Where have all Sephardim gone?

Brigitte Sion

Kuando mas eskurese es para amaneser. When the sky darkens, it heralds dawn's arrival. (Ladino saying)

The last Sephardic synagogue on Manhattan's Lower East Side, a narrow brick building squeezed between two Chinese glaziers at 280 Broome St., is open only on the Sabbath and for the Jewish holidays. Its name in Hebrew characters, Kehila Kedosha Janina, is engraved in stone above the entrance. The red front door opens to a small sanctuary in need of fresh paints, with too many chairs for the few regular worshippers. Every time the door bangs, the women sitting on the balcony lean forward anxiously, for each Saturday morning service, comes the fear of not having the ten men required reading the Torah.

"Eight!" they shout in chorus, with a mix of triumph and sadness. They sometimes wait an hour before they reach the quorum. If they cannot, they skip the Torah reading altogether. The congregation celebrated its 71st birthday in May, but the future of its religious activity does not look bright. "We are on our last legs," admits Hyman Genee, President of Kehila Kedosha Janina and leader of the service. "We are starting a museum now for when our last members will be gone."

The congregation is one of the few remnants of a dying culture that flourished for ten centuries in Spain and then in the Ottoman Empire. Although founded by Romaniote (Greek) Jews, its congregates are now mostly Sephardic. The name "Sephardi" is a Hebrew word meaning "Spanish." Its inheritors have now forgotten the language and customs, and have blended into the larger Jewish American world ruled by Ashkenazi standards. Some individuals are struggling to keep this culture alive; a last-minute effort before its inevitable death, but it does indeed look like, as Genee said, the Sephardic heritage's only future lies in museums. Congregation Janina was built by Greek Jews who came from the city of Ioannina at the turn of the century. They emigrated along with Sephardim from the Ottoman Empire - what is now Turkey, Greece, Bulgaria and the former Yugoslavia. The numbers of these immigrants were hard to estimate, says Rachel Amado Bortnick, president of the Dallas Jewish Historical Society, because many Sephardim identified themselves only as Turks or Greeks, not Jews. However, in his book La America: The Sephardic Experience in the United States,<.I>" Marc Angel, Rabbi of the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue in New York City, estimates that 30,000 Sephardim came to America between 1890 and 1924, 80 to 90 percent of whom settled in Manhattan's Lower East Side. As, that is still a small number compared to the two million Ashkenazim who arrived at the same time from Poland, Russia and Germany, they quickly felt like a minority within a minority. This was not, however, for reasons of numbers alone. Many of the new Sephardic immigrants did not find the welcome they received from the Ashkenazim as warm as they had expected. "They used to call us black Jews," recalls Morris Calderon, an 82-year-old volunteer at the Sephardic Home for the Aged in Brooklyn who used to live in the Lower East Side. "We called them Zigazuk, which is how Yiddish sounded to us." Sephardim seemed like strangers to the Ashkenazim, who had difficulties accepting them as Jews. They did not speak Yiddish but Ladino, they pronounced Hebrew differently, they chanted Middle-Eastern-sounding melodies. They also had weird customs, such as kissing the hand of the elderly, having the whole family stand in the synagogue when one of its members are called to read the Torah portion, and eating rice and beans for the Passover Seder.

The tensions lasted for decades. Even by 1958, when Bortnick turned 20 and left her hometown of Izmir, Turkey, to study in America, the Sephardim were still seen as peculiar. In her new hometown of St. Louis, Mo., there were no Sephardim and most of the 60,000 Jews who lived there had never heard of Sephardic people.

"The first Jewish family I met asked me if I spoke Yiddish,w/I>" Bortnick remembers, now laughing. "When I said that I had never heard Yiddish in my life, they said, " What kind of Jew are you?" She had to learn what a dreidel was and how latkes tasted. As a result, she felt she was neither Gentile nor Jew. "My whole concept of what being Jewish meant was shaken," she now recalls sadly. "I felt very lonely because my father had told me that the first thing I should do was to meet Jewish families in America. I did that! They doubted I was Jewish and they were not the kind of Jews that I was familiar with."

