In the Ezra Bessaroth social hall, 20 or so women — and one man — methodically roll, fill, fold, and flute. It’s boreka day, and the Ladies Auxiliary volunteers are focused on making the signature cheese-and-potato turnovers that have fueled the Seattle Sephardic community for the past 100 years.
Since 1916, the Congregation Ezra Bessaroth Ladies Auxiliary has been meeting weekly to bake the Sephardic delicacies — borekas, boyos, biscochos, birmuelos, pastelles, panazikos, and more — recipes that their forebears brought over from the Island of Rhodes. (Full disclosure: I am a member of the congregation.) But as women’s roles have dramatically changed over the last two generations — with more time-consuming careers, family life, and, arguably, less of a lifetime attachment to a single religious institution — one may wonder how much longer this tradition will continue.
“There are fewer and fewer young ones that are willing to do this,” says Cookie Behar, who, with bright red hair, looks younger than her 85 years. The ages of the women who come regularly range from early 60s to late 80s. They come for the friendships, dedication to the synagogue, and, of course, their love of Sephardic pastry. “I like being with everybody,” Stella Eskenazi, 84, says. “It gets me out of the house. Originally, I started coming here because I wasn’t working, and I wanted to volunteer for the synagogue. It’s nostalgia for me. I like the camaraderie.”
Ladies auxiliaries are rare these days: Sephardic Bikur Holim’s is currently inactive; the Polish Home Ladies Auxiliary (established in 1918) bakes pierogi once a week for the bazaars; and the VFW Ballard Eagleson Post 3063 (established in 1914) continues to help veterans in need and promote patriotism, according to its website. But the Ezra Bessaroth Ladies Auxiliary is an integral part of the synagogue, and its earnings cover improvements for the synagogue, like repairing the parking lot and painting the interior. Once a year, before Purim, the auxiliary holds a popular bake sale — something the women are aiming to do twice this year. Men are welcome to join the baking activities, especially to help pack and carry boxes. Albie Amon, 84, has been volunteering with his wife, Stella, 77, in the kitchen since the 1990s, and he prepares lunch for the bakers. I ask how he likes it as he whisks past me in the kitchen. “I hate it!” he shouts over his shoulder. “Don’t let him tell you that!” his wife responds, laughing.
While the generations coming up live in a world where women often have to work full-time on top of myriad activities and child-rearing responsibilities, the current volunteers by and large didn’t start baking until their own retirements from places like Frederick and Nelson, Pacific Fish, and the Bon Marché, and after their kids were out of the house. Some, like copresident Muriel Thompson, 77, carve out the time to bake from their work schedules. They reflect on their own predecessors — immigrants born in the Ottoman Empire — as living in a world far different from their own.
“They were a bunch of dedicated women,” Behar says. “I think their whole life was wrapped around the synagogue. None of them worked. They were homebodies. Not very many of them drove. That was their social life. And for us, it’s with dedication to the synagogue, but it is also socially fun.” Behar started baking in 1990, when she was one of the younger women. “When I first came here, there was this group of older women — like us! At first when I came they made me be a gofer. I just gofed.”
“It was a much older crowd,” says Esther Lee Sadis, who is 75 and has been volunteering for 23 years, making her one of the longest-standing volunteers. Like many women, Sadis was given menial tasks until she was allowed to work up to making the pastries. “They didn’t let you do anything. They didn’t trust you.”
Peggy DeLeon, 66, stepdaughter of the late Lucy Spring, began learning the art of making Sephardic pastries with her grandmother, Victoria Almeleh. “My first job was to wash spinach,” she says. “I did it all day. It seemed like all day.” But eventually, “they let me in to the secrets of how they do it.” Her two daughters like to bake, and, despite her former days of washing spinach, the women in her family throw bulema (a.k.a. boyo) parties, where they get together to make the spinach-cheese pastries. “Bulemas are better than sex!” says Rachel Almeleh, 70, who runs a Sephardic food business and recently published a cookbook. “You can quote me on that.”
While the tradition could fade away, DeLeon is optimistic. “I think it’s changing in a good way,” she says. “We were down to seven to 10 people. Now we’re a big, noisy group.” It’s possible that the next generations of women, once past the chaos of motherhood and school and career, will follow the same path. Jordan Behar, 25, who is studying for the bar exam in New York, bakes with the group on school breaks. “I actually thoroughly enjoy baking with the ladies,” she says. “I’ve grown up at the synagogue. It feels like home. It’s a shame to think it would just dissipate. I’d love to be a part of continuing it.”