January 17, 2020

Celebrating Sephardim

Left, flamenco dancer Laila Del Monte. Below left, a panel by artist Barbara Mendes entitled, “Shekhina Comes.”

The Sephardic Arts Festival will take place this Sunday at the Skirball Cultural Center, and it’s a welcome sign for Los Angeles’ some 100,000 Sephardic Jews.

Their perception has often been that Sephardic culture is marginalized by the dominant Ashkenazi culture, no matter that their forbearers were the first to arrive in the United States. “[There’s] the sense that Sephardic culture has been largely underrepresented and misunderstood,” says Jordan Elgrably, founder of the National Association of Sephardic Artists, Writers and Intellectuals (NASAWI).

He says that he grew up in the “assimilated Ashkenazi world, with the idea that being Jewish was going to be defined for me by reading Philip Roth and Saul Bellow.” Elgrably moved to Europe for a decade to find his identity before founding NASAWI back in Los Angeles.

The arts festival, NASAWI’s first major event, will “promote a more universalist view of Judaism, with roots in the East,” Elgrably says. It will help mend some of the differences between Sephardim and Ashkenazim, in a day of food, storytelling and song.

There will be flamenco music and a film, “Island of Roses,” about the Jews of Rhodes. In an art exhibit, the work of Morris Zagha will transform biblical archetypes into personal themes that are rendered in vibrant colors reminiscent of Eastern art.

“Saved by Am Yisrael,” part of a huge triptych, traces Barbara Mendes’ odyssey from psychedelic art, to the downtown loft scene, to becoming ba’alei teshuva. In the fantastically detailed painting, demons rip at the flesh of a giant woman, as glowing stars of David emerge from her wounds. The subject is Jewish, but the flavor is Hindi.

Robert Kirschner, the Skirball’s program director, says that the festival is the museum’s way of reaching out to Los Angeles’ Sephardic Jews, who trace their origins to Spain, Greece, the Middle East and North Africa. “We aim to reach all the diverse communities of Los Angeles,” he says, “and the place to begin a pluralistic vision is with a pluralistic vision of the Jewish people.”

The Sephardic Arts Festival, Sunday, July 27, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., at the Skirball Cultural Center. For more information, call (310) 440-4500.