Posts Tagged ‘Sephardic’

Return to Rhodes – again

June 30, 2017

I’ve just returned from a family trip to Rhodes, the now-Greek island where my mother and her family lived until they fled the Nazis in 1939. They lived in the Jewish Quarter of the Medieval Old Town of Rodos at the northern tip of the island. Although the island is 60-miles long, most of the attention is lavished on Rodos, where thousands of cruise ship tourists flock to enjoy a bevy of Greek restaurants, inexpensive souvenirs, nightclubs and plenty of marked (and unmarked) archeological ruins just past the main streets.

Now that I’m back, I’m trying to reflect on what I saw in Rhodes, how I felt, and to find some meaning in the juxtaposition of the island’s past with its current form.

Rhodes has a long and varied history. Many know it for the Colossus of Rhodes, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, but there’s much more to it than that. The largest of the Dodecanese Islands, lying between Greece and Turkey, it was first settled during the 15th Century B.C. E. Over the next six centuries, the 540-square-mile island fell into the hands of the Achaeans, the Dorians, the Romans, the Persians, the Seldjuks and the Byzantines. The Byzantines fortified the city with a thick brick wall in 1261 A.D., and in 1309 the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem settled in the city after returning from the Holy Land. The Turks captured Rhodes from the Nights of St. John in 1522, making it part of the Ottoman Empire. But they lost the island to the Italians during the Italo-Turkish war of 1912. At the time, the Italians annexed all the Dodecanese Islands to the Italian Empire. After World War II, in March 1947, the Dodecanese Islands were annexed to Greece.

The Jews of Rhodes grew from a community of 400 to 5,000 before World War II. They led a vibrant Jewish life that centered around several schools and five synagogues. That is, until the entire community was wiped out on July 23, 1944, when Hitler’s Nazis rounded up the remaining 1,673 Jews on the island and sent them to Auschwitz concentration camp. Only 151 survived.

My mother’s family fled Rhodes in 1939 – something that in retrospect was a huge blessing. Of course, they didn’t realize that at the time, as they became refugees and left behind family and friends. Because of this luck, the family survived and eventually earned visas to enter the United States in 1946 after spending seven years in Tangier, Morocco. I grew up with the story and have chronicled it in A Hug From Afar, which details the family’s immigration story through letters and documents my mother Claire Barkey wrote to her uncle Ralph and aunty Rachel Capeluto in Seattle. As a result of this book, I’ve been immersed in the family’s story for many years. It’s been a large part of my life.

So, what would it be like to return to Rhodes in 2017 – with my husband, two adult sons and several other family members? I went to Rhodes the first time in 1999, for an amazing reunion of 37 family members, including four Barkey siblings to guide us around their old stomping ground.

I was looking forward to this trip, where we would be joined by two cousins’ families and my mother’s youngest sister. I was excited to introduce my immediate family to this beautiful and historic island.

One of the highlights of a return to Rhodes is visiting the Kahal Shalom Synagogue, the oldest synagogue in Greece, established in 1557 during the Ottoman era. It still stands in the Jewish quarter of the Old Town and has been exquisitely preserved and renovated with the help of foreign donors. In 1997, the Jewish Museum of Rhodes, in the former women’s section of Kahal Shalom, was established to preserve the Jewish history and culture of the Jews of Rhodes.

Our group toured the synagogue and museum on our first full day in Rhodes, spending time reading the history and looking at the artifacts in the museum and joining together to read three psalms to commemorate the event at the synagogue. We noted the plaque outside the synagogue door naming all the families who perished in the Holocaust, including two of my mother’s aunts’ families and several other families with descendants in the Seattle Jewish community. We chatted with other visitors, playing “Jewish geography” until we found common friends and relatives. We checked out the small gift shop and spoke to caretaker Carmen Cohen, a Jewish woman from mainland Greece who works tirelessly to maintain the synagogue and museum.

