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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.

Emily K. Alhadeff
July 23, 2014
Meryl Schenker Photography
Meryl Schenker Photography
Meryl Schenker Photography
Meryl Schenker Photography

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.

Sephardic surnames, like Calvo, Varon, Alhadeff, Behar, and Benaroya are woven throughout the city, attached to the founding, funding, and growth of iconic institutions like Pike Place Market, the Seattle Symphony’s Benaroya Hall, and Starbucks. Howard Behar, whose father emigrated from Bulgaria, worked at the coffee company for 28 years as a former vice president and then president. He led it from being a Northwest chain of 28 stores to an international giant with more than 15,000 outposts.

The experience of Seattle’s Sephardis has been a fundamental part of the city’s Jewish identity. Yet over the years, Sephardi-Ashkenazi “intermarriage” and the appeal of a less religious lifestyle have contributed to a dwindling community and waning involvement in Sephardi religious life. Now distinct features of Sephardic life are struggling to maintain relevancy as the children of the Ottoman immigrants who first settled here fade away, and newer generations with even less of a link to their family’s homelands take their place.

“Preserving [Ladino] is absolutely vital,” said Molly FitzMorris, who wrote her master’s thesis on the Ladineros. “Not only is it these peoples’ heritage language, but there are clues to these people through the language.”

FitzMorris is the first University of Washington student since 1950 to write a thesis on the Seattle Sephardi community, studying the Ladino speakers’ attitude toward the language, and also their complicity in its extinction. In spite of immense pride for their heritage, the majority of the Ladineros downplay their proficiency in Ladino. This is in part due to their parents’ preference for English upon arrival in America. She refers to this phenomenon as “shift.” In other words, the language of Seattle’s Sephardi Jews has been moving from Ladino to English, to the point that virtually no one younger than 70 can speak it.

“When speakers don’t feel comfortable with the language, it makes them not want to use it, which drives the language further into shift,” she explained. FitzMorris hardly expects Ladino to become commonly spoken again, but she’s excited about the “micro-revival” she sees going on.

At the university, one of a handful across the country that offer Ladino instruction, there are “now over 30 students who can read and write, at least at the basic level, Ladino in Rashi script,” according to Naar. He notes that most of these students are not Jews; they are simply people fascinated by the cultural axis of Sephardi studies and Ladino.

Last fall 150 people turned out at the school for a presentation about Ladino by David Bunis, a preeminent Ladino scholar at Hebrew University, who was stunned when audience members started singing the Ladino version of the popular Shabbat hymn “Ein Keloheinu.” (“Not even in Jerusalem could you get 150 people out [for a lecture] on Ladino,” Naar told me at the time, for another article. “It never happens.”) In December 300 community members showed up to the university’s Hillel to celebrate the first-ever International Ladino Day.

“It brought together participants ages 19 to 93,” said Naar, who was particularly moved by the Ladineros. Each one made a short presentation starting with the traditional introduction: “I am so-and-so, son/daughter of so-and-so.”

“That was the first time, I’m sure, ever, they’ve had the opportunity to affirm their identity like that,” he said, suddenly choking up. “Strangely, it makes me emotional.”

It doesn’t seem strange. The potential for Sephardi programs and studies to reunite people with their history is a hallmark of these initiatives. Naar himself came to his academic research through personal curiosity about a great-uncle from Salonika who, unlike the rest of the family, never made it to New Jersey. Once Naar taught himself Soletreo as an undergraduate in 2002, he translated a stack of letters from his great-uncle to his grandfather and learned that this man and his family were deported to Auschwitz in 1943.

At a Hillel Shabbat dinner, Naar was going on about his latest discovery, Safeway grocery bags full of the scrapbooks of Albert Levy, the last editor of America’s Ladino newspaper, La Vara, when he noticed an undergraduate student across from him listening intently.

“Turns out she’s the great-granddaughter of Albert Levy,” he said. After she learned of the scrapbooks, the student began learning Ladino and translated Levy’s articles and poems. In addition, she wrote an original poem in Ladino, in Hebrew script.

Just a few weeks ago, I heard about a Ladino rapper named Alex Hernandez who had come to Seattle from Mexico with his family to undergo a conversion with Simon Benzaquen, a transplanted Spaniard and the emeritus rabbi of Sephardi Bikur Holim Congregation in Seattle. I rushed to set up a meeting with both Hernandez and Benzaquen. A performer since the age of 13 (“I was the first rapper in north Mexico, for sure,” he said), Hernandez recently created, with Benzaquen’s help, a rap version of the catchy Ladino Hanukkah song “Ocho Kandelikas.”

“For me, Sepharad is home,” said Hernandez. “So, Ladino is like going back to roots, something I’m part of. I’m not coming from the outside.”

Hernandez, along with Benzaquen, who has discovered a new calling in music production since his retirement from the pulpit in 2012, is beginning to adapt Ladino poetry to rap. They expect to have something to show for it later this year.

“There is a lot of poetry that has been disseminated but it is dormant,” Benzaquen gushed in a thick Spanish accent. “But now there is a revitalizing feeling. … It’s a language that encompasses history, culture, religion, pining for something that you know is there, but you don’t know how to capture it.”

With Naar’s help, the community is trying to figure out just how.

Emily K. Alhadeff is the associate editor of JTNews, Washington State’s Jewish newspaper. Her writing has appeared in Moment, Conversations, and the essay collection Living Jewishly: A Snapshot of a Generation.

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