Advertisement for Rivka Raz’s concert at the University of Washington from the Jewish Transcript, December 6, 1975.
It may be understandable that Azose and Amiel watched Song of the Sephardi with a sense of loss. One could say, after watching these celluloid memories, that the golden age of Ladino and Sephardic life in Seattle has passed–and was already on its way out in the 1970s.
But David Behar and Makena Owens weren’t going there. Behar pointed out a moment in the film that could have easily been missed: a crowd of young people pouring into a theater to hear the well-known Ladino singer Rivka Raz from Israel. That event was organized by a short-lived Sephardic student organization in the 1970s. Although that organization did not continue, 40 years later, Behar sees the university reclaiming a leading role in perpetuating Sephardic culture. Incidentally, the Rivka Raz concert took place in the same university building and room as Ladino Day– Kane Hall 120. Talk about coming full circle.
Owens, the youngest member of the panel, graduated from Northwest Yeshiva High School and is working toward a master’s degree in Jewish Studies at Yeshiva University. Makena followed in the footsteps of her grandmother, Lela Abravanel, a native of Salonika, who performed at the first two Ladino Day celebrations, treating the audience to her collection of Ladino refranes (sayings). Makena grew up hearing her grandparents speak Ladino and became more involved in the study of the language while in college. In 2014, Makena won the Monis and Chaya Zuckerman Memorial Award for best research paper in Jewish history at Stern College based on her independent study with Professor Naar of two Viennese Ladino prayer books from the Sephardic Studies Collection at the UW.
Makena is proud to be a Sephardi Seattle Jew. Among her friends in New York — especially other Sephardic and Mizrachi Jews — she takes special pride in her heritage that links her to the Ottoman Empire and to the Ladino language. “We have an amazing love and appreciation for the type of Sephardic Jews that we are,” she said.
Makena is optimistic about the future of Ladino. Song of the Sephardi inspired her, given how much of the culture has been retained rather than lost. Many of the traditions in the synagogue are still familiar to her. “What has been really important,” she said, “has been to legitimize the language in an academic context. For me that has been a really good way to get me more interested in learning the language and understanding the importance of the language, because when it’s brought to the forefront, like in a university setting, it really gets people to pay attention and say, ‘Oh my God, this is something that is really at the heart of Sephardic culture and Sephardic Judaism and we need to preserve it so that it doesn’t get lost.’”
David Behar shared this optimistic sentiment, too. He emphasized that “ensuring the future of Sephardic culture in Seattle will not be achieved by trying to replicate or preserve our past in form. The continuity and future of Sephardic culture is more a function of understanding and perpetuating the substance of who we are as a community. The cultural treasures we possess transcend ethnicity, folklore, customs, food and language and, in fact, are an essential part of the fabric of Judaism, in general. Though beautiful and critically important, these all constitute the beautiful package in which our culture, philosophy and spiritual tradition reside — but not their essence.”
Behar also pointed out that he never would have imagined, when he headed that Sephardic student group in the 1970s, that one day the UW would have a Professor Naar and a Sephardic Studies Program. “We never would have dreamed in 1975 that would be a reality. It’s amazing,” he said. “We never would have dreamed that Hazzan Azose and Joel Benoliel would have produced, probably for the first time since the early 20th century, an Ottoman Ladino traditional set of prayer books, for daily, Sabbath, for all of the holidays….There has been significant assimilation, there have been some significant losses, but on the other hand we’ve got some real strength.”