Separated by language, culture and customs considered strange and exotic by the majority of Jews surrounding them, the first generation of Sephardim took refuge in a closely-knit community. However, even in their own circles, they never made a concerted effort to make their voice heard. In his 1987 book "Sephardim in Twentieth Century America," historian Joseph Papo describes how, rather than unite as Sephardim with a common culture and a common language, Jews from Salonika, Kastoria, Monastir, Izmir or Çanakkale each opened their own synagogue and social club and remained apart from one another. By 1928 there were 28 separate services in New York, among which 21 were for Ladino-speaking Sephardim. The fact that Congregation Janina is the last of its kind reflects the communal disorganisation of New York Sephardim. Not only did they not fit into the established American Jewish world, but their attempts to find a chief rabbi, build a centralised synagogue and set up religious schools failed as well.

"The only thing that ever united the Sephardim of New York is the Sephardic Home for the Aged," says Dr. Joel Halio, chairman of the medical committee at the Home's Board. "It was founded in 1948, out of frustration. That is why they all contributed to this project. It is the crown achievement." The Sephardic Home for the Aged is now housed in a seven-story, redbrick building at 2266 Cropsey Avenue in Brooklyn. It has a capacity of 270 beds and offers ultramodern care services. "In these lands our people dwelled," reads the caption of a ceramic-tiled map in the bright lobby. The map highlights some cities in Turkey, Greece, Bulgaria and Yugoslavia, where the residents of the home, their parents or grandparents came from at the turn of this century. Virtually no other testimonies of Sephardic culture are visible aside from this ceramic display. The Board members - mostly men in their 40s and 50s - bear typical Sephardic last names such as Kamhi, Russo, Hazan or Elias. Their dark hair and matte complexions reflect their Mediterranean origins, but they were all born in America and barely speak Ladino. Only half of the residents are Sephardic. Activities relating to their Balkan roots are limited to bingo with numbers said in English and Spanish, lectures during Sephardic Week in December, belly dancing for New Year's Eve, and borekas eaten at special occasions. Borekas are made of thin dough filled with cheese or spinach and shaped in small crescents. Baked until golden, they are served warm, allowing the salty filling to develop its flavour with each bite. This landmark of Sephardic cuisine is one of the few Sephardic customs still passed on to younger generations. "My kids will know what a boreka is," Halio says. "They will know that I spoke Judeo-Spanish, but they won't speak it themselves."

The 80- or 90-year-old residents of the home, who were born in Europe, are among the last Sephardim in America to have a full command of Ladino and to have kept a complete knowledge of their ancestors' traditions. Those Sephardim who stayed in Greece, Yugoslavia and Italy were killed in Nazi concentration camps; a fact ignored by many histories books. Of the 56,000 Sephardim living in Salonika before World War II, 53,000, or 95 percent, died in the gas chambers. The annihilation of Jewish life in Greece gave a fatal blow to Sephardic culture and Ladino. Scattered around the world, survivors were too few to carry on the transmission of the Sephardic heritage.

The death of Ladino is salient evidence that the Sephardic culture is endangered. When 200,000 Jews left Spain in 1492, they took their house keys with them, convinced that their exile would be temporary. They also took the language with them. For five hundred years, their descendants kept on speaking medieval Spanish in the Ottoman Empire, where most of them settled. This language survived thousands of miles away from its native country, without undergoing linguistic transformations like modern Spanish. Known as Judeo-Spanish or Djudezmo, as well as by the name Ladino, its pronunciation is softer than modern Spanish (the guttural sound known as "jota" doesn't exist), and it has borrowed many words from Turkish, Greek, Italian, French, Hebrew and Serbo-Croatian. For example, "Good luck" is translated "Mazal bueno," "mazal" coming from the Hebrew, and "bueno" from the Spanish.

