October 20, 2018

Passover and Zionism: Three Sephardic Views

Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

“This year we are here, next year in the Land of Israel. This year we are still slaves, next year may we be a free people.” This text appears in most Ashkenazi versions of the Passover haggadah.

In the Sephardic version, the second line is slightly different. It reads, “This year we are still slaves here in exile, next year may we be a free people in the Land of Israel.”

Given the emphasis on “exile vs. Israel” in the Sephardic version, how did Sephardic rabbis in post-1948 Israel understand the haggadah in light of the newly declared Jewish state?

In a pre-Passover address in April 1949, Rabbi Ben-Zion Meir Hai Uziel, who was born in Jerusalem and served as Sephardic Chief Rabbi under Ottoman and British rule, recognized the paradox of saying we are still slaves in exile. Just 11 months earlier, on May 14, 1948, he was in “the room where it happened” when David Ben-Gurion said, “We hereby declare the establishment of a Jewish state in Eretz-Yisrael, to be known as the State of Israel.”

Now as the Sephardic Chief Rabbi of the first Jewish State in close to 2,000 years, Uziel said: “Throughout our lengthy exile, Passover infused us with the hope to be redeemed in our ancestral homeland. By the grace of God and the Israeli military, we are now happy to say: This year we are a free people in the Land of Israel.”

Nissim called Passover “the holiday that most deeply preserved the connection between the Jewish people and the Land of Israel.”

By mimicking the haggadah’s language to reflect the Jewish people’s new reality, Uziel seemed to infer that the change in the Jewish people’s status warranted a change in the haggadah’s text.

Uziel’s successor to the Sephardic Chief Rabbinate was Rabbi Yitzhak Nissim.

In 1958, Nissim called Passover “the holiday that most deeply preserved the connection between the Jewish people and the Land of Israel.” He proclaimed the modern State of Israel as “the beginning of our redemption,” but said that we have “yet to cross the sea into complete freedom.” Different than Uziel’s idealistic Israel of 1949, by 1958, Israel was a deeply divided society, especially along Sephardic-Ashkenazi ethnic lines. Given this reality, Nissim used the metaphor of God “tearing apart” (kara in Hebrew) the sea, saying, “we cannot declare ourselves a fully free people on Passover until we ‘tear apart’ all of these divisions in our midst.”

In 1973, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef replaced Nissim as Israel’s new Sephardic Chief Rabbi. By then a renowned scholar of halachah (Jewish law), Yosef counted among his many published books a detailed commentary to the Passover haggadah titled “Hazon Ovadia.”

Reflecting upon the stanza in the song “Dayenu” that states, “Had God given us the Torah but not brought us into the Land of Israel, that would have been enough,” Yosef writes:

“These words are directed against the secular Zionists who think you can build the Land of Israel without the Torah of Israel. The Torah precedes the Land of Israel in importance, because the Land of Israel without Torah is no better than living in the diaspora. Indeed, it is preferable to stay in the diaspora as an observant Jew rather than angering God by living a secular lifestyle in the Land of Israel.”

In a radical departure from his Sephardic predecessors, Yosef demystifies the existence of Israel and posits that the secular orientation of Zionism actually angers God. Yosef’s creative reading of “Dayenu” deems it preferable for the Jewish people to have stayed “slaves in exile” as religiously observant Jews rather than being a “free people in the Land of Israel” in a Jewish state with a decidedly secular orientation.

As we transition from Passover into Israel’s 70th anniversary, Israel’s first three Sephardic Chief Rabbis inspire a new set of “Four Questions”: Are those of us living in exile still in slavery? Does Jewish independence in Israel automatically mean Jewish emancipation? Is a polarized Israel a true expression of freedom? Can secularism and religiosity coexist in a Jewish state?

Perhaps we should have another seder on Yom HaAtzmaut to ponder those questions.

Rabbi Daniel Bouskila is the director of the Sephardic Educational Center.

The Sandwich of our Affliction – A Poem for Passover by Rick Lupert

Thousands of years ago, when I last set foot in Egypt
when I built pyramids out of the materials that were
available to me, when life was bitter, and sweetness
was a burning bush away

I first connected brick to brick. I rushed out of the
narrow place. I began this journey of memory.
I remember it every time I sit at a table with flatbread.
Some of me stopped for a while in Poland
where apples grew in the forest like weeds.

Some of me wandered into the olive-belt where
the streets ran humid with dates and honey.
The grass is always more of a delicacy on the
other side of the Mediterranean.

Now, at tables where strangers are welcomed
and doors are opened, and our memory is longer
than our physical lives, we mix bitter and sweet
like our first head of school did, a Roman ruin’s

lifetime ago, in Jerusalem, where they still dig down
before they build up. The sweet ingredients depend
on your original neighborhood. They marry the bitter.
One tempers the other. One is arms and one is legs.
One is heart and one is lungs. Everyone does their

own thing but disappears without the other.
These are the tastes that connect us to those we are
named for. And those who will be named for us.
This is the sandwich of our affliction.

God Wrestler: a poem for every Torah Portion by Rick LupertLos Angeles poet Rick Lupert created the Poetry Super Highway (an online publication and resource for poets), and hosted the Cobalt Cafe weekly poetry reading for almost 21 years. He’s authored 21 collections of poetry, including “God Wrestler: A Poem for Every Torah Portion“, “I’m a Jew, Are You” (Jewish themed poems) and “Feeding Holy Cats” (Poetry written while a staff member on the first Birthright Israel trip), and most recently “Donut Famine” (Rothco Press, December 2016) and edited the anthologies “A Poet’s Siddur: Shabbat Evening“,  “Ekphrastia Gone Wild”, “A Poet’s Haggadah”, and “The Night Goes on All Night.” He writes the daily web comic “Cat and Banana” with fellow Los Angeles poet Brendan Constantine. He’s widely published and reads his poetry wherever they let him.

Stuffed Grape Leaves: A Luscious, Sephardic Labor of Love

Dolma, dolmeh, tolma, yaprak, sarma, sarmi: It doesn’t matter what they’re called, the humble grape leaf has tremendous power. Depending on whom you ask, stuffed grape leaves have a variety of names and fillings; many cultures claim their invention. The Greeks believe they were served to the Gods on Mount Olympus. The Turks think they were introduced to the Middle East by the Ottomans in the 16th century. But in my father’s family, sarmi — meat-and-rice filled grape leaves — are the provenance of our Bulgarian kitchen.

I’ve been eating stuffed grape leaves for my entire life. In fact, my love of cooking can be directly traced to watching my aunts picking, stuffing and rolling them before I was out of my high chair. My mother carried on this tradition when we came to the United States, and any time my father needed cheering up, or at any family celebration, they made an appearance on our table, cooked in tomato sauce and smothered in cooling yogurt. They are a piece of home, a symbol of family and our Balkan roots. I don’t remember a time when I didn’t love them, hot or cold. It wasn’t until I moved to Africa, where they are not a common sight in grocery stores, that I didn’t cook them often.

Imagine my joy at receiving a box of freshly picked leaves delivered to my restaurant from an Armenian customer who remembered my lament about not being able to find them. I washed the leaves, blanched them in salted water for a few minutes, removed the long part of the stem that attached them to the vine and rested them in salty brine in a jar in the fridge.

As I was doing this, I remembered the entrance to my aunt’s apartment building in Tel Aviv that had a wild grape arbor near the garage. No one seemed to have planted those vines, but they supplied our family with stuffed grape leaves for what seemed like a thousand meals.

Stuffed grape leaves are not complicated to make, but they demand full attention and unwavering patience, two traits that I do not possess in abundance. Because I’m more the multi-tasking, high-energy type, rolling grape leaves is an exercise in my will to keep a quiet mind and steady hand. Preparing them is also an invitation to Memory Lane, my mother’s house, my father’s smile and almost all of our family gatherings in Israel.

Imagine the ingenuity of the person, no doubt a Sephardic Jew, who realized how delicious this humble, little leaf is.

Imagine the ingenuity of the person, no doubt a Sephardic Jew, who realized how delicious this humble, little leaf is. It’s hard enough to imagine how they decided that the fermented fruit of the plant could become wine but how they discovered the delicacy of its leaves stuffed with a filling and cooked boggles the mind.

It’s almost sacrilege in my family, but I’ve found that the grape leaves I love best are not cooked in tomato sauce or stuffed with meat. I prefer rice-and-pine nut stuffed vine leaves cooked in a garlicky elixir of lemon and olive oil. That’s the thing I love most about cooking — that even though our experiences and tastes may be shaped by our first glimpses of what our family and even our ancestors may have eaten, we are not limited by their tastes. We are still able, if we are willing, to take family traditions and spin them our way.

It may sound odd, but whenever I’ve been lucky enough to walk through a vineyard, even in some of the most beautiful places on earth, I don’t think about wine. I think about my mother and my aunts placing an inverted plate on top of stuffed grape leaves to hold them together during cooking. Maybe many years from now, when I’m gone and buried, someone I’ve made these for will walk around a corner and see a grapevine growing wild in the shadow of a tree and they will think of me, too. That’s how powerful a grape leaf is.

1 16-ounce jar prepared and brined grape leaves
1 cup long grain rice
1 cup finely chopped parsley
1/2 cup finely sliced scallions, green and white parts
1/4 cup pine nuts, coarsely chopped (optional)
1 1 /2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 cup olive oil
1/4 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
2 teaspoons sugar
3 cloves garlic, finely mashed to a paste

Thoroughly rinse the brine from grape leaves under running water.   Place leaves in a bowl and cover with boiling water. Drain and rinse again and separate the leaves to remove the remaining brine and set aside.

Put rice in a pot of boiling water and stir well. Bring to a boil again and let boil for five minutes uncovered. Drain the rice in a strainer and rinse immediately with cold water. Drain again thoroughly to remove water.

To the rice, add parsley, scallions, pine nuts (if using), 1 teaspoon of salt and 1/2 teaspoon of pepper and stir to combine well.

Line the bottom of a 3- to 4-quart pot with some of the broken or large vine leaves ( there are always some larger or thicker leaves than the rest).

To roll them, place a leaf in front of you on a cutting board with the shiny side of the leaf facing down and the stem closest to you. Put a heaping spoonful of the rice mixture (more for the larger leaves) in a mound about a half-inch from the stem. Fold the stem end over the stuffing, and hold it down with your index finger. Then fold the left and the right sides of the leaf in like an envelope over the filling. Roll the leaf tightly away from you until you have reached the end of the leaf and made a small roll.

Continue to roll all the leaves until you run out of stuffing, laying them in concentric circles around the bottom of the pot. When the first layer is complete, continue to the next layer.

In a medium-sized bowl, combine olive oil, lemon juice, sugar, remaining salt and pepper, garlic and 1 cup of water, and whisk together until sugar dissolves. Pour mixture over stuffed grape leaves.

Lay an inverted dinner plate over the top of the rolls to hold them together during cooking and place the pot on medium heat. Bring to a boil, cover with a tight-fitting lid and reduce heat to low.

Simmer on low heat for one hour. Every 15 minutes or so, carefully lift the plate and baste the upper rolls with the cooking liquid. If all the liquid evaporates, add a bit more water. At the end of an hour, there should be a tiny bit of oil left at the bottom of the pot and no other liquid.

You can serve the leaves warm, but I like them cold out of the refrigerator the next day.

Makes about 50 rolls.

Yamit Behar Wood, an Israeli-American food and travel writer, is the executive chef at the U.S. Embassy in Kampala, Uganda, and founder of the New York Kitchen Catering Co.

WATCH: The Tunisian Jew Behind the Pretzel Challah Craze

In 2013, pastry chef Dominique Ansel invented the cronut (a donut and croissant hybrid). Little did he know, he was inspiring a pastry revolution, which would spawn a legion of hybrid spin-offs; i.e. the dookie (donut + cookie), the cruffin (croissant + muffin), the cragel (croissant + bagel). And then came the pretzel challah. There’s no fancy moniker (challetzel doesn’t really work). It’s no nonsense, straightforward and to the point.

Pretzel challah is the brainchild of Alain Cohen, owner of Got Kosher?, a Pico-Robertson establishment that serves Sephardic cuisine (including kosher charcuterie) in what is a primarily Ashkenazi juggernaut. Born in Tunisia and raised in Paris (where his father owned a popular kosher restaurant), he moved to Los Angeles in 1981 to pursue a movie career, but, in his own words, “life happened” and he landed, as fate would have it, back in the food industry. Cohen got the idea for pretzel challah when he was working at La Brea Bakery with chef Nancy Silverton. At the bakery, Silverton baked a pretzel baguette. “I was impressed by the idea of turning something very simple and making it different by mixing two traditions,” said Cohen.

The key ingredient that transforms a plain jane loaf of challah into a pretzel challah is lye. After the challah dough is braided, it is soaked in a lye bath (lye is a chemical solution that’s used to make soap) before being baked.

Pretzel challah has proved to be a pioneer in Los Angeles Jewish cuisine. Got Kosher’s? pretzel challah can be found at Trader Joe’s, Pavilions, Whole Foods, Gelson’s, Bristol Farms, and, of course, at its flagship store: Got Kosher?

