Washington: Bimah and Beats-Transcript

This is the episode transcript. You can listen to the episode here.

(Preamble) This is the final episode of Season 2. I loved this season, and I hope you did too. I have a lot of exciting plans for season 3 and I’ll provide updates as the next few months go by. If you’ve enjoyed listening this season, please considering donating to my podcast. You can do so by going to rabbiproject.com and clicking on the donate page. And finally, all people interviewed for this project speak solely for themselves.  

(Intro) Welcome to American Rabbi Project. The podcast about American Judaism from the perspective of rabbis across the country. I’m Justin Regan. And I hope you and your family are staying healthy.

(Justin Regan) I started this season talking about how I was on the road when my hometown in Southern California suffered a mass shooting and a wildfire on the same day. Now there’s a global pandemic, and it’s causing me to revaluate my relationship with a small L.A. Dodgers duffle bag. 

(Regan) It’s something to grab in the event of fire evacuation. Some of the most important objects in my life are living in this bag; like stuffed animals from my youth, external hard drives for this podcast, and the salt and pepper shakers my girlfriend and I plan to use when we eventually live together. It wasn’t until I started writing this episode that I asked myself, ‘why is this bag still packed?’ It was supposed to be temporary. Now as I learn to live in this new world of pandemic this bag has become a symbol for the constant threat of catastrophe. How nowadays the act of evacuation itself might cause exposure. How today we are the ones in the bag. It’s unsettling how easy it can just become part of everyday life. I check it every night as part of my over complicated bed time ritual. It doesn’t increase my heart rate or plunge my thoughts into worries of fire and fleeing. It’s just there. I only get nervous when I think of unpacking it.  

(Regan) The packed bag is no stranger to the Jewish people. In fact, it can be argued it’s an unwanted symbol of the tribe. A common Jewish question asked throughout the centuries is ‘do you have a bag packed?’ And how throughout the generations, humans have had to choose between the danger of staying and the danger of going. The rabbi we’re going to hear from in this episode focuses on this dynamic and how it affected the Jews of a once great society. And he does so in an interesting way.

(Regan) In December, I went up to Washington state to spend time with my girlfriend and her family for the holidays. We made latkes out of damn near every ingredient you can imagine, I continued my highly successful charm campaign with her parents, and we spent some time in Seattle, where I met a rabbi who showcases the Ladino language and the Sephardic story through the craft of hip-hop. 

Washington: Bimah and Beats

(Regan) Now I know what you’re thinking. And the answer is, ‘yes.’ There is more to the Seattle music scene than grunge. Like many other regions covered in this podcast, the town of rain, coffee, tech giants, and Frasier has a fascinating Jewish history. A lot of which has to do with the Sephardim; Jews who originally hail from Sepharad, or the Iberian Peninsula. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries they were thrown into diaspora with the brutality of the Inquisition held throughout Spain, Portugal and Italy. Some fled to England and the Netherlands. As mentioned in previous episodes, some of these Sephardim would become the first Jewish settlers of North America. Others who left Spain went to North Africa, Greece and what was then the Ottoman empire, at the invitation of the sultan. And it’s from here that the first Sephardic Jews came to Seattle; specifically from parts of modern day Turkey, like the island of Marmara, and Rhodes in Greece. As some stories go, the first settlers were told to get on the train in New York and stay on until it ended. That was the Pacific Northwest; a region with a similar climate to the islands. They would play an important role in the modern history of Seattle. Many went into the fishing industry and became key vendors of the iconic Pike Place Market, which dazzles tourists to this day with flying fish, specialty shops, and walls made out of chewing gum. There’s also an extensive Sephardic studies program at the University of Washington. To this day, The Emerald City in the far corner of the country has one of the largest Sephardic populations in the U.S. And a man who has served this community for more than 30 years is Rabbi Simon Benzaquen. 

(Rabbi Simon Benzaquen) My name is Rabbi Benzaquen. Simon Benzaquen. I was born in Melilla a city in North Africa. It belonged to Spain for 500 years. There’s another city like that too. One is Melilla the other one is Ceuta. Our families were religious and loved Judaism all the time. I grew up, my father was a rabbi. I got five brothers who are rabbis. All of us and everyone else is religious in our home.

