On a recent Monday morning at Congregation Ezra Bessaroth, one of two Sephardic synagogues in Seattle, Rachel Almeleh was up to her elbows in dough. As a volunteer with the synagogue’s ladies auxiliary group she, along with a dozen or so others, had come to bake, as she does almost every week.
With her easy laugh bubbling over the din, Almeleh sat at a folding table covered with parchment-lined baking trays and bowls of mashed potato, spinach, and cheese. She kibbitzed (or more accurately, “echar lashon,” which means chit-chat in Ladino) with the other women, and the occasional man, while rolling, stuffing, and crimping dough into the savory pastries that are central to Sephardic cuisine. “People are always laughing and joking while we bake,” Almeleh said. “There’s a great camaraderie.”
There’s also an impressive work ethic. Working methodically, the ladies turn out bourekas, bulemas (filled coils made with an oiled yeast dough), and boyos (filled square pastries) by the dozen. Depending on the day, they also prepare stuffed grape leaves, biscocho cookies, and miniature pies called pastelles, among other delicacies. Everything that comes out of the oven is stored in the synagogue’s freezers and sold by special order to families, and at an annual fundraising bazaar.
Less than a mile away, another group of women at Seattle’s other Sephardic synagogue, Sephardic Bikur Holim, also get together to bake—though their meetings are more sporadic. They have different names for some of the pastries, as well as different variations of fillings and seasonings, as most of these women’s families originally hail from Turkey, while Ezra Bessaroth’s congregation comes historically from the Isle of Rhodes.
The two synagogues also take different approaches to their baking. The Turkish group has an eye on consistency, using an ice cream scoop to portion out the dough and fillings equally. The Rhodes bakers, meanwhile, have a more freeform, old-fashioned technique. Not surprisingly, there’s a bit of gentle competition between the two groups, with each maintaining that they have the edge on the best pastries.
Still, their missions are essentially the same: helping to provide a source of traditional Sephardic foods that are not available in stores and that many home cooks find too labor-intensive and time-consuming to attempt in their own kitchens. “Honestly, I don’t even do it at home!” said Muriel Thompson, president of Ezra Bessaroth’s ladies auxiliary. Meanwhile, said volunteer Marlene Souriano-Vinikoor, “The people who don’t want to bake at home know they can buy everything at the synagogue.” And buy they do. Congregants regularly purchase two or three dozen pastries at a time, sticking them in their home freezers for company, visits from family, and holidays.
In addition to providing a culinary and cultural service to community members, the baking also augments the synagogues’ budgets. Thompson said that Ezra Bessaroth’s auxiliary, which is now in its 101st year, is able to donate tens of thousands of dollars annually, all raised from food sales. “They are forever thanking us,” Almeleh said.
Seattle’s Sephardic community dates back to the early 1900s, when Jews who had been living in Turkey and the Isle of Rhodes since the Spanish Inquisition began to leave, fleeing the crumbling Ottoman Empire. Once the immigrant families settled in their new home, synagogue life offered a point of connection and comfort for them. And the auxiliaries gave the community’s women, most of whom were stay-at-home mothers at the time, an outlet for friendship and a chance to positively affect their communities.
Souriano-Vinikoor first got active with the baking when her children, now grown, were in school. “I had free time and a limited baking repertoire and wanted to learn,” she said. Her mother had died, and she said the older women in the group “became like mother or grandmother figures.” She found a few regulars she felt comfortable watching and sat next to them each week, patterning her technique after theirs.
“It’s a social thing, too,” said Thompson of the baking days’ appeal. “We chat, we have lunch.” Indeed, one of the volunteer’s husbands cooks every week for the ladies at Congregation Ezra Bessaroth—it is his way of nourishing the nourishers.
Today, about 4,000 Jews of Sephardic heritage live in Seattle, making it one of the country’s largest Sephardic population centers along with New York, Los Angeles, and Miami. Many of the women in the ladies auxiliary grew up with mothers who were also active members. Souriano-Vinikoor’s mother served for a while as president. Thompson, meanwhile, overlapped for a few years with her mother, picking her and some friends up at a nearby retirement community and driving them to the synagogue to bake side-by-side. But a scan of the room on baking days, where the tables are primarily filled with women in their 60s, 70s, and 80s, it is clear that the next generation of daughters and granddaughters is not joining.
On the one hand, it seems natural that Seattle’s younger Sephardic Jews might be interested learning about their food heritage. They may not look to the synagogue as a central point of social connection, but for today’s DIY-obsessed, authentic-food-loving generation, the pastries and other dishes made by the auxiliary are culinary and identity gold. They grew up eating and loving these foods. And as a generation, they are not shy about tackling time-consuming cooking projects in their spare time. Why wouldn’t they want to learn how to make bourekas and bulemas directly from the source?
The most obvious barrier is timing. Both synagogues bake during the week at times when many younger women are working. Souriano-Vinikoor said she took a long hiatus from the auxiliary after she started a job outside the home (“there were years I didn’t go,” she said), and only recently started coming again with regularity. Almeleh, who runs a hobby baking business out of her home kitchen, also started coming to bake at the synagogue after retiring from her full-time teaching job.
But there is more to it, said Aliyah Vinikoor, Souriano-Vinikoor’s daughter (and, full disclosure, a friend of mine) who recently moved back to Seattle after living in New York City for a number of years during and after college. “Learning to make these foods I grew up eating is something I would be interested in,” she said. “But our generation doesn’t have a lot of experience with cross-generational dialogue or socializing.” She said feeling like an outsider among a group of women who have known each other for decades is intimidating enough to keep many younger Sephardic Jews away.
Vinikoor also said that many of the friends she grew up with came from mixed Sephardic-Ashkenazi families. “Even if we cling to our Sephardic identity more, we are further removed from the traditions,” she said.
In recent years, there have been a handful of successful Sephardic cooking events geared toward younger people. Almeleh, for example, taught two workshops—one on bourekas and another on cheese and potato keftes (Sephardic fritters)—at the local JCC that attracted a diverse crowd. But when it comes to the synagogue baking days, the question of continuity and passing down these important cultural traditions looms large. Thompson, who started baking with Ezra Bessaroth’s auxiliary around age 60, said she wishes she had joined sooner to have more time to bake together with her mother. “There were many times when I was younger that I could have gone and chose not to,” she said. “In hindsight, I wish I had.”