Art, Music and Tradition
Robert Kirschner, program director of the Skirball Cultural Center, didn’t know there was an emerging Sephardic community in Los Angeles until last year when he read it in a local newspaper.
Sephardic refers to Jews whose origins can be traced to Spain, Portugal, the Mediterranean countries, the Mideast, Africa and Asia.
“The truth is, the vast majority of Jews in the West trace their ancestors back to eastern and western Europe, not so much the Mediterranean,” Kirschner said.
That’s why the discovery of a large Sephardic population in the area caught Kirschner by surprise. He became interested in learning more about the community and went on to research the subject.
Among his discoveries is that the first Jews to arrive in North America in the 17th century were Sephardics who came via Brazil.
“They arrived in 1654 to the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam, which is now New York,” Kirschner said.
With that in mind, he figured a Sephardic celebration was in order. After all, the Skirball’s mission is to interpret the Jewish experience through a range of cultural programs.
So Kirschner created and organized a huge Sephardic festival last year, which celebrates its second birthday Sunday at the Skirball.
More than 4,000 people attended the inaugural bash, and organizers expect more this year. In fact, Skirball officials predict the festival will eventually move to a bigger venue.
On Sunday, the center’s 15-acre site will be covered with art exhibits, food, artisan exhibits and musicians. In addition, there will be an area dedicated to children. Arts and crafts, storytelling and a treasure hunt are among the activities planned.
“We’ll even have a special tour of the gallery exhibit for kids,” Kirschner said. “We want to make sure it’s interesting for them too.”
The music promises to be entertaining, with performances by the Stefani Valadez Ensemble, Isabelle Ganz and Za’atar.
Valadez will perform romantic Sephardic compositions from several different nations. Ganz, who will be joined by John Bilezikjians’ Andalucia Ensemble, is a mezzo-soprano with an international recording career. She will sing Judeo-Spanish songs.
Za’atar is an ensemble from San Francisco specializing in Middle Eastern and Sephardic melodies common among Arab Jews and Muslims of several countries.
“The music is a merger of cultures,” Kirschner said. “It fuses customs and traditions of Spain, Portugal and North Africa. It’s very interesting.”
Those who like to shop will find unique artifacts by Sephardic artists who use organic materials such as precious stones, wood, bone, bark and henna.
Their work includes decorative metal and glass pieces, ceramics and wood works, tapestry and textile items, and a vast selection of jewelry made of beads, ethnic stone and silver.
“These are crafted works not accessible here normally,” said Lisa Figelman, organizer of the festival’s art bazaar. All the artists are from Morocco, the Mediterranean and Israel.
Among the items for sale will be pillowcases with colorful antique weaving, spice grinders, rose-water bottles with elaborate metal trim, and decorative jewelry made of Roman glass found in Israeli excavations.
You can also sample an array of spicy food with Mideast and Spanish influences. Dishes include bouillabaisse (fish stew), boreka (dough filled with spinach and potato) and baklava (filo pastry layered with minced walnuts and covered in honey-flavored syrup).
That’s another thing Kirschner discovered in his research: traditional Sephardic dishes are among the tastiest of Jewish food.
The second annual Sephardic Festival at the Skirball Cultural Center, 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Sunday. Traditional Sephardic food, arts and crafts, live musical entertainment and kids’ activities. Take the 405 Freeway to the Skirball Center Drive exit. Admission is $8; children under 12 free. For advance tickets, call (213) 660-8587. For information: (310) 440-4500.