Rhodesli Sefer Torah Visits Westwood

An 800-year-old Jewish sage is coming to Westwood this week.
September 18, 2003

An 800-year-old Jewish sage is coming to Westwood this week. One of the oldest biblical scrolls in the world, will be the center of a reception at Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel’s Levy Family Exhibition Center on Sept. 21. The Sefer Torah’s yearlong Los Angeles stay is a result of the efforts of Hasson, local Aron founder of the Jewish Museum of Rhodes, who financed the Torah’s voyage from its home at the Kehila Chalom (Chalom Synagogue) de Buenos Aires.

Before the Holocaust, the tiny Greek island of Rhodes had a population of about 4,000 Jews. Today, all that remains is about 35 Jews and Kahal Shalom, Greece’s oldest synagogue. This vestige of Jewish culture has become more of a tourist destination than a functioning house of worship.

Hasson, an Angeleno whose family hails from Rhodes, is not religious. Yet the Westwood-based immigration lawyer found himself the unlikely custodian of Rhodesli Jewish culture after a 1995 family trip to Greece. With the permission of the leaders of the Jewish Community of Rhodes (literally, three people), Hasson, in 1996, produced pamphlets in different languages to give Kahal Shalom visitors backstory on Rhodes’ Jewish history. The following year, Hasson got permission to convert Kahal Shalom’s siderooms, where women davened, into the Jewish Museum of Rhodes.

Hasson grew up in a section of downtown Los Angeles where Ladino-speaking immigrants from Rhodes, Turkey and other Sephardic regions settled at the turn of the 20th century. Initially shoeshiners and produce vendors, the Rhodesli immigrants started gathering annually on Catalina Island, which is reminiscent of Rhodes and, in fact, about the same distance from its L.A. jumping point as Rhodes is from Turkey’s coast.

But it wasn’t until college that the seed of Hasson’s interest in his background was sown after interviewing his grandparents for a thesis paper on West Coast Sephardic Jews. Hasson learned how Los Angeles’ Ladino-speaking cliques went their separate ways for years — one camp formed Sephardic Temple while the Rhodes Jews founded Tifereth Israel, of which Hasson’s grandfather was a founding member. The two institutions merged in the 1980s.

Following a trip to Argentina, Sephardic Education Center founder Dr. Jose Nessim told Hasson about the Sefer Torah. In April, Hasson flew the Torah, transported by Chalom Synagogue’s Marcelo Benveniste, to Los Angeles from Argentina.

“This is the oldest Sefer Torah on the West Coast that I know of,” said Rabbi David Rue, the local sofer who examined the artifact in August. Rue has examined hundreds of ancient Jewish scriptures, including two 1,000-year-old Iraqi Torahs in Israel. Rue verified the authenticity of the Sefer Torah’s age — between 700 and 900 years, according to carbon dating — based on various characteristics.

“I’ve seen a dozen Sefer Torahs this old, and they all have several common characteristics,” Rue said. “They all are written on gvil [animal hide]. The parchment [probably cowskin] has aged in a certain way — it has a distinct color to it. The columns aren’t always the same width. They couldn’t waste leather [so they squeezed everything in].”

At 45 lines per column, with varying column widths, this Torah exceeds the uniform 42 line columns of Ashkenazi scrolls.

“The sofer definitely had to work in a way he doesn’t have to work today,” Rue said. “When you’re writing that way, you definitely have to think where are you going to end that line.”

The characters are distinctive, too. Elongated shins and nuns extending underneath the yuds characterize the script. The lameds are written without a seraph on top and the yud has an extra protrusion. Such flourishes, practiced in Spain and Portugal hundreds of years ago, are not found in their Ashkenazi counterparts.

Hasson has also assembled an exhibit on the Jews of Rhodes that includes archival photographs and ancient artifacts of Rhodes Jewry, such as a cucharera (silver container), baul (hope chest), mikvah sandals and a menorah. The exhibit is an extension of his mission to promote Rhodes-rooted Jewish culture.

“I saw there was a yearning for people to learn more about this Jewish community,” Hasson said.

“The Jews of Rhodes” exhibit will run for six months at Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel’s Levy Family Museum and Exhibition Center, 10500 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles, beginning Sept. 21. The Rhodes Sefer Torah can be viewed by appointment. The Sefer Torah will be unveiled in the sanctuary Sept. 21, 11:30 a.m. The public is welcome but must R.S.V.P. at (310) 475-7311. For more information on the Jewish Museum of Rhodes, visit www.RhodesJewishMuseum.org .

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