Ladino's heterogeneous nature gave the language a unique flavour, mixing spontaneity, humour and warmth, and reflected in tasty popular sayings. "Ken se kema la boca en la chorba, asopla en el yogurt," goes one. "He who gets burnt with soup blows cold on his yoghurt," an equivalent of "Once bitten, twice shy." An abundant Judeo-Spanish press developed, alongside with a popular literature made of short stories, jokes, comedies, tales and encyclopedias. For more than four centuries, Ladino was the daily language that Gentiles had to learn if they wanted to do business with Jews in Salonika, who accounted for more than half of the population.

Today, estimates of the number of speakers in the world vary. In the 1994 book "The Death of a Language, the Story of Judeo-Spanish," Tracy Harris, professor of Spanish at Bradley University, reckons there are 60,000 Ladino speakers left, while Moshe Shaul, editor of "Aki Yerushalayim," the last publication in Ladino in the world, doubles this figure. Haim Vidal Sephiha, now retired from the only chair of Judeo-Spanish in the world at the Paris University La Sorbonne, wrote in his 1986 book "Judeo-Spanish" that 400,000 people still speak the language. A serious survey of Ladino speakers is not available, but it is generally agreed upon that Ladino is not the dominant language for most speakers - who are over 40 - and that there are very few children who know it, if any.

The 1993 UNESCO Red Book on endangered languages lists Ladino in its "seriously endangered" category. "One of the tragedies of American Sephardim," explains Halio, "is that my father's generation, the first to be born in this country, had no grandparents to sing lullabies, bake the bread and teach the customs."

Because the Ashkenazim rejected the new immigrants when they came to New York, he says, his parents' generation gave up on maintaining their culture to become fully integrated Americans. Halio, like many other American Sephardim growing up in the 60s, therefore learned only a little about his background. He says he had to beg his parents and grandparents for details about his heritage.

Halio was not taught Ladino at home, where his bilingual parents spoke Ladino to their parents and English to their children, but decided to learn the language on his own in order to speak with his grandmother. However, he says, most American Sephardim of his generation have almost no knowledge of this language, except for a couple of sayings or words with no English equivalent, such as the words for special foods. A "pastel" is a meat, spinach or cheese pie, "bumuelos" are ball-shaped doughnuts eaten with cheese or syrup, "guevos enhaminados" are hard-boiled eggs cooked until brown. Many Sephardim have not only forgotten their heritage, but have adopted Ashkenazi customs. They now avoid naming their children after living grandparents; they eat gefilte fish and use Yiddish words. They now say "kosher" when they used to say "kasher," "shabbes" for "Shabbat," "shul" for "synagogue" and "yarmulke" for "kippa."

Despite the inevitable extinction of Ladino, some individuals are trying to keep the language alive, or at least to prolong its death throes, in a last-minute effort to promote it in larger circles. In Jerusalem, Moshe Shaul edits "Aki Yerushalayim," a 100-page journal published twice a year, and has recently opened a Ladino web site, La Pajina Djudeo-Espanyola. He teaches Ladino to a handful of high-school students in Israel and is currently working on a textbook. However, Shaul failed to transmit to his own children the heritage he is now desperately trying to preserve. "Until 15 years ago, I only spoke Hebrew at home with my family, trying to be a fully integrated Israeli," he explains, adding that he did not start getting interested in Judeo-Spanish until his daughters were already adolescent.

Bortnick said she decided not to speak Ladino to her children because her Ashkenazi husband could not understand the language. She also wanted them fully integrated into American society. "I did not want my children to grow up as strangers," she says, recalling how uncomfortable she felt as the only Sephardi in St. Louis. "I know it was a mistake, but that is the way I felt at the time." Whether by means of integration or because of a non-Sephardic spouse, most Sephardim have not passed on the language to their children. Even Joel Halio, who made the effort to learn Ladino and knows he is the last link of the chain, married a non-Jew and talks in English to Grace, his 2-year-old daughter. Nevertheless, he remains involved in many Sephardic organisations in New York, and runs the Federation for the Advancement of Sephardic Studies and Culture that sponsors book publishing and film making about Balkan Jewry.

