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  • Daniel Santacruz

The tale of 2 prayer books or rescuing the traditions of Rhodes and Turkey

Updated: Mar 3, 2021

By Daniel Santacruz

Hazzan Isaac Azose.
Hazzan Isaac Azose (Courtesy).

A quiet revolution has happened in the last 11 years in several Sefardic synagogues in the United States. It centers around two prayer books, o sidurim

The oldest, Book of Prayers According to the Custom of the Spanish and Portuguese Jews, was edited and translated by British-born Rabbi David de Sola Pool, and published for the first time in 1936 by the New York-based Union of Sephardic Congregations (USC).

The newest, Sidur Zehut Yosef, with daily and Shabbat prayers was edited by Seattle, Wash.-born Hazzan Isaac Azose and published in that city in 2002.

Other Sefardic synagogues in Oregon, Illinois, Georgia, Indiana and Maryland, as well as two in South Africa, adopted Azose’s prayer book shortly after and shelved De Sola Pool’s prayer book, marking the end of an era. For more than 60 years most of them had followed the nusach, or type of prayer, of the former, which wasn’t their own originally. It was time for a change.

Title page of the De  David de Sola Pool prayerbook.
Title page of the De Sola prayerbook.

To understand the historical significance of the revolution, one has to look at the makeup of the four major Sefardic communities in the United States: Moroccan, Spanish and Portuguese, Syrian and Judeo-Spanish.

The Moroccan community is located mainly in the New York City area and hails mostly from central Morocco. Older immigrants speak French and Arabic.

Founding fathers

The Spanish and Portuguese came from Brazil to New York City in 1654. Prior to that, they lived in Holland and England, where they arrived from Portugal in the late 1400s and early 1500s, escaping persecution. They are the founders of the oldest synagogues in the United States: Shearith Israel, in New York City, Mikveh Israel, in Philadelphia, and Touro Synagogue, in Newport, R.I.

Cover of the "Zecut Yosef"prayerbok.
Cover of the "Zecut Yosef" prayerbok.

The Syrians have roots in Aleppo and Damascus, and settled in Brooklyn, N.Y. A large community exists in Deal, N.J. Their type of prayer is considered Sefardic but, unlike the other groups, their connection with Spain is very faint.

The Judeo-Spanish, or Ladino-speaking Jews, migrated from territories of the former Ottoman Empire, such as Turkey and Greece, and settled mostly in the New York City area, Seattle and Los Angeles. Those geographical and historical differences, therefore, created nuances in the liturgy and melodies of each community. Hence the desire of Azose, who has spearheaded the revolution, to preserve the customs and liturgy of the Seattle Sefardic community, which is made up of Jews who came originally from Turkey, primarily from Tekirdag/Rodosto and Marmara, and the island of Rhodes, on the Aegean Sea.

“I want to make sure that the traditions that were extant in those parts of Turkey from which the Turkish pioneers came, as well as the traditions of Rhodes, are maintained for future generations,” he said in a recent interview with “I see myself as doing my part in perpetuating those traditions.”