To Cohen, the success of his challah “is amazing, it’s a gift from God.”

Remembering a ‘Forgotten Kingdom’

“Tales From the Forgotten Kingdom” sounds like the name of a sword-and-sorcery television show. The truth, though, is that it’s a theatrical musical presentation that tells romantic, touching and sometimes heart-rending stories of Sephardic communities during the early part of the 20th century in cities such as Smyrna (Izmir) and Salonika (Thessaloniki) on the Aegean Sea, Sarajevo, now in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Jerusalem.

The show features more than a dozen songs in Ladino, the Judeo-Spanish dialect Sephardic Jews took with them when they were exiled from Spain and Portugal more than 500 years ago, with an English narration that translates the songs and provides historical context.

Conceived, written, and composed in 2011 by the Israeli-born guitarist, singer and composer Guy Mendilow, 39, “Tales From the Forgotten Kingdom” has been staged dozens of times at festivals, theaters, colleges and community centers throughout the United States and Canada, including at the Skirball Cultural Center in 2014. Mendilow and his quintet, which includes a Palestinian percussionist and an Argentine vocalist, have received many honors and awards, including a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.

The Ladino-language songs in “Tales From the Forgotten Kingdom” — always charming and occasionally mournful — are respectful to tradition but unique and fresh. And on Oct. 6, the show finally will be available on CD, with the title “The Forgotten Kingdom.” Actually, it will be two CDs, because one features the 14 songs in Ladino, while the other is the soundtrack of the entire show: all the songs, plus the English narration.

According to Mendilow, it has taken six years for the show to be recorded because it has evolved over the years, with the ensemble tweaking the songs and narration of their live performances.

The poetic and moving English narration points the audience in the direction of the story, Mendilow said from his home in Boston, “but it doesn’t give you everything, it doesn’t give you all the details, so you are left to imagine it yourself. You end up creating characters in your own image, and creating settings and scenarios and predicaments made of the fabric of your own experience. The show is intended for audiences that don’t know about Sephardic life and culture, so this kind of universality is important.”

Although not of Sephardic background, Mendilow — who has studied ethnomusicology and is very much at home with English, Hebrew, Spanish and Portuguese — has spent many years exploring Sephardic history, culture and its musical traditions.

Mendilow said that Sephardim were an integral part of the Ottoman Empire for hundreds of years. He feels it’s important to grasp how they lived, especially “the way they worked across ethnic, religious and cultural lines for generations. I’m fascinated by the historical implications of that, and how that may apply to the current world. … And then it all ended; it all crumbled in the wake of the First World War. This points to questions we could ask ourselves now. What does it mean to watch your world end? What does it mean to straddle two eras, an older world and a newer one?”

Mendilow cited World War I and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire as a “seismic shift in the history of European culture and the story of Western cultures.” It was also a seismic shift for the Sephardic cultures that were embedded in that empire.

There is one song in the show that highlights this dilemma.

“La Vuelta del Marido” [The Husband’s Return] is an old Turkish-Sephardic song, Mendilow said. “It describes soldiers riding with breastplates, the horses are wearing breastplates of silver, and the soldiers have spears … and they’re very gallant, wearing white gloves. This is how officers in the early battles of the First World War arrived. And they were met with a storm of steel. And that’s the moment the old world ended. … What was it like to have gone through that change? This is haunting for me because I wonder if we, too, are at a crossroad.”

If World War I was the great change, Mendilow said, World War II “nailed the coffin on the old world” as well as on the Sephardic communities that had existed — and often thrived — in Europe for hundreds of years. “We in the U.S. don’t really know anything about those struggles,” he said. “You talk with people about the Second World War and you ask them what happened in Greece, what happened in Turkey, what happened in Bosnia, there’s a kind of blank spot on the map; and these are stories that are important to know.”

The arc of “Tales From the Forgotten Kingdom” follows European-Sephardic communities from the period during which the Ottoman Empire still existed until 1943, when train transports took Salonika Sephardim and other Greek Jews to Auschwitz.

The songs in the show are about loss, of course, but Mendilow emphasized that they’re also about hope. “There’s a question that runs through the show: When you’ve witnessed the end of your world, and you’re still around, what does it mean to start again?”

In “Tales From the Forgotten Kingdom,” there are clear echoes of today’s headlines: old civilizations forced into exile by war and famine, loss of cultural heritage and adapting to an alien land.

Mendilow is acutely aware of the resemblances his songs and narration bear to the present.

“If [people who listen to the songs] develop a fascination for Ladino music, great. Fascination for the history, great,” he said. “But my hope is also that they’d be left with some questions. And the main question is: In what way are these stories still playing out today? How are these stories not just about long ago and far away? How are these stories also in some way about us?”

England’s top Sephardic rabbi said acceptance of homosexuality is ‘fantastic’ — controversy ensued

A lesbian couple holding hands during the annual Gay Pride rally in Tel Aviv on June 8, 2007. Photo by David Silverman/Getty Images

The United Kingdom’s top Sephardic rabbi became the center of an international controversy after he praised societal acceptance of homosexuality as a “fantastic development.”

Rabbi Joseph Dweck, who serves as senior rabbi at London’s S&P Sephardi Community, came under fire after making the comment at a lecture last month. An Orthodox rabbi in London asked a rabbinic court to look into removing Dweck from his position and a petition created by an American Orthodox rabbi calling Dweck a “heretic” had gained some 480 signatures, The Jewish News reported.

A letter from Israel’s chief Sephardic rabbi, Yitzchak Yosef, also condemned Dweck.

“I am amazed and angry at the words of nonsense and heresy that were said about the foundations of our faith in our Torah,” said the letter, which was posted on the Israeli news site Kikar HaShabbat.

Dweck received rabbinic ordination from Yosef’s father, the late Sephardic chief rabbi of Israel, Ovadia Yosef.

Dweck, who grew up in Los Angeles and has been in his current position since 2013, has refused to back down, although he acknowledged that his use of the word “fantastic” was “exaggerated,” The Jewish News reported.

“I did not say that homosexual acts were fantastic. I said that the development in society had residual benefits much in the same way that Islam and Christianity did, as the Rambam pointed out,” he said.

Dweck continued: “These residual effects in my opinion are that it has helped society be more open to the expression of love between men. I was not asserting law, nor for that matter, demanding a particular way of thought. I was simply presenting a personal observation.”

The rabbi isn’t without his defenders. More than 1,900 people signed a petition backing Dweck,

“The current situation, wherein character assassination, misrepresentations, and misconstrued contexts has constituted a majority of the responses rather than honest, open, and sensitive discussion is disheartening and reflective of a most unfortunate climate in our community,” the petition reads.

A recording of the lecture from last month was originally posted on the website for the S&P Sephardi Community but has since been taken down, according to The Jewish News.

The bitter truth: A Sephardic reflection on maror

Can the simple arrangement of the Passover seder plate reflect a deeper message? In the Sephardic tradition, the answer is a resounding yes.

Unlike the standard Ashkenazi version sold in Judaica stores or printed in most haggadot, the Sephardic custom is to place maror — the bitter herbs — at the very center of the seder plate. This follows the arrangement of the “Ari,” Rabbi Isaac Luria, the 16th century mystic from Safed.

While this custom is not really discussed by any Sephardic authorities, it is interesting to note that in his “Hazon Ovadia” commentary to the haggadah, Rav Ovadia Yosef, the former Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel, remarks that Maimonides lists the “three things one must say the night of the seder” as “Pesach, maror and matzah.” This order differs from the standard “Pesach, matzah and maror” text, in that it places maror before unleavened bread, and, once again, places maror at the center.

Placing bitterness at the center of the Passover experience makes sense: Throughout Jewish history, bitterness has played a formative role in our story, our texts and our dialogue. In our own unique way, we have come to embrace bitterness and to own it as a definitive part of the Jewish hard drive.

The Jewish experience is as much about bitterness as it is about celebration, and while that might seem like a paradox to many, Jews understand that life is lived between a laugh and a tear. Thus, on the very night when we celebrate our freedom from slavery, we have no problem embracing bitterness and recognizing its ongoing presence and centrality in our collective story.

The Sephardic custom of centralizing the maror helps us tell our larger story. By placing maror in the middle, we allow ourselves to expand the haggadah to include our bitter experiences beyond Egypt. We remember the Babylonians and Romans, our inquisitions, expulsions and pogroms under the cross of Christianity, and the episodes of jihad against us under the crescent of Islam. The bitter herbs include Auschwitz and Treblinka, and they also allow for reflection on the contemporary resurgence of anti-Semitism.

All of these experiences have stood at the center of our journey as a people. While this seems painful, Judaism does not shy away from the bitter truth of our history. Only by telling these stories can we contemplate their lessons as they affect us today. There is no better night to do so than Passover, a night when we are commanded to conduct a meaningful symposium through telling stories.

Placing bitterness at the center of the Passover experience makes sense: Throughout Jewish
history, bitterness has played a formative role in our story, our texts and our dialogue.

While we recount our own collective bitter experiences, we also place maror at the center so that we remember the bitter suffering of others. Centralizing maror reminds us to not persecute strangers, immigrants or refugees, “because we were strangers in Egypt.” While gazing upon the maror at the center of the seder plate, we see the bitterness of Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, Darfur and modern-day Syria. We feel the pain of orphans, widows and all of the weakest members of our society.

Our own maror does not create bitterness toward others; quite the contrary, it sensitizes us to the suffering of others, and calls upon us to step in on their behalf. On Passover, we centralize the maror of others alongside our own. Their maror becomes ours.

Bitterness takes on different shapes and forms. It’s not always about persecution. For example, even though the bitterness of slavery precedes the sweetness of freedom in the Passover narrative, we shouldn’t forget what comes next. It turns out that the Israelites’ first moments of freedom are defined by a different kind of bitterness: “Moses led Israel away from the Red Sea, and they went out into the desert of Shur; they walked for three days in the desert but did not find water. They came to Marah, but they could not drink water from Marah because it was bitter; therefore, it was named Marah” (Exodus 15:22-23). So our freedom gave birth to a bitter experience — and it certainly wasn’t the last one in the Bible.

This paradigm has followed us into our modern-day experiences. The Holocaust preceded the creation of Israel, and while Israel marked a new era of Jewish independence, it also gave birth to a new set of bitter realities, which have held center court in today’s headlines. These new “bitter herbs” include fierce debates over war and terrorism in Israel, deep political and social divisions within Israeli society and growing political alienation between Israel and Diaspora Jewry. Our internal divisions over religious issues, the Palestinian question and current U.S. politics are no less bitter than our fears of Iran and Hamas.

So on Passover, as these debates often take center stage, we ask: “Maror zeh?” — “These bitter herbs that we eat, what do they recall?” The Sephardic custom of placing maror at the center of the plate arguably makes this the most important of all questions asked during the seder.

RABBI DANIEL BOUSKILA is the international director of the Sephardic Educational Center.

UCLA to house large archive of Sephardic culture

The history of European Jewry has been well organized and cataloged, but until now there has been no large-scale effort to gather documents and other materials pertaining to Sephardic Jewry around the Mediterranean, according to Sarah Abrevaya Stein, UCLA history professor and holder of the Maurice Amado Chair in Sephardic studies. 

This situation is about to change. 

Stein heads the Sephardic Archive Initiative (SAI), which has partnered with the UCLA Library in housing what promises to be one of the world’s largest collections of materials relating to Sephardic life and history. Initially, the archive will focus on the rich history of the Ladino-speaking pioneers who settled in Los Angeles after emigrating from Turkey and the Balkans in the early part of the 20th century. Eventually, it will expand to include L.A.’s North African, Persian and other Middle Eastern Jewish communities.    

 “UCLA is the ideal institution to safeguard and steward a collection of such enormous significance,” Stein said. “We are in L.A., which is home to one of the oldest and largest Sephardic communities in the country, and we [at UCLA] have the world-class resources to pioneer a comprehensive and invaluable archive of Sephardic culture.” 

 SAI was launched in 2015 with the help of a grant from the Sady Kahn Trust. Also aided by other foundations, SAI has since acquired a trove of materials from Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel on Wilshire Boulevard, including many documents written in Ladino (Judeo-Spanish), the language of Jews exiled from Iberia more than 500 years ago.

Chris Silver, a UCLA doctoral student in Jewish history and SAI’s project manager, said the synagogue’s collection — institutional records, photos, research papers, newsletters, pamphlets, scrapbooks and newspaper clippings, as well as an audio-visual collection of reel-to-reel, cassette, and VHS tapes — initially was put together in 1981 by Maurice I. “Bob” Hattem, a descendant of one of the founding families of the L.A. Sephardic community. 

 “We’re looking to find more family collections,” Silver said, adding that anyone who has material can contact the project at sephardic@humnet.ucla.edu. “Documents [are] often buried in suitcases, in garages or under beds, waiting for someone to open them and to give them a voice.”

Stein said that while Hattem and Sephardic Temple were “good stewards” of these materials, moving them to the UCLA Library will preserve them for future generations. 