"My religion went out of business," Halio says, explaining that synagogues following the Sephardic ritual have almost completely disappeared. To him, being Sephardic is now a cultural thing, which he is still eager to make better known. The inevitable death of this culture within a few generations is most striking in America, especially as the first Jews to settle on the East Coast - in New York, Philadelphia and Newport - were Sephardim. The 23 immigrants who dedicated Congregation Shearith Israel in Manhattan in 1654 struggled to maintain their heritage in the New World because of their small number and because of their place in society throughout history. "In Spain, Jews were part of the establishment, of the larger society," says Bortnick. "They did not dress differently, they were not confined to a specific place, nor did they have a ghetto mentality. They were adapting, whatever it took." This attitude favours assimilation, Bortnick explains, and assimilation leads to disappearance. Sephardim who immigrated to America in the beginning of the 20th century were never capable of uniting and preserving their identity. Those who lived in Greece, Yugoslavia and Italy were killed in the Holocaust. Even in Israel and in Turkey, the last countries with important Sephardic communities, the heritage is loosing its characteristics with every generation blending more into the larger society.

Sephardic culture does not seem to have a future, but Sephardim are only starting to admit this fact. "It is really a lost cause," says Bortnick with a sigh, "but it is sad to say it." She believes that religious traditions will continue in the synagogues, but not the social traditions associated with the holidays. "I try at least to record, to preserve for posterity what we have been throughout the ages." Among the people resisting the disappearance of Sephardic culture stand many non-Sephardic - and sometimes non-Jewish - supporters. Scholars such as George Zucker and Bernard Pierron have recently written books on related topics. Ashkenazi cantors, such as Ari Priven at Congregation B'nai Jeshurun on Manhattan's Upper West Side, are now including Sephardic melodies in the services. Restaurants are adding Sephardic recipes to their menus. The musical scene is also witnessing a number of musicians who are drawing from the Sephardic repertoire. Groups such as Voice of the Turtle and Alhambra, singers such as Sandra Bessis and Judy Frankel are in particular associated with this recent interest in Sephardic music. The female voice is predominant in Ladino songs, or "romansas," because the musical tradition was passed on from mother to daughter. The popular repertoire includes cradlesongs, wedding songs and love songs. Other songs tell the lives of Spanish Jews or episodes of Sephardic history. The singing, influenced by Moorish intonations, is sometimes accompanied by a tambourine called a "pandero," or a guitar. "Los Bilbilikos kantan, sospiran de amor, i la pasyon me mata, muchiga mi dolor," goes the first verse of "Los Bilbilikos" ("The Nightingales") a centuries old Sephardic hit. "The nightingales sing, they sigh with love and passion engulfs me, multiplying my pain."

"I learned my first Ladino song, 'Los Bilbilikos,' in 1963," recalls Judy Frankel, a San Francisco-based Ashkenazi singer who is a Medieval and Renaissance specialist. "But I did not become interested in Sephardic music before the 1980s, when I went to Jerusalem to look for Jewish Renaissance music. There I got reacquainted with Ladino." Since then, Frankel has dropped most of the other music she was singing and concentrated almost exclusively on Sephardic songs. "It was like a snowball, it developed a life of its own." She gives 52 concerts a year and has released her fourth album; Plata y Oro (Silver and Gold) made of songs she learned from Sephardim in the Bay area.

"Sephardic culture is oral more than archival," she says. "I want to help carry the torch and remind the younger generation about this heritage." She sees the interest in Sephardic culture from non-Sephardim as part of current interest in ethnic studies. "People are interested in old things, in folk art, in folk music. They want to know more about cultures that are tiny, interesting and beginning to disappear." The fact that she is Ashkenazi never prevented her from gaining access to the Sephardic repertoire. "At first Sephardim were curious," she says with a laugh, "now they consider me as part of their family. Our large Jewish community in the world is like a bouquet and every smaller community is a flower. It is not a competition, it is a cornucopia." Moshe Shaul attributes the renewed interest in Sephardic culture to the modern trend of searching for one's roots, the 1992 commemoration of the Jews' expulsion from Spain, and the efforts to awaken this dormant culture. "Will it last long enough, and will it also generate a willingness to fund the projects which will allow this culture to be saved from oblivion? I hope so."

