December 14, 2018

A Sephardic Celebration

Sephardic, Ashkenazic, Mizrachic, or just out for a good time — whatever their background, Jews poured into the Skirball Cultural Center last Sunday for the first annual Sephardic Arts Festival. The event was a success beyond its organizers’ wildest dreams. Attendance, estimated at more than 4,000, was more than double the anticipated turnout, making it the largest audience for any one-day event since the Skirball opened in April 1996. Despite long lines for shuttle buses and food, the mood of participants — a mix of generations and ethnicities — was festive and good-humored. Many people bumped into relatives and friends — often literally — while searching for seats, program notes or restrooms.

“I think it was a remarkable success,” said Skirball program director Dr. Robert Kirschner, who also said that he had spoken with Moroccan, Yemenite, Turkish, Iraqi, Iranian and Israeli Jews, representing both Sephardic and Mizrachic communities, as well as many Ashkenazic Jews at the festival.

Recognizing the diversity of the Jewish people and promoting the ideal of diversity as an American democratic value was part of the Skirball’s mission, he said. “That’s why this event was so gratifying to us.”

Estimated at about 100,000, Los Angeles’ Sephardic Jews are part of “a vital and emerging community,” Kirschner said. The goal, he said, is to make the festival an annual tradition.

Jordan Elgrably, founder of the National Association of Sephardic Artists, Writer & Intellectuals (NASAWI) and editor of the NASAWI News and the forthcoming Ivri magazine, estimated that about 60 percent of those attending were Ashkenazi Jews.

“I had the impression they were really excited to learn more about this kind of culture. It was a real coming-together all across the board,” said Elgrably.

It was Elgrably who first approached the Skirball about producing the Sephardic Arts Festival. He also lined up the co-sponsors, which, in addition to his own organization, included the Sephardic Educational Center, the Israeli Consulate’s Department for Cultural Affairs, the Consulate General of Spain, and the Center for Jewish Culture and Creativity.

Elgrably also programmed the day’s musical entertainment, which took place in the crowded Skirball courtyard. Among the performers were Judy Frankel, who sang Ladino songs; Adam and Laila Del Monte, who presented Sephardic flamenco music and dance; and Rivka Riki Zabary, who demonstrated Yemenite dances. Israeli singing star Yair Dalal made his Los Angeles debut, improvising on oud and guitar and singing in Judeo-Arabic and Hebrew.

The cultural diversity was equally notable in the art exhibit “Beyond Boundaries,” in which artists from Spain, Turkey, Brazil, Syria, Iran, Morocco, Yemen and Iraq revealed a wide range of styles and subject matter in paintings, sculpture, an installation and print work.

Children engaged in art projects that reflected the festival theme as well — making clay hamsas, henna paintings and Turkish puppets.

Early in the day, it was standing-room-only for “Island of Roses: The Jews of Rhodes in Los Angeles,” the award-winning film by Gregori Viens that documents the history, customs and memories of this little-know group of Sephardic Jews on the Island of Rhodes and in Los Angeles.

The food, prepared by the Skirball culinary staff with input from the Sephardic community, included lamb and chicken kabob, falafel, salmon paella and spiced beef sausage; it ran short as the day wore on and the lines continued to grow.

“We thought it was fabulous,” said Lucienne Aroesty, who was accompanied by four generations of her family — her husband, parents, daughter and granddaughter. An Ashkenazi married to a Sephardic Jew, Aroesty said that the festival “met an incredible need in the community, and the turnout really proved it.”

She hoped to see an expanded program that was more “hands-on” in the future, including food demonstrations and dance and song workshops.

“But, overall, there was a terrific feeling of community,” Aroesty said. “As a Jew, it felt wonderful to be with so many other Jews that were interested in this.”