(Regan) Jews have been in Melilla and Ceuta for hundreds of years where they were, for the most part, left alone during the Inquisition. To this day, the two cities remain under Spanish control, a point of tension with Morocco. Benzaquen says it was a nice place to grow up but it was a challenge to be Jewish. Not so much a concern of physical security, although tensions with the Arab population did increase after Israel won the Six Day War in 1967, the real concern was of obtaining a Jewish education.

(Benzaquen) We were very scared to go to mainland Spain. To live there. Because it was like an automatic- you get influenced there by so much that is not Jewish and you end up assimilating. And it is very difficult. My father was a visionary all the time. Even though my mother suffered a little bit because of our absence. When I was 14 I already went to Yeshiva. To England. I left a child, and I came back the first time I was able to travel I was 17 and a half. I was intensely learning for three and a half years. So after that I made it my business every time I went on a holiday no matter what I went home to stay in the kitchen talking to my mother. Because of what she missed from me.

(Regan) The intense study away from family paid off. Benzaquen went on to become a rabbi, mohel, cantor, and dayan (or judge). You can find him serving on kosher boards, Beit dins and the Executive Council of Sephardic Rabbis of The United States and Canada. He’s held pulpits in England, Venezuela and the U.S.; most notably his 36 years and counting in Seattle, which has two major Sephardic synagogues in the Seward Park neighborhood. Benzaquen started at Sephardic Bikur Holim, founded by those from Turkey. Now he serves at Congregation Ezra Bessaroth, founded by those from Rhodes in Greece.

(Benzaquen) The United States really has opened my horizon in a way. To be much freer to do a lot of things I like to do. So that being in a way very positive for me.

(Regan) Benzaquen also has an artistic side. He does calligraphy and is a trained cantor in both Sephardic and Ashkenazi tunes. And he picked up a new tune when he became friends with Jewish rapper, and Emerald City native, Nissim Black. Benzaquen used to not like rap, but Black expanded his horizons. 

(Benzaquen) And I appreciate it because he really brought that twist to me to understand what rap music is. And I made a study of it as well. Because rap music originally was the African American method and way of expressing what they were going through in life. It was tough. They used that method originally to express the feeling about everything. And what happened with time there were many people who came and they took the rap music and-rap music has gotten a bad rap I always say. Because what happen they used it for filthy language to just use in a poetic way to trash everything. And it was bad. And Nissim came and purified that again. His rap music is beautiful.

(Regan) Benzaquen got his first hands on experience with the art form when he was featured in Black’s song ‘Sores’ where Black raps about the atrocities of slavery and the Holocaust. 

(Regan) And Benzaquen sings. 

(Regan) Nissim Black has since moved to Israel where he continues to produce music. 

(Benzaquen) Rap is a great medium because everybody knows about rap music! Is called Shira in Hebrew. In fact, the African American originally, they used the method of the Bible. We have that in the Bible! Many times there are certain paragraphs certain parts of the Bible that are written specifically in a format so that we should learn it by heart. Certain places in the Torah the bible that tells me ‘teach to your children this by heart!’ And that’s a beautiful format. This form is exactly what is rap music. Rap music is copying that. 

(Regan) It’s why Benzaquen now uses hip-hop to highlight the language of Ladino, also known as Judaeo-Spanish, and Judezmo, among many other names. It’s the traditional mother tongue of Sephardi Jews. A combination of Old Spanish and Hebrew with elements of Arabic, Turkish and a spattering of a few other languages like Greek. It’s also considered an endangered language by the United Nations. Fewer and fewer people have been using it over the years, and many native speakers perished in the Holocaust. Today it’s not as widely used as Yiddish, which is also considered an endangered language, however, Benzaquen says Ladino has been going through a renaissance of sorts in places like Israel and Latin America. There are festivals, works of literature, and performers, one of whom being him. 

(Benzaquen) And I personally want to uplift again that part of the culture of Ladino. That’s why I am doing everything in Ladino. To promote the Ladino language and not to lose.

(Regan) Benzaquen is part of the hip-hop group Los Serenos Sefarad (The Watchman) which consists of himself, and Mexican-born rapper Alex Hernandez. They sing classic songs and add rap lyrics to them. 

(Regan) For the duo, their work covers more than just the language of their people, but the history of their people. Specifically when it comes to The Inquisition.

