A very old Rhodesli Sephardic woman once told Joseph Benon he had the gift of sabor. According to the ancient lore of the Spanish Jews, this means he was born with the flavor of Sephardic food in his mouth.
“You have to be blessed with sabor to know what this is all about,” says Benon, bustling about his Westwood kitchen, serving up steaming platters of keftes de gallina (chicken patties), beselias (fresh peas with meat) and arroz estilo sepora (Sepora’s rice).
Benon, a 70-year-old retired grocer, is a highly regarded Sephardic cook who re-creates the ancient cuisine of the Rhodesli Sephardim. These Spanish Jews flourished on the Greek island of Rhodes for more than 500 years. Their vibrant culture was nearly extinguished by the Holocaust; only an estimated 50 Jews live on the island today.
The largest population of Rhodesli Sephardim now lives in Southern California. These Rhodesli have almost entirely assimilated into Los Angeles’ Jewish community over the last 60 years, with most of them attending local Sephardic synagogues. Benon says very few of the remaining Rhodesli Sephardim appreciate their traditional cuisine enough to try to preserve it.
“People call me up regularly and ask me to make things,” Benon says. “But they really don’t know about the food, and they really don’t want to know about it. They just want to eat it.”
Like many other good cooks, Benon learned about food in his mother’s kitchen. Sepora Benon prepared fresh ingredients every night for the next day’s meals, and insisted her five children learn to make the family’s traditional dishes as they worked by her side.
“All of us kids cook,” says Benon. “We started by stringing beans and shelling peas, then moved on to other things. I learned to cook like the old-timers, putting in a little bit of this and that until it’s just right.”
After marrying his wife, Roslyn, Benon expanded his knowledge of Sephardic cooking with his mother-in-law’s help. Lena Cohen prepared recipes from Rhodes and taught Benon to appreciate the history of the cuisine. Benon’s cooking is now considered to be so authentic (and delicious), he is often asked to cater events for the opening of Sephardic exhibits at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles and the Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel in Westwood.
Benon’s recipes are rich with the foods of the Mediterranean, all of which were readily available to the Sephardim in Rhodes. Over the centuries, Turkish, Greek and Italian influences were gradually incorporated into the Sephardic community’s original Spanish-style cookery. Rice, meat (especially lamb and chicken), cheese and vegetables went into the pastries, grain dishes, salads and casseroles. Olives, lemons, marinated vegetables and anchovies enhanced their flavors.
Benon’s distant cousin, Kaye Israel, is also an excellent Rhodesli Sephardic cook. She and Benon grew up in the same Rhodesli neighborhood in Los Angeles around Broadway and 49th Street, where she remembers young people used to ask their elders not to prepare the old-style foods.
“We thought the food was too different,” Israel says. “We wanted things we thought were more American, but this changed as we got a little older and learned to appreciate the food.”
Israel’s specialties are now the savory pastries that developed in Rhodes long before her parents immigrated to the United States in the 1920s. Her boyos (spinach and cheese pastries) and burekas (rice and cheese turnovers) are family favorites, particularly at brunch, where they are served with hard-boiled eggs and a spinach and pasta souffle known as quajado de espinaca.
Like Benon, Israel learned to cook traditional foods from her mother, but it was her aunt who helped perfect her flawless techniques in the kitchen.
“My aunt lived close by, and when she wanted company, she would call and ask, ‘Don’t you want to bake something?’” Israel recalls. “She taught me how to make the food well. If it wasn’t pretty, or done exactly right, she would make me do it over!”
Israel teaches a cooking class at the temple. Many of the people who attend are women who remember eating Sephardic food as children and now want to make it themselves. They particularly seem to enjoy the mixture of tradition, technique and just plain fun in Israel’s classes.
“Everybody gets to put their hands in the dough and learn how to work it,” Israel said. “It’s the best way to learn how to cook this food, and I tell them about it as we go.”
But Benon prefers to share his recipes through a series of five videos he developed with Sephardic historian Art Benveniste as a fund-raiser for the temple’s programs. In the videos, he gives detailed explanations for making an array of Rhodesli Sephardic foods, including baked goods, main dishes, sweets and vegetables.
“Hardly anyone knows how to cook this food but me anymore,” Benon says. “That’s why I developed the videos, so others will learn how. I get a lot of requests to cater now that I’m retired, but I cook only for my family and friends or places like the Skirball museum. For me, Sephardic cooking is a real labor of love.”