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Seattle’s Sephardic synagogues bake very unique Jewish treats

Sephardic Bikur Holim congregation members Regina Barkey Amira and Al Cordova, holding a tray of pastelles. (Photo by Rachel Belle)
LISTEN: Seattle's Sephardic synagogues bake tens of thousands of traditional pastries for their annual bazaar

In Seattle’s Seward Park neighborhood there are two Sephardic synagogues. Don’t know what “Sephardic” means? Let me briefly explain.

There are two subgroups of Judaism. Ashkenazi Jews are of eastern European descent and Sephardic Jews are from Spain, Portugal, North Africa and the Middle East. Each has their own dying language, Yiddish, and Ladino, respectively, and very distinct cultures.

But there are also cultural differences between Sephardic synagogues. Seattle’s 101-year-old Ezra Bessaroth Synagogue follows traditions from the Greek Island of Rhodes and just a mile away is Sephardic Bikur Holim, a Turkish congregation. Each holds a bazaar every summer, where they sell thousands of homemade delicacies.

At Sephardic Bikur Holim, volunteers spend three months sitting around long tables, stretching homemade phyllo dough, crimping edges and sprinkling sesame seeds.

“We have made approximately 3,500 bulemas, which is a spinach and cheese filled phyllo pastry,” said congregation member Terry Azose. “We will be making yaprakes, which are grape leaves that are stuffed with rice and onion and parsley and delicious and lots of lemon.”

Azose says they’ll hand make a total of 20,000 sweet and savory pastries for the bazaar, and every last Biscocho (a doughnut shaped, sesame seed topped cookie) will sell out.

Sephardic food

Born and raised an Ashkenazi Jew, Azose married a Sephardic man, joined his synagogue and has been baking these traditional foods for 30 years.

“I think that it’s a dying tradition in a lot of ways and it brings community together,” Azose said while rolling out dough for pastelles, a little meat pie. “I think that’s really important to keep the older generation and the younger generation together and the younger learning from the older. I think it’s also something that a lot of people don’t want to put that much effort into making at home anymore. So the opportunity to buy it from the pros makes it very special for our community.”

Keeping tradition alive was a sentiment expressed by everyone I spoke to. I’ve spent a few mornings baking at the synagogue, and most of the other volunteers have easily been several decades older than me. There are women in their 80s and one smiley man in BluBlocker sunglasses in his 90s. This is partly a result of younger people having day jobs. But Marlene Souriano-Vinikoor says there’s more to it.

“I think part of it is what’s happening nationally; is that young people aren’t being represented in their synagogue,” Souriano-Vinikoor said. “So they don’t feel a connection to come. It’s a big social factor, it’s not just the religious part of it. If you don’t have people your age and your lifestyle, the religion itself isn’t going to keep you there.”

Souriano-Vinikoor is a member of the Ezra Bessaroth synagogue, a mile down the road, but she does volunteer baking at both. Which brings up something interesting: there’s a lot of social crossover between the two synagogues, and both have dwindling memberships and large buildings. But the idea of merging the two synagogues is political and controversial. So much so that two community members declined going on the record with me about it.

“Financially, I’m sure it would be better for the two synagogues to merge,” Souriano-Vinikoor said. “I think what’s holding the decision back is that we’re different enough that people want to maintain their individuality. Some of the vocabulary is different, some of the food is different, the tunes are different. If we merged, all of that would become extinct. They’d have to decide what’s most important: the survival of the community or maintaining your individuality. I’m not opposed to the merger because I’ve straddled both synagogues. I’d be happy at either. I could adapt to those differences.”

I grew up in an Ashkenazi synagogue, so all of the foods being prepared for the bazaar are brand new to me. Which isn’t a surprise to Souriano-Vinikoor. She says the media only features Ashkenazi food.

“The Jewish food that they’re showing and describing isn’t Jewish per se, it’s eastern European,” Souriano-Vinikoor said. “It’s corned beef, it’s matzoh balls, they’ll have gefilte fish. That’s what some Jews eat and it’s not all Jews. It happens to be the food that the majority of Jews know about and eat but it’s not all what Jewish food is. It’s not accurate. That bothers me because it’s misrepresenting a whole community, which isn’t right.”

If you’d like to taste some homemade Sephardic cuisine, Sephardic Bikur Holim’s annual bazaar is on August 27, 2017.

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