By Vida Behar
Sadly, Victor Alkana passed away on May 4, 2023. Ke su alma repose en Gan Eden.
Dora Aboulafia Lipper, a first-generation Sephardic American, yearned to know more about her family history. After Dora moved to Seattle, a man named Victor Alkana commented on her post in the Sephardic Seattle Network Facebook group and offered to help Dora expand her family tree. Dora’s mother had two uncles, both named David Cohen, who she had heard may have died in the Shoah, but her family wasn’t sure what had happened to them. “[Victor] was able to tell us that they had been in Auschwitz and when they died. You would think that David Cohen would be like looking for a John Smith, but he was somehow able to trace it,” said Lipper. It’s been a gift for us that we now have these yahrzeit dates for these parts of the family that were completely wiped out and there was nobody saying Kaddish; now we are able to do that, which means a lot to us.”
Victor Alkana is a 74-year-old Sephardic Jewish man living alone in rural Texas. This self-taught genealogist is responsible for compiling one of the largest known genealogical trees of the Sephardic community (Jewish diaspora from the Spanish Inquisition), a database that spans more than 273,000 people. The sheer volume of information represents a powerful tool for connecting contemporary Sephardim like Lipper and their ancestors.
Alkana’s genealogical database is his life’s work, his “reason to keep living,” and it all started with a pit stop in Salt Lake City he took during a road trip with his ex-wife. The couple decided to stop at the Mormon Temple’s library and discovered her family tree in the archives. Immediately fascinated by the process of putting together the historical puzzle pieces of his wife’s family tree, Alkana succeeded in tracing her family tree back to 18th century Virginia. He has been hooked on genealogy ever since.
Alkana is a second-generation Rhodesli, someone who traces their roots to the Sephardic community of the Island of Rhodes, formerly part of the Ottoman Empire. His genealogical project was sparked by an email he received in 1997 from a Greek man, Petros, saying that his wife’s great-great grandmother was Sarah Alkana, and he wanted to know if they were related. Because Alkana did not know whether they were related, he and Petros started working together on their family trees. They connected with about 20 other people of Rhodesli ancestry, mutually sharing information with the goal of helping each other expand their family trees. After six months of genealogical research, Alkana was finally able to discover that Sarah was in fact a relative of his. Eventually, Petros lost interest in the project, but for Alkana, it sparked an obsession with the subject of genealogy. He collected all their trees and started to weave them together. He noticed that he was able to see genealogical connections that others could not. This insight was the catalyst for him to collect more and more, building a database spanning all Sephardic Jews in the Ottoman Empire, as well as Romaniote, Mizrahi and Persian Jewish populations. Twenty-five years later, Alkana has helped thousands of people discover their family trees and engages people with his work through numerous Facebook groups that he has started and belongs to.
Genealogical research has proved to be Alkana’s greatest link to his own Sephardic identity. Growing up in the 1950s in the suburbs of Los Angeles, the Alkanas were one of the few Jewish families in the neighborhood and the only Sephardic family around. Alkana always knew he was Rhodesli and was proud of his heritage, but his family had a tenuous connection to their Judaism. His Sephardic father, Samuel Alkana, came from what Alkana describes as a “dysfunctional” family and was raised in a Jewish orphanage in Brooklyn. His father, an atheist, grew to be resentful of his religious upbringing and cared little for instilling Judaism in his own children. His mother Jennie Salfati Alkana, also Sephardic, desperately wanted her sons to be bar mitzvah and eventually wore down her husband’s reluctance to pay for lessons. Victor Alkana and his brother started learning Hebrew in preparation but didn’t get very far.
“One day my dad, who already didn't really want to spend the money on it, came to pick [my brother and I] up. Well, the elders at the temple were playing poker. My dad, as religious as he was, says ‘THIS IS SACRILEDGE!! My kids aren’t gonna go to this synagogue!!!’” Alkana recalls. “Whatever. So, he yanked us out. I saw through it. At my young age, I could tell my dad was B.S. He just didn't want to pay for it, and he used that excuse. And my poor mother, she just threw up her hands and gave up. So, we never got our bar mitzvahs.”
As a result, Alkana experienced his Judaism mainly through Passover seders at his aunt’s house each year. The ritual meal was peppered with Sephardic foods, and a few scattered Ladino words and phrases. As a student at Long Beach City College, Alkana yearned for a deeper connection with his Jewish identity, going so far as to apply to rabbinical school. When they discovered he had not even had his bar mitzvah, they laughed in his face and turned him away, he said.
Despite being deprived of the formal Jewish education he had always wanted, Alkana found a way to learn about his culture through the process of documenting, researching, and preserving Sephardic genealogical history. “I learned very quickly that our elders were passing so it was important to get their information before they were gone. Genealogy [requires] a paper trail for everything,” he said. But there weren’t paper trails; He found that the records he needed were hard to come by. This led him to take an approach of combining traditional research methods, such as census data, and the oral history of Sephardim. If a conflict exists between verbal testimony and the paper record, Alkana defers to the record.
The urgency of his mission to record our oral history while the people who have the knowledge still live “keeps me going,” he said. Since he was a little boy, Alkana has always loved helping people and he takes pride in the moments when his genealogy successfully connects someone – like Dora Lipper - to a deeper understanding of their family history.
In addition to the historical significance of genealogy and his desire to help others, Alkana is motivated to continue his work by his simple love of research and problem solving. Having worked as a computer programmer from 1974 to 1999, he has the computer literacy necessary to build a database of such massive proportions. He always loved doing complicated jigsaw puzzles, and as he puts it, “genealogy is the best jigsaw puzzle in the world.”
One of Alkana’s best success stories comes from Jane Belmont, who reached out to him because she had been unable to trace her Belmont lineage after more than 35 years of futile effort. Alkana was able to solve the puzzle in two short hours, which he said, “felt great.”
Due to health problems, Alkana doesn't sleep much anymore and in the middle of the night he will wake up with the solution to some genealogical problem. The work keeps him alive. He finds that the more he does it, the easier it is for him to keep going.
People and groups have reached out to Alkana for his data. But he is skeptical of their motivations, voicing concerns over whether they want to sell people’s data for profit. When he is no longer able to work on genealogy, his cousin Brian Mendelson will take over the database and the Facebook groups.
Alkana would rather help others than be helped. But in his recent time of need, the Sephardic community came to his aid. After being evicted from his Los Angeles apartment in 2012, he moved in with a friend in Portland, Ore. After 10 years of living together he determined it was time to find another living situation. Ultimately, he asked his genealogy Facebook group for help. He eventually connected with a woman from Dallas was able to find him a place in Lubbock, Texas, where he has now been living for almost a year. Another member of Alkana’s Facebook group started a still-active GoFundMe campaign, which raised $13,000, enough to cover his expenses to move to Texas, set up his new house, and buy a new computer. Although inflation is taking its toll, and the cost of living is going up, Alkana can now say that he has what he needs. Although living in Texas is not ideal, he said he’s getting used to it day by day and enjoys the warm weather. Occasionally, Alkana needs help with the time-consuming work of transcribing, and those willing to help can reach out to him through Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/Panamahat.
Victor Alkana is a man who laughs often, cares deeply about helping people, and has contributed an invaluable archive to the Sephardic community. As Lipper said, “what he does is a real gift. He spends hours and hours of his life doing this for no gain, just the joy of doing this for people.” For us, the children of multiple diasporas, Alkana’s legacy illuminates the importance of forging meaningful connections with the history and culture of our ancestors in whatever way brings joy.