Stanford event unwinds saga of old, Sephardic culture

When Isabella and Ferdinand, the Catholic queen and king of Spain, decreed the expulsion of the Jews in 1492, Sultan Bayazit, ruler of the Ottoman Empire, invited those Jews to come live in his realm — even sending ships to transport them.

Throughout the next five centuries, these Sephardic Jews lived peacefully and productively, an integral part of the social, economic and political fabric of the complex Ottoman state. They held significant positions, including minister of the treasury and adviser to the emperor. When the Ottoman Empire became one of the many casualties of World War I, that upheaval resulted in geographical, political and social consequences that are still felt today.

The word "Sephardic" refers to Jews from the Iberian Peninsula, who spoke a 15th-century Spanish, known as Ladino or Judeo-Spanish. Sephardim comprise about 1 percent of the total Jewish population.

Recently, a hushed, packed audience of more than 120 people listened as Stanford Professor Aron Rodrigue wove for them the rich political, cultural and social history of the Sephardim of the Ottoman Empire and Turkey. The story of this ancient and distinguished civilization has been eclipsed in recent history by the Ashkenazi Jewish experience and the tragic fate of the European Jews.

The cultural fund-raiser and educational event at the Lucie Stern Community Center in Palo Alto offered the lecture by Rodrigue, who is the Eva Chernov Lokey professor in Jewish studies at Stanford University. The evening also featured a slide show by artist Ellen Benjoya Skotheim.

The event was sponsored jointly by the Turkish American Association of California — a cultural organization whose members include Jews and Muslims — and the Ladino-Sephardic Club, a socio-cultural Jewish organization. Its president, Victor H. Saydun, noted that the event was a fund-raiser for the Turkish Educational Foundation, a charity that helps children in Turkey who have no money to attend school

"One of the main reasons for co-hosting this event with the Jewish community was to highlight the common history and culture that both the Jews and the Turkish people have shared for hundreds of years," said Deniz Demiray, cultural director of the Turkish American Association, a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting Turkish culture and the understanding of Turkey and Turkish people in the Bay Area.

Bejoya Skotheim presented her project exploring her Sephardi heritage, including prints, textiles and handmade watermarked paper entitled "From Maimonides to Benjoya: An Odyssey."

"My mother, Rachel Benjoya, helped make my project possible," said Benjoya Skotheim. "She speaks Ladino and has made a lifelong study of Sephardic culture. She really has been a great resource in putting my work together, and also was a great motivator, because she is now 92. I had to do it now."

Benjoya Skotheim's artwork explores her own family's migration from Spain to Turkey to Latin America to the United States. The show combines contemporary art and family textiles from the Ottoman Empire with Sephardic history

"My goal for this project was to create a visual history — not only of my own family — but of the Sephardic Jewish odyssey itself, for my children and for future generations. The story of the Sephardic Jews is not known by many people," said Benjoya Skotheim. "So I'm delighted to be able to provide information and insight through my show.

"I also wanted to create artifacts that could endure for another 500 years because so many of my own historical items are falling apart from age. I wanted to help preserve our legacy, even as I connect as a contemporary artist with my historical past."

Her family, Spanish Jews who left at the time of the Inquisition, traveled to the Ottoman Empire and spent 500 years in Izmir, which is now in Turkey. About the time World War I began, Benjoya Skotheim's grandparents left Izmir for South America, traveling on to Cuba and eventually to New York in 1917, where the family joined the Sephardic community of Brighton Beach in Brooklyn. "There were thriving Sephardic communities in Buenos Aires and Montevideo, Uruguay," she explained. "There was even a small Sephardic community in Cuba."

Benjoya Skotheim, who works in Piedmont, studied at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, in Boston, and received a bachelor's in landscape architecture from U.C. Berkeley, as well as a master's in urban planning and design from Antioch College. She has studied watercolor painting, printmaking and papermaking.

Benjoya Skotheim uses mixed media — print, paint and photography — to tell her Sephardic story. "When you're exhibiting textiles, you don't want them to be in the light," she notes, "so I decided to set up still-life photos of the textiles to exhibit in the slide presentation.

"The watermark [on her handmade paper] was inspired by a letter from my great uncle to my grandfather in a script called solitreo — from Rashi. Though that script is no longer in use, I was still able to incorporate it into the watermark."

Most of Benjoya Skotheim's work appeared in a slide show during the event and three of her prints on display were sold to benefit the Turkish Education Fund.