 “[Sephardic Temple] didn’t have the resources to catalog and archive these materials, or to digitize them,” Stein said. The aim of the project, Silver added, is to create an educational exhibit that is visually rich and historically informative. Though not all the materials can be digitized, many will be, and the archive will have an interactive feature available to users anywhere.

 “This is an education-driven project,” Stein said. “We hope it fuels scholarship by creating a repository of data for people who want to write about California history, about Sephardic history, about L.A. history. Because this history hasn’t been written, [scholars] will be able to come to UCLA’s special collection, consult its repository, and be able to produce narratives about Sephardic Jewish history and culture that will be used in the classroom.” 

Stein added that many in L.A.’s Sephardic community would like the younger generations to learn about its history. “This is especially true because the demographics of the community — and also of the Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel — have changed over the years,” she said. 

Both the community and the synagogue were founded by Ladino-speaking Jews, mostly from Greece, Turkey and Rhodes; today, the community includes Jews from North Africa and the Middle East, while Sephardic Temple is predominantly Persian-Jewish. 

Stein said that SAI’s special collections archive at UCLA will utilize “scholarly skills” to explore the L.A. Sephardic community’s rich stories. When Sephardic Temple celebrates its centenary in 2020, SAI will present some of those stories at the temple as part of that celebration.


When wedding traditions collide

Everyone has certain images they associate with a Jewish wedding: the chuppah, the horah, the breaking of the glass and, of course, large spreads of food. But certain elements can get complicated in a place like Los Angeles, one of America’s largest Jewish melting pots. 

Just look at Rabbi Tal Sessler, an Ashkenazic Jew who serves as senior rabbi at Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel. He points out that the mix of diverse Jewish communities cannot help but lead to a different kind of intermarriage — between Ashkenazic and Sephardic individuals, for example — that he likes to call “inter-chuppah.” 

The impact on wedding ceremonies is inevitable as traditions meld, borrow from and are influenced by one another. For example, Sessler said: “One [practice] which is a distinctly Sephardic aspect of the chuppah ceremony is placing a tallit over both the chatan [groom] and the kallah [bride]. It has become increasingly popular in Ashkenazi-American circles. While it is not done in Israel, it is done in American Jewry outside Orthodoxy because people feel strongly about not making their ceremony asymmetrical or overly male-dominated.” 

Rabbi Menachem Weiss of Nessah Synagogue (a Persian congregation in Beverly Hills), who also is director of the Israel Center at Milken Community Schools, said different customs evolved naturally out of Jews living in different places throughout history. Ashkenazim were originally from France and Germany, while Sephardim were originally from Spain, Portugal, North Africa and the Middle East.

“The way they were acclimating to the society they lived in affected how they practiced Judaism, as Jewish communities were segregated geographically and the various communities did not connect with each other,” Weiss said.

Preserving wedding traditions from each spouse’s heritage, therefore, has become important not only as meaningful visual adornments for the ceremony but also as a means of following one’s family tree.

“If I were to trace my roots back and go through my family’s line — from Spain to Hungary and on to New York City — the various things we do are somehow shaped by where my ancestors lived,” Weiss said. “My spouse brought in Jewish customs shaped by where her family came from through the generations.”

Consider some differences: In the Ashkenazic tradition, the Shabbat when the groom is invited to be called up to the Torah takes place before the wedding and is called “aufruf,” (Yiddish for “calling up”). In Sephardic communities, the groom’s Shabbat takes place after the wedding. Other ceremonial religious traditions that differ include the bedeken (the groom handling the bride’s veil), with Askhenazi grooms veiling the bride before she walks down the aisle and Sephardic ones only unveiling the bride.

There are cultural differences, too.

“As I am Israeli and my wife is American, we noticed there are cultural nuances that come into play that don’t relate directly to customs, but [to] cultural norms from that country,” Sessler said. “American and Jewish Ashkenazis have smaller weddings in terms of the numbers of guests, while Sephardic and Israeli families stage larger weddings.”

The mood of the service can also vary among groups — in the way the betrothed couple walks down the aisle, for example. In Ashkenazi tradition, only the bride and groom go down the aisle, whereas in Persian ceremonies, the entire family participates, and they sing and dance. 

Shimmy Lautman, a Valley-based wedding photographer, is Ashkenazic but will be marrying a Sephardic woman this summer.

“One thing her family is doing, which I was not previously exposed to in my upbringing, is a pre-wedding henna party,” he said. “Another trend I am seeing within my work is [an update of] the bedeken custom. In ceremonies I have covered where an Ashkenazi groom marries his Sephardic bride, he will meet her halfway and do the veiling there, rather than put the veil on before the ceremony.”

It’s all part of making the ceremony reflect the unique personalities and traditions of each couple, he said.

“From my standpoint, it makes a wedding a lot more interesting socially and visually when various Jewish customs from different cultures are included,” Lautman said. “As essential elements of a Jewish ceremony are not going away, they way people interpret them will keep those traditions evolving.”

One issue that can come up in an inter-chuppah wedding is how the ceremony will “sound” to the family guests on both sides. Rabbi Daniel Bouskila, director of the Sephardic Educational Center, an international educational and cultural organization with a campus in the Old City of Jerusalem, said that while the songs’ and prayers’ meanings are generally the same, Sephardic variations are more flowery and embellished than Ashkenazic versions.

“The basic wedding layout is the same … but will it play to the audience is what people should consider,” Bouskila said. “If a couple is looking to integrate different traditions, they should consider what the ceremony will sound like.”

If a song or prayer is sung in a Sephardic style, one could direct Ashkenazi guests to read the text and follow along. Couples also can alternate the style in which songs are performed during the course of the ceremony.

“People are finding clever ways to keep different traditions alive, because it is so important to have the traditions of all sides expressed,” Bouskila said. 

Weiss acknowledged that couples will pick and choose what speaks to them and theorized that as younger couples tend to be less dogmatic, there will be more leeway and compromise when deciding which customs to carry forth.

“In today’s times, we’re all living together, our children are going to school together, going to shul and falling in love with one another,” he said. “We have a reintegration going on, mending those segments of the community that were previously divided into Ashkenazi, Sephardic, Persian and others. It is my hope for the future that there will be a time where there will be a complete reintegration of the Jewish people under one title, ‘Israel.’”

Letter from Dijon, France

On my first day traveling in Dijon this past spring, I bounded into the hotel lobby and casually reached for a newspaper lying on the reception desk. The front-page headline of Le Figaro riveted my attention. Quickly, I devoured the story. It described an unprecedented upsurge in the number of French Jews moving to Israel in the first months of 2014, on the heels of an unprecedented number who’d emigrated there the year before.

The Jewish population in France, larger than any country in Europe, stands between 450,000 and 500,000. Le Figaro reported that roughly 1 percent moved to Israel in 2013 — 70 percent higher than in 2012 — and that the numbers were exploding in 2014. The Jewish Agency for Israel reported that as of Aug. 31, 4,566 had left, and it predicted that at least 5,000 would leave by the end of 2014. That compares to 3,289 who left in 2013 and 1,917 in 2012.

A couple of days before reading that story, I’d visited a museum in Paris that had once been a private home. Patterned on the Petit Trianon at Versailles, it was built in 1911 for Count Moise de Camondo, a Sephardic Jew born in Istanbul who’d made a fortune in banking. The majestic home was tinged with sadness, its jaw-dropping décor and Camondo’s precious collection of paintings, sculptures, tableware and furniture countered by a stark background story.  

Camondo planned to leave the home to his children. But in 1917, Camondo’s only son, Nissim, was killed fighting for France in World War I. Devastated, the father decided to cede the home to the government of France in the name of his son upon his death. The year after he died in 1935, the house became Musée Nissim de Camondo and today remains exactly as it looked then, pristine in every stunning detail. It’s sobering to learn that a few years later, Camondo’s remaining child, daughter Beatrice, was sent to Auschwitz, along with her husband and their two children, and the family line ceased to exist.

Standing in a hotel lobby in Dijon reading the news story, it struck me that no amount of sacrifice, no show of loyalty to the state, and no sum of money could protect a Jew in Nazi-occupied France. And what about today? The newspaper reported a “spectacular” rise in the number of Jews departing for Israel in the first few months of 2014 — an increase of 312 percent over the same period last year. 

No definitive reason was cited. The economic recession bore part of the blame. Jobs were scarce in France, and Israel offered employment in select fields. But the director of the Paris-based L’Agence Juive (Jewish Agency) also mentioned that “a certain sentiment of insecurity” existed in the wake of the killings of three Jewish children and a rabbi in Toulouse in March of 2012. And just days after the article in Le Figaro appeared, a French citizen with ties to radical Islamists in Syria admitted gunning down four people at a Jewish museum in Brussels.

Wandering the pedestrian-friendly streets of Dijon, where narrow old-world lanes encircle elegant open plazas, I caught sight of a grand structure surrounded by a fence at the city’s edge. With its high dome and towers, it looked Islamic. I approached the locked gate. A Jewish star. Hebrew writing. I was standing in front of Dijon’s synagogue, across a street named for Elie Cyper. Who was Elie Cyper? And who were the Jews of Dijon? 

A recently published book shed light. Lafayette College history professor Robert Weiner and co-author Richard Sharpless, professor emeritus at the Pennsylvania school, assembled an oral history of the Jewish community in Dijon derived from 18 years of research. “An Uncertain Future: Voices of a French Jewish Community, 1940-2012” contains personal accounts of life in Dijon from the Holocaust and beyond, through times of “optimistic growth and expansion, followed by division, slow decline, and uncertainty about the future.”   

From the book, I learned that Dijon now has about 225 Jewish families in an urban population of 150,000; that the Jewish community has played an important role in the city despite its small numbers; that the city’s Jews are a mix of secular and religious, Sephardi and Ashkenazi; that Jews first came to Dijon in the Middle Ages and were expelled in the 1400s; and that they returned after the French Revolution and have never left. 

I learned that the synagogue, completed in 1879, served a robust community then numbering 550 people; that Jews were absorbed into the mainstream in the next several decades; that 80 percent of the community perished at the hands of the Nazis, including a 36-year-old rabbi named Elie Cyper, a member of the Resistance, and the man for whom that street was named; and that unlike other synagogues in France destroyed by the Nazis, Dijon’s survived thanks to the intervention of a city official who convinced the Germans the building would be useful as a warehouse and hid the Torah and other sacred objects.  

Those contributing oral histories to the book evince a feeling of great pride in being a French Jew; pride, too, in the vital Jewish community they’ve tried to create in Dijon and the ties they’ve built to the wider community. At the same time, there’s great apprehension for the future of Jewish life in Dijon, for the future of Jews in France and for the future of Israel. They worry about dwindling numbers, intermarriage and anti-Semitism. 

The authors of the book draw the conclusion that the mix of pride and concern in Dijon presents a mirror of Jewish life in communities around Europe.  

And they wonder: Does it mirror Jewish life in communities everywhere?

Shas taps new spiritual leader who derided Modern Orthodox

Shalom Cohen, a rabbi known for his hostility toward modern Orthodox and secular Israeli Jews, was appointed spiritual leader of the Orthodox, Sephardi Shas Party.

Cohen, leader of the Porat Yosef religious seminary, was named president of the Shas Council of Torah Sages on Thursday at a ceremony in Bnei Brak neat Tel Aviv, Army Radio reported. He replaced Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, who died last year.

Shortly after being announced as Yosef’s successor, Cohen reiterated his criticism of Israeli Jews who are not haredi.

“They hate us, all the ignoramuses of the Jewish Home and Yesh Atid,” Cohen said, referencing the Zionist Orthodox party headed by Naftali Bennett and the secularist party headed by Yair Lapid, respectively. “There is no difference between the two. The Ha-Kadosh barukh Hu [God] wants us to stay away from them. They are there, we are here. They will pursue their nonsense, we will pursue our holy Torah.”

Cohen, who is considered a close ally of Shas political boss Aryeh Deri, last year called Zionist Orthodox Jews “Amalek” — an extinct people that the Torah singles out for total annihilation for what is described as their cruelty to Jews.

According to Army Radio analyst Yair Sharki, Cohen’s first speech as spiritual leader marked a more separatist and hardline world view than that of Yosef.

Shas’ political party, the “World Union of Sefardi Observers of the Torah,” currently has 11 seats out of 120 in the Knesset and is not part of the coalition. Its pragmatic approach to issues connected to security and peace and other subjects that are not connected to religion and welfare has allowed it to join rightist as well as leftist coalitions, where it has used its clout to promote the movement’s massive welfare and religious education systems.

This strategy and several corruption scandals by Shas politicians have antagonized many secular and moderate religious Israelis, who form the voter bases of Yesh Atid and the Jewish Home, respectively.

Yesh Atid, which is a coalition party, has vowed not to stay in government if Shas joins.


Israel’s AG: Eliyahu’s candidacy for chief rabbi legally indefensible

Israel’s attorney general said the candidacy of Shmuel Eliyahu for Sephardic chief rabbi of Israel raised legal difficulties and could not be defended by his office.

