A conversation with Robert Bedford

A conversation with Robert Bedford

Robert Bedford sees himself as the repository of a once-glorious patrimony, rich in history and culture. He wants to preserve it as he inherited it from his Salonica-born, Ladino-speaking maternal grandparents.

The 40something Bergen County resident is the executive vice president of the New York-based Foundation for the Advancement of Sephardic Studies and Culture, whose mission, according to its Website, is to preserve and promote “the complex and centuries-old culture of the Sephardic communities of Turkey, Greece, the Balkans, Europe, and the United States.”

The FASSAC was founded in 1965 by “the last survivors,” according to Bedford, of the generation of Ladino-speaking Jews who settled in New York City in the early 20th century. Bedford has been its executive vice president since the mid-1990s.

A self-employed media producer, Bedford – who has a degree in history and media arts from Long Island University – is the producer of the foundation’s documentaries and exhibitions and editor of all the books it has published since the 1990s.

Robert Bedford is the executive vice president of the Foundation for the Advancement of Sephardic Studies and Culture. Daniel Santacruz

The foundation’s latest book, “A Bouquet of Poems/Un ramo de poemas,” will come out at the end of April. A Ladino-English edition, the book features the poems of Haim Vitali Sadacca, a native of Turkey who splits his time between Montreal, Florida, and Istanbul. The book is a rare first. “How many poets are there in Ladino these days? Not many, if any,” said Bedford in an interview.

Last year, the foundation released “Monastir Without Jews: Reflections of a Jewish Partisan in Macedonia,” by Jamila Andleja Kolonomos. Another book about that Macedonian city, today Bitola, “Last Century of a Sephardic Community: The Jews of Monastir, 1839-1943,” by Mark Cohen, came out in 2003. In 2006, the foundation published “Traditions and Customs of the Sephardic Jews of Salonica,” perhaps the most descriptive and intimate account of the Jewish community of that Greek city, written in 1940 by Rabbi Michael Molcho.

Bedford doesn’t like the way the word Sephardim is loosely used by many – as a catch-all to refer to most non-Ashkenazi Jews. In his vocabulary, the word retains its original meaning: Jews who originated in Spain and Portugal and, after being expelled from those countries, found a home in the Balkans, North Africa, and some countries of Western Europe, like the Netherlands and England.

At the turn of the 20th century, thousands of Jews of the Balkans found a new haven in the United States, among them his maternal grandparents.

Excerpts from the interview follow:

Jewish Standard: When did you get involved with the foundation?

Robert Bedford: One of my professors [in college] said I should meet his brother-in-law, Joe Halio [the foundation’s current president]. My grandmother, who was a resident at the Sephardic Home for the Aged [in Brooklyn], told me that I should meet one of the physicians there: Joe Halio. He was as passionate and questioning about his Sephardic heritage as I was. He had worked in the late ’70s and early ’80s with Louis Levy, one of the founders of the FASSAC.

J.S.: What did your job as editor of “Monastir Without Jews,” “Last Century of a Sephardic Community,” and “Traditions and Customs of the Sephardic Jews of Salonica” entail?

R.B.: [Laughs] More than editor – creative director and publisher. I knew of Jamila [the author of “Monastir Without Jews”] because she wanted to tell her story. She is one of the few Monastrils who survived [the Holocaust] because they joined the [Yugoslavian] Resistance [after the Bulgarian occupation of Macedonia in 1941]. The book is based on articles Jamila wrote over the years in Ladino for different journals. “Traditions and Customs ” is the only book of Rabbi Molho’s 100 works to be published in English. There are versions [of the book] in French and Spanish.

All of our books are well-researched and profusely annotated and illustrated. I, along with the foundation, have collected some 8,500 photos and visuals. Because I feel that visual evidence of these communities is important, I’ve done my best to infuse our books, exhibitions, and projects with photographs and images. “Last Century” has over 80 photos and illustrations, and “Traditions and Customs” and “Monastir Without Jews” each has roughly 150 photos and illustrations.

J.S.: Is Sephardic culture losing ground in the United States?

R.B.: In some respect, yes. If we don’t preserve it, who is to blame? Like many other immigrants who came in the 1910s, 1920s, and 1930s, Sephardic Jews wanted to become American and never looked back. My mother wondered why I bothered to spend so much time reading, researching, and conducting interviews. I replied that if her generation bothered to spend time preserving this culture and heritage, perhaps more of it would not be in danger of vanishing. The FASSAC’s founders also realized the culture was vanishing. Because most of them were first-generation Americans, like my mom, or emigrants, like my grandmother, they were in a better position to start preserving and documenting their culture and heritage.

J.S.: What are the foundation’s next projects?

R.B.: The publication of “Birkenau (Auschwitz II): How 72,000 Greek Jews Perished,” a memoir by Albert Mensache, a physician from Salonica who served the Sephardic community there and who worked at the Sephardic Home upon his immigration in 1951. He survived Birkenau by playing the flute in the men’s orchestra. The book will be annotated and updated. Another book will be the English edition of “The History of the Jews of Kastoria,” written by Molho and Avram Mevorah in 1938, which will include the original French and Ladino versions and an update of the fate of the Jewish community of that Macedonian city during World War II. Of roughly 880 Kastoriali Jews, the entire community, who were deported to Auschwitz/Birkenau, some 34 survived. The book will be published in conjunction with a rare 30-minute documentary shot in 1936 by a native Kastoriali living in the United States. Newer items, which are my personal projects, include the translation of a Ladino-only work from Salonica, as well as a visual history of the Great Fire of 1917 in that city.

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