Chapter Three


Sephardic Life In the "Old Country"





September 1974 Elul 5734/Tishri 5735

Fifty Years


Our family recently celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of our arrival in Seattle from Tekirdag, Turkey. (See p. 11.) As is normal in such get togethers, all of us remembered a lot of stopovers in Marseilles, Le Havre and Ellis Island, New York.

Our family was originally from Brusa, in Asiatic Turkey. How did my father become the haham in Tekirdag? In the year 1912, the haham of Tekirdag (previously called Rodosto), the very respected Rabbi Yom Tov Cordova had taken ill. Mr. Shelomo Altaras the gabay of Rodosto came to Istanbul to search for a man to replace Rabbi Yom Tov, whose family still lives in Seattle. The family consists of three grandsons, Tom, Alfred and Albert Cordova; a daughter, Mrs. Rebecca Halfon, and her three children, Sol N., Tom and Esther Halfon. After an interview with my father, Mr. Altaras liked what he saw and heard, and engaged Rabbi Abraham Maimon to fill the position of haham of Rodosto. He moved his family to Tekirdag where subsequently three more members of our family were born, namely my sister Rachel Benoliel, and brothers Morris and Rabbi Solomon Maimon, who was five years old when we arrived in Seattle.

In 1924, the committee of the Sephardic Bikur Holim Congregation in Seattle entered into negotiations with my father (sometimes known as Haribi Avraham), and as a result my father was brought over to Seattle, with his family to be the haham of our synagogue. At that time the synagogue was situated at 13th and Washington Street, but it later moved to 20th and Spruce Street. A great number of Seattle Tekirdaglis (people from Tekirdag) knew my Dad personally and remembered him both for his hazanuth and his ingenuous and charming personality.

I remember on the train coming over from New York to Seattle, I repeatedly asked my father, "How will we do in Seattle, we don't know the language?" and such questions. His answer was "Yerahem Ashem, ijo," which became his trademark in later years in Seattle. Loosely translated it means "G-d will be very kind to us, son." As it happened, the night we arrived in Seattle it seemed like the whole membership was there at King Street railroad station to greet us, and we all had a treat to ride in long fancy limousines, at that time driven by Mr. Benny Cohen and his chauffeurs.

The committee had prepared and furnished for us our first home, which was at 15th and Yesler Way, but they did not take us home right away. As many of the group that could fit, assembled at Mr. Joseph Caston's house where my father was bombarded by questions from the audience till the wee hours of the morning, quite a few of them wanting to know about their relatives back home in Tekirdag. Some of those relatives had given my father a gift to hand over to their sons, daughters etc., that they had in Seattle. Some gave a kolana (necklace), an aniyo (a ring) or a pair of eskularichas (earrings). All these gifts were called amanet. My Dad made all these gift senders write down a few words on a little notebook he had purchased for this purpose.

We arrived in Seattle the night before Erev Kippur (day before Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement). As was the custom in those days, on Rosh Hashanah and Kippur they used to call to sefer from thirty to forty people, and each one of these members that first Kippur donated generously to the new haham. I remember, Albert Moshcatel donated dos cashas de mansanas (two cases of apples). Mr. Caston donated una casha de melones, y patatas, y sevoyas (a case of melons, potatoes and onions) and many more too numerous to mention. The most unusual gift was by the late Mr. Yuda Benezra. Being a barber, he donated arapar los kaveyos para la famiya entera por un anyo entero (haircuts for the entire family for a year). His usual "thank you" was gustozos, y dovletlis (greetings of happiness and prosperity).

Later, in some gatherings like meldados (memorial services, see p. 178) and others, people used to ask my father a lot of questions, because they knew, that besides the regular logical answers, he had an arsenal of clever ones. Like the time someone asked him "How come they serve raisins (passas in Ladino) after a meldado?" He said in Spanish, "Y esto va a pasar," loosely translated as, "Raisins will help us forget all sad incidents."

I could go on and on, but this is enough for now.






May 1980 Iyar/Sivan 5740

Childhood Memories


When Turkey was dragged into World War I, in 1914, the mighty Ottoman Empire had already dwindled down to nearly half of its former magnitude. The incompetent government officials looked after their own personal gains, thus endangering the soundness and security of the whole nation.

The Turkish army was one of the worst in the world. I had an uncle (my father's younger brother) who served four years in the Turkish army, and the horrible tales he told us about the shabby army conditions made us shiver (how the soldiers existed in filth and disease for most of the time). It was a real miracle how he survived.

The first terrifying experience I recall of World War I, is when, one night, a British airplane bombarded the Post (Tekirdag's post office building), which was situated right in the center of our Mahle Judiya (Jewish District). The objective was to knock out all the telephone and wireless communication lines. The British bomb not only accomplished its mission, but also shattered all windows in the neighborhood. The ensuing days and nights we were scared out of our wits because of a possible repeat of the bombing. Thank heaven, it didn't happen again.