While Yehuda Weinstein cannot officially bar Eliyahu from running for chief rabbi, the attorney general said Monday that he could not defend the rabbi should a challenge be filed against his candidacy with the Supreme Court.

Weinstein announced his decision at a hearing after reviewing Eliyahu’s responses to several questions about racist statements the rabbi had made. Weinstein had received several requests to prohibit Eliyahu, the chief rabbi of Safed, from running on the basis of the statements.

Eliyahu reportedly has said he will not drop out of the race.

“On Tisha b’Av night, the attorney general chose to trample on democracy,” Eliyahu’s office said in a statement following reports of Weinstein’s decision. “It seems that the attorney general, who has permitted serious acts of members of Knesset against IDF soldiers and given support to the heads of the Islamic Movement, has decided to hold an ad hoc tribunal against Rabbi Eliyahu and turn himself into a prosecutor, judge and hangman.

Eliyahu wrote in a response to Weinstein’s inquiry about his alleged racist comments that he did not make many of the remarks attributed to him and that some were distorted by others.

Eliyahu has instructed Jewish residents of Safed not to rent or sell property to Arabs and, in 2010, he told the Israeli daily Maariv that “a Jew should not flee from Arabs. A Jew should make the Arabs flee. There is a silent war going on here for land” and “most of the violence in Israeli society stems from the Arabs.”

In his letter to the attorney general, Eliyahu said, “I don’t understand what the problem is. Must I, as a rabbi, explain why I am against marriages between Jews and foreigners? Must I explain why I prohibit same-sex marriages? Must I explain why I am in favor of becoming religious?”

The American Jewish Committee said in a statement issued Monday that it was “deeply concerned” about Eliyahu’s candidacy.  AJC  rarely comments on internal Israeli elections.

“Tragically, Rabbi Eliyahu’s statements undermine the social fabric of Israeli society and the core tenets of Judaism,” said AJC Executive Director David Harris.

The Anti-Defamation League on Monday welcomed Weinstein’s recommendation against Eliyahu’s candidacy. ADL has publicly objected to certain positions adopted by Eliyahu.

“Rabbi Eliyahu’s racist statements and extremist views make him ill-suited to serve in such a high-profile and important Israeli government position,” said Abraham Foxman, ADL’s national director.

Venezuelan president: My grandparents were Jewish

Venezuelan President Nicholas Maduro, denying that his government has an anti-Semitic bent, said his grandparents were of Sephardic Jewish descent.

“My grandparents were Jewish, so many of the Maduros, same as the Moors [Muslims], converted to Catholicism in Venezuela,” Maduro told Apporea, a pro-government media outlet, last week. “The mother of the Minister of Communication and Information Ernesto Villegas is of the same tradition.”

During the interview, Maduro rejected allegations he attributed to Claudio Epelman, executive director of the Latin American Jewish Congress, that his government was anti-Semitic.

“I deeply lament the declarations of Claudio Epelman, director of the Latin American Jewish Congress, who I know and have met with in Venezuela many times, saying that there is anti-Semitism in Venezuela and accusing Chavez and me … if he wants he can accuse me, but he should leave Chavez alone.”

Jews have been leaving Venezuela since Chavez came to power due to a combination of the dramatic rise in violent crime, economic instability and a series of police raids and attacks on Jewish institutions. The Jewish community now numbers about 9,000 people, down from 22,000 in 1999.

Government-sponsored media have frequently used anti-Semitic rhetoric against opposition leader Henrique Capriles Radonski, a devout Catholic whose grandparents were Jewish.

During the interview, Maduro condemned the Israeli air strikes against Syria last week and its “aggression” against Iran, but he said he differentiated between Israel and the Jewish people.

“We reject the campaign [against us],” said Maduro. “We are a humanitarian people. We are not anti-Semites.”

Venezuela Jews unveil new main Sephardic synagogue

The Jewish community of Caracas officially dedicated the Venezuelan city's new main Sephardic synagogue, Tiferet Israel Este.

Hundreds gathered Sunday at the multimillion-dollar synagogue in the Las Palos Grandes neighborhood for the ceremony led by Isaac Cohen, the chief rabbi of the local Sephardic community.

“As Kohelet said, there is a time for everything,” Cohen told JTA last week. “[The new synagogue] shows that people seek religion in their lives, and we have freedom of religion here.”

Tiferet Israel Este offers an alternative to Tiferet Israel, the old main Sephardic synagogue located in a now dangerous part of town where few Jews remain. In 2009, armed vandals attacked Tiferet Israel, desecrating Torah scrolls and scrawling anti-Semitic graffiti on the walls.

The unveiling of the synagogue was postponed by a week due to the death of Hugo Chavez, the country's longtime president.

About 9,000 Jews live in Venezuela, down from 25,000 in the mid-1990s.

Studying Sephardic roots

Adina Jalali, a 15-year-old student at Yeshiva High Tech in Los Angeles, has many Ashkenazi friends, but when her parents recently offered her the chance to visit Israel for the first time, she opted for a trip that would resonate with her Sephardic upbringing. 

Over winter break, Jalali, from Beverlywood, was one of nine teens to visit Israel on a unique tour run by the Sephardic Educational Center (SEC) out of Los Angeles.

While the tours organized by the SEC — for teens and young adults as well as people their parents’ age and older — go to some of the same cultural and holy sites as other trips, the emphasis here is on Sephardic history, culture, philosophy and religious practice. 

“Every other Israel program is ‘Ashkenaz,’ and I would have had trouble relating to them,” Adina said. With the SEC, “we visited Sephardic synagogues, went to the tombs of Sephardic rabbis, ate Sephardic food. I connected to my culture and am feeling proud of being Sephardic.” 

The SEC was founded in 1979 to provide Jews of all backgrounds with “authentic Sephardic Judaism,” according to Rabbi Daniel Bouskila, the center’s director.

“The goal was to share more than ethnic food and music,” he said.  “Our purpose is to share the whole intellectual, spiritual and halachic side of Sephardic Judaism that has been a largely untapped resource.” 

In much of the Jewish world, Judaism “has been largely expressed through an Ashkenazi lens, whether it be [Joseph] Soloveitchik or [Abraham Joshua] Heschel,” Bouskila said of the preeminent Orthodox and Conservative rabbi-thinkers of the 20th century.  

“What we’re saying is, there is another way to approach Judaism and the issues” ordinarily seen through the lens of Reform, Conservative or Orthodox Judaism.

The fact that most Diaspora Jews are unfamiliar with the works of the great Sephardic rabbis “is largely due to the language factor,” the rabbi said. The SEC is now assembling a team of scholars in Israel who will translate some of these texts. 

In its early years, the SEC focused on educating high school pupils, college-age students and young adults, but in recent years it has expanded to adult education programs. The Los Angeles center serves more than 2,000 adults each year. 

“In the Diaspora we are an outreach organization,” Bouskila explained. “It can be anything from scholar-in-residence lectures to informal groups [in] private homes.” 

There are Shabbatons, and Bouskila himself offers lectures on Sephardic customs and practices prior to major Jewish holidays. Topics this winter include a series on Maimonides. 

The center’s most well-known event is its annual Sephardic Film Festival, which is a fundraiser and a way to contribute to the cultural life of Los Angeles and educate the public. In November, the 11th annual film festival began with a gala evening at Paramount Studios. The weeklong festival, which attracted 1,500 movie-goers, screened films about Jewish communities in Iraq, Egypt, Turkey, Morocco, Yemen and India, among others. Every night featured a Q-and-A by a Sephardic actor, filmmaker or rabbi. 

Neil Sheff, a Westside immigration attorney, helped create the film festival and remains co-chair. He was part of the first SEC Israel summer program in 1980, and he went on to be a counselor for future summer programs as well as the first executive director for the center in Los Angeles.

The SEC and its programs have been like family for Sheff, now an executive board member in Los Angeles and Jerusalem — and not just because he met his wife at one of the center’s cultural and social programs for young professionals and his 15-year-old son just returned from a trip to Israel with the organization.

He continues to organize and attend retreats and gatherings for young couples and families, and aside from whatever specific material he learns, the events carry a more important, consistent message: Judaism without extremism or judgment of others.

“The approach that the SEC promotes, which is a classic Sephardic approach, is one of moderation that makes Judaism as a lifestyle accessible to all at each individual’s own level of observance as we strive to learn more about our religious heritage,” Sheff said.

While the SEC’s executive offices are in Los Angeles, where it offers a broad array of programming, the center’s heart is in Jerusalem. There it maintains a small but vibrant campus that serves as a base for visiting groups. 

In a typical year, the campus, located in the heart of the Old City of Jerusalem, hosts 50 to 75 teens and young adults. Every other year, it also hosts 20 to 25 adults.   

“We’re not a mass production type of organization,” Bouskila said. “We fill a niche.”

Adult visitors to Israel spend a week immersed in seminars, beit midrash learning and a bit of travel. Local professors and scholars provide the teaching.  

This year’s teen participants — whose parents visited Israel on SEC tours decades ago — went to the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum, hiked in the Ein Gedi nature reserve near the Dead Sea and climbed Masada. 

While such activities are fairly typical of teen tours, others were more unique. The L.A. students attended the graduation ceremony of Air Force pilots in the presence of the prime minister and the minister of defense. After the ceremony, they met one of the star graduates: the first religious Israeli woman to become a combat navigator. 

“We took pictures, but we can’t share them due to military regulations,” Bouskila said. 

In the northern city of Sfat, they visited the tombs of the Sephardic refugees exiled from Spain who later formed the inner circle of kabbalists.

Every morning and on Shabbat, the participants prayed from Sephardic prayerbooks and recited the melodies they have known since childhood. 

The center’s location in the Old City enabled the students to soak up Jewish history and learn about the Jews, Muslims, Christians and Armenians who live there. 

“Our center in Jerusalem is our intellectual, spiritual home,” Bouskila said, “where all our programs are housed.”

The three-building complex includes classrooms, multipurpose rooms, a synagogue, dining hall, full-service catering kitchen and about 50 dorm rooms. Renovations will add 15 luxury rooms, a library/beit midrash, new classrooms, offices, a student lounge and lecture hall as well as a museum/visitors center. 

When its own groups aren’t using the campus, the SEC rents it out to other groups. The income helps support SEC programs and made it possible for the center to host the most recent group of students free of charge. 

“This current trip, they paid only the airfare,” Bouskila said. 

Although he could have come to Israel on just about any teen program, Ezra Soriano, 16, from Woodland Hills, was determined to tour with the SEC, just as his parents did in the 1980s.

“I’m with Rabbi Bouskila and a bunch of friends, and I’m learning a whole bunch of new things about myself and the people around me,” he said. 

One thing Ezra learned is that the Jewish traditions his family practices at home are shared by many other Sephardic Jews. His family’s roots are in the Greek island of Rhodes.

“I thought I was unique, but now I’m grateful that I can share these traditions with my friends and hopefully with my own family one day in the future,” the teen said. 

While Sephardic culture is a central theme of the SEC tour, Soriano and his friends spent their winter break getting to know all kinds of Israelis. 

“I’m realizing how closely connected I am to Israel and how much more connected I want to be,” Soriano said. “When we get home, we want to be ambassadors to all the people in our Jewish community.”

In Marseille, one of France’s poorest cities, Jewish charity is booming

Standing with dozens of hungry people in a 
breadline, Collette Quidron counts her blessings. 

“I enjoy coming here,” says Quidron, a Holocaust survivor with diabetes. “I know everybody and there’s always someone to talk to. If you’re Jewish and need tzedakah, Marseille is as good as it gets.”

The breadline, started 18 years ago behind the city's main synagogue, serves about 1,000 poor Jews each week thanks to an annual budget of about $630,000.

It is but one arm of an extensive Jewish charity network that has risen in
 Marseille, home to 80,000 Jews and one of France's poorest cities. About $1 million flows annually through the network, which comprises some 25 organizations.

Despite the relative poverty of Marseilles, the community has a robust commitment to charity, contributing slightly higher than its percentage of the country’s total Jewish population of approximately 500,000 to France’s main Jewish fundraising appeal.

“Tzedakah is very strong here because ours is a Sephardic community of 
recent immigrants from North Africa, who have a very strong tradition 
of taking care of their own,” said Elie Adevah, president of Baskets 
for Shabbat, the organization that runs the breadline.

And care they need. More than 25 percent of Marseille's residents live 
below the poverty line, compared to 16 percent in France overall. The 
unemployment rate is 30 percent higher than the national average. More than 2,000 Jewish families receive support from the French Jewish Federation, nearly double the number the organization helps in Lyon and Toulouse, which combined have approximately the same Jewish population.

At a 
time when Europe's leaders are undertaking austerity measures and
 fending off social unrest brought on by persistent unemployment and mounting fiscal challenges, the economic plight of Marseilles makes 
scant distinction between Jews and the general population.

“It affects Jews just as it affects everyone else here,” said Elie 
Berrebi, director of the Marseille Consistoire, the local branch of the national organization that administers Jewish religious services in France.

