Isla de las Rosas

Fountain decorated with seahorses, near the Holocaust Memorial at the Square of the Jewish Martyrs (Martiron Evreon) in Rhodes.

By Alyx Bernstein (this article first appeared in the Fall 2020 edition of The Current, a journal of contemporary politics, culture, and Jewish affairs at Columbia University)

“First we cured COVID, now this,” my mother texts me excitedly, with a screenshot of a post from the Sephardic Jewish Brotherhood: “Alejandro Mayorkas, nominated to be the DHS Secretary, will be the first #Sephardic Jew of #Ladino-speaking heritage to join a Presidential Cabinet!”

“Nice,” I replied, not particularly enthused by the honour of having a fellow Sephardi Jew overseeing Immigrations and Customs Enforcement. (Albert Bourla, another Salonican Sephardi Jew, is the CEO of Pfizer, one of the companies releasing a
COVID vaccine).

Spot-the-Sephardi is a game my family plays a lot. I texted my Granny after I got into Barnard College, mentioning Annie Nathan Meyer, a Sephardi Jew who was instrumental in the founding of the school. I wrote about her cousin, Emma Lazarus, in The Current last year. I’ve talked to her about Justice Benjamin Cardozo, another cousin, who was a Supreme Court Justice along with Louis Brandeis. We talk about Rabbi Sabato Morais, who founded the Jewish Theological Seminary, from Congregation Shearith Israel.

It’s one of our ways of clinging on to a sense of pride and community, of reminding ourselves that there are other people like us out there. Once, I found an article in Tablet Magazine about Ladino-speaking Jews from Rhodes, my community, my family’s home for centuries.

I got halfway down the article before I realized that it was about my great-great-grandmother Rivka, my sister’s namesake.

Rodis, as we call it, was home to my family for centuries. We also called it Isla de las Rosas, the Isle of Roses. In my mind, it’s a glittering pearl among the vibrant blues of the Mediterranean. In my mind, Ladino echoes through the streets. In my mind, women still sit at home, fingers deftly shaping dough into beautiful, perfectly even pastries. Every Shabbat, the kehilot (synagogues) are filled to the brim with voices singing, while the hahamim (rabbis) learn Torah in the yeshivot during the week. I dream of Rodis, full of Jews.

Once, the island was home to thousands of Jews, living close together in La Juderia, the Jewish quarter. They thrived under Ottoman rule, living in close connection with the Jewish communities in Izmir, Kos, and Corfu. The community began to emigrate at the turn of the twentieth century, some heading to the United States, settling in Atlanta, Los Angeles, and Seattle. Others chose Salisbury, Rhodesia (now Harare, Zimbabwe). After Italy seized the island from the Ottoman Empire in 1912, this only intensified, and the Leggi Razziali (racial laws) passed by the Mussolini government in 1938 made things worse still, forbidding Jewish rituals and placing other discriminatory restrictions.

My great-grandparents all left before the war. Marie, my great-grandmother, left on one of the last boats to depart the island in 1939. My great-great grandmother, Rivka Alhadeff, could not. She was trapped on the island. In 1940, she wrote to her son Abner: Mi cheria aser un pasciaro i bevir serca di vosotros. Ma ya me ise vieja i no es possivle di aser estos camminos de muevo. “I’d like to become a bird and live near you. But I’ve grown old already and I can no longer turn onto a new path.”

As British bombs fell on the German-occupied island, destroying the Jewish school and kehilah on her street, she stayed in her family home. Her white house still stands in La Juderia. She was murdered in Auschwitz in 1944.

i yo? I have never been to Rodis. My Granny and Papu were born in exile, in Rhodesia, as was my mother. Rodis is a distant memory. Today there are only small communities left that preserve the Rhodesli rite, most prominently Congregation Ezra Bessaroth in Seattle.

For many years, Rodis appeared in my life through its food. My Granny would make delicious pastelikos, borekitas, boyos, and rijaldis, warm, flaky pastries filled with eggplant, tomato, spinach, herbs, and meat. We would snack on biskochos and rishikas, along with fragrant Turkish coffee. On Passover, we’d devour kiftes de prasa and huevos haminados, beautifully brown and flavorful eggs. Chanukah brought us bumuelos, sweet and fluffy. We would eat kuajado, albondigas, and bamya for dinners. My mother took up the tradition too, finding the time to learn how to make the elaborate pastries herself. As she and my grandmother finished their work in the kitchen, dusting flour off their clothes, they both would grumble, “If only I could do it as well as my mother. She could make them all look perfect.”

It’s not enough, though. Rodis is more than its food. Food is a piece of Rhodesli culture, a piece passed down from mother to daughter, and it too carries holiness. Yet I crave more — our language, our music, our joy, our history, our ideas, our struggles. In a world where Judaism is conceived as Ashkenazi by default, we have to fight to be remembered, to pass down our history.

Rodis also existed in the small kehilah in Sea Point, Cape Town, where my grandparents eventually settled. I remember going in with my father and Papu, sitting in the wooden pews, trying to catch the eye of my mother and Granny in the women’s section, sometimes sneaking into the women’s section with them. The kehilah, full of exiles like them, is one of the few remnants of the great synagogues of Rodis dotted around the world.

