Telling the remarkable stories of Sephardic Jews

A Muslim from Sarajevo hid a Jewish friend from the Nazis and was later shielded from the Balkans’ violence in the 1990s by a Jewish aid group. It’s just one of the many tales from a recent talk in Los Angeles about Sephardic Jewry.

February 26, 2011|By Nomi Morris, Special to the Los Angeles Times

This spring marks 70 years since Nazi Germany invaded what was then Yugoslavia, ultimately deporting and exterminating most of the Sephardic Jewish communities of the Balkans.

In Sarajevo, a Muslim woman named Zeyneba Hardaga hid her Jewish friend Josef Kabilo from the Nazis and in 1985 was recognized by Israel as a “Righteous Gentile” whose acts had saved a Jewish life.

Fast forward to 1994, the height of the Bosnian Serb siege of Sarajevo, which killed 12,500 of the city’s residents over three years.

American photojournalist Edward Serotta met the elderly Hardaga in Sarajevo as she and other Bosnian Muslims, Croatian Catholics and Serb Orthodox refugees were welcomed into a Jewish rescue convoy that took 294 people to Israel.

“When everyone was fighting each other, Holocaust survivors and their offspring turned their pink synagogue into the most effective humanitarian organization in the city,” Serotta recalled during a talk in Los Angeles last week.

That Jewish aid group, La Benevolencija, with the help of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, functioned as a bomb shelter, clinic, food distribution center, pharmacy, post office, radio relay station and entertainment center.

The doctors were Serb and Croat, the security chief and woodcutter were Muslim, the cook and computer specialist Jewish. “There was a dentist once a week and puppet shows for kids,” Serotta said. “The Jewish community and the Sarajevo community were one.”

Also on that convoy was Denis Karalic, a 13-year-old Muslim whose father was active in La Benevolencija.

Upon arriving in Israel, Hardaga was greeted by Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. She died a year later, and her daughter and granddaughter have since converted to Judaism. Karalic finished school in Israel and now, at 30, is working for Vienna’s Holocaust restitution agency, a way to give something back to the people who helped him.

Serotta told these and other stories from his book “Survival in Sarajevo” at a Feb. 22 event at the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. The talk focused on the Jews of the Bosnian capital, 80% of whom were Sephardic.

Serotta’s account of a small community that lived in harmony with other religious and ethnic groups for 450 years is a prime example of the tolerance and pluralism characteristic of Sephardic Jewry, said Rabbi Daniel Bouskila, director of special projects for the L.A.-based Sephardic Education Center.

Founded in 1979, the group has a campus in Jerusalem’s Old City, where it plans to ordain rabbis in the Sephardic tradition, which never subdivided into Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist denominations.

Sephardic Jewry traces its liturgy and scholarship to medieval Spain rather than Germany, the intellectual source for the Ashkenazi stream of Jewish life from which most American Jews descend.

Bouskila and Serotta said there is now renewed pride and interest in Sephardic Jewish heritage, even in North America, where the Sephardic experience has largely been overlooked.

“Here you had ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ and bagels and lox, but not the other tradition,” Bouskila said. “There are large numbers of writings from significant Sephardic rabbis, but they were not translated into English. New ventures in education are starting to change that.”

Bouskila, the son of French Moroccan immigrants, grew up in West Hollywood. He is a former rabbi of Tifereth Israel in Westwood, L.A.’s oldest Sephardic congregation, started nearly a century ago by Jews mainly from Turkey and the Greek island of Rhodes.

Other immigrants from Syria, Iraq, Algeria, Egypt and most recently Iran, have made Los Angeles one of the largest Sephardic Jewish centers in the U.S., with six synagogues and many small, informal congregations.

On Tuesday, when Serotta asked how many in attendance were Sephardic, half of the 150 participants raised their hands, a pleasant surprise for Mark S. Diamond, executive vice president of the federation’s Board of Rabbis of Southern California, which organized the event.

“It’s a powerful narrative that we need to tell and retell,” Diamond said of the Sephardic experience. “There is a proud legacy of openness and pluralism that is deeply needed in the Jewish world and the world at large.”

According to Serotta, Jews began arriving in the Balkans in 1391 after pogroms in Spain; more came after the Inquisition, which expelled all Jews by August 1492. Scholars estimate 250,000 to 350,000 Spanish Jews ultimately settled in the Balkans.

They brought their distinct prayer melodies, a rabbinic tradition influenced by the progressive scholar and philosopher Maimonides, and the Ladino language, a blend of mostly Spanish and Hebrew that developed among Sephardic Jews much as Yiddish, derived mostly from German and Hebrew, did among Ashkenazi Jews.

They also brought the famed Sarajevo Haggadah, one of 16 hand-painted Passover texts from Spain that have surfaced in various cities. The Haggadah was later appraised by Viennese art historians who called it a “medieval masterpiece.”

On the eve of World War II, there were 87,000 Jews, mostly Sephardic, in Yugoslavia and 48,000 in Bulgaria. There was an important community of 54,000 in Salonika, Greece, that was wiped out, making it the most decimated community outside of Poland.

Some Balkan Jews would survive the war and eventually return home. When Serotta first visited Central and Eastern Europe in the late 1980s, he found Jewish communities that did not think of themselves as relics and had no intention of disappearing. His book “Out of the Shadows” presaged the revival of Jewish life in the former Soviet bloc after the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall.

Serotta, who later founded Centropa, a Vienna-based institute dedicated to the region’s Jewish culture, said the overwhelming nature of the Holocaust — in which 6 million, mostly Ashkenazi, Jews died — helps explain why the rich Sephardic narrative has been neglected.

Bouskila also cited the socio-political dimension, noting that in Israel and elsewhere, European Jews have dominated the power structure, including in rabbinic schools.

Now that’s beginning to change, they say, in Israel and the United States.

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