Spanish King and Queen Plan Visit to Sephardic Synagogue

Times Staff Writer

Planners have set aside 30 minutes for the king and queen of Spain to visit a Westwood synagogue during their visit to Los Angeles Oct. 1, but organizers at Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel say the monarchs are not likely to get away in that short a time.

King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia will hear a cantor singing melodic ballads in medieval Spanish, look at a photo exhibit, exchange souvenirs and dedicate a plaque to commemorate the visit, Rabbi Jacob Ott said last week.

"And some other words will be spoken. So, in terms of their planning, it's a half-hour visit, but in terms of our planning, when they experience our people here they'll be very enthusiastic," Ott said. "We'll see what happens."

The king and queen are scheduled to visit Tifereth Israel on Wilshire Boulevard in Westwood as part of a two-day tour originally scheduled six years ago to mark the bicentennial of the founding of the City of Los Angeles.

Earlier Trip Canceled

That visit was canceled because of an unsuccessful coup d'etat against the democratic government that had come to power after the death of longtime dictator Francisco Franco. Juan Carlos, though Franco's handpicked successor, played a key role in preventing a military takeover.

Nothing more was heard about the visit until six weeks ago, Ott said, when he learned that Juan Carlos and Sofia would be coming during the Days of Awe, a 10-day period between the New Year and Yom Kippur, the most solemn day of the Jewish fall holiday season.

Plans first called for the royal couple to attend services at the white stone synagogue, which is built with archways and a sanctuary with the pulpit in the middle, like the prayer houses of Old Spain.

But the visit was changed after Ott pointed out that it would be inappropriate to have pictures taken on the premises during holiday prayers.

Although Spain's once-flourishing Jewish community was expelled in 1492, the descendants of tose refugees have clung to their Latin ways, and the Sephardic Jews of Los Angeles are excited about the impending visit, members of the congregation said.

"The Sephardic Jews ( Sepharad is the Hebrew word for Spain), 500 years after we were expelled from Spain, we still feel very, very much like Spaniards," said Raquel Bensimon, a member of the welcoming committee at the synagogue.

"The love we have for Spain lives in our homes and everything we do is very, very Spanish," she said. "When we go to Spain we feel like we are at home, and it is very meaningful for us to see the king come to America, and we are very thrilled to see that he will pay a visit to the Sephardic temple."

Bensimon, a native of Tangier, Morocco, said she expects that the royal couple will be thrilled to converse with members of the congregation who speak Ladino, a Jewish dialect very close to the Spanish used in the era of Cervantes' Don Quixote.

The Los Angeles area has other Sephardic congregations, but Tifereth Israel was chosen for the royal couple's first visit to an American synagogue because "we have the best location with the largest seating capacity and the prettiest building," said Raymond Mallel, vice president of the synagogue and West Coast president of the American Sephardic Federation.

Many Jews Went to Turkey

Mallel said most members trace their Spanish roots through Turkey, which accepted many of the Jews expelled in 1492.

Others came to Los Angeles from Greece, Bulgaria, Egypt, Iraq, India, Syria and Cuba.

But they share the Sephardic style of prayer, which means that Tifereth Israel does not fall into any of the traditional divisions of Judaism: Orthodox, Conservative and Reform.

"Our prayers are exactly the same as 500 years ago," Mallel said. "Our prayers are more melodic (than the Ashkenazic or European-based service). Our tunes are Spanish and more romantic and upbeat."

The major difference from the old Sephardic tradition is that families sit together during services instead of having separate sections for men and women, he said.

Although Jews retained bitter memories of the expulsion for centuries, modern Spain has shown a different attitude.

Despite his Fascist leanings, Franco declared during World War II that Sephardic Jews facing persecution by the Nazis would be allowed to claim the protection of a Spanish passport and seek refuge in Spain.

The 15th-Century expulsion order was not revoked until 1968, but since then the Jewish community in Spain has grown to about 20,000 people, according to Pedro Tamboury, Spain's consul general in Los Angeles.

Diplomatic relations were established with Israel last year, and Queen Sofia even took Hebrew lessons with a rabbi in Madrid.

Political Motives Cited

Arguing that the expulsion of 1492 was for political purposes, "nothing racial, just for the unification of Catholic believers," Tamboury said modern Spain is seeking a reencuentro , or renewed meeting, with its Jewish past.

"As we are now approaching the 500th anniversary of the discovery of America, we are also going to commemorate this historic event because we want to make what we call the reencuentro with the Jews from Spain, who were expelled in 1492 but left behind a tremendous heritage of culture and traditions," he said.

Tamboury said the king wanted to draw attention to Sepharad '92, an exhibition of Jewish history and culture to be held in the Spanish city of Toledo in 1992.

Reaching a height in the so-called Golden Age of the 10th to 13th centuries, Jews enjoyed a prominence in Spain, then ruled by Moslems, comparable to the situation of Jews in America today, according to Rabbi Claudio Kaiser of the Sephardic Hebrew Center, a synagogue in Baldwin Hills.

Jews were government ministers, army commanders, scholars, poets and astronomers, but the consolidation of Christian power, capped by the rise of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, led to forced conversions, the founding of the Inquisition to ensure Catholic hegemony and finally the expulsion.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World