When I turned 12, I insisted that my bar mitzvah be in Cape Town, so that I could celebrate with my cousin, a year younger than me. I went to Shearith Israel, the Spanish-Portuguese synagogue on the Upper West Side, and learned the ta’amim (cantillation for reading Torah) in a dusty basement with an eccentric hazzan.

The ta’amim of my ancestors filled my mouth, and I chanted it in front of my whole family. I learned to wrap tefillin in Cape Town, pulling the straps away from me rather than towards me as I wrapped, as the rabbi gave me a proverb to remember: ‘Sephardim are always giving, and Ashkenazim are always taking’. (To be fair, he warned me it would be offensive). Afterwards, at the kiddush, I ate a dozen borekitas, lovingly crafted by the women of the kehilah.

Five years later, I was a woman, and I was preparing to fly to Poland — the heart of the Ashkenaz — with my grade at school. On my father’s side, I have German and Polish ancestry, but the Poles had lived in England for half a century before the war and the German side mostly managed to escape after Kristallnacht. It was my Rhodesli ancestors, trapped on the island after the Italians surrendered, who perished in Auschwitz. “They had the longest journey, you know,” someone told me. I did know that. Weeks on boats and trains, from a small island in the Mediterranean to the freezing plains of Poland. Yes, I knew. “I didn’t know Sephardic Jews died in the Holocaust,” someone said to me. Truth be told, neither did I, until my high school asked me for a list of my family members who were murdered and all but one of the names were Alhadeff, Leon, Hasson, and Capelouto.

Ezra Bessaroth in Seattle and the Sephardic Hebrew Congregation of Cape Town are, in Ashkenazi terms, Orthodox. All of the remaining Rhodesli kehilot are. Women sit separately from men. I cannot wear my tallit, my tefillin, lead prayer, or leyn. I do not know if I can even go in, whether someone will take one look at my transgender body and cast me out of the women’s section. Even if I could get in, I don’t think I could open my mouth. My voice is too low for that.

When I walked into shul before the pandemic, I always brought my pocket-sized blue siddur with me. It’s from the Rhodesli-Turkish communities in Seattle. The liturgy is different from the German or Polish siddurim everyone else has, but I pray from it anyway. It’s my way of holding Rodis close to my heart. When I leyn now, all these years later, I keep to the same ta’amim I learned in that dusty Shearith Israel basement. Once, a middle school classmate said, “you sound like an Arab.” I was still proud. But I’ve never learned to leyn haftarah properly, or any other cantillations. I don’t know who can or will teach me, a queer, sorta-leftist, egalitarian, transgender woman. But even so, it keeps my heart in Rhodes and in Cape Town.

It’s sometimes hard to know what’s Yiddish and what’s not. Gut Shabbes, I say sometimes, reflexively copying my Ashkenazi friends. Gut yontiff. We go to shul and eat parve. Oy vey. Yiddish isn’t my language, even though I’m half Ashkenazi. My grandparents on that side all came from families that assimilated long before they were born. My Granny is still a fluent Ladino speaker. She still says ay dyo, still says pasiensia when someone is being impatient. I do too.

Sometimes I try to become more involved within some leftist or progressive Jewish spaces. “A collective of mensches, yentas, bubbes, and zaydes,” one calls itself. Yiddish is everywhere. I don’t begrudge my Ashkenazi friends these spaces; Yiddish has had to fight hard to survive. There are Yiddish courses at JTS and Columbia. My friends speak Yiddish, even write Yiddish poetry. On Yom Kippur, my rav told stories in Yiddish, about Yiddish women weaving wicks in memory of the dead. She speaks to her foremothers in Yiddish. It is so beautiful to watch. But it never fits me, and I cannot help my envy.

I wonder if I should bother learning Spanish. Who will bring back Ladino? We don’t have Hasidic native speakers or a broad revival movement. Few can read solitreo, our looping Hebrew script. I read Dr. Devin Naar’s work whenever I can. At least someone’s trying, I think to myself. Seattle — where much of the existing revival work is being done — feels far away, though.

Pesah is the time of year I feel most Rhodesli. We dip with celery, not parsley. We eat romaine, even though it’s barely bitter nowadays. Before we eat the meal, we snack on slow-cooked huevos haminados and kiftes de prasa, my mother deftly cutting up countless leeks to make them. We open Birkat HaMazon with our Ladino Bendigamos and we conclude with Un cavricito (One Little Goat) or Kual es el uno (Who Knows One). We have a small Ladino Haggadah from Seattle. I make sure to have it at the seder so I
can remember.

My granny gave me a copy of a wire-bound Rhodesli cookbook last year. Her version is covered in food stains and illegible notes. It’s an ever-present feature of her and my mother’s kitchens. It was one of the best gifts I have ever received. Mine is beginning to accrue notes and age. Peasant food, people sometimes call our cuisine. I call it home. I feel my foremothers alongside me as I shape the dough into pastelikos, small pies, with my mother in the kitchen and Granny on Zoom. I speak to my foremothers without language, hoping it is enough. When I sit with my Granny and Papu in their Cape Town apartment, eating her food, the Atlantic Ocean glittering in the background, I think to myself, “this is enough. I know it is.”

ALYX BERNSTEIN is a sophomore at Barnard College and the Jewish Theological Seminary.

• Published in the PDF edition of the October 2021 issue – Click here to get it.

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