Diaspora: Robinovitch's 'Sefarad'

Music remembering the Jews of Rhodes.

Sid Robinovitch 88 248 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Sid Robinovitch 88 248
(photo credit: Courtesy)
When award-winning Canadian composer Sid Robinovitch did a musical setting of a Spanish poem about a Sephardic Jewish woman believed to have perished in the Holocaust, he never imagined that he would learn of her survival and have her grandchildren in the audience the night his work was first performed in the US. But that is what happened when Robinovitch's composition, "Rodas Recordada" (Rhodes Remembered) about the fate of the Jewish community on the Greek island of Rhodes, was performed two years ago in Seattle, Washington. This beautiful composition, as well as other music influenced by the Sephardic tradition, is on Sefarad, a new CD of Robinovitch's work on the Marquis Classics label. The story behind "Rodas Recordada" is truly remarkable: In 1933, 24-year-old Guillermo Díaz-Plaja was one of a group of Spanish writers and scholars who traveled to several of the Mediterranean Sephardic communities in search of ancient Hispanic folklore. Díaz-Plaja went to the Sephardic community of Rhodes, where he made the acquaintance of a woman named Mazaltó de Jacob Israel, and she recited the "Ballad of Three Doves" to him in Ladino. Forty years later, Díaz-Plaja, who by now had become a celebrated literary critic and a member of the Royal Spanish Academy, returned to the Sephardic community where his literary career had been born. As he well knew, a tragic change had taken place. After the Allies took Italy in 1943, the Germans occupied Rhodes. On July 23, 1944, they deported to Auschwitz the 1, 673 Sephardic Jews who were living on the island. All but 151 perished. Díaz-Plaja tried to retrace his steps to where Mazaltó de Jacob Israel lived, on the street running through the old "judería," which was now named the "Street of the Jewish Martyrs." Stunned by the change, Díaz-Plaja wrote a poem, weaving memories of his first visit hearing the "Ballad of the Three Doves" with his shock and despair at the Jewish community's destruction. Believing that Mazaltó de Jacob Israel had died at the hands of the Nazis, Díaz-Plaja wrote in the last verse of his poem: The songs are stilled - Mazaltó de Jacob Israel. My memory has become black from tears and bitterness. But your remembrance I preserve Mazaltó de Jacob Israel. Robinovitch, who has written music for symphonies, film, radio and television, discovered Díaz-Plaja's poem more than 30 years ago in a now defunct journal called The American Sepharadi. "When I was in Barcelona in 1979, I had the opportunity of meeting Díaz-Plaja, who died some five years later," Robinovitch recalls. Robinovitch set Díaz-Plaja's poem to music at the request of Music of Remembrance, a concert organization in Seattle dedicated to performing music related to the Holocaust. Prior to the performance of "Rodas Recordada" in Seattle in 2006, Mina Miller, the artistic director of Music of Remembrance, sent him an e-mail in which she wrote: "We have started working with the Sephardic community to advertise the performance of your work... We have discovered something quite unbelievable. It turns out that Mazaltó de Jacob Israel did not perish... Apparently, she was rescued and came to Seattle! This is not a joke. Mazaltó even had a family here." In a rather amazing turn of events, a woman named Lily Dejean, who was a member of Seattle's Sephardic community, had volunteered to assist Music of Remembrance in advertising the upcoming performance of Robinovitch's work. In the midst of the planning, Dejean realized that, some 40 years earlier, she had known Mazaltó de Jacob Israel. As Dejean, 79, recalls, "I was invited to join the committee [promoting Robinovitch's composition] and when they started to talk about the woman Mazaltó, I realized that the name sounded familiar. I put two and two together. Mazaltó had lived in my neighborhood [in central Seattle] with her son and his family, just a few houses away from where I lived!" In fact, Mazaltó de Jacob Israel had two sons and a daughter, Rosa, who had come to Seattle. In 1939, they arranged to get Mazaltó out of Rhodes to Seattle where she lived until she died in 1945. Dejean adds, "Mazaltó had actually boarded at my home from December to February in 1945, just before she passed away." As Mazaltó's granddaughter Irene Eskenazi, now 76, says, "My grandmother got on a ship and landed in New York. My cousin, Ike Alhadeff, went to New York and brought her to Seattle. She lived with my parents. I remember her singing melodies when I was young. We never spoke Spanish or Ladino and the grandchildren couldn't understand her and she couldn't understand us. But I remember she was always laughing and happy..." After escorting his grandmother to Seattle in 1939, Alhadeff, Mazaltó's grandson, went on to become a B-17 pilot in the 398th Bombardment Group in the US Army Air Corps that flew on D-Day. Eskenazi and Alhadeff, and Max Israel, another of Mazaltó's grandchildren, as well as other family members, were all present for the US premiere of Robinovitch's "Rodas Recordada" in Seattle. Eskenazi says of the performance, "It was absolutely marvelous." According to Eskenazi, her grandmother Mazaltó actually had "11 children who are scattered all over the world, including Africa." Robinovitch's newly released Sefarad album marks the first time "Rodas Recordada," has been recorded on a CD. The piece is set for three singers along with guitar, clarinet and cello. Robinovitch, who is Ashkenazi and grew up in western Canada, became interested in Sephardic music when he lived in Toronto. "I started attending a Sephardic synagogue where the congregants were from Tangier. They spoke Spanish among themselves. I attended services and tried to soak up some of their music," he says. Robinovitch originally taught social sciences at York University in Toronto, but since 1977 he has devoted himself to musical composition, having studied at Indiana University and the Royal Conservatory of Toronto. Robinovitch's album Klezmer Suite, a recording devoted entirely to his music performed by the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, was nominated for a 2002 Juno award and received a Canadian Prairie Music Award for outstanding classical recording. In July 2006 a special concert including music by Robinovitch was presented in Tel Aviv under the sponsorship of the Canadian Embassy. About his CD, Robinovitch says, "The music on Sefarad represents some of the ways that I have brought the Sephardic world into my work as a composer." In addition to "Rodas Recordada," the album includes a song cycle based on the Song of Songs, arrangements for a guitar trio of Judeo-Spanish folksongs and a hybrid work charmingly titled "Klezmer in Granada."