After visiting the synagogue, we roamed the streets looking for other remnants of the family’s past. Unlike in 1999, they were harder to find because no one on this journey remembered where they were. We followed a map of Jewish sites and found the standing facade of the former Alliance Israelite Universelle school that my uncles attended and what we believe may be remnants of another synagogue.

The following day we visited the cemetery where several of our relatives are buried, along with thousands of other Jews from Rhodes. During my last night on Rhodes I wandered the back streets and alleys alone, thinking about how my ancestors had done the same thing nearly 80 years ago!

Among Rhodes descendants, it’s common for families to make pilgrimages to Rhodes. There is even a website where people can notify others that they are going to visit. I marveled at this fact and wondered why people are still connected to a place where the language is no longer the same that our ancestors spoke, where only a handful of Jews remain, and that serves as a sad reminder to a vibrant community lost at the hands of cruelty. What is the draw? Why do people still go there? Why do we still care? And how long will descendants continue to flock to this place that holds nothing new, only fading memories?

There’s no question that the island is magical. Fresh sea breezes from the multiple shades of vibrant blue Aegean Sea waft into the well-preserved walled Old City. It’s no wonder Rhodes is one of the most popular tourist sites in Europe. A trip to Rhodes can be a beach vacation, a historic endeavor, a shopping spree – or all of the above. I wonder if this is why so many Jews with ancestors from Rhodes come back. It’s easy, pleasant, and relatively simple to do. And after touring the synagogue, museum and cemetery, it’s natural to turn the visit into a shopping, eating and beach extravaganza. Would there be the same interest in a cold, abandoned Polish or Russian village?

But what will happen once future generations lose the connection to Rhodes? What can we expect when these generations forget the stories of their ancestors, lose the family recipes for food eaten in Rhodes, no longer feel the pain of those lost in the Holocaust? What will happen if they flee the Jewish religion?

I don’t have the answers. I do know that my generation is doing all in its power to keep the memories, culture and religion alive. We support the synagogue and museum in Rhodes with visits, donations and religious and historic education.

Many of the Jews of Rhodes – Sephardic Jews – trace their history to the expulsion from Spain during the Inquisition. But the first Jews in Rhodes can be traced back way further, to the 12th century, when Rabbi Benjamin of Tudela, Spain, first referenced a Jewish community of about 400 Jews there. It’s unknown when they arrived.

Just like we don’t know exactly when the Jews arrived in Rhodes, we don’t know when they’ll stop coming. That is the question I’m left with after visiting this summer. Will my children ever return? Will their children? I may never know. But for now, I hope visitors keep going – and supporting the institutions that are there as reminders of a community that was. And, perhaps, at some point in the future, it will be transformed into a living Jewish community, instead of one that simply remembers the past.

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My family’s dramatic journey through three continents to escape the Holocaust

March 12, 2016

A_Hug_From_Afar-7x10_COVER_FRONT - 2-23-16 - finalGrowing up, I had heard the story about my mother and her family coming from the Island of Rhodes to Seattle. I heard how the family felt indebted to their Uncle Ralph and Aunty Rachel for helping them get here. I listened to my mother speak Ladino (Judeo-Spanish) to her mother and Aunt Esther on the phone each day. I understood some of the Spanish-like language, but didn’t really think anything of it.

I took the whole thing for granted.

But now, 70 years after my mother stepped foot into the United States for the first time, I no longer take this story for granted. I recognize how hard it was for the family to get here. I realize what a tough person my mother was to make it happen. I realize that immigration wasn’t easy or simple then – just like it’s not easy or simple today. And I realize what an incredible story this is, a story that I felt compelled to tell in my new book, “A Hug From Afar: One Family’s dramatic journey through three continents to escape the Holocaust.”

It’s now available on Amazon. I hope you’ll indulge me by reading more about it in this news release. If you like what you see, I hope you’ll get the book to learn this important piece of history. You can also “like” my A Hug From Afar Facebook page.