Our town of Tekirdag, because it was a seaport (on the sea of Marmara) and was situated in the center of European Turkey, was used as the Army dispatch point. We were told at one point in time that Tekirdag and the surrounding area accomodated nearly 200,000 troops. Of course, all these soldiers had to be fed and provided with lodging. In order to accomplish this, the Turkish military officials confiscated almost all wheat, barley and other food commodities that were available in our region, leaving the civilian population to fend for themselves.

Somehow, we survived for a couple of years, availing ourselves of any type of grain with which we could bake any bread. As time passed, our hopes of getting any help in the wheat situation was getting dimmer every day, simply because there wasn't any available in the whole of Turkey.

At one point, in the later years of the war, conditions got so bad, that the city government instituted a sort of rationing to distribute whatever the government could obtain. At one period when things went from bad to worse, someone found a warehouse full of kush uto (birdseed). But this birdseed was still uncleaned; that is, it was still full of dirt and rocks. We took this uncleaned birdseed to the flour mill, had it ground and we baked bread. I can still feel the rocks and dirt scratching in my teeth.

The military officials appropriated for the army all school houses in town, including our beautiful Alliance school, and converted them into hospitals for the wounded soldiers.

All school children were moved to a dilapidated meldar, and some students were transferred to the top floor of the town's synagogue, which was situated on the seashore, with a full view of the harbor.

One day, someone found out that a boatload of sacks of wheat was expected to arrive in town. You can imagine the joy of the townspeople. I remember this ship was approaching the escala (pier), when one of the students sighted a pole-like object in the far side of the harbor, and he screamed: Mira, el palico de la sumarin! (See the pole of the submarine!) All of the students went to the windows to see. lt was the periscope of a British submarine. Just a few moments later, we sighted a torpedo projecting from this spot where the submarine was, and traveling swiftly towards our "savior" ship. This torpedo blasted a direct hit on our ship, sinking it and our hope for ever expecting any help, because our town was constantly blockaded and surrounded by land and sea. En bueno contarlo. (We should tell this story on good occasions.)





July 1980 Tamuz/Av 5740

A Reply -- Tekirdag Under Turkish/Greek Control


From time to time some of our readers tell me how much they enjoy an article of mine in La Boz. This is all very gratifying. Who knows? Some day we'll gather all of them together. [Editor's note: Unfortunately, the author did not accomplish this before his death.]

In a letter I received recently, Mr. Murray Shiff [Editor's note: At the time, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle] expressed not only his keen interest, but he also adds that he has a good friend in Canada to whom Mr. Shiff mails our La Boz. This Canadian friend made a couple of comments on my last month's article. One is about the "Greeks from Thrace who left Turkey in the population exchange." He asks, "How could Greeks who lived in Thrace be the victims of the population exchange?"

The simple answer to this "puzzle" is that our region of European Turkey is called by historians eastern Thrace, as distinguished from western Thrace, which is in Greece proper (see Ataturk, the Rebirth of a Nation, by Lord Kinross, page 357).

The second comment our Canadian friend made is regarding my calling the Tekirdag local merchants as "Sephardic businessmen." He asks, "Did the Sephardic Jews in their native habitat refer to themselves as Sephardim?" He adds, "It's possible the writer is influenced by diasporic conditions . . . to distinguish themselves from the rest of us."

Perhaps he has a good point there, but there was no such intention on my part. I admit it sounds a little provincial with a dash of prejudice. The only reason I can give is perhaps this was provoked by my desire to achieve a little more recognition. Besides, to me Sephardic is synonymous with Jew, never forgetting the fact that all of us are first and foremost Jews, and then Sephardim and Ashkenazim.

I witnessed and recorded the departure of these Greek refugees from our towns. A writer, writing on the arrival of these Greeks says, "They came to Calonica [sic] and other parts of Macedonia, hundreds of thousands from Trakya and Asia Minor." He continues, "It was thanks to the efforts of an American Jew, Henry Morgenthau, who collected large sums of money to help these newly arrived refugees to help them settle down."

This historian of the Jews of Salonika continues, "It was these very same refugee victims who, a few years later, joined the antiSemitic Three Epsilon Society in 1931 when a large portion of the Jewish district of Salonika was set to flames during the barbaric and infamous Campebella episode. Hundreds of Jewish homes were burned down, including synagogues, schools and other important buildings."

Backtracking a little, one of my most vivid recollections is of a morning when we woke up to a spectacular sight. The entire Tekirdag harbor was covered with Greek and British warships. After Turkey lost the war (World War I), the Allies allowed the Greeks the right to occupy a large chunk of Turkish territory, including our town, Tekirdag. The Turks were forced to flee, and Greeks took over. That same afternoon we saw the Greek King Constantin arrive in Tekirdag in his royal yacht.

