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It's Our Shift

Updated: Apr 30, 2019

By Al Maimon

Solomon Calvo, left, a Sephardic Jewish merchant, and Fred August are at Western Fish and Oyster Co., circa 1918. (Washington State Jewish Historical Society/University of Washington Special Collections)

For most of my life, I have actively advocated and encouraged ways and means of engaging more of our Sephardic community in activities and relationships that express our special, valuable heritage to our benefit of the Jewish people and, ultimately, the world. I’ve seen myself as a “carrier” or transmitter, not an originator, or the source of knowledge. I’ve felt that there are many others older, more knowledgeable than me to share this responsibility.

However, in recent times, unfortunately, more and more community members, my elders, my contemporaries and, even younger, are passing away and I feel like time and connection with the past is also passing. I feel an increasing sense of urgency “to do more,” for me personally, my peers and more importantly - for the upcoming generations.

Our connection to our past is weakening, times are changing and we have an increasing challenge to understand, incorporate and express our heritage for this and future generations. This is what leads to my sense of urgency, and so I’m sharing this to solicit as many as possible, in as many ways as possible to join into an energized, determined community - living and breathing “being Sephardic” in any and every way. I encourage you - through many entry points (some of which are mentioned later) - to find one or some to explore so that you can learn about and express your connection.

About 35 years ago, as president of Sephardic Bikur Holim, I spoke about the three “Rs”( role, responsibility and rights) of our membership across generations - great grandparents through infants - each cohort “doing its job.” At that time, we still had quite a few folks who came from the “old country.” I was in my 40s. My charge at that time was to outline the opportunities we had and how we could work together to transmit, learn about and express this special heritage across all ages. 

Then, about 20 years ago I wrote a document articulating what I thought was our communal and personal added value, listing the many facets of community to consider, identifying people and resources available to contribute to our success and framing a variety of projects and programs we could undertake to express Sephardic life in Seattle as the 20th century closed. In reading that document today, it is interesting to look at who/what we had available then for ideas of what could be done and to see how much has happened - both in terms of what/who we’ve lost and what/who we’ve gained since then.

I used to think about our role mainly in terms of preserving the specifics of our traditions. After thinking about it and talking with many folks, now I understand our job also/mainly is to “sing our own song” while being true to our heritage. The test is, given technological, societal and other changes - would our ancestors “recognize” us and our community as their descendants? Would they feel “de kasa?”

Today, in the Sephardic synagogues and in the community at large, we basically have the same job. But it’s more challenging - and also potentially more rewarding. Fundamentally, it is to recognize that we have a heritage to practice, be very proud of, to understand and express in (now) 21st century Seattle. It is a privilege and essentially entails recognizing that we’re not orphans - culturally, religiously and communally. Even though we are more distantly connected with our past, we still can connect and incorporate this unique heritage into our individual and communal lives.

One very encouraging aspect of our community today is that I sense an increasing curiosity among younger folks and people who have moved away from/not connected with their roots - looking, and in some cases, coming back. For example, a few weeks ago, a woman who was born and raised in Magnolia, came to Sephardic Bikur Holim in search of her roots and found the place where her great-grandfather was very active.

We also are experimenting with and discovering relevant touchpoints to satisfy the curiosity in and permitting tailoring/expression of the connections in a diverse set of ways.

A brief listing of some of these resources include Ezra Bessaroth, Sephardic Bikur Holim, Seattle Sephardic Brotherhood, Sephardic Religious School, Sephardic Adventure Camp, the Ladineros, Seattle Sephardic Network, Sephardic Studies Program at the University of Washington/Stroum Center for Jewish Studies, locally. We also have forged local connections with the Sephardic Brotherhood of America, American Sephardic Federation, Sephardic Education Center, while others have earned citizenship of Spain or Portugal. We also have access to virtual connections with all kinds of sources for music, language, cooking, religious/ritual practices, Ladinokomunita, Argentina, Turkey, Israel - in many ways and overlaying all of this with personal and familial travel and other connection. The net effect of all this is a real opportunity to learn about and take part in virtually every facet of “living Sephardic” through music, language, customs, food, family, communal, across many languages, countries and age groups.

Much more can be done. We are on the threshold of a breakthrough that makes up for the distance of time and place. Each generation/age group has a role to play. It’s our shift now and we can all make the community more richly and deeply connected to help ensure that the current and coming links on the chain are strong and inclusive. I’ve provided a whole menu of things you can choose from. It’s not up to me to tell you how to get engaged, enriched and participate in this. I want you to find out for yourself what you can do – and do it!!

In a future blog I’ll begin what I hope will be a rich and comprehensive discussion of why we’re doing this at all - what is our added value, to whom is the value added, why does it matter, what makes it personally and communally worthwhile. I’ll also share specific examples to consider and, in general, solicit input- ideas, comments, questions- focusing on moving forward to make the most of our shift...

Looking forward to seeing more of us enjoying, learning and doing to “live more Sephardic.” Mos veremos, kon vida y salud.


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