 

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BELLEVUE, Wash. (March 1, 2016) – From the young age of 9 on the Aegean island of Rhodes, Clara Barkey started writing to her uncle Ralph and aunty Rachel Capeluto in the far-away place known as Seattle, Wash. This smart and determined young woman, who was always at or near the top of her class, used the dying language of Judeo-Spanish, or Ladino, to report news of the relatives Ralph left behind on Rhodes and the happenings of her Sephardic Jewish community. But what started as friendly letters quickly turned to desperate pleas for help as life for the Jews of Rhodes deteriorated under the control of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, who allied with Adolph Hitler.

Forgotten and never thought of again, Clara’s letters turned up more than 60 years after they were written and after she, Ralph and Rachel had passed away. Preserved and translated from Ladino into English, they paint a vivid and detailed 16-year story of how one family triumphed and survived after they became refugees and rode the roller coaster of successes and failures to legally win permission to immigrate to the United States.

This compelling story of perseverance, determination, love and grit is brought to life in A Hug From Afar, a historical narrative nonfiction memoir Seattle-area journalist and publicist Cynthia Flash Hemphill has edited and compiled based on the letters written by her mother Clara Barkey from 1930 to 1946.

“A Hug from Afar reads like a suspense novel–only it’s a true story. It feels as though it’s your family caught up in a tale of hope and fear, frustration and happiness. The family ties that reach across continents and over decades, and an American immigration bureaucracy working to make family reunification as difficult as possible, ” Paul Burstein, Professor Emeritus of Sociology and Political Science, and Stroum Professor Emeritus of Jewish Studies at the University of Washington, wrote in his commentary on the book.

The book goes far beyond one family’s story. This compilation of rich primary source documents captures the history of the Sephardic Jews on the Island of Rhodes, descendants of Spanish Jews exiled during the Inquisition of 1492.

The book “gives voice to a now-lost Jewish community on the verge of annihilation, to a Jewish family seeking asylum, and to one young woman who initiated a thread of correspondence with relatives in the United States that would ultimately solidify her family’s escape from the Nazis,” writes Devin E. Naar, Isaac Alhadeff Professor in Sephardic Studies at the University of Washington, in a detailed and compelling foreword to the book.

“The story itself is not only captivating and powerful on its own, but is also of great historical and cultural significance,” Naar writes. “Too seldom do we have access to the perspectives of women in history, even fewer with regard to young women, and very few when it comes to the Sephardic Jewish world. While we know of Anne Frank and her diary, we have almost no sources composed by Sephardic Jewish girls or young women describing their experiences regarding the rise of fascism and the onset of the Second World War.”

The book uses 16 years worth of letters and official documents to take the reader through a detailed journey of exile, community annihilation, dashed hopes, and real-life drama seen through the eyes of a young woman forced to grow up too quickly as she desperately worked to save her family from Hitler’s efforts to destroy the Jews.

As she put this book together, Flash Hemphill came to understand that her mother’s story is far more than a family history. It offers a much broader lesson that needed to be preserved and made available to a wider audience.

“We are at a point in history now where we’re willing to hear the broader stories of the impact that the Holocaust had on so many people – not only those tragically killed in the death camps, but also the refugees and the lives and communities left behind. Most of these survivors are now gone. It’s important to really embrace the stories of the few who remain,” Flash Hemphill said.

“I hope readers of A Hug From Afar will not only learn about my family and the history of the Jews of Rhodes, but also will consider the many other themes this book offers. It centers on the topic of immigration of refugees, a hot subject as the world struggles over this important issue. It also shows the importance of why it’s important to preserve family histories, especially now that we have moved away from formal, hand-written letters to the instant and quickly discarded forms of today’s communication – e-mail, texts and tweets,” she said.

A Hug From Afar, by Claire Barkey Flash, edited and compiled by Cynthia Flash Hemphill, translated by Morris Barkey, is available to purchase in print and e-book form at Amazon.com and through Createspace. “Like” the book and learn more about it at https://www.facebook.com/ahugfromafar.

