With music, fine food, events celebrate Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews

The phrase “Kan ya ma kan” is usually translated as “Once upon a time” in Arabic literature, and is the phrase that begins many stories.
November 5, 2015

The phrase “Kan ya ma kan” is usually translated as “Once upon a time” in Arabic literature, and is the phrase that begins many stories. The founders of Clockshop, a Los Angeles nonprofit arts organization, adopted this phrase to launch a series of events highlighting the near-forgotten stories of the Sephardic- and Mizrahi-Jewish communities. Many of the Jews of North Africa and the Middle East were banished from their countries following Israel’s establishment in 1948, leading them to immigrate to Israel or the United States.

For the series’ second year, the organizers have handpicked the most provocative in Jewish-Sephardic literature, cuisine, history and music for the festival. The events take place over the first three weekends in November at Elysian, a restaurant located in a former porcelain mold factory in the Elysian Valley (colloquially known as “Frogtown”), adjacent to the Los Angeles River. Chefs, writers, artists and scholars will bring the culture of Morocco, Spain and Iran to life. Each Saturday night will feature Havdalah services, live music and multicourse meals for 50 guests created by guest chefs along with artist and chef David Thorne. Each Sunday event will feature a lecture by a local Jewish academic. One central question connects all the topics and presenters, said Julia Meltzer, founder and director of Clockshop: “How is a culture preserved?”

The first weekend of the festival will focus on Spain, with a Sephardic- and Spanish-themed dinner prepared by chef Evan Kleiman of KCRW’s “Good Food.” Dishes will include albondigas stew, seared bitter greens and pumpkin filo rosettes. Rabbi Jill Zimmerman, founder of the Jewish Mindfulness Network, will lead a Havdalah service, and ethnomusicologist and singer Judith Cohen will perform Ladino music.

The weekend also will include author and professor Sarah Abrevaya Stein discussing her book in progress, “Family Papers: A Sephardi Journey Through the Twentieth Century.” As Stein describes it, the book examines why a family preserves its papers as it experiences “wars, fire and genocide; migration and conversion; family feuds; even a stubborn disconnection from the past.” The book will tell the history of a single family’s archive and how it brought the family together “even as the historic Sephardi heartland of southeastern Europe was unraveling.”

The second weekend will focus on Iran, with an Iranian-Jewish dinner prepared by food writer and recipe collector Tannaz Sassooni. The meal will include gondi nokhodchi (chickpea meatballs), fresh herb salad, gondi kashi (rice with herbs, beets and fava beans) and zoulbia (a lacey fritter with a honey rosewater glaze). Rabbi Susan Goldberg of Wilshire Boulevard Temple will lead the Havdalah service and Iranian classical musician Hamid Saeidi will perform. 

Sassooni has collected about 100 regional Iranian-Jewish recipes that she hopes to publish as a cookbook. 

“You get a lot of stories, especially when you talk to older women. They are fascinating, and it seems like a different universe. They are very happy to tell their stories,” Sassooni said. “I thought I knew Persian food, and there’s so much that I’d never even heard of.”

That weekend also includes author Saba Soomekh discussing her book “From the Shahs to Los Angeles: Three Generations of Iranian Jewish Women Between Religion and Culture.” The ethnographic book follows three generations of Iranian-Jewish women from ages 18 to 90. The book discusses the Iranian-Jewish Diaspora following the Islamic revolution of 1979, and how Los Angeles became home to the largest community of Iranian Jews outside of Iran.

Soomekh is associate director of research at UCLA’s Alan D. Leve Center for Jewish Studies. She previously taught theology at CSU Northridge and at Loyola Marymount University. She said the stories of Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews are often marginalized within Jewish studies departments.

“When I was at Berkeley taking Jewish studies courses, even at Harvard Divinity School where I got my master’s, at UCSB where I got my PhD., if you were taking classes in Jewish studies, Sephardi and Mizrahi stories were always an afterthought. It was never the headline. It was always, ‘Oh, week 12, if we have time, we’ll get to the Sephardi Mizrahi stuff,’ ” Soomekh said. 

She said Sephardic Jews experienced racism when they came to Israel, just as Persian Jews did in Los Angeles, and those stories are rarely discussed.

“As one congregant said to me, ‘The Ashkenazis were so scared that they were going to turn Sinai Temple into a Persian bazaar.’ People didn’t even know there were Jews from Iran, let alone that it’s the oldest Diaspora community, 2,700 years.”

The third weekend of the festival focuses on Morocco, with a dinner menu by Moroccan-born cookbook author Kitty Morse, including fennel and preserved lemon salad, duck and persimmon tagine, and buttermilk and honey couscous. The Havdalah service will be led by Rabbi Ruth Sohn and music by classical Moroccan-Jewish musician Henry Azra.

That weekend will end with a presentation by Jessica Marglin, assistant professor of religion at USC. Her forthcoming book, “Across Legal Lines: Jews and Muslims in Modern Morocco” is a study of Jews in the Moroccan legal system. She’ll discuss how Islamic law and Shariah courts helped Jews integrate into Moroccan society in the early 20th century. 

Meltzer, a filmmaker and artist, is herself an Ashkenazi Jew who lived in Syria between 2005 and 2007.

“I couldn’t visit the Jewish community in Syria because of the work that I was doing there. Anytime you go to the Jewish neighborhood or to the synagogue in Damascus, you need to register with the Mukhabarat, the secret police, and I didn’t want to do that,” Meltzer said.

That experience saddened her, she said. Jews have lived in Syria since ancient times, and structures such as the Central Synagogue of Aleppo — built in the fifth century — are still standing. But the destruction of historic buildings over the past two years by fundamentalist Islamic groups convinced Meltzer to organize Kan Ya Ma Kan and raise awareness of the rich Jewish history of that region.

“Personally, I just feel like the Sephardic and Mizrahi food is better,” she said, laughing. “I always wondered why are we leaving that out of the picture.”

“Kan Ya Ma Kan” runs Nov. 7-22. For more information, click

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