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Monday, April 24, 2000 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Ancient ways vs. modern culture

Seattle Times staff reporter

AS THE LOCAL SEPHARDIC community ages, its younger members are trying to hang on to their unique heritage. Some say ancient Jewish traditions are making that difficult and driving people away from synagogues.

Marlene Souriano-Vinikoor loops a finger under her necklace and toys with the turquoise "evil eye" charms, called ojos malos, that hang from the chain. In the old country, parents pinned ojos malos to a baby's bassinet to ward away evil. They slipped them under mattresses to protect children. Women wore them as jewelry.

Souriano-Vinikoor feels vulnerable without her ojos malos. They remind her of the old ways. They remind her of the old days. They remind her of the Sephardic Jewish home in Seattle where she was raised, where her parents and their friends sang and danced to Turkish music, where her grandmother spoke only Ladino, a Judeo-Spanish language that traces to Sephardic ancestry in Spain.

Those are memories she doesn't want to lose.

In her home, Souriano-Vinikoor can speak Ladino only to herself. Her husband is a Jew of East European descent, an Ashkenazic, many of whom traditionally spoke Yiddish. Most of her children's Jewish friends are Ashkenazic.

Almost 100 years have passed since the first Jews arrived in Seattle from Turkey and the Greek island of Rhodes, creating one of America's largest and most distinctive Sephardic communities. An estimated 4,000 Sephardic families now live in the Puget Sound area.

With each passing generation, however, Sephardic heritage becomes more distant. The community is aging, and although its two synagogues are healthy, some Sephardics worry their culture may die out. Many Sephardics who marry non-Sephardic Jews leave their synagogues. Some also leave because they no longer are willing to accept the tradition that consigns women to passive roles in the synagogues.

To boost its membership, Congregation Ezra Bessaroth has recruited Ashkenazic Jews; Synagogue President Jeff Solam estimates at least four of every 10 new families there are Ashkenazic.

"We're fighting to keep our existence," he says. "A lot of our people, the original Sephardic families, are gone from our congregation. We have had to rebuild."

Souriano-Vinikoor is evidence of the challenge. She is in her late 40s, which probably makes her the youngest member of Ezra Bessaroth's women's auxiliary.

"I don't think my parents' generation fully understood their uniqueness," she says. "They didn't write anything down to preserve the culture. They were optimistic we would have the same lives they had, that we would have the luxury of associating only with other Sephardics. They figured we would learn Ladino because we would converse with each other in Ladino."

Efforts to modernize

For more than 85 years, the heart of Seattle's Sephardic identity has been the two synagogues, one mile from each other in the Seward Park neighborhood. Sephardic Bikur Holim and Congregation Ezra Bessaroth both integrate traditional Sephardic melodies and Ladino into their prayer services. The services closely track those practiced in Turkey or Rhodes more than a century ago.

Some Sephardics have left the synagogues because they are secular Jews and both synagogues are Orthodox. The secular Jews who remain - and there are plenty - do so because they identify strongly with being Sephardic, not because they are devout Jews.

The debate over where women sit at synagogue is emblematic of the internal conflict facing some Sephardic Jews. They grapple over whether they are willing to settle for Orthodox religious traditions in order to keep the culture alive in their families.

In both synagogues, women are segregated - some would say relegated - to a separate seating section for formal services, including those for the Sabbath and major holidays. Under Orthodox interpretation of Jewish law, prayer is an obligation for men. For women, it is an option. Prayer must occur with the least amount of distraction possible, Sephardic rabbis say. And for men, there tends to be no bigger distraction than women.

For some Sephardics, the tradition of segregated seating collides with their contemporary values.

Janine Hasson was one of the several Sephardics who tried unsuccessfully last year to form a synagogue where men and women could sit together.

She has attended plenty of bat mitzvahs elsewhere where a Jewish girl sits in front of her synagogue during a Sabbath service, reads Hebrew passages from a sacred Torah prayer scroll and addresses the congregation about one of the most meaningful days of her life. Her parents, grandparents and siblings sit nearby and participate in the service.

The setting wasn't as reverent when Hasson's two daughters had their bat mitzvahs at Ezra Bessaroth. Because the synagogue does not allow women to play formal roles in the Saturday morning service, Hasson's girls had to settle for taking part in an unofficial service on a Sunday. Even then, they were not allowed to read from the Torah.

"Belonging to our synagogue, it was the only thing we could do for our girls, and they wanted to do something," Hasson says. "Today, girls want equality."

When Hasson's son had his bar mitzvah, Hasson sat toward the back of the synagogue, along with her daughters and other female relatives, in the section reserved for women.

"At Sephardic temples, all we women can do is watch," she says. "We're just spectators at our own sons' bar mitzvahs."

