Ladino in the air, Sephardi foods on the table

September 11, 2012

Another month, another mouthwatering potluck for Washington’s group of Ladino-speaking Jews: Lilian Katz has brought her kuajado di spinaka, a spinach pie composed with layers of matzoh. Solomon Levy carried in yapraks, stuffed grape leaves that he cooked with dry beans the way his late mother used to do, which he placed next to Leon Taranto’s pan of okra in tomatoes and Fortuna Scheige’s green beans in tomato sauce.

All that and much more filled the dining room table of hosts David and Shoshana Segal at their home in Potomac on Sunday. Shoshana added her own pot of Bulgarian cold yogurt and cucumber soup called tarator.

The borek came next — flaky, puffed or filled pastries in so many shapes and sizes. Among them were Flory Jagoda’s spinach and cheese burek, as she’s used to spelling it in her native Bosnia. Matilda Revah, considered to be one of the best cooks among the group, contributed bulemas ispanakli, phyllo-dough borek filled with spinach that are rolled into a spiral.

At that point, the Segals had to direct dishes to a second table. Turkish lentil patties, cauliflower in bechamel, hearts of palm pie. Desserts included a holiday preview: two versions of tezpisti, the simple honey-and-walnut cake that is a Rosh Hashanah specialty, plus ring-shaped sweet cookies called biscochos and a sweet squash borek.

For the past 11 years, these three dozen Judeo-Spanish speakers from the Washington area, most of them in their 60s and 70s, have met on Sundays 12 times a year to keep the ancient Jewish culture alive via conversation, as well as in songs of faith and longing. They use the old language, a Castilian dialect of Spanish originating among the Jews in 15th-century Spain, that included Hebrew and Aramaic words. After the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492, Jewish exiles settled all over the Ottoman Empire, and Ladino became influenced by local languages such as Arabic and Turkish, leading to more dialects.

With such an abundance of Sephardi dishes on hand, a curious visitor was inspired to ask what people planned to cook for the Jewish New Year, which begins Sunday at sundown.

“I’m married to an Ashkenazi,” said Levy of Rockville, referring to Jews of Eastern European descent. His own roots are from the Mediterranean island of Rhodes; he was almost apologetic. Then he admitted: “We’re serving brisket.”

“My wife is Ashkenazi, too,” said Rockville resident Taranto, whose family came from Rhodes as well. “It’s usually brisket for us.”

The cheerful, beautiful Fortuna Scheige, who grew up in Cuba, albeit with deep Turkish roots, said she’ll be serving her children’s favorite for Rosh Hashanah: ropa vieja, a beef stew that she cooks for about four hours in tomatoes and spices until it is soft and moist.

So it’s basically a brisket. She confirmed as much.

Eighty-nine-year-old Jagoda of Alexandria is the lively spirit and founder of the group. She came up with its name, Vijitas de Alhad, which translates as “Sunday visits.” Such visits were customary among Jewish friends and relatives in Sarajevo, where she grew up, she remembers.

Members of Vijitas de Alhad come from Bulgaria, France, Greece, Turkey and Italy. They are first- or second-generation immigrants who found it difficult to perpetuate the language and traditional cuisine once their children grew up and moved away. As their club booklet states, “the pressure to assimilate has been felt everywhere that emigrant communities have adapted to their new environments.”

“Sephardi cooking doesn’t use many spices. Salt and a little black pepper, that’s all,” says Matilda Koen-Sarano, a writer, poet and researcher of Ladino, via phone from Jerusalem. “Eggplant, tomato, spinach: These are all the basic ingredients we use.”

Koen-Sarano’s cookbook, “Gizar Kon Gozo,” is a collection of recipes from Ladino-speaking Sephardi communities. It was published 2010 in Israel, written in Hebrew and in Ladino. The recipes are organized by country of origin, which makes apparent the similarities among the Sephardic cuisines of Istanbul, Izmir, Sofia, Bucharest and Rhodes. Much like Ladino itself, the dishes are similar, with minor variations.