Rabbi Marc Angel of Congregation Shearith Israel, the Spanish and Portuguese synagogue in Manhattan, does not share Shaul's optimistic view. He articulated his fears as early as 1973 in a lecture about Sephardic culture to his congregation. "When a culture is about to die out," he said, "it first experiences a resurgence in nostalgia among its members. There is one last burst of creative energy before it gives way to new and different patterns of life." For Angel, the current interest has nothing to do with a renaissance, since the minority is irremediably swept into the majority stream. Angel's Orthodox congregation is located on Central Park West at 70th St. The sanctuary reflects a traditional Sephardic arrangement with the reader's pulpit in the center of the room, facing the Ark rather than the worshipers. The dark wooden pews run alongside instead of facing the Ark. The liturgy is Sephardic: "A" is not pronounced "o," and "t" not as "s" the way Ashkenazim do. A men's choir sings centuries-old melodies imported by the first Sephardim in 1654.

However, the congregation now comprises half Sephardim and half Ashkenazim. "We are not an ethnic congregation," Angel says. "The children raised here are more American than anything else." The fact that his congregation calls itself "The Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue" is only historical, he explains. "Our goal is not to raise Sephardic Jews, but just Jews." Although the Judeo-Spanish culture is slowly vanishing from New York's two major institutions that still bear an ethnic name --the Sephardic Home for the Aged and the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue --, a number of smaller associations, social clubs or individuals also are striving to postpone the death of their traditions. "Erensia Sefardi<.I>" ("Sephardic Heritage"), a quarterly newsletter focuses on history rather than on the present. Its Connecticut- based editor, Albert de Vidas, uses most of his editorials to argue about who should be called Sephardic. In the Fall 1993 issue, for example, he wrote: "When certain Ashkenazic writers claim that the Arabic-speaking Jews of Yemen or the Farsi-speaking Jews of Iran or the Berber-speaking Jews of the Atlas mountains are Sephardim, that is a stretch of the imagination that defies all scholarship." It is true that to many Ashkenazim, Sephardim are people who don't know Yiddish.

According to de Vidas, it is as wrong to call Jews from Syria, Algeria or India Sephardim because they do not speak Yiddish as it would be to call Jews from Central Asia or Ethiopia Ashkenazim because they don't speak Ladino. While some use the word Sephardim to include the Mediterranean and the Middle Eastern Jews who follow rituals similar to their Balkan cousins', others limit the term to Ladino-speaking Jews, which is its strictly Hebrew meaning. Rabbi Angel uses the term "Pan-Sephardim" for people who are very close culturally and religiously, whether they originate from Spain or not. The debate among Sephardim, scholars and lay people alike, may sound sterile at a time when their heritage's life expectancy is not believed to be long. But it may also be a sign that its state of preservation is so precarious that its keepers cling to such details, perhaps unconsciously realizing that it may be too late to take the kind of action that would actually preserve the culture.

"What is really disturbing," Bortnick says, "is that some scholars already consider us a subject of an extinct culture, a historical relic." Another historian of Sephardic origin, Marianne Sanua, has a different perspective. "If Sephardim want recognition and appreciation from non-Sephardim, they will have to find their place within the markets of intellectual and artistic property exchange -- museums, exhibitions, collections, archives, history centers and university chairs," she says. "I am mostly concerned with those who don't know that we ever existed at all, or that we exist now." Hired as an exhibition researcher by A Living Memorial to the Holocaust-Museum of Jewish Heritage, before its opening in New York in September 1997, she describes museums as living and exciting places where the world can observe a culture. "Formerly, Sephardic culture was transmitted at the synagogue and at home," she says. She adds that museums cannot take over the transmission, but are the only means to stop this culture from going extinct altogether. But museums interested in Jewish history have paid little attention to Sephardic culture. The permanent exhibition of the Jewish Museum on the Manhattan Upper East Side displays only a few pictures from the Ottoman Empire and a couple of religious artifacts. Once in a while, a special exhibit captures more aspects of this heritage.

