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My Sephardic Roots: From the Isle of Rhodes to Rodeo Drive

Sephardic People

I am Ashkenazi and German by birth, but as a baby, I was adopted by a hot-blooded Sephardic family that migrated to the United States from the Isle of Rhodes. They were eccentric and whimsical, and growing up with them was mostly wonderful. Culturally, the Sephardim are a distinct ethnic group that many around the world are unfamiliar with. Their native language, a blend of Hebrew, Turkish, and Spanish called Ladino, is beautiful and romantic. And though they’re passionate people and can be tough as nails. they’re also full of life and love, the fusion of which creates some incredible art and music. I wanted to capture that aesthetic and their culture in its raw element, so I’ve told some of their backstories in the early chapters of my new memoir, The Bastard of Beverly Hills.

The author with Mama Rita Benveniste in 1977.

The second chapter of The Bastard of Beverly Hills picks up the story of my grandmother “Mama Rita” Benveniste and follows her as she travels from Cuba to the United States in the aftermath of the first World War.

…Mama Rita, an exquisite beauty and linguist, disembarked from her boat further north in Havana, where several other Sephardic Jews had settled. Cuba was a paradise that reminded her of the old country. Yet, she soon emigrated to California to wed a naturalized citizen, my grandfather, Dr. Robert. He’d made her acquaintance while visiting the island, struck up a correspondence, and seduced her with a flurry of love letters.

From The Bastard of Beverly Hills

As I wrote my memoir, I used a lot of 16mm footage I’d discovered at my mother’s house, which helped me preserve some of the poignant and emotional scenes you see in the trailer above. And below is some more source material that really gives a feel for how close these families were and what Ladino culture looked like in 1950s Seattle and Los Angeles. The scene is set against the backdrop of a baby naming and includes traditional Sephardic belly dancing. The troupe featured in the film is The Dancing Cansinos, who many do not know were actress Rita Hayworth’s family.

The origin story of my Mama Rita’s family and the tragic tale of how my great-grandfather died on a train to Auschwitz is a sad epic tale. It has been sorrowfully yet masterfully retold in Rhodes and the Holocaust by a cousin of ours, the late Isaac Benatar. I have not gone back this far in The Bastard, but I hope to in a follow-up. I highly recommend Benatar’s book, which is still in print or available on Amazon.

Sephardic Roots

Rhodes and the Holocaust is the story of La Juderia, the Jewish community that once lived and flourished on the largest of the twelve Dodecanese islands in the Mediterranean Sea near the coast of Turkey. The heart-wrenching story of the Rhodes Jewish community is told through the experiences of a thirteen-year-old boy taken by the Nazis to Auschwitz along with his father and his eleven-year-old sister. Most of all, Rhodes and the Holocaust make known the story of that community’s existence and struggle for survival.

From the back cover of Rhodes and the Holocaust

I hope you get a chance to pick up a copy of this unique history, which gives a lot of insight into the Sephardic people and partly explains why my mother was so driven to survive and succeed in The Bastard of Beverly Hills.

RAFAEL MOSCATEL is the author of the best-selling business book series Tomorrow’s Jobs Today and director of The Little Girl with the Big Voice, a critically acclaimed documentary. His third book, The Bastard of Beverly Hills, a memoir about hope, forgiveness, and redemption, will be published in 2023.

Let me know what you think below!