Leek patties are an example of a dish that was patiently made (you need to go through the tiring procedure of squeezing the water out of the leeks) and quickly devoured by hungry families throughout the Sephardic world, mainly on the holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Passover.

In Bucharest, they were called kiftikas de prasa and were made with ground beef and matzoh meal. In Turkey, the patties were called kiftes de prasa, prepared with stale bread soaked in water. For the version cooked in Rhodes, boiled potatoes and bread crumbs were used instead of matzoh meal. Rockville resident Taranto remembers that when he came back from synagogue on Rosh Hashanah eve in Rhodes, his mother “was waiting for us at home with a plate of the leek patties.”

Recipes for the biscochos and dulces among the Vijitas de Alhad dessert spread originated in Spain; others, like most of the sweet pastries such as baklava and walnut cake, came from Turkey. Dulces are a variety of candied fruits, jellies and preserves that Sephardi Jews made out of ingredients including eggplant, quince, squash, oranges and more. A special treat for Rosh Hashanah, the dulces would be served on a silver tray with a teaspoon and a glass of cold water.

Isaac Benatar said his grandmother’s dulces were wonderful: a variety of jams and preserves she used to make out of rose petals, orange peel and apricots.

“I remember my grandmother, who lived with us at the age of 85, cooking a bucket of rose petals . . . which would firm up when cooled. They melted in the mouth and deliciously sweet.” His fall far short, he said. The Zimbabwe-born Annapolis resident and author published a book in 2010 about the Sephardi Jews of Rhodes during World War II called “Rhodes and the Holocaust” (iUniverse).

Matilda Revah of Bethesda arrived from Istanbul with two young children in 1962. She was determined to cook Sephardi food and to speak Ladino in her American home. For Rosh Hashanah she would always cook dry beans, “so the New Year will flourish just as the beans expand in water,” she says. Revah would also prepare stuffed tomatoes and peppers, a variety of eggplant salads and crescent-shaped, filled pastries called burekitas. Revah used to make yogurt when her husband was still alive; he would drink a full glass every night before bedtime.

For 500 years, Ladino was preserved in many communities in the Jewish Diaspora. “It was always the Nona [grandmother] who had the mission to teach her daughters and granddaughters the Sepharadism,” said Jagoda, who is a guitar-playing Sephardic folk singer. “The language, the songs, the food. Everything that counts for life.”

Now, members of the Vijitas de Alhad worry that this could be the last generation to speak Ladino. “Five hundred years is miraculous,” said Jagoda. “But that’s how long it can go.”

“You know the young people of today,” Revah added in her sweet voice. “They’re too busy to cook. They’re not interested in this type of cooking anymore.”

Her niece, Beyhan Cagri Trock of Bethesda, grew up in Maryland. Yet Trock took it upon herself to document her family’s dishes and history. She notated recipes from her Tant (aunt) Mati and Tant Ida Dana in “The Ottoman Turk and the Pretty Jewish Girl: Real Turkish Cooking,” a self-published culinary memoir released earlier this year. Trock recently joined Vijitas de Alhad and wants to learn songs from Jagoda so she can play them on her guitar.

Jagoda plans to sing and teach her songs for as long as she can, including one she sang after the meal Sunday:

Buena semana mos de el Dyo,

Salud i vida.

May God give us a good week,

Health and life.

Members of the group gathered around her to join in:

May my sons come to the Synagogue

To study the Torah,

Health and life.

“The Heir to our culture may someday forget the language of their forebears,” Vijita members wrote in their booklet. “But once they have eaten a boreka, a boviko, a bolema or a mostachudo, or any of the marvelous vegetable and meat dishes of this tradition, they are very unlikely to forget this part of their cultural past.”

RECIPES:

Stuffed Eggplant (Karniyarik)

Walnut Cake (Tezpisti)

Rose Petal Preserves (Dulce de Rozas)

Cheese Borek

Sephardic-Style Leek Patties

People who are interested in finding out more about Vijitas de Alhad should contact Leon Taranto: lbtept@aol.com. Guttman writes the Modern Manna food blog for Haaretz.com. She’ll join today’s Free Range chat at noon: live.washingtonpost.com.

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