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New Works at Jewish Women's Theatre Explore Lingering Impact of Spanish Inquisition on Today's Sephardic Jews

Although the Spanish Inquisition took place over 700 years ago, the repercussions remain and are the subject of a new salon-style play produced by Jewish Women's Theatre (JWT), opening Saturday, March 18 and running for two weeks at locations throughout the Southland.

Every primary school student learns that Columbus discovered America in 1492, in a venture financed by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. What these children usually do not learn, is that the revered Spanish monarchs were escalating actions begun 100 years earlier to rid the Iberian Peninsula of the Jews that lived there. They offered them a gruesome choice-- convert to Christianity, leave their homeland, or face execution.

"History tells us that about 100,000 Jews chose exile and settled in Africa, Asia, the Mediterranean countries or one of the Spanish colonies in the New World," explains Ronda Spinak, JWT's artistic director who helped select the stories that comprise the salon-style performances. "Sephardic Jews had no choice but to spread throughout the diaspora, where so much of their original culture, customs and even personality traits remain vibrant in their lives today."

Forty generations later, the stories in Exile: Kisses on Both Cheeks, tell of the losses that still haunt and inhabit today's Sephardim. They are written by a group of prestigious Sephardic authors: Moroccan-Jewish novelist Ruth Knatfo Setton; André Acimen, Egyptian-born writer and Distinguished Professor at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York; Cuban-American anthropologist ad writer Ruth Behar; David Suissa, Moroccan Jew, president of the Jewish Journal and founder of OLAM magazine; Rahel Musleah, a seventh generation Jew from Calcutta, India who is a journalist and lecturer, and award-winning author Herbert Hadad, who tells about his Syrian ancestors and his devotion to both Jewish and Arab cultures.

JWT's unique salon-style theatre uses professional actors to bring these authors' stories to life in ten different locations in the LA area. Audiences will learn about the nomadic history of Sephardic Jews who were told they could "die as Jews or live as Muslims," and hear songs and poetry that describe exile and yearning. They will learn why an Egyptian Jewish family decided to have a seder on the first night of Passover, even though they were being banished from Alexandria the following day. And they will laugh at stories of "intermarriage," a term which relatives use to describe what happens when a Sephardic Jewess falls in love with an Ashkenazi man.

Exile: Kisses on Both Cheeks will premiere at 8 pm on March 18 at JWT's home theatre, The Braid. Dates, times and locations of the salon performances are available at www.jewishwomenstheatre.org. Tickets to the plays are $40, which includes a dessert reception and Q & A, and are available on Brown Paper Tickets. For more information, call: (310) 315-1400. JWT at the Braid, 2912 Colorado Ave. #102, Santa Monica, CA 90404.

New Companion Art Gallery Exhibit to Explore Sephardic Theme


In addition, on opening night March 18, at 6:30 p.m. The Art Gallery @ The Braid will open a special exhibit, Exile: The Sephardic Legacy, featuring three artists: Renee Amitai, Jaco Halfon and Sara True.

"Jewish Women's Theatre is an arts center, not just a performance venue," explains Spinak. We select contemporary, relevant themes and explore them through varied media of expression. What better way to increase our understanding of Sephardic Jews than to bring in works by Sephardic artists who explore their culture through fine arts."

Rene Amitai was born into a Sephardic family with origins in Galicia in Spain. A graduate of L'Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris, France, she is now an accomplished printmaker, painter and sculptor, who has exhibited internationally. Amitai says her Sephardic origin is still the most important influence on her work. "It has woven my inner fibers, my judgment, my vision of things, my art, the beauty and values of life. Thanks to its generosity, its elegance and its beauty," she explains. At the show, she will be exhibiting a series of etchings.

Mixed media collagist Jaco Halfon grew up in Tunisia where he became fascinated with symbols. His work dramatically depicts the evil eye, the Hebrew letter shin and the open right hand, the Hamsa, which has been a sign of protection throughout history. Halfon studied engineering and computer science at The University of Paris. Currently a television producer and novelist as well as an artist, he hosts extensive Sephardic community websites to "nurture his roots." Red Fire Shin, Black and White Shin, Yellow Hamsa and Pink Hamsa will be part of The Sephardic Legacy show.

Sarah True discovered she had Spanish blood dating back to Sevilla in 1400, while exploring the origins of her love of flamenco. Her work reflects travels in Morocco and Spain, her ancestral home. Her acrylics and mixed media pieces on canvas are expressions of this Sephardic heritage. "The layers of (my) painting represent the layers of time and history and meaning to be culled from visiting a place, from finding unexpected deep heritage. The strings in Buscando represent connections-among people, across languages and times, bridging past, present, and future. Words hidden in the patterns are lyrics of the song Buscando, which means "Searching." And the patterns and sunflowers in Blue Moon in Sun Garden, come from memories of my time in Spain," she explains.

There will also be art talks on Monday March 27 and Tuesday, March 28, followed by performances. Art gallery viewing is free. Separate admission required for Exile: Kisses on Both Cheeks shows.

JWT provides a home for the diverse and eclectic community of artists and creators who comprise L.A.'s Jewish women's community. Both at its new home in The Braid theatre and art gallery in Santa Monica's Bergamot Arts District, in intimate salons throughout the city, and on tour throughout the nation, JWT stages and displays traditional and contemporary works that provide a forum for the development, performance and showcasing of Jewish talent.


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