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Rhodes Jewish Community Featured in Documentary Film

April 3, 1997
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Every summer, more than 100 Jewish immigrants from Rhodes, with their Los Angeles-born children and grandchildren, take the ferry to the island of Catalina, Calif.

There, they frolic on the beaches and feast on the home-baked delicacies of their ancestral Mediterranean island.

The outing is like a voyage into the past, says Mati Franco. “With its hills, beaches and small towns, Catalina is a lot like Rhodes.”

Even in the melting pot of America, the Rhodian Jews cling and revel in their Sephardi heritage and the memories of Rhodes, passing them on to their children and their children’s children.

“Life in Rhodes was charming, with a lot of freedom and joy,” says Franco, whose mother is the institutional memory of what was once the small but thriving Jewish community on the Greek island off Turkey. “Ninety percent of the songs were love ballads and the culture was very Mediterranean.”

Franco’s mother, 85-year-old Rebecca Amato Levy, is a central figure in a striking documentary film, produced and directed by her grandson Gregori Viens and titled “Island of Roses: The Jews of Rhodes in Los Angeles.”

The first Jews settled in Rhodes centuries before the Common Era. Their presence is mentioned in ancient Roman documents.

In the early 16th century, Jews expelled from Spain in 1492 arrived and soon absorbed the earlier Greek-speaking Jewish inhabitants into their culture.

Before World War I, the number of Jews peaked at 5,000 — among a total population of 75,000 — and supported six synagogues.

After Italy replaced the Ottoman Empire as the ruling power of Rhodes in 1912, and with the outbreak of the World War I, more than half of the Jewish community immigrated to South Africa, Latin America and the United States.

The remaining 2,000 Jews managed to hold on during the first years of World War II under relatively benign Italian rule. In 1944, Hitler’s army took over and in one day shipped the entire community to Auschwitz. Only 170 survived the Holocaust.

During the first two decades of this century, Jewish emigrants from Rhodes established close-knit communities on the East and West coasts of the United States.

Today, there are an estimated 10,000 Rhodians and their descendants in the United States. Of these, some 4,000 to 5,000 live in New York, 3,000 in Los Angeles, 1,500 in Atlanta and 1,000 in Seattle.

A distinguished member of the New York community is Rabbi Marc Angel, president of the Union of Sephardic Congregations and spiritual leader of the Spanish- Portuguese Synagogue.

The Rhodians of Los Angeles tend to stick together, geographically and socially.

Franco, whose Hebrew name is Mazal Tov, says most of her friends are from the Rhodes community, and the ties go beyond friendship.

“All of us from Rhodes are related to each other,” she says. “If you come to one of our meetings or celebrations, everyone is hugging and kissing each other.”

Among the younger Rhodians, marriages with Ashkenazi spouses are becoming more common, but it was not always that way.

Franco remembers her father-in-law talking about his youthful courtship of an Ashkenazi girl. “Her family wouldn’t accept him as a Jew because he spoke Ladino instead of Yiddish and didn’t like matzah ball soup,” she says.

“It was only when he asked for a prayer book and read from it in Hebrew that her family was reluctantly convinced. By that time, my father-in-law was so disgusted that he dropped the girl.”

Asked whether Sephardim, who were the first Jews to settle in North America and were the early leaders of the Jewish community, felt a sense of superiority toward the Ashkenazi latecomers, Franco responded:

“No, I’ve never encountered that. However, we at times feel underappreciated for our contributions to Jewish religion and culture.”

Ladino, or Judeo-Spanish, continues to play a role in the lives of the first and second generations of Rhodian immigrants and is used in synagogue services, alongside Hebrew and English.

Indeed, the family matriarch Levy, like other Rhodes-born immigrants, is multilingual, reflecting the different eras in the history of her native island.

“My mother speaks Greek, Turkish, Italian, Ladino, Hebrew and English,” said Franco. Levy is the author, in Ladino, of the book “I Remember Rhodes.”

This polyglot background is reflected in the “Island of Roses” documentary, where interviewees respond occasionally in Ladino or French.

Franco, who served as the film’s co-producer, recounts that her son, Viens, initially started the project as an oral history of his grandmother. It evolved into a “glorified home movie” and ended up as a professional 55-minute documentary that has won a number of film awards.

After receiving financial support for the project from the California Council for the Humanities and the Maurice Amado Foundation, Viens added some family contributions and the money he had saved for his graduate education to cobble together a $75,000 budget.

A copy of the film may be obtained by phoning Mati Franco at (310) 552-7902.

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