 

When simply following a recipe isn’t enough: The secrets of `repulgo’

December 3, 2014

Boreka photoWhen most people think of “Jewish food” they likely think of bagels, blintzes – or perhaps matzo ball soup. For a funny take on it, check out this Buzzfeed video. What most people don’t know is that those types of Jewish foods actually are traditional only for Ashkenazi Jews – those from Northern Europe whose native tongue is Yiddish.  Luckily for me, my mother’s family is from Southern Europe, which means they are Sephardic Jews, originally from Spain, who speak Ladino. The good news is that the food is WAY better!

Sephardic Jews eat a Mediterranean diet – rich with fresh vegetables, flavorful herbs, fish, olive oil and bold flavors. Sephardic Jews also make delicious and memorable savory pastries, ones that are so good they’re not easily forgotten and are often craved and practically inhaled by our children any time they are lucky enough to get them. In this part of the country, you can’t buy these pastries in the store. Each is handmade using recipes passed down from one generation to the next.

I recall my grandmother and great aunt making these pastries. They fed them to us any time we visited and ALWAYS sent home a care package “for the ride.” Over the past year or so I have worked hard to perfect one of these pastries – borekas (pronounced Bor-EK-ahs). These are potato and cheese-filled turnovers. Anyone familiar with a Spanish empanada will see the resemblance. My youngest son loves them and will eat a dozen at a time. When his friends come over they’re gone within minutes.

Why am I writing about borekas? I’m writing about them because I recently helped make 1,100 of them for the 100th anniversary of the Kline Galland nursing home in Seattle. My aunt told me a group of women were making them and I volunteered to step in, figuring they could use all the help they could get. She reluctantly agreed to let me help, after warning me that mine probably wouldn’t be good enough. I have since learned that making borekas is more than simply following a recipe. To the elderly Sephardic women around here, it is an art form. And if you can’t do it right, you may as well not do it at all.

What could be so difficult about making a potato and cheese turnover? One word: “repulgo.” Repulgo is the Spanish and Ladino word for “hem,” or “fancy edge.” If it’s not done correctly then the borekas, it seems, should be trashed. I learned this the hard way during my volunteer cooking session.

I sat down with about a half dozen other women with a pile of dough and a bowl of mashed potatoes in front of me. I can crank out about 60 borekas an hour at home. I’m fast. And based on the way the borekas are inhaled, I figure they’re pretty good. So, I started rolling out little circles of dough, filling them with balls of potato, and creating my “repulgo” edge.

Whoa!  Just as my aunt had predicted, I was quickly told mine weren’t good enough. My repulgo was too thick. It wasn’t pretty enough. Tsk, tsk, tsk. I was told that my borekas probably weren’t good enough to be served. I received a lesson in how to make thinner, prettier repulgo. I was left to struggle on my own and it was suggested that perhaps I focus on rolling and filling instead of actually finishing the borekas with the fancy edge. One of the other women – with more experience and more wrinkles – could do that part for me!

If you don’t believe me, watch this video on making borekas by local Kosher cook Leah Lucrisia. At minute 7:05, where she says, “this is the tricky part,” she talks about the boreka ladies of Seward Park. “You see how delicate that is? That’s what you want. Otherwise when you bring them to Seward Park they’re all going to say you don’t know how to make a boreka,” the wise Leah warns. “This is really the hallmark of a beautiful boreka.”

I came home pretty dejected. All I wanted to do was to volunteer and to learn. I mentioned this to several Sephardic friends of my generation and they confirmed similar stories. We would need much, much more practice before our borekas were good enough. These friends also had been chastised by their senior relatives as they worked to perfect their own repulgo.

Who knew? I thought I was just making pastries. Upon reflection, I’ve come to realize it’s more than that. It’s about tradition. There is a lot of cultural history behind these seemingly simple borekas. My mother and grandmother’s generation spent their days in “the old country” raising their children and keeping house. They took pride in their handiwork – whether it was the food they cooked or the needlework they created. When they were forced to leave during WWII  they could bring very few possessions with them. But they had their traditions. And as traditions, it’s important to preserve them as they were. Slow, deliberate, painstakingly perfect little pastries as a reminder of home.

 


Bendichas Manos

a blog about living, cooking and caring in the Ladino tradition

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