(Benzaquen) And that was the Holocaust what happened to the Sephardic Jews from Spain. You see the crematorium in the time of the Holocaust in Germany, Poland, anywhere over there, that was created because they wanted to get rid of the bodies there were so many bodies dead. They had to create the crematorium. In Spain, it was the crematoriums over there where they burned the Jews alive in Auto-da-fé. Before that even The Inquisition was so incredible and so pain that those who were tortured at the end would be cremated alive. They would burn alive. And it did not last for six or seven years. It lasted for generations! Where is it written over there? Why it’s not. To me, I look at it like ‘Oh I should be ashamed of myself.’ I’m a Sephardic Jew. That means the Sephardic Jews couldn’t care about their history they didn’t write anything, practically nothing. Very little. You find only great rabbis who wrote in their Hebrew writing, but the regular people did not write anything. Why? I said to me it’s a shame. It’s like they didn’t care about their history. But that’s not true.

(Regan) Benzaquen says the difference between the Holocaust and the Inquisition is once the Nazis were defeated, survivors, and relatives of survivors, were free to share their stories. But Spain was a world power for hundreds of years. And the reach of the inquisition was long, even to the “New World”. Just the presence of Spanish settlements in Florida caused some Jews in southern English colonies to move further north. It was not safe for the Sephardim to criticize an active world power. At least not directly.

(Regan) Benzaquen believes this role was filled by the Ladino romanzas. Classic songs of love and loss. Well, mostly about loss….

(Benzaquen) There are parallel words and indication in direct quotation about what happened to the Jewish people. That’s what the romanzas are all about. That’s why many times it’s supposed to be romance. They don’t sound romance at all! And it’s not the blues. Because the romances the way they are written it’s almost a complaint. ‘Why did you cheat me? Why did you trick me? Why did you make me suffer? Why didn’t you keep your promise?’ This is not a dialogue between a man and a woman. This is a dialogue between the Jews of Spain, after they were expelled from Spain, and Spain. It was an inditement of Spain.

(Regan) Benzaquen walks me through the classic song Arvoles. It starts like a typical lament. Something you might hear today. Lyrics like about how someone cries for their lover the way trees cry for rain and mountains for air. But then it pivots and the singer starts worrying about dying in foreign lands.  

(Benzaquen) And he’s saying first as same as the tree cries for rain and the mountain  for air for their existence. It says ‘I thought  the same way about you Spain my life! Without you I am nothing.’ And now he’s saying ‘Torno i digo ke va see de mí’ ‘What’s going to happen to me? When you are throwing me out in foreign land I am going to die. You are sending me to exile. I was in Spain here before Spain!’ Because the Jews were there even with the Moors, even before that. Before Spain. Before Spain was Spain. The Kingdom. And all of a sudden, I have been thrown out of Spain. Look at the realization. This is what the Jewish people are now facing with. 

(Regan) The song goes on to describe a figure dressed in white. Benzaquen says it’s a reference to the diaspora Jew looking towards Jerusalem.

(Benzaquen) So the composer knew even Midrash. He knew. You understand? Not just anybody writing. And therefore now makes sense. He’s obsessed with white. He’s making a reference to the Temple in Jerusalem. He said ‘look at the Temple’ you are white. Because everything is pure in the temple.

(Regan) It’s one of many romanzas Los Serenos Sefarad  have performed on their album Los Bilblikos. And they plan to do more. Typically Benzaquen sings the more traditional part of the song while Hernandez raps their interpretation of it. Benzaquen writes the rap lyrics and will occasionally spit some verse. 

(Regan) Unlike their ancestors who wrote under the threat of the Spanish empire, the duo do not hold back. The lyrics they add are sharp. Talking about being stepped on, thrown off to the wolves of the woods, and becoming a beggar. In another classic romance they change the words to directly call out Spain for embittering their lives and being born without a heart to love their neighbor.

(Regan) Benzaquen says it’s become a passion of his and he plans to write a book on the subject.

(Benzaquen) I feel privilege that I am able to work on this and bring out the best of our Jewish history, Sephardic history of what happened to our people. At the same time make sense of it and make it palatable for people.

(Regan) As mentioned earlier, a lot of hip-hop is an expression of emotion, telling a story. The romanzas and raps performed by Benzaquen and Hernandez are no different. It’s an expression of pain for a lost homeland and a lost time. Of what is referred to as the “Golden Age” of Spain when Jews lived in peace and prosperity. They were doctors, poets, merchants, and advisors in high places of government. I can’t help but see a possible comparison to America, and how some might refer to this as a Golden Age. But could it become another Spain?  