This neglect is being somewhat remedied by the four-year-old Lower East Side Tenement Museum, at 90 Orchard St., which is currently adding the apartment of a Sephardic family, the Confinos, to its permanent exhibit. "It was a story we needed to tell," says Kate Fernoile, Director of education. The new apartment, which opened in September 1997, stands next to the ones displaying the daily life of a Sicilian and a German-Jewish family. Further south, in Battery Park, a brand new hexagonal building made of gray granite hosts A Living Memorial to the Holocaust-Museum of Jewish Heritage. Its collection should include remaining artifacts from the Jewish communities of the Balkans, which were almost completely destroyed during the Holocaust. In proportion to its number, Greek Jewry suffered more from Nazi destruction than Polish Jewry, since more than 90 percent of its population died in concentration camps. However, little has been told about this chapter of history. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC almost ignores Jewish communities of Greece, Yugoslavia and Italy, displaying a picture here or there, whereas it gives detailed accounts on all Ashkenazi communities' fate. "We are hoping that someday in the future we will be able to correct that with additional material as well as with special exhibitions," says Michael Berenbaum, Director of the research institute. The new museum in New York intended to rectify the mistakes of Washington, says Marianne Sanua. She took upon herself to collect artifacts of Sephardic origin, a task made harder by misunderstandings on both sides. "Ashkenazim mean well, but they are mostly uninformed," she says. "They want to include Sephardim but they don't know the first thing about them. They don't have a geographic handle." Although current Ashkenazim may have lost their parents' or grandparents' prejudice, they still see Sephardim as exotic. "The next person who calls me exotic," Sanua says, greatly annoyed, "I'll break his neck!" She also has to overcome difficulties with the Sephardim she approaches to gather testimonies of their past. "Sephardim are unsure and hesitant when it comes to giving or lending artifacts to museums," she says, adding that they don't want to give away the last testimonies of their past. "They don't understand how museums operate." Sanua says she feels sorry for her peers because they are so few and they don't have a YIVO or a Leo Baeck Institute to promote their heritage. "Sephardim must learn to cooperate with already existing Ashkenazi institutions if they want their culture to be better known." The result is however disappointing, because the museum indeed displays artifacts from Syrian Jews - an important community in New York - but nothing much about Balkan Jewry, its early immigration to the United States or its destruction during the Shoah. "Since the capture of Jerusalem and the destruction of the second Temple by the Romans in 70 A.D., the dispersion of the Jewish people across the world has fostered a sense of ill-being in any foreign land," explains David Benbassat-Benby, a Greek-born journalist retired in France, who covered Sephardic issues. He adds that after their forced exile from Spain, their second homeland, Sephardim suffered from the same century-old pain, and transmitted it to the next generations living in the Ottoman Empire, especially in the Balkans. "This state of mind, together with the solidarity among scattered communities, have enabled Sephardim to maintain their traditions, their Ladino and their culture for almost 500 years. But the Shoah and the emigration of survivors to Israel and other countries have made major centers of Sephardic life, such as Salonika or Sarajevo, almost completely disappear." There appears to be a vicious circle, which Sephardim themselves must break if they want help and recognition. "We don't get support from Jewish organisations," Bortnick says, "but frankly, we don't make a big issue of our Sephardic nest." Sephardim did not share their rich heritage with the larger Jewish society when they arrived in America. They are now trying to make themselves known, at a time when they do not have much left to offer. "We don't impress the larger Jewish world very much," Bortnick says.

After this prolonged decline of Sephardic culture, it looks as if museums and research institutes will be the likeliest places to keep the Sephardic flame kindled. But no showcase will ever replace a living culture. No written recipe will ever taste like a warm boreka.

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- Copyright © 1999: Moïse Rahmani -