At Sephardic Bikur Holim, the women sit in the balcony.

"A lot of the wives are unhappy upstairs," says Rabbi Emeritus Solomon Maimon of Bikur Holim, which maintains a stable membership of about 300 families. "I say to them, `We're looking up to you. What more do you want?' "

Maimon laughs but realizes this is no joke.

Unwilling to compromise on segregated seating, Sephardic rabbis try other routes to keep some of the third- and fourth-generation descendants of Sephardic immigrants from leaving the nest.

"We try to show them they are part of our family, but unfortunately they are going away," Maimon says. "We're losing some of the youth, there's no doubt about it."

There is no estimate on the number of younger Sephardics who have left the two synagogues because of the seating. Solam says Ezra Bessaroth's membership is on the rise at 360 families, but its good health is due in part to its active recruitment of Ashkenazics.

Hasson and others who tried to start a new Sephardic synagogue saw a risk of Seattle's Sephardic heritage fading away if they didn't act to create another model of worship - something similar to the Conservative and Reform movements started by Ashkenazics.

The effort failed because the Sephardics involved couldn't agree on how strictly a new synagogue should interpret Jewish law.

Sephardic synagogues with mixed seating operate in both Los Angeles and Atlanta. But Rabbi Simon Benzaquen of Bikur Holim says a Sephardic synagogue is traditional by definition.

"When someone says they are Sephardic and Conservative or Sephardic and Reform, they are talking garbage, they are talking nothing," he says. "They are interested in emulating the fad, the nouveau."

Benzaquen says he tries to accommodate all members of Bikur Holim, no matter how secular or religious, within the bounds of Jewish law. But he says there are limits to how far Sephardic tradition can be compromised. He draws the line at mixed seating.

John Coe, who was involved in the effort to start a new synagogue, says he appreciates why the rabbis feel a Sephardic synagogue must maintain the tradition of segregated seating. But he says the view is not in the best interests of preserving the heritage.

"To say there is only one model, the Orthodox model, to the exclusion of everything else may maintain the integrity of the Sephardic religion but the problem is people are going to leave," Coe says. "They already have."

His maternal grandfather was one of the founders of Bikur Holim, a synagogue Coe still attends. Coe, 33, says he hopes that when he has children they can be raised with strong Sephardic identities.

"I want my children to know where they came from," he says.

History of Seattle's Sephardics

About 150,000 Jews left Spain during the expulsion in 1492 and dispersed throughout the Mediterranean and the Middle East. Between 1902 and World War II, about 3,000 Sephardics left their homelands of Turkey and Rhodes and settled in Seattle.

More Sephardic Jews live in New York and Los Angeles than in Seattle. But the influence of Sephardics arguably has been greater in Seattle than anywhere else in the United States, says Aviva Ben-Ur, on a fellowship specializing in Sephardic studies at the University of Washington. At one time, Sephardics constituted about one-third of Seattle's Jewish population; in New York it was less than 1 percent. Today, Sephardics make up about 10 percent of Seattle-area Jews, Ben-Ur says.

The Sephardic identity is entwined with Seattle's identity. Jack Benaroya, namesake of Benaroya Hall, and the Alhadeff family, which ran the Longacres racetrack, are Sephardic. In the early days of the Pike Place Market, Sephardic workers dominated the fish and produce stands.

Souriano-Vinikoor's father, Joseph Souriano, came to the United States in the late 1920s as a stowaway on a ship to escape the military draft in Turkey.

Her mother, Rebecca Varon, arrived about the same time, joined by her mother, little brother and uncle, to escape the lingering pain of her father's death in World War I.

Strangers in Turkey, the couple married two years after arriving in Seattle. Like most first-generation Sephardics, the Sourianos settled in Seattle's Central District. They followed other Sephardic families to Seward Park and lived across the street from Bikur Holim.

The family home was all about being Sephardic.

It was about the Turkish music and the Ladino language. It was about Sephardic delicacies coming out of her mother's oven, like bulemas, savory swirled pastries stuffed with spinach and cheese, and biscochos, braided sweet biscuits sprinkled with sesame seeds.

"I didn't eat a matzo ball until I was 25," Souriano-Vinikoor says, referring to an Ashkenazic food wrongly associated with all Jews.

She had her first matzo ball about the time she married Abram Vinikoor, an Ashkenazic Jew. After her marriage, Souriano-Vinikoor tried to feel at home in Ashkenazic synagogues but felt she didn't fit in.

"It was all really foreign to me," she says. "There are real cultural differences, and I have this very, very strong urge to identify with something Sephardic. When that is not in my life, there is a real void."

Stuart Eskenazi's e-mail address is seskenazi@seattletimes.com

Copyright (c) 2000 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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