(Benzaquen) G-d forbid. I mean the United States has been the country that now for some generations, nearly a hundred years, the country of mercy and consideration. There is so much that we owe to the United States to become. But look what’s happening now with anti-Semitism. All over. We are afraid. Everybody’s afraid in that respect. If we don’t watch out and if the authorities themselves don’t then G-d forbid something like that could happen. But it’s a little bit different the fact that we have Israel today. It’s different. And Israel and the United State. The philosophy, and the freedom loving freedom that both of them are, it does not parallel exactly what’s happening in Spain.

(Regan) Spain and Portugal have taken some steps towards making amends. They recently offered citizenship to anyone who could prove their ancestors were expelled due to the Inquisition. Benzaquen administered the program for his region. He says for some Jews, citizenship doesn’t matter, for others, especially those who want access to the European Union, it means something. But most agree it’s too little too late. When Benzaquen was growing up, the real concern involving Spain was assimilation. He says that doesn’t concern him as much with America where there is more Jewish infrastructure. But he still worries. A chief concern of his being interfaith marriage. 

(Benzaquen) Interfaith marriage in itself in Judaism doesn’t make any sense. Interfaith. In Judaism so you don’t intermarry you don’t interfaith. Judaism and Torah and so on and to stick to that is very important for your survival throughout history.  You don’t want to give that away just throw it, trash it. So you have to keep learning and understanding so you keep your Judaism always. There is a place for the Jews and Judaism and there is a place for the non-Jews in their life. You understand?  Nobody is not worth what they are doing. You understand that?Because when it comes to interfaith and you say there is no room. Ultimately you are either one or the other. There’s no such thing as a mixture. When you mix these two, they don’t mix. That’s how Judaism is.

(Regan) Like many rabbis I talk to who are concerned with interfaith marriage, Benzaquen says education is important. He believes the more involved you are with Judaism, the more likely you are to marry a Jew. But when I ask where he sees Judaism 40 years from now, Benzaquen says being involved civically is also crucial. 

(Benzaquen) 40 years from now? I don’t have a magic ball to look at and predict exactly. But only what I know are that we have to take note of many things. Jewish education is very important for the Jewish people. The pride to know you are Jewish. And that shouldn’t be ashamed. You know what I mean? Many people who are hiding. G-d knows what they think. Better not to show you’re Jewish. I think it’s crazy, that. But those are things that are important. If you take care of that and to make sure that you also get involved with the community and with the authorities to make sure they are on the right path. When needed to vote you vote for the people that you know are sane and they are real and care about the United States and the people. Don’t just have private agendas. That is very important. So if you take care of this thing I think definitely you can look forward to good things. 

(Regan) Rabbi Simon Benzaquen is a man of many titles and abilities. He can lead a prayer service, circumcise a child, oversee Jewish legal matters and write rap lyrics. He’s a renaissance man for a Ladino renaissance. He laments a golden age while staying hopeful about the age he lives in. For me, it was a helluva interview. Not just for the content, but also for geography. I collected an interview in Washington! Seeing as I’ve also interviewed rabbis in Maine and Georgia and Mrs. Strobel in Southern California, I’ve really spread out the map over these 2 seasons. Things are starting to take shape. Not just on the map but professionally, and personally. I feel like I’ve grown a lot as a podcaster, and journalist, since I first jumped in my beat-up Honda Civic almost two years ago. And more and more people, and publications, are taking notice. This is all thanks to you dear listener. As I close the book on season 2, I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart for tuning in to this show. It means the world to me. I hope you are staying safe and I hope you are learning from and enjoying this podcast as much as I am.

(Regan) American Rabbi Project: Washington Bimah and Beats is written and produced by me, Justin Regan. If you would like to hear more about Los Serenos Sefarad or Nissim Black, I have put links on the episode page of my website rabbiproject.com. If you like what you are hearing, please consider donating to my podcast. Just go to rabbiproject.com and click on the donate page. Derek Povah handles the web stuff. Thanks to Sarit Dann Rathbone, Beth Vanderstoep, Jeremy Krones, Rafael Tontau, Dylan Abrams and my parents for the assistance. You can also follow me on twitter with the handle @rabbiproject facebook.com/rabbiproject and on Instagram with Americanrabbiproject.  And until time, until next season; Shalom. Please stay safe. Please stay healthy.

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