Baskets for Shabbat, which grew out of the Consistoire, conducts a telethon each fall that raises $50,000 for the organization. The rest of its budget comes from the Consistoire and the municipality. 

Several weeks after the telethon, Marseille Jews again are asked
 to open their wallets for the National Appeal for Tzedakah, which starts each November and this year marked its 20th anniversary. The appeal collects about $3.5 million annually for the French Jewish Federation, a national organization that provides social support and education services.

Marseille Jews contribute about $450,000 to the appeal, or about 15 percent of the total. The federation, in turn, funds Jewish charity in Marseille — about $366,000 annually, helping 1,750 of the city's seniors and 2,050 local families, and delivering kosher food to dozens of families with disabled members.

Beyond the federation, the needy families of Marseille have a multitude of places to seek help.
 CASIM, the city’s oldest Jewish charity, runs a supermarket where basic supplies can be had at about one-tenth their actual cost.

“At CASIM’s social supermarket, people at least pay something for food,
 just like you and me,” said Gerard Uzan, the director of CASIM, which was established in 1906. “Even token payment builds a sense of self-worth.”

CASIM also runs a charity center called Social Boutique, where low-income families not only can purchase food at reduced prices but also make use of a library and cooking classes, even a free beauty salon. CASIM has an annual budget of $230,000.

The extent of local charity helps people like Esther S., 57, to save about $250 a month.

“I used to clean houses, but over the past two years I haven't been able to find work,” said Esther, a Morocco native. “I live on about 630 euros [$800] a month, and if not for tzedakah, I wouldn’t have been able to pay rent.”

Uzan laments that the breadline is an undignified relic of 19th century soup kitchens and would like to see the various charity projects united under a single umbrella. But others say the complaints are unwarranted.

“The fact that people benefit from various projects shows there’s a need,” said Jean-Jaques Zenou, the president of Marseille’s Jewish radio station. “So what’s wrong with forming more solutions?”

Amar: Better to pray alone than with Reform

Israel's Sephardic chief rabbi, Shlomo Amar, said in a Rosh Hashanah message that it is better for a Jew to pray by himself than with Reform Jews.

Amar made the comment in a pre-holiday interview with the right-wing Orthodox newspaper Makor Rishon that was published Sunday.

Amar called Reform Judaism more of a threat to the religion than secular Jews. He also called Reform marriages invalid.

He called on the Orthodox community to reach out to secular Israelis while they are still in school, saying that if they are not reached, the Reform movement “will find them.”

Rabbi Uri Regev, head of Hiddush-Freedom of Religion for Israel, in a statement responded to Amar' s allegations.

“It is sad that Rabbi Amar chooses the holiest time of the Jewish year, which should celebrate Jewish unity, to pursue his sectarian fundamentalist views,” Regev said in the statement. “Rabbi Amar’s misguided insights generate a schism and worse yet, so long as he occupies the seat of Chief Rabbi, he is driving a wedge between Israel and the rest of the Jewish people.

“Rather than seek fault with fellow Jews, he would better delve into his own soul and realize that most Israeli and world Jews want to align Judaism with modernity and democracy. It is pluralism and diversity which Israel and Judaism need today, not religious coercion and sectarianism.”

Chief rabbi will fight non-Orthodox rabbis’ salaries

Israel’s Sephardic chief rabbi said he will fight the state’s agreement to pay the salaries of some non-Orthodox rabbis who lead their communities.

Rabbi Shlomo Amar said in an interview with the haredi Kol Berama radio station on Sunday night that he would convene the Chief Rabbinate Council, made up of Orthodox rabbis throughout Israel, to discuss ways to reverse the decision. The meeting reportedly will take place next week.

“The greatest danger for our generation is the danger of assimilation, and we need to be strong and steadfast in our fight,” Amar said. “It is forbidden to remain silent because there is nothing more serious than this measure.”

He added that the decision to recognize non-Orthodox rabbis could “uproot all the foundations of the Torah.”

Amar also objected to the fact that the attorney general, who brokered the agreement, did not consult with the Chief Rabbinate. 

The agreement announced last month came three weeks after a panel of Supreme Court judges called on the attorney general to intervene during a hearing on a petition filed more than seven years ago calling for the state to recognize and pay the salaries of rabbis of all streams of Judaism.

The Israel Religious Action Center of the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism, the Reform movement in Israel, had filed the petition. The attorney general’s office had opposed the request; the settlement was negotiated out of court.

Some 4,000 Orthodox rabbis serve as rabbis of their communities and draw a salary from the government’s Religious Services Ministry.

The non-Orthodox rabbis would have the moniker “rabbi of a non-Orthodox community,” and financing for the positions would come from the Culture and Sports Ministry.

The decision is limited to regional councils and farming communities and is not intended for large cities.

From L.A. to Casablanca and back again

On May 16, 2003, a series of suicide bombings struck Casablanca. The target: Jews. Luckily, the suicide bombers were not particularly savvy, and the Jewish targets they struck were empty for Shabbat. Although no Jews were killed, nearly 30 Muslims died as a result of the blasts. In response to the bombings, Morocco’s King Mohammed VI staged a rally to demonstrate his support for the Jewish community; this was right in the middle of the Second Intifada. That’s Morocco for you — a country that in turn enchants and surprises, according to the Jewish-American singer Vanessa Paloma. When Paloma visits Los Angeles this week to perform with Noreen Green and the Los Angeles Jewish Symphony, she’ll be bringing a musical taste of the country she loves and now calls home.

“I moved to Morocco in 2007,” Paloma said, speaking on the phone while sitting under a tree on the campus of Indiana University, her alma mater, on a warm spring day. Paloma, who’d just finished performing, recounted the journey that took her from a mostly secular life in the United States to an observant Jewish one in Morocco. 

The impetus for her journey, she said, was the time she spent in Los Angeles after college, when she founded a musical group, Flor de Serena (Siren’s Flower), which performed Sephardic music. As she dug deeper into the music, she started to see that “maybe there’s actually something a lot deeper going on here.” After spending some time in Israel, she said, she decided it was time “to make my life more whole, to practice what I was singing, in a way.” And so she applied for and received a Fulbright Scholarship and headed off to Morocco.

The first thing you have to understand about Casablanca, she said, is that “it’s a huge city. Casablanca is really a metropolis. … There are about 7 million people.” And sprinkled among those millions of Moroccans is a small but thriving community of Jews. “It’s a city that has kosher restaurants, many synagogues, three Jewish clubs and four Jewish schools,” she said.

Nevertheless, Paloma soon found that integrating herself into the Jewish community was harder than she expected. “It’s a pretty insular community,” she said. “Fifty or 60 years ago, there were 350,000 Jews in Morocco, and they existed on all different levels of the society.” Today, the community numbers one-hundredth of that.

Paloma found it easier to be accepted outside the Jewish community. “I have a project that I’ve been doing with a Moroccan woman singer and with a Spanish woman; we do the three … women and three religions, and we’ve performed that all over Morocco. … It’s actually been easier for me to have friendships in the Muslim community and in the foreign community,” she said.

But she didn’t give up. As a feminist, it was hard for her to deal with the fact that “all the communal organizations are completely run by men,” she said, but she soon learned that the women of Morocco held a hidden power. “The women might not have a lot of formal power, but they have a significant amount of informal power. … Many times people try to get to a decision-maker through the female side of [their] family.”

The songs of these Moroccan-Jewish women particularly appealed to Paloma. They apparently had also appealed to the 19th century painter Eugene Delacroix. “Delacroix … stayed in a Jewish house in Tangiers when he came to Morocco,” said Paloma. “He has a very famous painting of a Jewish mother and daughter in Tangiers, it’s this family Ben Shimon, who were a very prominent family.”

Paloma also learned to love her new country despite the difficulties. She told one tale of having to communicate with a blind oud player who only spoke Arabic, and how they eventually learned to make music together. “Even when you have seemingly nothing that can connect you to somebody else, you can actually really communicate in a very beautiful and powerful way.”

Noreen Green, artistic director of the Los Angeles Jewish Symphony and music director of Valley Beth Shalom, plans to put Paloma’s talents and Spanish skills to use during her March 31 performance with the symphony. “We use Sephardic music as a bridge between the Latino population and the Jewish population,” Green said. The concert Paloma will be performing in kicks off a celebration of the Los Angeles Jewish Symphony’s 18th anniversary. 

“We’ve really made a mark on L.A. in the last 18 years, and it’s a wonderful celebration,” said Green. “We’re doing other Mizrahi songs, I have a Persian woman singing some Persian songs and the choir singing some Ladino songs.”

Paloma will also perform a piece about the expulsion of the Jews from Spain. “It turns out that the show is on … the anniversary of the signing of the edict of expulsion from Spain,” said Paloma. When Paloma realized the significance of the date, she asked her friend, composer Michelle Green Willner to compose a piece, which will be premiered that night.

Paloma married a Moroccan Jew, and their child attends a Jewish academy in Casablanca. She’s also busy at work trying to build a Jewish music legacy in her new home. “I’m actually in the process of founding a Moroccan-Jewish sound archive in Morocco, because I feel like its very important for Moroccans to have access to these memories, the music and also the oral histories,” said Paloma, who’s simultaneously doing doctoral studies at the Sorbonne.

“I really feel that Morocco can be a very important example for the whole world, not just toward the Arabs, but toward the West to show a different way of understanding Jewish-Muslim relations,” Paloma said. “Any relationship has moments of tension, so I think that realizing that there is a place today where people still live in this coexistence that we always look back to” — the Golden Age of Spain — “we’re still living it in Morocco.”

Israel’s relationship with the Palestinians

Israel ’s relationship with the Palestinians mirrors that in the early 20th century between the government of Greece and the large Sephardic Jewish community of Salonika (modern Thessaloniki). Growing up as a boy whose four grandparents immigrated to the United States from Salonika between 1913 and 1916—and many of whose relatives went through the Holocaust there—I regularly heard stories of the tense relationship between Salonika’s Jews and the Greek authorities prior to World War II. Greece captured the city from the Ottoman Turks in 1912. At the time Jews heavily outnumbered Greeks and Turks in the city. Descendants of Jews expelled from Spain and other Mediterranean lands during the Spanish Inquisition, their medieval Spanish dialect (Ladino) was the language most often heard in the coffeehouses and marketplaces of the city. Though Greece immediately granted them citizenship, most Jews would have preferred the city remain part of Turkey, which had given them refuge in 1492. There was a Ladino saying I used to hear as a boy: “Turko no aharva Judió.” A Turk does not beat a Jew. The implication, of course, is that they were beating other people. But the Turks had treated the Jews well, even letting Salonika ’s busy harbor close for the Jewish Sabbath.

The Greek authorities were not so inclined. Salonika had been a Greek city in ancient and Byzantine times and in the view of the Greek government should become one again. The fact that it had been a Spanish-speaking Jewish city for the past four centuries was a historical anomaly. When a fire in 1917 destroyed the center of the city, the municipal government expropriated the burnt zone and prohibited the property owners, most of them Jews, from rebuilding while it developed a new city plan. Combined with the slow pace of reconstruction, this convinced many Jews that the government wanted them to emigrate so it could replace them with Greeks.

In 1923, after a short war between Greece and Turkey , the two countries enacted a population exchange that sent 400,000 Muslims to Turkey and a million ethnic Greeks from Turkey to Greece . A hundred thousand Greek refugees were resettled in Salonika , making the Jews a minority there for the first time since the 15th century. The refugees, who had suffered terribly at the hands of the Turks, tended to view the Jews as competitors for housing and jobs. In 1924 they pressured the Greek government to pass a law mandating compulsory rest on Sunday, forcing religious Jews to lose two days of work a week to the Greeks’ one. In his report to the U.S. State Department the American Consul in Salonika at the time, Ieland Morris, wrote: “The motives of the refugees were very evident. They desired to harass the Jewish element in every way possible, in order to induce them to abandon Saloniki.”

In the mid-30s the municipal authorities began pressuring the Jewish community to stop using its large cemetery outside the city walls (with graves dating to 1492), cede part of it to the local university, and establish a new one farther away. In 1931 a Greek fascist group attacked and burned two Jewish neighborhoods, claiming they were communist havens. Though most Greek politicians condemned the attacks, the Greek Prime Minister, Venizelos, said it was a warning to foreign subversives that the Greek people “were not asleep.” By the late 1930s most Jews had concluded that the Greeks saw themselves as the city’s rightful inhabitants and the Jews as a minority who would hopefully one day leave. Ultimately the Jews did leave—via the train to Auschwitz , where 50,000 of them perished. By the end of the war, Salonika was a thoroughly Greek city and the Jews little more than a memory.

