While Ashkenazi Jews think of hamantashen as traditional Purim fare, the Yom Tov Society gathering of some of Washington’s Sephardic community, shown in this 1936 photo, likely enjoyed börekas, almond “cigars” and candies called figuellos.

 Magen David Sephardic Congregation Interior

Annie Totah designed Magen David’s new sanctuary, 1998. Courtesy of Magen David Sephardic Congregation.

Today, Washington is home to a small, but vibrant Sephardic community of around 12,000. They, like other Sephardic Jews, are the descendents of Jews expelled from Spain in 1492, who meld Spanish, North African, Mediterranean and Middle Eastern customs with Jewish traditions. Our area’s first Sephardic Jews arrived in Washington from Turkey and Greece around 1914. A larger wave of mostly Moroccan Jews emigrated in the years immediately following World War II. Jews from other North African and Middle Eastern countries have since joined the community.

Sephardic Ritual Meals

Magen David Sephardic Congregation, established in 1966, has a membership of over 180 families at its Rockville synagogue. Magen David’s sisterhood prepares all the meals for special events and celebrations, including the hillula service. Hillula translates to “feast,” “celebration” or “joy” in Aramaic. The ceremony originated as a pilgrimage of Jews of Western North Africa to the tombs of respected rabbis on the anniversaries of their deaths. Magen David’s annual hillula ceremony for Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai (a first-century sage in ancient Israel) began in 1974. During the service, memorial candles are lit and traditional Sephardic foods such as sambusas (meat-filled triangle pockets) and cigars (rolled pastries) are served.

Mimouna, or “happiness” in Aramaic, is a Sephardic feast which takes place on the evening after the last day of Passover. Fish is often served as a symbol of plenty and fruitfulness, along with milk, honey, mixed nuts, dates, cookies, and moufleta (a fried crepe exclusive to Mimouna which is dipped in butter and honey).

The Sephardic Passover seder table looks quite different from its Ashkenazi counterpart. Instead of the Eastern European gefilte fish and matzah balls, dishes made with rice, beans, nuts, meat, fresh fruits and vegetables are served.

Sephardim Borekita

Photo courtesy of Beyhan Cağri Trock, The Ottoman Turk and the Pretty Jewish Girl

Sephardic food customs also live on in the homes of Washingtonians such as Beyhan Cağri Trock. Her recent book, The Ottoman Turk and the Pretty Jewish Girl, includes recipes from her mother, Berta Revah, and aunt, Ida Dana, who emigrated from Turkey around 1960. The recipe for her Aunt Ida’s specialty, Eggplant börekitas, appears below.

Trock urges readers, “to talk to their elders and learn as many dishes as they can before they disappear from their family traditions.”

Top photo: (Back row, left to right) Luna Ereza, Monty Ereza, Stanley Shmaosh, Joe Kury, Morris Beyda, Morris Rishty, Alegra and Isaac Toronto, Esther and Abe Beyda, Sol Ereza, Sophie and Julius Chabbott. (Center table from back) Esther and Morris Dayn, Eunice and Danny Beyda, Ralph Beyda, Joe Beyda, Morris Toronto, Jimmy Shmalo, Jacob Rishty, Morris Shmalo. (Far right table from front) Abe Esses, Rae and Irving Heiney, Leon Patesh, Pauline Rischey. JHSGW Collections. Note: Please contact [email protected] or 202-789-0900 to identify others in this photo or donate materials about the local Sephardic community.

Other stories by the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington