Saturday, November 27, 1999 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Unchanging Essence -- Enduring Strength Of Seattle's 4,000 Sephardim Draws Scholars' Attention

Seattle Times Religion Reporter

Thirty years ago a magazine writer suggested that within a couple of decades no one would be able to tell Seattle's Sephardim from other Jewish Americans.

The writer missed by a mile.

While new generations have introduced change to Seattle's Sephardim, the descendants of Jews run out of Spain 500 years ago still say "buenos dias" when they meet at early-morning services, just as their ancestors in Spain did.

They still call on El Se centsnor during prayers.

And spicy Mediterranean dishes are more likely to be on the Hanukkah menu next week than potato latkes, the traditional fare for Jews from northern Europe.

Hanukkah, the eight-day Jewish Festival of Lights, begins next Saturday. The holiday commemorates the cleansing and rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem after it was desecrated more than 2,100 years ago.

Hanukkah is not one of Judaism's most important holidays, but it is a joyous time with religious symbolism and family ritual. Seattle's Sephardim will observe festivities in their own way, with the prayers, hymns and foods of their Mediterranean past.

Despite predictions that Seattle's 4,000 Sephardim soon would melt into the larger Jewish community, the community remains the third-largest in the country, after those in Los Angeles and New York. Its vibrancy and distinction are attracting new interest among scholars.

Sephardim make up 18 percent of the Jewish community in Seattle; the rest are Ashkenazi Jews, mostly from Germany or Eastern Europe.

But the Sephardim have played a larger role in the city's history than those numbers would suggest, said Aviva Ben-Ur, a University of Washington post-doctoral student working on a yearlong study of interactions between Seattle's Sephardic and Ashkenazi communities. It's part of a 25-year anniversary commemoration by the UW Jewish Studies Program that will include a Sephardic film festival next year.

"There is a great deal of pride in the Sephardic community," said Howard Droker, an attorney and historian involved in a project commissioned by the state Jewish Historical Society.

"We all are becoming more American as we go along, and that's true in the Sephardic community, too. But it's a lot easier to be ethnic than it used to be, and I think that will continue."

Sephardic immigrants began trickling into Seattle in about 1903, 50 years after the first Ashkenazi immigrants. They came from Turkey and the islands of Rhodes and Marmara off Turkey. All were places their ancestors settled after the 1492 Spanish decree that Jews must leave, convert to Christianity or die.

Seattle's two Sephardic synagogues, both in the Seward Park area, remain somewhat divided: Sephardic Bikur Holim Congregation is made up mostly of people whose families came from Turkey and Marmara; Congregation Ezra Bessaroth families came from Rhodes.

The immigrants were lured by the American dream and the fact that Puget Sound resembled their island-studded Mediterranean homelands.

"They often were peddlers or unskilled workers," Ben-Ur said. "They sold fish or fruits and vegetables. People forget that the Ashkenazi started off the same way. Eventually, many of them became successful and sent their children to college."

Those children, and their children - people with such names as Alhadeff, Benaroya, Behar and Israel - have been among the city's most generous benefactors and builders.

Seattle synagogues have produced a large number of Sephardic rabbis. That includes Marc Angel, a Jewish theologian and spiritual leader of Shearith Israel Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue in Manhattan, the oldest and most prestigious Sephardic congregation in the country.

The Sephardic congregations continue to worship in Ladino, a mix of medieval Spanish, Hebrew and English. The language has changed so little over the centuries that linguists study it for insights into medieval culture.

Younger Sephardic Jews don't speak much Ladino anymore, Droker said. But older men still vie for the honor of reciting the prayer that precedes the reading of the Torah. And Spanish still peppers talk in Sephardic synagogues.

Sephardic Bikur Holim and Ezrah Bessaroth each has about 400 families. Both Bikur Holim's Rabbi Simon Benzaquen and Ezra Bessaroth's Rabbi Yamin Levy were born in Morocco. Both play down differences between Sephardic and other Orthodox congregations.

Rabbi Yamin Levy said that Ezra Bessaroth is undergoing changes in tradition with the recent introduction of about 40 immigrant families from Uzbekistan. They brought traditions with them, Levy said, but "to me we're all one people. It's just geographical differences that characterize us, the way we pronounce the Hebrew or sing the songs."

Benzaquen agreed.

"The differences between us and other Orthodox Jews are mostly ethnic, although we might be a little more strict on some things than the Ashkenazi," he said. "But that's a result of different teachers and different schools. With time, there are variations in the liturgy, but the essence of the liturgy doesn't change. The source, the Torah, God's words to the Jewish people through Moses, that doesn't change."

The differences weren't always considered minor.

Droker did an interview many years ago with the late Charles Alhadeff, whose father was one of Seattle's early immigrants. When the younger Alhadeff went to the UW in 1926, he pledged Zeta Beta Tau, one of two Jewish fraternities. But he was kicked out because he was Sephardic.

"He didn't fit in," said Ben-Ur, who is using the interview in her study. "He said it pretty well ruined his university life."

That, too, is changing, Droker said. There was a time the communities were so separate it was considered intermarriage when a Sephardic married an Ashkenazi.

"No one would ever think of it that way now," Droker said, "and it happens all the time."

Sally Macdonald's e-mail address: ------------------------------- Speaker at UW

Aviva Ben-Ur of the University of Washington's Jewish Studies Program will speak on "Seattle Sephardim: Influence Beyond the Numbers" at 3:30 p.m. Tuesday in the UW's Thomson Hall, Room 317.

Copyright (c) 1999 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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