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A Celebration of the Jews the World Forgot

Religion: Sephardic Jews are in the process of rediscovering their language, their literature and their ties to each other.

November 04, 1996|JORDAN ELGRABLY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

As intermarriage and assimilation erode the already small numbers of Sephardic Jews in America, the struggle to preserve their ancient heritage is getting a boost from a modern trend: ethnic chic.

An upcoming anthology will bring new visibility to the 10% of America's Jews who are descended from those cast out of the Iberian Peninsula five centuries ago.

At the head of the movement to celebrate this heritage is the Sephardic Educational Center, founded here in 1980 by Dr. Jose Nessim, a Paraguayan gynecologist who practices in Beverly Hills. It now has 18 chapters throughout North and South America.

"The SEC's highest goal," Nessim says, "is to assure the future of the next generation."

Young Angelenos of Sephardic origin are coming back to their roots. Says Elanit Saati, 27, a Cal State Northridge graduate of Iraqi origin, "There is so much warmth, laughter and music during Sephardic holidays. Even if there's bickering, it's erased in those moments when I celebrate with my family and I hear them speaking Arabic. It makes me feel whole again."

At the eighth International Sephardic Youth Conference in L.A. last month, about 300 young Sephardic and Arab Jews gathered to celebrate their cultures. They danced to Judeo-Arabic music and lifted their spiritual leaders--Nessim and philanthropist Ray Mallel--high on chairs, shouting their appreciation.

Danielle Dahan, a young Sephardi whose family moved here from Morocco in the '70s, said the warm atmosphere of the conference reminded her of her childhood in Morocco. "We were so tight, you went next door to the neighbors like it was your own home. Here I feel like we've lost that sense of community."

One thing that sets Sephardim apart from other Jews is their spicy, exotic cuisines--the Ladino bourreka or meat pie, for instance, or the Iraqi t'bit, an aromatic dish of chicken, burnt rice and cardamom. And the various schools of Sephardic music all have a strong Near Eastern element that is at once lyrical and dissonant in the tradition of Arabic quarter tones.

More importantly, Sephardic Jews practice Judaism with their Minhag Sepharad, or Sephardic Rite, a series of liturgical customs that include an emphasis on poetry and song.

But Rabbi Daniel Bouskila, 32, who heads Temple Tifereth Israel, L.A.'s largest Sephardic synagogue, insists that what makes Sephardic Jews unique isn't merely a rich gastronomy from more than 20 countries, nor exotic liturgical tunes, but an abiding ideology in which they strive to be "ben-adam, or moral and ethical beings."

Nessim says one of the main differences between Sephardic Jews and their Ashkenaze counterparts--who originated in countries such as Germany, Poland and Russia--is that the Sephardic culture has mostly been created by secular people and not by rabbis.

"We teach Judaism with moderation and tolerance," he says. "And that's why we never had a need to split into sub-groups [such as Orthodox or Reform] as the Ashkenazim have. . . . Ironically, assimilation [into mainstream society] is proportionately much greater among Sephardim than among Ashkenaze Jews"--who make up 90% of America's Jewish population.

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They came here from countries as far-flung as Brazil, Morocco, Turkey and Yemen--even, most recently, from India and Burma--to reinvent themselves once again as Americans.

These disparate emigres had one thing in common: their Sephardic heritage, carried through the generations following their persecution in Spain in the late 1300s and final expulsion in 1492.

As a result of the Inquisition, some 200,000 Jews from the Iberian Peninsula ("Sepharad" in ancient Hebrew) fanned out to settle in North Africa, Italy, Turkey and Greece, especially on the island of Rhodes. Some traveled to Persia--now, Iran--and points farther east, joining already established communities of Mizrahi (Oriental or Near Eastern) Jews, including the Babylonian Jews in Iraq. Sephardic Jews later came to the United States.

Los Angeles is now the second-largest Sephardic-Mizrahi community in North America, after New York. The numbers are difficult to fix, but the consensus is that roughly 100,000 Jews of Sephardic and Middle Eastern origin make their home in Los Angeles, with Persians making up the majority.

Over the years, Nessim has sunk much of his personal fortune into the SEC. He founded the organization, he says, "in the knowledge that there wasn't a single world educational center with a Sephardic orientation. There was no place for leaders to be trained, there was no pooling place where people could communicate and be in touch. So, it was a rich culture without a central address and a phone number."

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