing up for the crossing was de rigueur.

“My mother always wore a nice dress with spectator heels, and my father wore a suit and tie,” says Fields.For lodging, singles and couples without children turned to The Island Villas, a collection of affordable one-room wooden bungalettes that could hold up to 1,100 guests comfortably. Those married with children would rent homes, and some toted their own pots, pans, dishes, silverware and food.

“They would bake there,” says Benon. “They would make boyous, boerekas, comidas, fry fish that the men caught. Everyone would have dinner together.”

With little money for entertainment, adults and children would hike to the Wrigley House or the Bird Park, which displayed 3,600 rare birds for free until it closed in 1966. At night, they bought ice cream and walked to the Catalina Casino, the Art Deco landmark that featured acts like Benny Goodman and Glen Miller. For a dime, many would take moonlit rides around the bay in the shoreboat.

Like other Los Angeles Jewish communities, Rhodeslis had moved from Boyle Heights to both the Westside and the San Fernando Valley by the late 1960s. As the community spread, the annual trek to Catalina became an increasingly significant cultural event. By the 1980s, the third week in August had gradually become the time to meet in Avalon to reconnect with other Rhodesli Sephardim.

“I’ve been going since I can remember,” says 41-year-old Larry Peha. “It’s the cousins that you haven’t seen in a long time. We take over the island. Everywhere you walk, you know somebody. It’s a lot of fun.”The epicenter of today’s Rhodesli Avalon experience is arguably the Pavilion Lodge, which overlooks the beach on Crescent Avenue. A favorite for more than 30 years, the Pavilion’s garden courtyard is the regular scene of commun-ity events [see sidebar, page 27] and parties.

“We always have an excuse to throw a party,” says Clement Cohen, who, with his wife Esther, hasn’t missed a summer since 1959. “A birthday, an anniversary, someone caught some fish. We’ll make up an excuse to have a party.”

Several people celebrate their birthdays while in Catalina. One of them is 73-year-old Al Huniu. For his 50th, several of Huniu’s friends had teenagers march through the streets yelling “Huniu! Huniu!” while carrying a banner and signs bearing his name. People who stumbled onto the scene thought it was a political rally.

“They really surprised me,” says Huniu, who has seen similar marches for his 60th and 70th birthdays.There are more serious rituals, too. The community’s matriarchs will often choose one day to observe a Sephardic tradition called ondas a la mar (waves to the sea).

“I Remember Rhodes” author Rebecca Amato Levy, 88, says that the women walk into Avalon Bay to “wash their faces, arms and feet to draw sickness and bad luck into the ocean.”

Catalina has inspired many to travel to Rhodes to experience their ancestral home, sometimes with groups of other Rhodesli descendents from around the globe. A tour last year featured High Holiday services in Kahal Shalom, Rhodes’ only remaining synagogue.

Regulars say that interest in the Catalina trip has been on the rise in recent years. Though no one has taken an official count, the number of Jews who travel to Avalon for the third week in August has jumped from roughly 150 to almost 250 during the past decade.

“The merging of the temple had a lot to do with that,” says Cohen. In the early 1990s, Rhodesli synagogue Beth Shalom (formerly the Sephardic Hebrew Center) merged with Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel in Westwood. At the Rhodesli community’s invitation, the Sephardic Temple’s congregants – mostly Moroccan, Syrian and Greek – have joined the party in recent years.Another contributing factor has been the unshakable enthusiasm of the younger generations. Many who spent their summers in Catalina in the ’70s and ’80s are now bringing their own children to Avalon, some just weeks old, to pass on the torch.

“I’ve been going to Catalina almost every summer of my life,” says 40-year-old Cynthia Seider. “My children have not missed a summer. It’s a place we really cherish. When I speak of Catalina to people, I get goosebumps.”