The Jewish settlers on the West Bank are the Israeli version of the Greek refugees of Salonika, exerting endless pressure on the Israeli government to help enact their agenda and force the Palestinians to abandon hope for a viable future in Jerusalem and the West Bank . The fact that historical Palestine had largely been Arab in population, culture and language for 13 centuries prior to 1948 means nothing to them.
The early Zionists took for granted that the Arabs of Palestine had originally come from Arabia . But modern DNA testing has confirmed that the ancestors of most Palestinians came from Palestine . They are its native sons and daughters as much as the Jews. Israel ’s announcement during Vice President Biden’s visit that 1,600 more housing units would be constructed for Jews in traditionally Arab East Jerusalem was a not-so-subtle message that, whatever the U.S. or any other country might think, this is Jewish land. But it’s not too late for Israel to take a different tack; to respect that Palestinian history and attachment to their homeland is as deep and meaningful as that of Israelis. When it does, the message will become this is our common homeland, and whatever the ultimate solution to this conflict, it will not work unless that fact is recognized. It’s a message the Jews of Salonika would have appreciated all those many years ago.

David Saffan is 60 years old and retired. He worked as a grant writer for 30 years. His two grandfathers, David Saffan and Yuda Saady, helped found the Sephardic Jewish Brotherhood of America in 1915.

Flamenco and tango melodies strike Jewish chords

Ethan Margolis, co-founder of Arte y Pureza (Art and Purity), a Seville, Spain-based flamenco troupe, says three influences stand out as soon as you begin reading about flamenco: Sephardic, Arabic and Indian. Margolis, whose company will perform at the Barnsdall Gallery Theater on Friday, Sept. 28, attributes the influences to the peregrinations of the Romani people, some of whom migrated from the Indian subcontinent, across northern Africa through Arabic countries and into southern Spain before the Spanish Inquisition.

While Margolis said the “complicated rhythms” of flamenco come from India and some of the melodies have an Arabic quality, the Sephardic component can be heard in the “Jewish chants and laments,” as well as the “Phrygian mode” and “chromatic scales,” which, according to Margolis, have a “Middle-Easty sound to” them.

Margolis hails from a family of musicians, among them his father, a rock and blues pianist and songwriter, and his brother, a classical guitarist. Margolis was “following in his father’s footsteps” as a rock musician and songwriter when he heard flamenco music for the first time about 11 years ago. At the time, Margolis was an electric guitarist and Spanish major at the University of Michigan, but after attending a live show by Paco de Lucia, viewed by many as the “most famous flamenco guitar player ever,” Margolis switched his attention to flamenco.

The young Margolis moved to Spain, where he studied flamenco and Spanish at the University of Seville. He was “looking for a dancer” when he met Cihtli Ocampo, who was studying dance on a Fulbright and was “looking for an accompanist.” The two — who now are engaged — co-founded Arte y Pureza, which on its tour of the United States will perform in San Diego, Berkeley, San Francisco and New York, in addition to Los Angeles.

Although Margolis said that 50 percent of flamenco musicians he has encountered worldwide and many of his recent flamenco students in San Diego are Jewish, he is the only Jew in his seven-person troupe, which includes singer-dancer Miguel Pena Vargas, known as El Funi. “Flamenco doesn’t seem to pan out among other cultures until you leave Spain,” he said.

Not unlike flamenco, the tango has multiple influences, including Spanish, Latin American and African. According to Dr. Lina Kaplan, who along with Vladimir Estrin will be teaching a tango class at American Jewish University this fall, you can hear the Russian Jewish influence in the melodies of many pieces of tango.

The tango developed mostly in Buenos Aires in the mid- to late 1800s, when Ashkenazi Jews migrated to Argentina.

The tango even has a grisly link to the Holocaust. Kaplan, a practicing psychologist, said that the term, “Death Tango,” originated in the concentration camps when Jews had to play tango numbers during executions of their co-religionists.

To Kaplan, however, the tango is about so much more than Jewishness or any other ethnicity. To her, the tango becomes a quest that is as much metaphysical as physical. She wants her students to “enhance awareness, mindfulness, being in the present moment.” She and Estrin “emphasize much more the interpersonal and the personal elements of dance,” as opposed to learning just the steps.

That is not to say that she is solely a philosopher of the dance. Kaplan, 43, is also a practitioner who recently returned from a trip to Argentina, where for two weeks she said she spent half her time dancing.

If she sounds like a teenager at Carnaval, she has an appreciation for the higher forms of the art. She speaks of the tango as “a metaphor for life…. It’s not simply a dance.”

Arte y Pureza will perform “Maestria” on Friday, Sept. 28, at the Barnsdall Gallery Theater, 4800 Hollywood Blvd. For tickets or more information, call (818) 249-1428.

American Jewish University will offer “The Spirit of Tango: A Path to Personal and Interpersonal Growth” on Sundays from noon to 2 p.m., beginning Oct. 7. For information, call (310) 440-1246. For tickets to the Arte y Pureza performance, visit ” target=”_blank”>http://www.arteypureza.com.

For more information about the class “The Spirit of Tango,” visit


Meme’s in the kitchen, making memories

I remember the moment well. I had just picked up my 74-year-old mother at LAX, and as we entered my new house in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood, I proudly showed her the new kitchen.

Compared to her kitchen in Montreal, this one was the size of the Roman Coliseum. It took her about an hour to fully inspect it. I think she opened every drawer and cabinet. She was so impressed, she muttered a few words in Arabic I had never heard before. She got a kick out of those little transparent decal stickers on the cabinets — which I got at Shmulie’s Books & Gifts on Pico Boulevard — that delineate milk and meat dishes.

But what I think really moved her — what got those 20/20 eyes of hers to open just a little wider — was the potential. The potential for some very serious cooking.

I’ve never seen Bob Dylan in a recording studio. But I can just imagine. He probably knows just what he wants. He can speak the engineer’s language, tell the bass player how to improve a rhythm, make changes on the fly, fix a lyric, add some harmonica when he feels like it. He’s in creative heaven. Within a few hours, a “Blowin’ in the Wind” or “Dirt Road Blues” is born.

That’s sort of my mother in the kitchen. The difference is she weighs more, she doesn’t sing, she doesn’t wear sunglasses, she has no angst, she doesn’t smoke or drink, she has no help and, once she’s done creating her art, it immediately gets consumed.

What remains from her creations is not a lifetime of playing and listening, but a lifetime of memories.

But oh, what memories.

It didn’t take long for my mother (her grandchildren call her by the French “Meme,” which sounds like “meh meh”) to create memories on her first trip to the hood.

Within a week, her anisette-flavored galettes — flat, crunchy cakes, which she served my father every morning for 49 years along with his Turkish coffee — were politely interfering with Rabbi Abner Weiss’s Torah salon. I distinctly recall Rabbi Weiss taking a break from his class as he saw a tray of Meme’s galettes approaching — the man wanted one. No one seemed to mind.

She used a special pastry roller for those galettes. I’m sure you could find one like it at Pottery Barn. Hers came from her grandmother, who used it to make the same galettes in a Jewish neighborhood of Casablanca. The roller has that worn-out look, but you can see the kind of sturdy construction that suggests it could probably crank out galettes for two more generations.

As the weeks of her visit here went by, and her rule over my kitchen became complete, the household began to revolve not just around her food, but around her.

Grouchy kids getting ready for school in the morning? Nothing like the aroma of a few hot moufletas (Moroccan crepes), with Meme in her bathrobe spreading some melted butter and honey, to lighten the stress of an upcoming algebra test.

Playdates coming over after school? How about an elaborate fruit platter and marzipan cookies to tide you over until Meme’s juicy Keftas (spiced up burgers) for dinner?

For several months, in addition to the weekday surprises she would prepare every night for the kids, a parade of Shabbat guests feasted on Meme’s delights like spicy Moroccan fish, truffle and meatball tagine, an array of delicate Mediterranean salads and, for Shabbat lunch, her signature, unmistakable Dafina, the Moroccan cholent.

Put it this way: By her second month here, she was on a first name basis with at least one meat-cutter at Pico Glatt, and she was beginning to pick up Spanish.

All this, however, seemed to be a build-up to the meal that will go down in family lore. If you should ever come across any of the 20 or so guests who came to Meme’s second Passover seder — created during an intense 10-hour burst of activity in her new kitchen — ask them about that meal.

For about four hours, a group of sophisticated and happy grown-ups were engaged in lively conversation — and kept getting interrupted. As soon as Bob Ore, a French playwright, would go off on one of his wild, comedic riffs, something would come to interrupt. When the editor of Moment magazine tried to explain a new piece she was planning on Norman Mailer to a movie producer sitting next to her, something would interrupt. When the creator of Harissa.com tried to tell us about the different kinds of Sephardics around the world who had taken to his site, or when Louie Kemp tried to enlighten us with a story on the Lubavitcher rebbe, something again would interrupt.

All night long, something would come to interrupt.

These glorious interruptions were Meme’s creations, one sensuous platter at a time. If a Hollywood cinematographer could have filmed the evening, it would have rivaled the food scenes in “Like Water for Chocolate.” To this day, when I meet someone who was there, the conversation invariably comes back to that night of a thousand delights. By the time the meal was over, we had all surrendered. The conversation had clearly shifted to the food. Meme had won, hands down.

After four months creating this culinary heaven, Meme had to return home. The relatives there were clearly getting impatient with our monopolizing of the family treasure. We had no choice. We gave Meme back her passport. But not before she made moufletas, with a big smile on her face, for about 200 guests at the traditional mimouna party celebrating the end of Passover.

Which brings me to a few weeks ago, when I got an e-mail from The Jewish Journal, asking me if I would write about my mother’s cooking for the Rosh Hashanah food issue, accompanied by color photos, recipes, the works. Now I’m thinking: the editors there probably don’t know that Meme’s been back in Montreal for awhile. That big kitchen she took over during those memorable months, well, it hasn’t been the same without her. How can I do a Meme food story without Meme?

As luck would have it, my kids and I were about to go to Montreal for a big family wedding. Would Meme be up to preparing a full Rosh Hashanah feast in the middle of all the festivities, in her tiny kitchen?

I bet you can’t nosh that bagel in Ladino, bubbaleh!

Noshing on a bagel while shlepping his groceries, the klutz fell on his tush.

Need a translation? Probably not.

A majority of Americans not only know exactly what that sentence means — including the four Yiddish words it contains — they’ve even noshed on quite a few bagels themselves.

But can the same be said of five Ladino words? Of Sephardic foods?

Probably not.

Which is precisely why the eighth Los Angeles Sephardic Film Festival is upon us.

Neil Sheff, international chair of the Sephardic Educational Center’s young adult movement and co-founder of the festival, hopes the eight films in this year’s lineup will help “educate those who don’t know about the ‘other’ Jews — the Sephardim.”

Although Sheff — a native Angeleno — spoke Ladino growing up, he admits that he used to be embarrassed “to speak a different language, to eat different foods.”

Sheff’s paternal non-Sephardic family thought there was something wrong with his maternal Sephardic family – after all, what kind of Jews didn’t speak Yiddish?

For the Sephardim themselves, who comprise less than 10 percent of the American Jewish population, Sheff says he hopes the festival will foster a sense of pride in their unique “historical experience, customs, foods, music and language.”

Yet Sheff seeks an array of films representing both the diversity and the commonality of Sephardic Jewry. He says he is especially proud of the “eclectic group of films” being presented this year.

Muslim director Ramin Farahani’s documentary “Jews of Iran” and Carole Basri and Adriana Davis’ “The Last Jews of Baghdad” are two offerings that simultaneously explore unique communities and reflect the common Sephardic historic arc of coexistence, repression and exile.

The feature film, “Until Tomorrow Comes,” on the other hand, tells the story of a Jewish Moroccan woman struggling with her aging mother, her daughter’s marital crisis and her own romantic entanglement — universal dilemmas, universal themes. In this way, Sheff hopes the festival can also “be a bridge to those who don’t know much about Jews, to realize what we have in common, maybe bring us a little closer.”

Sheff’s goals, then, are nothing short of lofty: to engender pride in a particular identity, to educate “others” about a minority, and at the same time to create a bridge between cultures.

All by sitting in a darkened theater and being entertained. What more could we ask?

The eighth Los Angeles Sephardic Film Festival runs Nov. 12 and Nov. 14-19 (at Laemmle’s Music Hall Theatre in Beverly Hills).

For more information visit


Ahoy, mateys ! Thar be Jewish pirates!

There’s no arrr-guing that pirates are in.

As of last weekend, Disney had plundered $1 billion worldwide with “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest,” and International Talk Like a Pirate Day — that’s Sept. 19, for you landlubbers — has gone from an inside joke between two friends to a mock holiday celebrated in more than 40 countries.

Yet tales of Jewish piracy, which stretch back thousands of years, aren’t in the public’s consciousness, and Hollywood even has been known to remove a pirate’s Jewish background. As a result, we’re stuck with portrayals of pirates as wayward English seamen on a murderous rampage.

But now a forthcoming book hopes to change that image by focusing on Ladino-speaking Jews whose piracy grew out of the Inquisition.
“The Jewish pirates were Sephardic. Once they were kicked out of Spain [in 1492], the more adventurous Jews went to the New World,” said Ed Kritzler, whose yet-untitled book on Jewish pirates will be published by Doubleday in spring 2007.

