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A new look at my Sephardic heritage

By Olivia Coyne, Seattle Sephardic Network Summer 2023 intern

My maternal grandmother, Rachel Bernstein (formerly Rachel Piha), grew up in a house on 31st and Alder, which is located in Seattle’s Central Area. Her parents were Sephardic Jews who had emigrated from the Island of Rhodes in the 1930s.

About four years ago, my grandma drove us to the Central Area to show me where she grew up. Of course it was a special moment, but I didn’t fully understand the historical and cultural significance of the actual location.

Growing up I didn’t have a strong connection to my Sephardic heritage. I mostly connected through food and have gotten very familiar with my mom’s old copy of The Sephardic Cooks cookbook from the Congregation Or VeShalom Temple of Atlanta, Georgia. It is so well loved that the cover is missing.

I also wasn’t raised religious, so I’ve always felt somewhat removed from my Sephardic heritage—I didn’t go to synagogue or Hebrew school like my mom and grandma did. I must admit, I’ve always been sort of jealous—the celebrations, food, family, and community all sounded so comforting and special. Sometimes I wondered if I would ever be able to have a close connection to my Sephardic heritage.

After interning for the Seattle Sephardic Network this past summer, I feel like I have established my own, unique connection to my heritage. I was able to assist with the Seattle Sephardic tours put on by the network and I learned a lot - not just internship basics, but also the history of the Central Area that my family has a connectio

n to. I also learned about the significance of the area to the Sephardic community, that it is more than where my grandma grew up.

Not only did I get to take the tour myself and see where my grandma ate, played, walked, and went to school, but I also got to see how the work I put in was used to teach others about Seattle’s Sephardic culture. While I wasn’t sharing my own stories, nor do I have many, I was helping to create a platform for the history of Seattle’s Sephardic co

mmunity to be shared. After always feeling like an outsider, this experience allowed me to feel like I was “in” but in my own, unique way.

The experience of the Seattle Sephardic Tour was also special to me because I volunteered my mom, Stephanie Mayo, to help me staff the July tour, which started at Congregation Ezra Bessaroth, which happens to be the synagogue that my grandmother went to growing up. It was really the first time we had spent time together consciously thinking about our Sephardic heritage. Her father wasn’t Jewish and that led to her having similar feelings about not fully fitting into the Jewish community. It was important for us to contribute to the tour together, establishing new, more positive feelings of connection.

The way my grandma’s face lights up when I tell her something new that I have learned about Seattle’s Sephardic community is something that I can’t put into words. I know she is proud of me and my excitement. As she gets older, I remember that these are the moments I will cherish forever.


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