Loss of liturgical practices

He noticed a few years ago that younger members in the community had adopted the nusach of the De Sola Poor prayer book as their own, which is not only not theirs but which would result in the loss of liturgical practices, he said. Since the time of their arrival in Seattle, in the early years of the twentieth century until de 1940s, Ladino-speaking, Turkish-born Jews used prayer books they brought from Turkey and Rhodes. The majority of those books were published from the mid-1800s to the early 1900s by Joseph Schlesinger in Vienna, home to a sizable Ladino-speaking community at the time. The new immigrants founded Congregation Sephardic Bikur Holim, established in 1914 by Jews from Turkey, and Ezra Bessaroth, founded in 1910 by Jews from Rhodes. They, along with other Sephardic congregations in the United States, adopted the De Sola Pool prayer book almost from the time of its publication, 1936. It was tailored for Spanish and Portuguese Jews, as its subtitle indicates, and the only one for Sefardic Jews in the United States with an English translation—an added bonus for a community that was fast integrating into the mainstream. Born of Ladino-speaking parents who hailed from Turkey, Azose, a former systems analyst at Boeing, was a member of Bikur Holim during his younger years. He was hired as Ezra Bessarot’s full-time hazzan in 1966, from which he retired in 2000. In 1999, he recorded portions of that synagogue’s service in a two-CD set titled The Liturgy of Ezra Bessaroth, in which he attempted to showcase “the flavor of particular sections of the liturgy. Instead of recording an entire piece, I would record the first one or two stanzas, or something similar,” he said. Azose is the founder of the Seattle-based Sephardic Traditions Foundation, publisher of Zehut Yosef; Zihron Rahel (a mahzor for Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot); Tefilah LeDavid (a mahzor for Rosh Hashana); Tefilah LeMoshe (a prayer book for the five Fast Days, which came out in June 2012); and a booklet for Selihot prayers. Zehut Yosef and Zihron Rahel follow the Turkish and the Rhodes tradition. Tefilah LeDavid and Tefilah LeMoshe follow the Rhodes tradition. All have been edited by him and all contain some prayers in Ladino. Following are excerpts of the interview: Kolsefardim: In March 2002, Sidur Zehut Yosef replaced the De Sola sidur in Bikur Holim and Ezra Bessaroth. Which other Sefardic congregations in the United States have adopted it? IA: It has been adopted by Ahavath Ahim, in Portland (Ore.); The Sephardic Congregation of Chicago (Ill.); Or VeShalom, in Atlanta (Ga.); Etz Chaim Sephardic Synagogue, in Indianapolis (Ind.) and Magen David Sephardic Congregation, in Rockville (Md). They all follow either the Turkish either the Turkish or Rhodes nusach, with the exception of Magen David Sephardic Congregation, whose members are, to the best of my knowledge, a mix of different edot: Moroccans, Iraqis, Syrians and Lebanese. Two South Africa congregations have also adopted it. A drawback of the De Sola Pool prayer book is the incompleteness of many of the prayers. I don't want to leave the impression that I was trying to do away with the Spanish-Portuguese sidurim and mahzorim, has veshalom. My only intent was to ensure that the minhagim and nusach a’tefilah that was brought to Seattle from Turkey and Rhodes was “locked in concrete.” People have a tendency to forget what was done in the synagogue 50, 60 or 70 years ago. I'm hoping that 50 years from now, people will look at Zehut Yosef and say, “this is what we have been doing for the past 50 years, and it is very close to the nusach that was brought over from Turkey and Rhodes” at the beginning of the 20th century. KS: By replacing the De Sola Pool prayer book with your sidur, did the congregations that adopted it gain control, so to speak, of their own liturgy? IA: I sold those congregations the Zehut Yosef. I had no idea how they were using it. For example, do congregations that follow the Rhodes custom, follow every little R“, for Rhodes, that I have in Zehut Yosef, or do they feel it is close enough to what they do, that they are happy with it? KS: In the 1970s, you asked Rabbi Solomon Maimon of Seattle, who was going to be in New York City, to talk to Rabbi Marc Angel, the then-head of the USC, about your idea of having a special edition of the nusach of Bikur Holim and Ezra Bessaroth published by the USC. You thought Rabbi Maimon might have had a little “clout” with Rabbi Angel, who is his nephew by marriage, but he showed no interest. How do you explain Rabbi Angel’s reluctance?

IA: I can understand his reluctance to produce another version of the De Sola Pool sidur. If he did that for our two congregations, he would be destroying the dream of Rabbi David de Sola Pool of uniting all Sefardic congregations in the United States in using his sidur. KS: Did your effort to replace the De Sola Pool sidur find any obstacles? IA: I did not encounter any obstacles whatsoever in producing Zehut Yosef. I did not receive any communication from Rabbi Angel or anyone else asking me not to proceed with the project. I had started working on the book in March of 1994 and it was printed in January of 2002. And, as you know, it was first used by the two Seattle Sephardic congregations on Shabbat, March 9, 2002. In those eight years, I had never heard from anyone asking me to postpone, stop or abandon my project. KS: It seems that you have undertaken the mission to preserve the liturgical traditions brought from Turkey and Rhodes to Seattle. Do you see yourself as the keeper of those traditions? IA: I do not see myself as the keeper of the traditions, but I want to make sure that the traditions that were extant in those parts of Turkey from which the Turkish pioneers came, as well as the traditions of Rhodes, are maintained for future generations. I see myself as doing my part in perpetuating those traditions. KS: What’s the next project of the Foundation? IA: The publication of Kol Yaakov, a mahzor for Yom Kippur, based also on the Rhodes tradition. I have set a self-imposed deadline to publish for this coming Yom Kippur, but I'm not 100% sure it's going to happen. If not this year, then im Yirtseh Ashem next year. I hope to name it after my father, Yaakov Azouz.

© Daniel Santacruz May 2013

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