SEATTLE – For Raye Behar, 90, the opportunity to act as a guide on a recent sold-out tour of Sephardic landmarks in the Seattle neighborhood where she grew up was invigorating as well as nostalgic.
Riding in the front of a van that carried a diverse group brought together by the Washington State Jewish Historical Society and the Seattle Sephardic Network, Behar told story after story about the Jews from Rhodes and Turkey who found themselves in Seattle’s Central Area in the early 20th century.
Unlike most cities in America, Seattle’s Sephardic immigrants made up a third of the Jewish community at the time of the First World War.
They left their close-knit Jewish communities on the shores of Turkey’s Sea of Marmara and the island of Rhodes as political instability engulfed the crumbling Ottoman Empire – to avoid conscription and to strive for a brighter economic future.
Seattle’s fishing industry and the Puget Sound reminded the young Jews of the waterfront towns they had left behind, and Jacob Policar and Solomon Calvo had heard about Seattle from a traveler who returned to Marmara. They were the first Sephardic Jews who arrived in Seattle in 1902.
A few years later, Behar’s father, David Israel, left Rhodes because as a young Jew with no education, “he had no way to make a living there,” she recounted. As an aside, she added that her father always told his six kids that the family had left Spain before the expulsion in 1492.
As the van wended its way through the narrow streets of the “old neighborhood” in Seattle’s Central District, Behar’s steady voice brought the sights to life with her childhood memories.
Here was the boys-only, Orthodox Talmud Torah school, which nonetheless doubled as a social hub, where non-denominational Jewish youth movement conventions were held. There was the kosher 24th Avenue Market, owned by the Ladino-speaking Maimon brothers, who extended credit to those in need during World War II.A few blocks further on, Behar pointed out the site of “a house of ill repute—it was raided once, but I won't say too much about that!” That jogged her memory to recall the illegal distillery that caught fire one day in Behor Chiprut’s garage during the latter years of Prohibition. "
Elsewhere was Condiotty’s candy shop, “where the biggest treat was the candy he made for Pesach [Passover]. You should know that we had nothing kosher for Pesach in those days.”
At an elementary school named for the public education advocate and abolitionist Horace Mann, Behar said the student body used to be 50% Jewish. “There was no tension at all with our schoolmates, who were Japanese, black, Filipino, or white,” she added.
Behar and her group were warmly greeted by several elders of the Tolliver Temple, which today occupies the old Sephardic Bikur Holim (SBH) Congregation building on 19th Ave. and East Fir St. Just last June, the building was recognized by Seattle’s Landmarks Preservation Board as a protected historical landmark.
“It’s so small!” Behar exclaimed as she walked through the doors of the place that was a cornerstone of her childhood.
The imposing brick building, constructed in 1929, still contains the original synagogue’s wooden entry doors decorated with Stars of David. The building application for landmark status notes that detailing on stone arches evokes the architecture of Hagia Sophia, the renowned Turkish Byzantine church, which is now a mosque. That flourish in the Seattle building is “suggestive of the Turkish heritage of the building’s original congregants,” per the application.
It’s only a 15-minute drive from that “old neighborhood” to Seward Park, the pleasant residential area near Lake Washington where two Sephardic synagogues and many in the community moved in the late 1960s.
That move, which was motivated by both racial tensions and upward economic mobility – as it was in many US cities at the time – marked the end of an idyllic period, according to Behar.
“The community was never the same,” she told The Jerusalem Post. “We lost that feeling of living so close together. It was a wonderful place to grow up, but it’s in our history to keep moving,” she observed.
Behar has stayed put in Seward Park for more than 60 years and although she says she isn’t religiously observant and doesn’t read Hebrew, she regularly attends Shabbat services at the Congregation Ezra Bessaroth. Many of her relatives, who emigrated from Rhodes, helped found the congregation more than 100 years ago.
“I feel sorry for people not committed to community,” she said.
Although one of Behar’s granddaughters joined her on the tour, Behar noted how few millennials who descend from the Sephardic immigrant families took part in the tour.
Miri Tilson, 40, a fourth-generation Seattle native, is the first woman to be president of the SBH congregation.
“I want to share the passion and interest in passing on our heritage,” she told participants, during a pre-tour breakfast.
Events like this tour aim to “bring back the glory days of the congregation,” Tilson said. “We want to rejuvenate – not to change this beautiful congregation.”
As participants munched on traditional burekas and bulemas before the tour, longtime Sephardic community activist and SBH member Albert S. Maimon explained the unique Sephardic attitude to Jewish observance.
“We have been prisoners of the Ashkenazi definition of Judaism,” he noted.
Maimon is the son of Bension Maimon, one of the owners of the kosher 24th Avenue Market in the old neighborhood, and a grandson of Rabbi Abraham Maimon, who served as rabbi of SBH between 1924-1931.
Individual Jewish practiced varied but accepted
While the Sephardic communal standard follows the norms of Jewish law, individual practice is varied but accepted, he said.
Today, with only one-third of SBH members living within walking distance of the synagogue, “people find their own way to be involved, at home or with friends,” he said.
Things have changed since Maimon’s grandfather was rabbi. Then, people would mourn loved ones – meldatho, or what Ashkenazi Jews know as yahrzeit – in the mourners’ homes, and “everyone would come,” Maimon said.
The rabbi would offer words of Torah, there would be refreshments served and the experience was primarily social. Now, most meldathos occur in the synagogue, although some members of Behar’s extended family still maintain the home meldatho tradition.
Behar still likes to take her grandchildren to the old neighborhood to see the homes and synagogues that defined her childhood, and whose traditions mark a unique community.
“I love to linger there,” she said.