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Saturday, March 28, 1992 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Sephardic Jews To Remember

-------------------- SEPHARDIC OBSERVANCE --------------------

A procession marking the 500th anniversary of the expulsion of Jews from Spain will begin at 7 p.m. Tuesday from Sephardic Congregation Ezra Bessaroth, Wilson Avenue South and South Lucille Street, to Sephardic Bikur Holim, 6500 52nd Ave. S. A program of memorial prayers, readings, addresses by Rabbis Simon Benzaquen and Yamin Levy and a lecture by Eugene Normand, a scholar of Sephardic history, is set to follow in Sephardic Bikur Holim at 7:30 p.m. The events are open to the public. -----------------------------------------------------------

As the family story goes, Solomon Calvo arrived in New York from the Turkish island of Marmara around the turn of the century. Unable to speak English, but conversant in Greek, he learned from some Greeks of a place they said looked just like Marmara.

The place was Seattle and in 1902 he and Jacob Policar, also from Marmara, became the first Sephardic Jews to settle in Seattle.

A couple of years later, Nessim Alhadeff sailed to New York in the hold of a ship coming from the island of Rhodes, between Greece and Turkey. Also able to speak only Greek, he fell into conversation with a Greek man who asked where he was going.

When Alhadeff said New York, the man said, "You don't want to go to New York. There are too many people. Go to Seattle. There's gold on the streets," Alhadeff's nephew, Morris Alhadeff, the former president of Longacres racetrack, recalled recently.

Solomon Calvo founded the Waterfront Fish and Oyster Co. in Seattle, while Nessim Alhadeff started the Palace Fish and Oyster Co., which later became the Pacific Fish Co. . As they and other early pioneers sent for family members or attracted others from Turkey and Rhodes, Seattle's Sephardic Jewish community, which traces its roots to Spain, grew to what many believe is the third-largest Sephardic population in the United States, behind New York and Los Angeles. The Seattle Sephardic community has approximately 4,000 members. (Miami may have passed Seattle for the third spot, according to Fannie Roberts, a Seattle expert on the Sephardic community. However, the numbers are not precise.)

The first Sephardic rabbi in Seattle was Rabbi Solomon Azose, said Roberts. As the community grew, two synagogues were established, Sephardic Congregation Ezra Bessaroth, whose members came from Rhodes, and Sephardic Bikur Holim, which served those from Marmara and other parts of Turkey.

But the history of Seattle's Sephardic community goes far beyond the early 1900s.

On Tuesday, the two congregations and others from the general community will mark with a silent procession the 500th anniversary of the expulsion of Jews from Spain. On March 31, 1492, Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand of Spain signed an edict that Jews either convert to Christianity or leave the country within three months. Those who left faced murder and pillaging at the hands of pirates as they made their way to other lands.

"It amounted to a holocaust at the time for Jews," said Rabbi Simon Benzaquen of Sephardic Bikur Holim.

The procession from Sephardic Ezra Bessaroth in Seward Park to Sephardic Bikur Holim a few blocks away will remember those who perished. It will also mark the welcome the Jews received from the Ottoman Empire, which included Turkey, Greece, parts of North Africa, southwestern Asia and southeastern Europe.

And, said Benzaquen, it will underscore that "no matter what happens, the Jew does survive through the generations."

Michael Novick, executive vice president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle, whose Community Relations Council is coordinating the year-long quincentennial observance locally, said, "It represents a commemoration, not a celebration, of a very, very tragic event that took place 500 years ago. It also commemorates that the great heritage that was built in Spain leading up to 1492 has been sustained for 500 years."

In Seattle, that heritage is played out in orthodox congregational life, in language, culture and food, and in individual and family contributions to Seattle's lifeblood. From a community that had its roots in the fishing, produce, furniture and shoemaking businesses, among other endeavors, future generations produced doctors, lawyers, professors, dentists, accountants and business executives, said Roberts.

Norman Calvo, grandson of Solomon Calvo, for example, is a corporate public-relations consultant here and is the former senior vice president and manager of Hill and Knowlton offices in Seattle, San Francisco, Tokyo and Hong Kong.

He said he still speaks some Ladino, the common language of Sephardic Jews. Ladino is based on Spanish but also contains Turkish, Greek and Hebrew words. He recalls how his father, Shaya, wrote Ladino with what looked like an almost Arabic script. Sephardic food is influenced by Greek, Turkish and Spanish cuisine, he and Roberts added.

Members of the two Sephardic congregations who live close enough to their synagogues can be seen walking to worship services.

Organizers of the quincentennial observance call it a bittersweet occasion: There were the deaths of thousands of Jews in Spain; but the rich Sephardic culture also survived and Jews began a new life in the Ottoman Empire, the Americas and elsewhere.

"It was Spain's loss because it lost many of the artisans, much of the intelligentsia of its population," said Calvo.

Indeed, Joan Connelly Ullman, a professor of Spanish history at the University of Washington, said social scientists look at the early history of Jews in Spain, when Jews, Muslims and Christians were living together in relative harmony, as an example of how enriching a pluralistic society can be.

The Golden Age of Jews in Spain, from about 1050 to 1250, produced such cultural figures as the poet-philosopher Solomon ibn Gabirol, and Moses Maimonides, considered both a religious leader and a great Aristotelian philosopher, said Ullman.

But in the 90 or so years leading up to the Spanish Inquisition in 1478, and during the Inquisition, Jews were pressured to convert to Christianity under threat of death. Those who did profess conversion, but were then accused of carrying out Jewish practices in secret, were tortured or burned at the stake.

Though the Inquisition did not have jurisdiction over Jews who did not convert, Isabella and Ferdinand were advised that the problem of "secret Jews" was exacerbated by having Jews in Spain. On March 31 five centuries ago, Ferdinand and Isabella signed an edict ordering every professing Jew to leave Spain and never return. The estimate of the number of Jews in Spain at the time varies from roughly 250,000 to 400,000. (Muslims began to be expelled from Spain in 1499, said Ullman.)

Those Jews who escaped spread out through the Mediterranean to Turkey, Greece, North Africa, the Middle East and other areas such as Holland.

With their background in commerce and business, Sephardic Jews made up the bulk of the middle class in the Ottoman Empire, according to Sylvia A. Herskowitz, director of the Yeshiva University Museum in New York, which since late 1990 has had an exhibit on Sephardic Jews and their expulsion from Spain.

The Washington State Jewish Historical Society also is sponsoring an exhibit, "Scenes of Sephardic Life," from May 22 through June 21 at the Seattle Center Pavilion. It will include photos and artifacts of Sephardic life in the Ottoman Empire and Seattle, said Erika Michael, curator of the exhibit. It will also include photos loaned by Iberia Airlines of historic Jewish places in Spain.

King Juan Carlos of Spain is supposed to formally rescind the Expulsion Edict at the end of this month. It officially had remained in effect until 1968.

The procession from Sephardic Ezra Bessaroth to Sephardic Bikur Holim will culminate in a program featuring readings by children from books about the Expulsion Edict, a reading of the edict itself, and a memorial prayer for those who perished. Eugene Normand, a scholar of Sephardic history and culture, will speak about the 500-year history of the Turkish Sephardim.

The quincentennial observance, held locally under the name Seattle Sepharad '92 (Sepharad means Spain in Hebrew), will feature events throughout the year.

And through it all will be some underlying themes. The spirit of the Jewish people, for one, said Rabbi Benzaquen.

And this message, also, he said: "Fear and bigotry never succeed."

Copyright (c) 1992 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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