Henry & Samhula Benezra
Growing up in Istanbul, Henry Benezra dreamed of learning as many languages as possible to better understand the world around him — and by the end of his life, Benezra was fluent in seven. Born in 1899, he accompanied his mother to Istanbul’s harems where she taught women of the city’s high society to use Singer sewing machines, and where a young Henry gained exposure to the richness of cultural differences. Political turmoil following the Young Turk Revolution, however, compelled the Benezra family to flee to the United States in 1911.
Their first stop was New York, where Benezra studied at the Jewish Theological Seminary with Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, founder of the Reconstructionist movement. In 1918 the family moved to Seattle, where, in 1920, Benezra was among the first Sephardic graduates from the University of Washington.
While Benezra was finishing his studies, his future in-laws, Esther and David DeFunes, along with their daughters Estrea and Samhula (Benezra’s future spouse), were navigating the United States’ restrictive immigration quotas that targeted Asians and Middle Easterners — and in particular, those in polygamous relationships. The family thus acquired two crucial pieces of identification to enter the country from Istanbul: travel papers from the local Spanish Consulate — obtained via their Sephardic lineage that linked them to Spain — and Esther and David’s ketuba, or marriage contract, which stipulated a monogamous relationship. Like many other Sepharadim immigrating to the United States in the early twentieth century, it was easier for the DeFunes family to enter the country as Spaniards than as Ottomans.
In Seattle, Henry Benezra dedicated his life to languages and his Sephardic heritage, notably authoring several still-published Sephardic novellas. Also a noted Ladino singer, he served as the president of Sephardic Bikur Holim Congregation and introduced English into the synagogue speeches and liturgy. Benezra’s collection of books, artifacts, and ephemera in Ladino, Hebrew, and English, shared with us by Al Maimon, opens new vistas on the Sephardic experience.