02 July 2007

Seattle: A moving experience

I was invited for brunch Sunday at the home of Albert and Julie Bensimon in Seward Park, for a gathering of Sephardic individuals who offered accounts of their personal experiences (or those of parents and grandparents) on leaving their communities - some willingly, some in fear, some forced.

This was only one meeting (others are planned) of this group which brings together newcomers to Seattle, people who know each other and complete strangers to present the cases of discrimination, persecution and worse faced by the indigenous Sephardic and Mizrahi communities in Arab and Moslem countries.

According to the Jimena (Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and Africa) website, in 1948, nearly 900,000 Jews lived in indigenous Middle East and North African communities, not counting those who lived in Iran, Afghanistan, India, more rightly located in Asia; 99% of these communities no longer exist. Arab governments forced people to leave, confiscated property and stripped them of their citizenships.

The 20 or so individuals at the brunch had origins in Yemen, Morocco, Tunisia, Iran, Turkey, Syria and India. Iraqis described the Farhud (pogrom) in Bagdad; Yemenite orphans hastily sent away to avoid being converted to Islam according to law; individuals who left Syria rather recently; many who settled in Israel following their experiences.

An Iranian who left in 1950 to study in the U.S. recounted his childhood and school experiences in Teheran and Isfahan. His mother, 105, is in Seattle and I am hoping to visit her this week.

It was an interesting weekend in the Northwest.

Dr. Harry Ostrer of New York spoke at the Ezra Bessaroth Synagogue twice on Shabbat about why Sephardic DNA is needed for genetic disease research, and a collection for his database took place Sunday as well, with some 40 individuals participating.

In my short talk to the brunch group, I also stressed how important Sephardic participation is in genetic databases, and several individuals went to the nearby synagogue to see Dr. Ostrer following the meeting. Some latecomers had gone there first, including Seattle's Hazzan Isaac Azose.

My Seattle hostess is Lyn Blyden, president of the Jewish Genealogical Society of Washington State. She spoke to the group about how the JGS will help newcomers learn how to start tracing their unique family histories.

Unfortunately, the round-the-room recalling of experiences was not video- or audio-taped; I suggested this might be an excellent oral history project.

Adding to the experience was Albert Ben Simon's Moroccan mint tea and Julie's exotic Sephardic pastries and others brought by guests.

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