The local Greek VIPs gathered on the pier to give the king a royal welcome. A reception was held at the local plush ballroom called the sylogos, followed by a parade. Then they held religious services in one of the Greek eglysyas (churches). My father, Z"L, (may his memory be for a blessing) being the haham, attended these services where he represented the local Jewish population.

For over two years our town was ruled by the Greeks: a governor, Greek police and Greek schools. They made a lot of improvements, some streets were paved, new parks built, etc.

Our "Sephardic businessmen" who had shops or boutiques were required by a special Greek ordinance to leave a fenerico (kerosene lamp) lit every night when they closed the shops.

One amusing episode I can never forget is that on one occasion, when there was a three-day Jewish holiday, the merchants were unable to go and light the fenericos. On the following Sunday, when these merchants opened their shops, they were all hauled away to jail for violation of the fenerico ordinance. My father, Z"L, had to go to the governor to explain the merchants' failure to leave the lamps lit, thus securing their release from jail.



January 1977 Teveth/Shevat 5737

Old Country Education


For a long time in Turkey, the Sephardim living there had to be content with a very low level of education for their children, both in Hebrew and in secular studies. We can break down the system of education into three levels.

The first was what was popularly known as the maestra (or mestra or mestrica). This was the place or the home of some woman or young girl that acted as combination "babysitter" and teacher-nurse to three or four year old children who lived in the mahle (district). These young children were delivered to her house where she would have them sit on esteras (straw mats), or a long bench around a table. On cold winter days these children would sit around the ogar or mangal (a brazier-like stove), to warm themselves on the charcoal-made glowing fire. (Remember we had no central heating there.) Naturally, when the maestra felt that a child needed personal attention like wiping a nose or other bodily needs, she would take care of it promptly.

Then, when the child got to be older, he would be sent to the meldar. That's where a child would learn to meldar (read) the aleph beth, ajuntar (join the letters to form distinct words) and then apretar (exercise in fast reading). Some families that had the means used to have a party the day before the child would enter the meldar and all the invited guests would chant the following poem:

La Torah, La Torah, mi ijico ala hevra,

Con el pan y el kezo, el livrico en el pecho.

Ande vas ijico del Dio, a meldar la ley del Dio.

El Dio que te guarde a ti y a tu madre.

Y a tu senyor ke es un buen judio,

Y a la comadre ke te aresivyo.


The Torah, the Torah, my small son to the Talmud Torah,

With the bread and the cheese, the book in his pocket.

Where are you going G-d's son, to read G-d's Torah.

G-d should protect you, you and your mother.

And your father who is a good Jew,

And to the midwife that received you.

When these boys would attain a good command of Hebrew reading, then they learned the weekly portion of the Torah in Lashon and Ladino, meaning in Hebrew and translated into Judeo-Spanish. This perashah (Torah portion) would be taught accompanied with its taamim (musical notes). Then the boys would learn the weekly haftarah (portion from the Prophets) also with the taamim. Then the boys would learn berahoth (blessings) and tefilah (prayers), and on different holiday times of the year, they were taught appropriate songs of the liturgy. For example, on Purim time they would learn Mi Kamocha (story of Purim in poetic form written by Rabbi Yehuda Halevi, see p. 78, Purim article) in Hebrew and Ladino; close to Pesach they would learn the Hagadah in Hebrew and Ladino.

It wasn't until the Alliance Israelite Universelle established its schools, that secular subjects like history, geography, math, and French literature, were introduced. All these subjects were taught in the French language.

In our town of Tekirdag (Rodosto) the Alliance built a nice school building in the year 1905, consisting of a number of classrooms where girls were given an elementary education for the first time, along with the boys. lt was truly an innovation.

During the First World War, Turkey entered the war on the same side as Germany against the European Allies. Tekirdag was a city in which the soldiers gathered to be sent to the different battle fronts. The Turkish government found it necessary to confiscate a lot of buildings to accomodate the thousands of soldiers coming to town. So among other buildings, our Alliance school building was taken over by the army and it was converted into a kishla (army camp.) And so all the children were transferred to a dilapidated place called the meldar (school for Hebrew studies) and the higher classes were taken to a place on the top floor of our synagogue, the azara (ladies' section in the balcony), which overlooked the Tekirdag harbor. I remember one day while we were learning in the azara, we saw a cargo ship approaching the dock, and soon after that, we saw the periscope of a British submarine. A few minutes later, we saw that cargo ship go up in flames in a terrific explosion from the British torpedo. Everyone was so painfully dejected, because that ship carried a load of wheat and other supplies to relieve the hunger we had endured for nearly three years.

En bueno contarlo. (We should tell this story on good occasions.)