Lawrence Family JCC to Put on Inaugural Sephardic Festivalby Alex Wehrung August 13, 2019
Despite the small size of the San Diego Sephardic community–at least, com-
pared to the Ashkenazi and South African communities–its members are quite diverse, hailing from many different countries. Leslie Caspi, a board member with the Lawrence Family JCC, said, “We have people from many, many different countries across the world, who are … considered from the Sephardic countries. From Egypt to Morocco to Greece to Turkey to Iraq to Iran and others.”
“In terms of Sephardim, we settle from our own countries sometimes to other places … We were in these countries for thousands of years, right? Before the Inquisition,” said Jackie Gmach, a volunteer at the Lawrence Family JCC. “Some of us–like the Jews from Morocco–and we have a number of them here, settled first in France. And finally, decided to come to America for whatever personal reasons, or political reasons … And settle in San Diego.”
To celebrate Sephardic Jewish culture, the Lawrence Family Jewish Community Center will be holding an inaugural Sephardic Festival on September 14 and 15. There will be a Sephardic Havdalah, then a premiere of the short-form documentary “Our San Diego Voices.” This will be followed by a screening of “Three Mothers,” then there will be a dessert reception. The next day will feature a Shuk (a Hebrew term for ‘marketplace’), allowing participants to experience Sephardi food and games, with the Alhambra Sephardic Music Ensemble performing afterwards.
The festival was Leslie’s brain-child, along with one other person on the JLearn committee of the JCC. She serves as the chair of the committee, which she put together. “It’s a great committee, we work extremely well together,” she said. “They’re extremely creative in coming up with great ideas.”
When asked about how the festival came together, Leslie explained her inspiration: “I have probably one percent Sephardic in my background, but I’ve always been fascinated by the history of the Jews in Spain, in Portugal, and a few years ago, my husband and I took a trip there, and we were able to follow–in many cases–the footsteps of the Sephardic Jews. Another thing is, at one point, we belonged to Ohr Shalom, and on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, for the Haftorah, one of the members sings that Torah in the Sephardic tune, which is very different from the Ashkenazi tune, it’s very very beautiful and it was fascinating to me. I really feel that … you know, I mean, Sephardic Jews eat rice on Passover, they have some other traditions as well, and I think it can only enrich our lives to know the full spectrum of Jewish traditions and practices, not just one element of the culture, one part of the culture.”
The festival has been in the planning stages for just over a year at this point. To attract potential sponsors for the event, Lee and David Amos held an underwriter party on June 30th. “We had Sephardic food,” Leslie said, “different kinds of food, we had entertainment, there were two players, one was an oud, the [other] instrument was … kind of a drum. With the musician giving the background of the oud, which is basically … which you really do see in all the different Sephardic entertainment, at the weddings and the bar mitzvahs, that sort of thing.” An oud is a pear-shaped lute, with a short neck.
Regarding how Sephardi traditions and culture will be taught at the festival, Leslie said, “They’re not all gonna be taught at the festival. We’re beginning a road of … we’re gonna try to add different kinds of ways of teaching the community more Sephardic by different ways. First beginning with the festival, there are films that portray the Sephardic traditions going back fifty sixty years, and some from Israel as well.”
On the first day of the festival, student filmmaker Julia Elihu will be premiering her film “Our San Diego Voices”, which features interviews from over a dozen people in San Diego’s Sephardi community. “About most of them, I think all of them, except for one of them, was born in these other countries, and it’s talking about the traditions of their families,” Leslie said. “There are a lot of Sephardic Jews who marry Ashkenazi Jews, they almost call it mixed marriage, so they kind of become a melting pot of the Jewish community and melding our traditions together, not wanting to lose the traditions of each other, so this way, by talking about it in the film and having it in actual life, we preserve these traditions from history.”
“Three Mothers” will feature right afterwards; the film chronicles 60 years in the lives of a set of Sephardic triplet sisters, who initially grow up in comfort and privilege, only for their lives to take a turn for the worse. As for why this film in particular is being screened, Leslie said, “We wanted to show … it’s still a feature film, but we wanted to make sure that there were Sephardic traditions in there, or a slice of life from that community. So it does show a very close-knit family and how they deal with life. It’s a really good film.”
The next day, September 15th, the Shuk will be opened up to participants. “[It] will have many different activities. We’ll have food for sale, we will have hamsa-making, we’ll have backgammon being played, with all different kinds of activities for all families,” Leslie said. The Shuk and its activities will be completely free.
Following the Shuk will be a performance of Judeo-Spanish music by the Alhambra Sephardic Music Ensemble. The group, based in New York and founded in 1981, has toured all over the world and won the first prize in a New-York-based Jewish performing arts competition.
Leslie admits she is not sure what the future will hold for the Sephardic Festival, only that there are many more parts of Sephardic culture that it can highlight. “Each year we could do a different version of this, and expand on the classrooms and the offerings and the music … you know, I think there’s going to be a possible music class, but that might not be this year. We’re talking about having a short film series as well. So there’s different ways to go about looking at this and how to expand it, and this is our first one. So we’ll see what happens; hopefully, the community will check it out.”
Regarding expansion, Jackie said, “We will. First of all, we are expanding it over there. This is an introduction, let’s put it this way.”
“San Diego is a new city, which greeted us very, very nicely, and has allowed us–and when I say us, again, it’s because I’m a Sephardi Jew–I call myself a Marrano Jew, even, because I need to give to San Diego what I could give to San Diego as an educator, and we’ve seen San Diego in a beautiful light–As a beautiful family.”
“But we are together, we are one. On my side, if I could put it in my own word, I really think that this festival is important, and it’s a premiere, it’ll keep going every year. It’s a way of educating people.”