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Seattle’s Sephardi Jews Brought Us Starbucks: Now They’re Trying To Bring Back Ladino

Seven decades ago, the Jews of Rhodes were sent to Auschwitz. Now some descendants are preserving a culture nearly lost.

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At 10:30 every Tuesday morning, 20 or so elderly Jews from around Seattle gather in the library of a Jewish assisted-living high-rise. Led by Isaac Azose, an 84-year-old retired cantor, the group first catches up over tea, coffee, and cookies and then spends the next hour and a half reading and reminiscing in Ladino.

On one particular drizzly Tuesday, the crowd—nicknamed the “Ladineros”—was thinner than usual. Several members of the group were at a funeral. Rather than oversee the goings-on, Azose sat back as the group’s anomalous young member, Devin Naar, handed out a packet of off-color Ladino jokes from a book called Folklor de los Judios de Turkiya. At 31, Naar is almost single-handedly saving the Ladino language and the customs of Seattle’s Sephardi Jews from vanishing along with its aging community.

Naar, who has olive skin and dimples punctuating his smile, joined the University of Washington faculty in 2011 as an assistant professor of history and quickly emerged as a salvific figure. An expert in Salonika and the fate of that Greek community’s Jews during World War II, he is one of the few people in greater Seattle fluent in Ladino—also known as Judeo-Spanish, Judezmo, or any number of other names no one can quite agree on—a dialect that mixes Medieval Spanish with elements of Hebrew, Turkish, Arabic, French, and Italian that Jews who were cast out of Spain into the Mediterranean world picked up in the 500 years following the Expulsion.

Though Ladino is typically written in Latin characters or in Hebrew Rashi script, it can also be written in an archaic script called Soletreo; Naar is perhaps the only person in Seattle able to read it. Soon after arriving in the city, he found himself fielding questions from community members about letters and manuscripts in their possession, from siddurim to novels to a last will and testament from the grandfather of an elderly man.

“Here I was sort of able to bring his grandfather’s voice back to life 72 years later,” Naar said. Realizing he had tapped into a community’s need to connect with its past, he put out a call for any Ladino materials community members would temporarily part with in order to create an archive of them.

“People came up with some of the most amazing things you could possibly imagine,” he said. “Books from the 1600s, 1700s, 1800s. All of these things having been preserved physically, but without necessarily a lot of knowledge about what the contents were, but a lot of wherewithal to know they were worth preserving.”

The results form the basis of the Seattle Sephardic Treasures Initiative, a digital museum and archive that will open this fall—and is expected to be the largest Ladino library in the United States. (Full disclosure: My husband works for the University of Washington on this project.) In the two years since his initial solicitation, Naar has lured so many materials out of local attics, basements, and bookshelves that the collection will have more items of its kind than the Library of Congress, Harvard University, Hebrew University, Yeshiva University, YIVO, or the National Sephardic Library of the American Sephardi Federation.

Included in it are dozens of Ladino-Hebrew siddurim, copies of the Bible commentary Me’am Lo’ez, and romansos (novels), as well as ketubahs, plays, amulets warding off Lilith, and extremely rare finds, like the only complete known copy in the world of a 1916 Ladino-English-Yiddish phrasebook. Telling questions include, “How do you like your meat, boiled or roasted?” and “How can the workmen improve their condition?” The answer to the latter: “By uniting themselves against their employers.”

“A scholar from Spain actually came to my office just to look at this,” Naar said. “This is our attempt to centralize the American Ladino legacy, in case someday someone should want to know what the Me’am Lo’ez is, and what Ladino looks like, and maybe, we’ll want to teach our kids.”

***

Seattle has the third-largest Sephardic community, with roughly 4,000 people, in the United States after New York and Los Angeles. Most of its members trace their lineage to Turkey and Rhodes, the Greek island from which, 70 years ago today, the Nazis deported its entire remaining population of 1,673 Jews. Only 151 survived.

The story goes that Solomon Calvo and Jacob Policar, two Jews from Marmara, emigrated in 1902 with a Greek friend who advised them to get on a train in New York and head west. According to a 1975 oral history by Calvo’s daughter, the Greek said: “When the train stops you will find a city there, called Seattle, and you will like it there because it’s exactly like Marmara.”

In another version of this tale, Calvo and Policar, who knew no English and owned nothing but tzitzit, tefillin, and a change of underwear, stood on a Seattle street corner yelling “Yehudi! Yehudi!” until an Ashkenazi rabbi picked them up. Despite a language barrier, the men read from a siddur to prove that they were Jews. Any lingering skepticism among the established Ashkenazi community about these strange, non-Yiddish-speaking Jews was finally put to bed when a letter arrived from a rabbi in New York who clarified the situation: Sephardic Jews were descendants of the Jews expelled from Spain in 1492 and, now facing economic and political instability in the Ottoman Empire, sought refuge in America. They were as Jewish as anyone.

Calvo, Policar, and another Turkish immigrant named David Levy hung around a Greek coffee house where they met Nessim Alhadeff in 1904, who came from Rhodes and began sending for his seven brothers; one of those men was my husband’s grandfather. In a decade, Seattle’s Sephardi community blossomed to some 600 Ottoman Jews. By the end of World War I, that number had surpassed 3,000.

By the end of the 1930s, there were three Sephardi synagogues, two schools, a Ladino theater troupe, and a communal social life that involved dancing, singing, smoking water pipes, and eating delicacies like bulemas, bizcochos, and burekas. So robust was this community that in the late 1950s its members decided to move out of the cramped Central District to the spacious South End. There they built two large synagogue buildings to cater to the Jewish communities from Turkey and Rhodes.

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Seattle’s Sephardi Jews Brought Us Starbucks: Now They’re Trying To Bring Back Ladino

Seven decades ago, the Jews of Rhodes were sent to Auschwitz. Now some descendants are preserving a culture nearly lost.