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Ancient Torah From Greece Goes on Display

The opportunity to see the 800-year-old scroll attracts Sephardic Jews, whose ancestors were from the island of Rhodes.

September 22, 2003|Daniel Hernandez | Times Staff Writer

Dozens of Sephardic Jews gathered Sunday to welcome to the United States an ancient scroll from the home of their ancestors, the Sefer Torah of the Greek island of Rhodes in the Aegean Sea.

The 800-year-old torah was unveiled for a few hours at the Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel in Westwood.

The Sefer Torah survived the Nazi occupation of Rhodes under the safekeeping of its Muslim Turkish community. It was taken eventually to the Sephardic community in Buenos Aires, where it has been kept in a synagogue since 1984.

Aron Hasson, a Westwood immigration attorney whose four grandparents are from Rhodes, traveled to Buenos Aires to persuade the small congregation to allow the torah to visit Los Angeles for a year.

"No one here in the U.S. has ever displayed a torah like this," said Hasson, founder of the Rhodes Jewish Historical Foundation. "The only torahs that are this old are in Israel."

Hasson said the scroll represents the lasting bond connecting the Jewish people of Rhodes, who are scattered all over the U.S., in cities such as Seattle, Atlanta and Montgomery, Ala. "Most Jews in the U.S. are Ashkenazi Jews. When you're growing up, some people here in L.A. don't know what Sephardic is," Hasson said. "We're still Jewish. The Sephardic are the Ladino-speaking Jews; Ladino is almost exactly like Spanish."

At the unveiling, "Rhodeslis," as residents of the island call themselves, spent the afternoon finding common bloodlines. Many who attended, it turned out, were somehow related.

"I think I know this woman," said a man approaching Jeanette Benveniste, a retired schoolteacher who had helped organize the event.

"In fact," Benveniste said after shaking his hand, "he's my cousin."

Benveniste and others noted that, despite their small numbers, the Rhodes community in Los Angeles manages to thrive.

Her parents were part of a migration from the island to South Los Angeles that started in the 1920s, and they constantly reminded her that "in the walled city on the island, Jews and Turks lived together as friends. They were very protective of each other," Benveniste said.

Memories such as those were echoed throughout the reception for the exhibit, which also includes photographs and private heirlooms such as necklaces and brides' shoes.

The torah, though, drew the most attention. People interested in Jewish antiquities who peered through the glass case protecting the scroll noted that the spaces between verses were wider than in torahs written by modern scribes.

"This is the power of this book, the power of connection of Jews all over the generations," said Dan Harari, a visiting Israeli.

Hasson said the scroll would be available for viewing by appointment only until next spring. It belongs to the Chalom synagogue in the Argentine capital, but Hasson said that the congregation there might be interested in parting with it so that it could be in the security of a museum or archeological collection.

Either way, Hasson said, the scroll serves as a reminder of the possibility for goodwill between peoples, Jewish and Muslim.

"The Turks and the Jews were very close in Rhodes, very friendly," Hasson said.

"When you look at what's happening in Israel today, it's really heartbreaking. My family has seen how well they live together."

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