Seattle’s Sephardic synagogues bake very unique Jewish treats

Aug 3, 2017, 5:27 PM | Updated: Aug 7, 2017, 12:30 pm
Sephardic Bikur Holim congregation members Regina Barkey Amira and Al Cordova, holding a tray of pastelles. (Photo by Rachel Belle)
(Photo by Rachel Belle)

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.

Rachel Belle

Rachel Belle...
Rachel Belle

Belle: This isn’t goodbye, it’s see you later

After 20 years in news radio, I'm leaving my post at KIRO Newsradio to focus on making my podcast "Your Last Meal" full-time!
2 months ago
emily post etiquette...
Rachel Belle

Emily Post’s “Etiquette” goes modern: Advice on pronouns, hugging

In 1922, Emily Post published her very first etiquette book. Since then, 18 editions have been published by five generations of Posts.
2 months ago
Rachel Belle

Combat winter blues with friluftsliv, the Nordic tradition of being outside

Friluftsliv is part of the culture in Sweden, Norway, Finland, Iceland and Denmark, places that are darker and colder than Seattle in winter.
2 months ago
small talk...
Rachel Belle

Most Americans hate small talk, but Seattleites continue talking about weather

Out of 1,000 people surveyed, 71% said they prefer silence to small talk and 89% of Gen Z use their phones to avoid making small talk.
3 months ago
(Igordoon Primus/Unsplash)...
Rachel Belle

Seattle sperm bank in desperate need of Black donors

Only 2% of American sperm donors are Black men, which is causing a lot of heartache for women specifically looking for a Black donor. 
3 months ago
Photo courtesy of Rosie Grant...
Rachel Belle

Woman cooking recipes engraved on gravestones says they’re all ‘to die for’

You know that recipe your family requests at every holiday, potluck and birthday party? What if you had it engraved on your tombstone?
3 months ago

Sponsored Articles

safety from crime...

As crime increases, our safety measures must too

It's easy to be accused of fearmongering regarding crime, but Seattle residents might have good reason to be concerned for their safety.
Comcast Ready for Business Fund...
Ilona Lohrey | President and CEO, GSBA

GSBA is closing the disparity gap with Ready for Business Fund

GSBA, Comcast, and other partners are working to address disparities in access to financial resources with the Ready for Business fund.

Medicare open enrollment is here and SHIBA can help!

The SHIBA program – part of the Office of the Insurance Commissioner – is ready to help with your Medicare open enrollment decisions.
Lake Washington Windows...

Choosing Best Windows for Your Home

Lake Washington Windows and Doors is a local window dealer offering the exclusive Leak Armor installation.
Anacortes Christmas Tree...

Come one, come all! Food, Drink, and Coastal Christmas – Anacortes has it all!

Come celebrate Anacortes’ 11th annual Bier on the Pier! Bier on the Pier takes place on October 7th and 8th and features local ciders, food trucks and live music - not to mention the beautiful views of the Guemes Channel and backdrop of downtown Anacortes.
Swedish Cyberknife Treatment...

The revolutionary treatment of Swedish CyberKnife provides better quality of life for majority of patients

There are a wide variety of treatments options available for men with prostate cancer. One of the most technologically advanced treatment options in the Pacific Northwest is Stereotactic Body Radiation Therapy using the CyberKnife platform at Swedish Medical Center.
Seattle’s Sephardic synagogues bake very unique Jewish treats