Jewish piracy has been around since well before the Barbary pirates first preyed on ships during the Crusades. In the time of the Second Temple, Jewish historian Flavius Josephus records that Hyrcanus accussed Aristobulus of “acts of piracy at sea.”

Kritzler has studied pirates for 40 years, and said that the public is fascinated with them because they’re “rugged individuals in a world of conformity. They carved their own identity, independent of the rules and strictures of society.”

But determining the exact number of Jewish pirates is difficult, Kritzler said, because many of them traveled as Conversos, or converts to Christianity, and practiced their Judaism in secret.

While some Jews, like Samuel Pallache, took up piracy in part to help make a better life for expelled Spanish Jews, Kritzler said others were motivated by revenge for the Inquisition.

One such pirate was Moses Cohen Henriques, who helped plan one of history’s largest heists against Spain. In 1628, Henriques set sail with Dutch West India Co. Admiral Piet Hein, whose own hatred of Spain was fueled by four years spent as a galley slave aboard a Spanish ship. Henriques and Hein boarded Spanish ships off Cuba and seized shipments of New World gold and silver worth in today’s dollars about the same as Disney’s total box office for “Dead Man’s Chest.”

Henriques set up his own pirate island off the coast of Brazil afterward, and even though his role in the raid was disclosed during the Spanish Inquisition, he was never caught, Kritzler told The Journal.

Another Sephardic pirate played a pivotal role in American history.
In the book “Jews on the Frontier” (Rachelle Simon, 1991), Rabbi I. Harold Sharfman recounts the tale of Sephardic Jewish pirate Jean Lafitte, whose Conversos grandmother and mother fled Spain for France in 1765, after his maternal grandfather was put to death by the Inquisition for “Judaizing.”

Referred to as The Corsair, Lafitte went on to establish a pirate kingdom in the swamps of New Orleans, and led more than 1,000 men during the War of 1812.
After being run out of New Orleans in 1817, Lafitte re-established his kingdom on the island of Galveston, Texas, which was known as Campeche. During Mexico’s fight for independence, revolutionaries encouraged Lafitte to attack Spanish ships and keep the booty.

But in the 1958 film “The Buccaneer,” starring Yul Brynner as Lafitte, any mention of the pirate’s Jewish heritage was stripped away.


For more information on Talk Like a Pirate Day, visit www.talklikeapirate.com.

Click here for a pirate talk translation of this article

Top Ten Halachic Questions for a Jewish Pirate

A Mother’s Pride

A few weeks ago as the school year ended, my daughter stood on the bimah in the chapel of our synagogue and, with four of her fellow fifth-graders, led her Jewish day school’s Monday Tefillah services. Four girls and a boy shared the honor, and their radically varying sizes bespoke the varying growth spurts that characterize this awkward age. Likewise, their maturity and ability to address their classmates ebbed and flowed during their short moments in the spotlight. But what brought that poignant mix of mother’s pride and prejudice home, watching her among her friends in this holy setting, was just how different and alike my Rachel is from the rest. For, even as she blends in beautifully, she cannot help but stand out — my daughter was born Chinese.

Rachel is a Jewish American girl from China. My husband Richard Core and I enrolled her, starting at age 4, in Temple Israel of Hollywood schools full time. Like every other kid there, she has become somewhat fluent in conversational Hebrew, knows the prayers by heart and has learned her Judaica lessons well. She is not the only Asian girl in her school — there are three, all adopted (two from China, one from Vietnam) — and she says she feels no different from anyone else. But among the mix of mostly Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews that make up our community, she adds a special spice. And in her own discreet style, I believe she has helped teach her friends to be colorblind in ways that could last a lifetime.

Rachel will become bat mitzvah in slightly more than two years, and she has been preparing for that moment since pre-school. As a fourth-grader, she read from the Torah at a day school service, and earlier this year, she gave a d’var Torah before the upper grades. I attended both events, of course, and each time I cried.

To see my child leading prayers is a rite of passage that evokes the deepest emotions. I know I would probably cry to see any child of mine connect with the ancient rituals, taking on the mantel of our ancestors, and I am pleased that Rachel embarked upon this path in the safe, exploratory confines of her school. But when I look at Rachel in this context, I think, also, of her divergent origins, of her birth parents whom we likely will never meet, of her own genetic ancestors and their traditions that she carries, within her as well, in ways that are both conscious and not.

It is a gift to share our lives with a child of mixed culture, because nothing is obvious. As we think ahead to her bat mitzvah ceremony, we are thinking of ways of acknowledging Rachel’s special heritage, whether in the food we serve — how bad could a kosher Chinese buffet be? – or the flowers, or maybe a special prayer. We will give thanks for the good fortune that made her part of our family, for the coincidence of adoption possibilities that led us to a foreign land to meet our daughter.

We will remember, too, as we see her accept the responsibilities of becoming a Jewish adult, that she is also becoming a woman of Asian and American heritage, and that whether she wants to or not, throughout her life she will be opening the eyes of those who look upon her. Rachel does not see herself as anything but one of her group, and she’s mostly right in that. But the other day, when I watched her from afar, on the bimah, saying the Shema, I could not help but be reminded of how far we have come from the state-run orphanage filled with loving caregivers in Southern China, where Richard and I met her more than a decade ago.

Mayor Carries Torah to <br>Vandalized Tarzana Synagogue

On Sunday, in the intense heat of a mid-summer day, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, carried a Sephardic Torah for one-half mile along city streets in Tarzana to a new Persian synagogue that had been the victim of an anti-Semitic attack just two days earlier. Police are still investigating the arson attempt, which burned a rear door of Beith David Education Center on Clark Street, as well as anti-Jewish graffiti left at the scene, as a hate crime.

Villaraigosa was joined in the procession and the celebration of the new facility’s opening by L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, City Councilmen Jack Weiss and Dennis Zine, Simon Wiesenthal Center’s associate dean Abraham Cooper and Anti-Defamation League’s West Coast Director Amanda Susskind, as well as more than 300 congregants. The group carried 10 Torahs from the center’s original Reseda Boulevard location to the new building on Clark Street. The politicians and Cooper helped carry the Torahs along Reseda and Ventura boulevards in triple-digit temperatures.


* Beith
David Ceremony:
Photo Essay by Adam Wills

* Arsonist
Attacks Persian Synagogue in Tarzana

Friday, July 7, 2006

“What an honor it was, a kid from Boyle Heights, to carry the Torah all the way over here,” the mayor said. He said he’d been told by Yaroslavsky, “‘If you do this 100 more times, you’ll be a Jew.'”

At the Clark Street shul, public officials took their places on the bimah as congregants engaged in celebratory ululation, throwing candy and crowning the Torah cases with lilies and other flowers.

In his address to the congregation, Villaraigosa referred to a call he’d made to the mayor of Sderot on Thursday, which was interrupted by a Kassam rocket attack, to call attention to how innocent Jews are still targets of hate, regardless of where they are in the world.

“We are absolutely committed to finding whoever did this on Friday and bringing them to justice,” Villaraigosa said. “A shul represents more than just a place of prayer or worship. It represents a place where faith binds a community.”

Zine, whom Beith David vice president Parviz Hakimi referred to as the shul’s own godfather for his strong support of the congregation during its two-year battle with local residence over parking issues, announced he would introduce a motion in the City Council to post a reward of $50,000 to find the arsonist.

“Our mayor has told me he would sign that motion,” Zine said. “We need to bring this person or individuals to justice. We will not tolerate that in the city of Los Angeles.”

During a tour of the synagogue’s damage, the mayor noted how the perpetrator had misspelled the anti-Jewish graffiti.

“It shows the level of ignorance of the person who did this,” Villaraigosa told The Journal.


Memories and Music

Before going inside, every visitor had to sign a waiver agreeing not to sue in case, say, a stray piece of wood or plaster fell on them. It felt, for a moment, like myself and the other members of the audience were embarking on a risky enterprise. But Boyle Heights’ Breed Street Shul, though a hardhat area nowadays, held no such dangers.

We were here, on this April Sunday for a noon performance by The Cuarteto Latinoamericano. Three of the four members of the string quartet are Mexican Jews — adding a fitting resonance to this location in a neighborhood that was once filled with Jews (living side by side with Japanese, Molokan Russians, Latinos and others) and is now a Latino enclave.

For many, the air was filled with nostalgia as well as music.

Gary Platt, 80, whose company manufactures casino furniture in Nevada, walked around the old shul — now in the midst of reconstruction — breathing it in, looking at it as if each piece of folk art and stained glass held a personal history.

“There were other, smaller shuls,” Platt said, “but this was the queen bee. We moved to Boyle Heights in 1934, and I had my bar mitzvah here in 1938. I have wonderful memories of this place. We had all these big social events here. The place was jumping during those years. [This neighborhood] was a fun place in which to grow up.”

Many Los Angeles Jews, often recently arrived immigrants, settled in Boyle Heights and surrounding areas in the 1920s and 1930s. Eventually, most would move to the Fairfax district, then to the San Fernando and San Gabriel Valleys and the Westside, as wealth and resources permitted, leaving Boyle Heights to other immigrants, often Latino, also seeking their fortune and future in America.

In Los Angeles, as in other American cities where Jews have moved out en masse from their old neighborhoods, they not only left dwellings behind, they also left behind synagogues, social centers, stores and street corners that connected them to a certain time in their lives and to a particular era in their collective past.

The Jewish community, it seems, is always wandering, though it’s part of the human condition, as well — always moving to the next area, the next neighborhood, always thinking that a better life awaits us, while at the same time remembering with profound nostalgia the old neighborhood we left behind.

Some Jews who once lived in Boyle Heights, or whose forebears did, and others want to preserve and celebrate those memories, which is the impetus behind the renovation going on at the Breed Street Shul, whose official name was the Congregation Talmud Torah. Even after nearly all Jews moved out of Boyle Heights in the 1950s, the shul continued to function.

“My bubbe and zayde were members of this shul,” said Ethel Kaplan, 63, a member of the Jewish Historical Society. “Even after my family moved to the Westside, we would come here for High Holidays and sometimes for other holidays and Shabbat, as well.”

But finally — in 1996 — the shul closed its doors. In subsequent years, it was subject to vandalism and decay.

Now the shul, the last remaining building in the neighborhood under Jewish auspices, is being rebuilt by the Breed Street Shul Project, a subsidiary of the Jewish Historical Society of Southern California. Both organizations are headed by Steve Sass, vice president at HBO.

The project is funded by government and foundation grants, as well as by private donations. Supporters still need to raise $3 million to complete the restoration.

“In reconstructing the Breed Street Shul,” Sass said, “we want to build bridges with the existing community. We want to bring in volunteers to teach English or do other community work, but we don’t want it to be that it’s all one way: We want to not only help the Latino community that lives here now, we also want to learn from them, to have them help us.

“That way we can engage one another and jointly learn from one another,” he continued. “We want to be supportive neighbors, and we really don’t have any models for this. So we have to devise our own models as we go along.

“In other cities where Jews moved out and left shuls behind, the old shuls, the historic ones, have sometimes been demolished, or else they’ve been renovated and turned into museums. We don’t want either of those things to happen here….

“We want this place, the Breed Street Shul, to live again, not as a functioning shul, not as a museum, but as a space that respects its Jewish past [while also serving] the cultural and educational concerns of those who live in the community now. We want it to become an important gathering place for both communities.”

With that in mind, Sass and MaryAnn Bonino, head of Da Camera Society’s Chamber Music in Historic Sites series, devised a program to bridge the gap between Boyle Heights’ Jewish past and its Latino present.

“Steve Sass and I are friends,” said Bonino, “and we’ve talked about doing an event together for some time.”

The Cuarteto Latinoamericano was scheduled to play a concert elsewhere in East L.A. in the middle of the afternoon on that same Sunday, April 9, so Sass and Bonino folded into the day’s events — in Sass’s words — a “forshpeiz,” or appetizer: a miniconcert performed by the group in the Breed Street Shul.

The result was astonishingly, heartbreakingly beautiful.

The Cuarteto Latinoamericano played David Stock’s “Sue?os de Sefarad,” which means “Dreams of Spain” in Ladino, and the music did indeed weave traditional Ladino/Sephardic melodies into its musical fabric. The acoustics were lush and rich in the historic synagogue.

The sounds evoked the nostalgia felt by Sephardic Jews remembering the Spain from which they had been ejected. The crowd consisted of more than a few like Platt and Kaplan, for whom the walls resonated with their own nostalgia for the Boyle Heights neighborhood where they and their families had once lived.

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Jack and Katy Seror: Help Knows No Age

At first glance, 87-year-old Jack seror and his wife, Katy, are a kind, yet unassuming elderly couple, members of Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel and loving grandparents. However, they are also leaders of the Greek Jewish community that resisted and survived the Nazis to build flourishing new families in America.

Founders of the Sephardic Holocaust Committee, which still holds annual events that draw up to 350 people, Jack seror has also served as chairman of the synagogue’s fundraising unit, the Living Memorial Committee and the senior citizen group for more than 20 years. His wife has served as president of the sisterhood and oversaw the Activities Committee.

