Celebrating Sephardic traditions

By Margi Lenga Kahn, Special to the Jewish Light

“Tradition,” sings Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof,” is the way mothers teach daughters to “make a proper home, a quiet home, a kosher home.” These traditions pass from generation to generation, shaped by our countries of origin. Where we came from determined who we were—the language we spoke, the melodies of our chanted prayers (such as “Ein Keloheinu”), the foods we ate, and the ways we prepared them. These deep traditions set apart Sephardic Jews from Ashkenazi Jews.

My fascination with those differences blossomed when I recently learned that my father’s side of the family, the Lengas, originated in Portugal rather than Poland.

“Wow,” I said when my cousin Erela Arnon of Tel Aviv gave me the news. “That makes me 50 percent Sephardic.”

Sephardic Jews are the Jews of Spain, Portugal, Italy, Greece, Turkey, North Africa and the Middle East. The first Sephardim arrived in New York in the mid 1600s and established the first Sephardic Synagogue there in 1654. That synagogue, Congregation Shearith Israel, has remained vibrant to this day, with members of both Sephardic and Ashkenazi descent. Today, Sephardic Jews make up less than 5 percent of the United States Jewish population, with the largest communities in New York City, Miami, Seattle, and Los Angeles.

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Nowhere are the differences between these two Jewish cultures more pronounced than during the Passover holiday. Indeed, when my husband Mike learned of my Sephardic heritage, he pumped his fist and said, “Yes! Hold the matzoh kugel and pass me the chili.”

On Passover, Sephardim can eat caraway seeds, chickpeas, corn, dried beans, dried peas, green beans, lentils, soybeans and soy products (including tofu and soy sauce), sunflower seeds, rice, and peanuts, among other foods. For Ashkenazim, these foods, which come under the heading of “kitniyot” (small things), are prohibited.

To learn more about Sephardic Passover traditions, I spoke with two women of Sephardic descent who continue to prepare seder meals just as their parents and grandparents did decades ago.

The first was Linda Capeloto Sendowski, a cooking instructor and Sephardic food blogger. She was born in Seattle, Wash., which was where her grandparents—one from the island of Rhodes, the other from Turkey—came to the U.S. in 1910. Linda’s parents spoke Ladino when she was growing up. Ladino is the Sephardic equivalent of Yiddish, composed primarily of Castilian Spanish with Hebrew, Arabic, French, Turkish, and Greek influences. Until the 20th century, Ladino was, like Yiddish, written using the Hebrew alphabet. And just as Yiddish is the language spoken by parents who didn’t want their children to understand their conversation, so too was Ladino in Linda’s family.

As kids, Linda and her two sisters were enlisted to help out in the kitchen. They helped their mother and grandmothers prepare the seder meal. One task was hard-boiling eggs in water with olive oil and the outer skins of onions so that the Passover eggs would turn a lovely mahogany color. They would also fill a bowl with apple cider vinegar in which the greens, including romaine, could be dipped.

Linda’s seder meal always begins with a traditional Sephardic fish dish, either salmon in a lemony tomato sauce or fried fish fillets in an egg-lemon sauce. Both dishes are served cold. The fish is followed by soup, which is a lot like the classic Greek soup Avgolomeno—chicken broth thickened with eggs, flavored with lemon juice, and served with meatballs. Side dishes include a variety of vegetables, such as artichokes, eggplants, zucchini, and whole onions, stuffed with ground meat and parsley. The main course is either chicken roasted with a variety of citrus juices and honey, or a brisket braised in a mixture of tomato sauce, prunes, and a bottle of wine. Linda tops her brisket with caramelized onions.

Her favorite Passover dessert, which she learned to make from her mother, is boyos de vino. “My mother made a little cookie out of a simple combination of raisins and matzo cake meal, which she then moistened with sweet wine,” Linda explained. “It’s not particularly tasty but I just love it.”

My second Sephardic chef is Mireille Mathalon. Born in Alexandria, Egypt, Mireille and her parents, one of French-Moroccan descent and the other of Turkish descent, and her husband came to the U.S. in 1961 and settled in Seattle. They moved to Los Angeles in 1972 and became active members of the Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel, one of two Sephardic congregations in that city. Their temple is in Westwood and has a membership of 900 families. Those families came to the States from Greece, Cuba, Egypt, Iraq, Iran, and Turkey.

Mireille’s seder menu also begins with fish. Her Passover Fish Loaves are ground just like Ashkenazi gefilte fish. Mireille combines three types of fish—salmon, fillet of sole, and red snapper—and seasons the mixture with cumin and hot pepper sauce. She adds eggs and matzo meal, fries the mixture in loaves, bakes the loaves in a lemony-tomato sauce, and serves the dish at room temperature.

Mireille’s seders always feature three special dishes: leek patties, which are made of ground beef and steamed leeks spiced with cumin; braised artichokes in a garlic lemon sauce; and dolmades, which are grape leaves stuffed with rice and cooked with lemon. For the main course, Mireille prepares brisket. And for dessert, she bakes a flourless walnut cake, macaroons, and mandel bread.

“All of my recipes were my mother’s,” Mireille said. “And she got those recipes from her mother. Her mother taught her how to cook, and my mother taught me.”

Mireille’s brother-in-law is Ashkenazi. Therefore, she prepares the first seder meal following her traditions, and her sister does the second seder following her husband’s Ashkenazi traditions. That mixture of families and traditions made me wonder what culinary traditions their children will incorporate into seder meals many years from now.

I can’t wait to introduce my family to some of Linda’s and Mireille’s fabulous dishes, and to teach them about their Sephardic heritage.

Wishing you and your families a Chag Sameach.

Margi Lenga Kahn is the mother of five and grandmother of three. A cooking instructor at the Kitchen Conservatory, she is currently working on a project to preserve the stories and recipes of heritage cooks. She welcomes your comments and suggestions at [email protected].