The serors cite their war experiences as a major motivation for their intensive commitment to community service. Jack seror’s work in the Greek resistance molded his desire to continue to help those in need. He and Katy met while working for the British government in Greece after the war. Later, Katy seror used her knowledge of English to accompany Greek refugees in the United States to hospitals and banks as a translator.

Although she suffered a stroke a few years ago and her husband does most of the talking, it is clear that his words speak for them both. He describes their reception in Boston by the Jewish Family Service as “so impressive … it brought tears to our eyes.”

Their first landlady thought that the serors were non-Jews, because they spoke Greek, Ladino and English but no Yiddish.

“So,” seror said, “I cried out, ‘Shema Yisroel Hashem Elokeinu Hashem echad,’ and then she believed that we were Jews.”

The landlady helped the serors adjust to America, but the harsh winters and sweltering summers were oppressive, and the serors moved to Los Angeles in 1951. They set off with a firm goal in mind: to take their turn helping others, as the families in Boston had helped them.

Two and a half decades ago, the serors sold their successful grocery business and devoted their time to becoming involved in community service. They spearheaded daily senior citizen events for survivors from Salonica and Rhodes.

The annual Holocaust memorial services take an immense amount of planning and have become one of the largest Sephardic gatherings for remembering the Holocaust’s effects on Mediterranean Jewry. Speakers, such as Israeli officials and Danish resistance members, fly in from around the globe. The serors are no longer at the forefront of the organizing.

“We are too old now,” he said with a laugh. “I do not even drive. But we still have a havurah meeting once a month to discuss the parasha or have dinner. And we get together with our friends. We are happy to see the synagogue grow to 800 families. This is very special to us, who saw 96 percent of the Greek community perish in the Holocaust.”

When complimented upon their inspirational story and actions, seror brushes off personal recognition.

“You should try to help Israel as much as you can, be dedicated to your temple and try to help people … not for a reward but just to make a difference.”



Rhodesli Keep the Faith in L.A.

As a student at Cal State Northridge more than 30 years ago, Aron Hasson wrote a paper about the Sephardic synagogues of his ancestral homeland, the Greek island of Rhodes. His professor was so taken with Hasson’s research that it ended up in a history journal.

Hasson paid his first visit to Rhodes in 1975, after a stint in an Israeli kibbutz. In 1997, he returned with his teenage children. Standing in the 400-year-old Kahal Shalom Synagogue, where three of his grandparents had once worshipped, he realized that the tourists who gaped at the Judeo-Spanish wall plaques had no knowledge of Rhodes’ rich and complex Jewish history.

Hasson’s first response was to create a pamphlet, “The Jewish Quarter of Rhodes,” for distribution in Kahal Shalom. Next he turned the synagogue’s women’s prayer rooms into the Rhodes Jewish Museum, in which old photographs and artifacts document the thriving Jewish community of pre-World War II Rhodes, once some 4,000 strong. Now, through his nonprofit Rhodes Jewish Historical Foundation, the Westwood attorney works toward the restoration of other old synagogues and holy sites that can be called “Rhodesli” (or “pertaining to Rhodes”). Hasson has also sponsored the visit of an 800-year-old Sefer Torah — which had long ago been carried from Spain to Rhodes before ending up in Buenos Aires — to Sephardic synagogues across the United States. Although not a religious man, he feels great pride when other Rhodeslis acknowledge his efforts with a heartfelt “Kol Ha Kavod.”

Hasson’s obsession with Rhodes mirrors that of an earlier generation of Angelenos. Cousins Art Benveniste and Shirlee Peha, now both in their 70s, remember growing up in South Los Angeles when the area was a magnet for Jews from Rhodes. Their immigrant parents and relatives, all of whom left the island before World War II to improve their economic prospects, spoke Ladino (also known as Judeo-Spanish) in the home. They helped found the Sephardic Hebrew Center, a Ladera Heights congregation that merged in 1993 with Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel, as a way of preserving Rhodesli religious practices. They also instituted the custom of group visits to Catalina Island, whose location resembles that of Rhodes in relationship to Turkey.

“It was natural to them to take a boat across the water to an island nearby,” Hasson said of the immigrants,

By the time Benveniste and Peha reached adulthood, members of the close-knit community were starting to scatter. The annual Catalina trips, which currently attract about 40 of the 900 Rhodeslis now living in the L.A. area, could not fully satisfy their desire to meet and mingle. Since then, they’ve inaugurated regular luncheon gatherings at a local restaurant, and their yearly picnics bring together 200 people representing several generations: on the menu are all-American hot dogs and hamburgers, along with more exotic treats. Benveniste, who also participates in a Ladino-speaking havurah, has made numerous sentimental journeys to Rhodes. His last visit came in 2002, when a group of 20 Rhodeslis traveled from Los Angeles for the dedication of a Holocaust memorial in Rhodes’ Square of the Martyred Jews.

If Benveniste and Peha represent an older generation of Rhodeslis, Rachelle Hasson stands for the future.

At 21, Aron Hasson’s daughter feels increasingly connected to her roots. Having inherited from her Rhodesli grandparents a love for baking, she takes pride in the flaky bourekas, boyos and masas de vinou (Passover wine cookies) that have her family begging for more. In school she elected to study Spanish, because “in the back of my mind I always wanted to learn the language of my ancestors.”

Now, at UCLA majoring in world arts and cultures, she has just returned from a junior year in Spain. She chose the University of Granada partly because it offered courses touching on the Sephardic tradition. Since she’s come home, she delights in chatting with her grandparents in Ladino and said one day she will be the keeper of their memories of Rhodes: “I feel it’s my duty to continue the tradition and keep it alive.”


Seders: Not Just for Pesach Anymore

Every holiday has its aura. Pesach has a scrubbed cleanliness; Purim, a cookie-dough indulgence, Sukkot, a back-to-nature thankfulness. Rosh Hashanah has its aura, too. For most of us, it’s one that begins a season of awe, judgment and repentance.

For me, the start of a new year is a time of blessing and renewal, a different focus than what often feels like a lofty liturgical solemnity. I’m not suggesting party hats and confetti, just a little more optimism and joyfulness. Except for dipping apples in honey and sharing a holiday dinner, home rituals that create memory are largely missing from Rosh Hashanah.

In this respect, families of Sephardic and Mizrahi origin have a secret to share with the rest of the Jewish world. On the first night of Rosh Hashanah, we hold a special ceremony at home, during which we recite blessings over a variety of foods that symbolize our wishes for the new year. The ritual is called a seder yehi ratzon (may it be God’s will) because we ask God to guide us and provide us with bounty, strength and peace in the year ahead. Many of the foods are blessed with puns on their Hebrew names that turn into wishes that our enemies will be destroyed.

The Talmudic origins of the seder dates back to a discussion by Rabbi Abaye about omens that carry significance (Horayot 12a). He suggested that at the beginning of each new year, people should make a habit of eating the following foods that grow in profusion and so symbolize prosperity: pumpkin, a bean-like vegetable called rubia, leeks, beets and dates. Jewish communities throughout the world have adapted this practice, creating seders of their own.

So my shopping list for Rosh Hashanah includes fat, juicy, red-skinned pomegranates; glossy, sticky-sweet dates; apples that will blush spicy pink when they are cooked into preserves with a drop of red food coloring and whole cloves; savory pumpkin; pungent leeks or scallions, foot-long string beans (available in Indian shops), and deep-green spinach. Often, my parents and my children prepare the foods together. It’s an art to separate the jewel-like pomegranate seeds without splattering their scarlet juice all over the kitchen counter; to split the dates, stuff them with walnut halves and arrange them in concentric ovals on a newly polished silver dish.

The foods become vessels for meaning, effective because of their tangibility.

“The physicality of the seder is what makes it special,” says Rabbi Karyn Kedar, author of “Dance of the Dolphin: Finding Prayer, Perspective and Meaning in the Stories of Our Lives” (Jewish Lights, 2001), who has adopted the practice through her Sephardic husband. “It’s not just cerebral. It’s ‘getting dirty’ with Judaism. It starts with cutting onions in the kitchen and ends with blessing. Both converge in being Jewish.”

We begin the seder itself with a series of biblical verses that carry mystical significance, followed by a declaration that always sends shivers down my spine: Tahel shanah u’virkhoteha! Let the year begin and all its blessings!

Then come the blessings: First, the dates. “May it be your will, God, that all enmity will end. May we date this new year with peace and happiness. (The word for end, yitamu, sounds like tamar, the Hebrew word for date.)

Second, the pomegranate: May we be as full of mitzvot as the pomegranate is full of seeds.

Apples: May it be Your will, God, to renew for us a year as good and sweet as honey.

String beans (rubia or lubia): May it be Your will, God, to increase our merits. (The word for increase, irbu, resembles the word rubia, bean.)

Pumpkin or gourd (k’ra): As we eat this gourd, may it be your will, God, to guard us. Tear away all evil decrees against as our merits are called before you. (K’ra resembles the words “tear” and “called.”)

Spinach or beetroot leaves (selek): May it be your will, God, to banish all the enemies who might beat us. (Selek resembles the word for banish, yistalku.)

Leeks or scallions (karti): May it be your will, God, to cut off our enemies. (karti resembles yikartu, the word for “cut off.”)

Originally, the seder called for a fish head to represent fertility, and a sheep’s head to symbolize our wish to be heads, not tails — leaders, not stragglers. The sheep’s head (the brains were removed and cooked) also served as a reminder of the ram that saved Isaac’s life. We recite the story of the binding of Isaac on the second day of Rosh Hashanah. In my family, we discontinued using these last two items: the fish because its Hebrew name, dag, sounds like the Hebrew word for worry, d’agah; the sheep’s head, for obvious reasons.

What does it mean to ask for a good, sweet year? What constitutes sweetness? What shapes goodness?

I think it’s harmony and wholeness we are asking for — the ability to take the parts of our lives that may satisfy us disparately and put them together so that they create contentment. Through these simple foods, we ask for the ability to appreciate the basic goodness of our lives.

Rabbi Kedar, who lived in Israel for 10 years, recalls that after a terrorist attack, mothers who picked their children up from school let them pick any candy or ice cream they wanted from the corner grocery store.

“We wanted to bring sweetness and comfort to their lives in the guise of chocolate,” she said. “Blessings, like chocolate, sometimes seem like a luxury.”

Because the seder doesn’t focus exclusively on sweet symbols, it mirrors the realities of our lives. The bitter truths, fears and enmities we live with mix with the sweetness. Life is not just beginnings; it is also endings. It’s not just honeyed dates, it’s also the sting of scallions. It is about uncovering blessings despite the elusiveness of peace.

After I take the tiniest bit of scallion possible for the blessing, I wash away the unpleasant taste with sweet apples and dates. Maybe it’s just my aversion to scallions, but through this small act, I can increase the positive while asking to be shielded from the negative.

Finding direction and beauty in our lives through the basic fruits of the earth allows us to push aside the chaos that clutters our days and uncover the goodness and sweetness of time. Often, said Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin, we use up so much energy deflecting the onslaught of the world that we become numb to its beauty.

“It’s like being in a bakery too long,” Cardin explains in her book, “The Tapestry of Jewish Time: A Spiritual Guide to Holidays and Life-Cycle Events” (Behrman House, 2000). “The smell is still there, but we no longer notice.”

She recommends trying to move through our days as if we always had a 5-year-old at our sides to point out all the important things we usually miss: the bugs on the sidewalk, whose turn it is to sit in the front seat, the color of the M&M that tastes best.

The seder points to a specific direction by which to achieve sweetness: the blessing of the pomegranate asks that our lives be filled with mitzvot. Some mitzvot — like lighting Shabbat candles and blowing the shofar — are a language of action that marks us as Jews, Cardin writes. A second type of mitzvah includes acts of fairness, justice and lovingkindness that we do for each other, from honoring parents to visiting the sick. “Our lives are lived in the details of the everyday,” she says. “Taking a co-worker to lunch for a job well done, writing to praise a company for its stance on the environment, thanking a teacher for an inspiring lecture, showing good humor and patience with those around us while waiting in line — each of these brings a bit more goodness into the world. They are the keys to the storehouse of holiness. It is in the performance of these humble deeds that we become more.”

While it is up to each of us to take responsibility to “become more,” we ask for God’s partnership in the process. That’s how our Rosh Hashanah blessings differ from secular New Year’s resolutions. God’s guidance enables us to rely on our own strengths.

“The Jewish new year isn’t about losing 10 pounds or quitting smoking,” Kedar said. “Nor does ‘shanah tovah’ translate as ‘Happy New Year.’ The word ‘tov’ — good — is not ‘Was the movie good?’ It resonates back to Rosh Hashanah as the time God created the world and saw that it was good. Shanah tovah means that we hope the foundations of our lives should have a goodness to them.”

Tahel shanah u’virkhoteha! Let the new year begin with all its goodness and all its blessings.

Rahel Musleah wrote “Apples and Pomegranates: A Family Seder for Rosh Hashanah” (Lerner/Kar-Ben, 2004). Her Web site is www.rahelsjewishindia.com.