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Sid Robinovitch

Mazelto and her husband Jacob Israel, Mazelto was one of the 151 Jews of the Greek Island of Rhodes who didn't perish in the Holocaust.

Iren Eskenazi

Mazelto's grandson Ike who came to hear the perfromance of Robinovitch's work in Seattle.

Robinovitch’s Sefarad: Music remembering the Jews of Rhodes

By Rhonda Spivak, November 1, 2009

[Editor's note: This article was first published in the Jerusalem Post]

When award winning Canadian composer Sid Robinovitch did a musical setting of a Spanish poem  about a  Sephardic Jewish woman  believed to have perished in the Holocaust, he never would have imagined that  he would learn of  her survival and have her grandchildren in the audience the night his work was first performed in the United States.

But that is what in fact happened  when Robinovitch’s composition, Rodas Recordada (Rhodes Remembered) about the fate of the Jewish community on the Greek island of Rhodes, was performed two years ago in Seattle, Washington.  This beautiful composition, as well as other music influenced by the Sephardic tradition, is on Sefarad, a new CD of Robinovitch’s work on the Marquis Classics label.

The story behind Rodas Recordada is truly remarkable: In 1933, twenty-four year old Guillermo Díaz-Plaja, was one  of a group of Spanish writers and scholars who traveled to several of the Mediterranean Sephardic communities in  search of  ancient Hispanic folklore. Díaz -Plaja went to the Sephardic community of Rhodes where he made the acquaintance of a woman named Mazaltó (Mazaltov) de Jacob Israel, and she recited the Ballad of Three Doves to him in her traditional Judeo-Spanish dialect.

Forty years later in the 1970’s, Díaz-Plaja, who by now had become a  celebrated literary critic and  a member of the Royal Spanish Academy, returned to the Sephardic community where his literary career had been born.  As he well knew, a tragic change had taken place.  After the Allies took Italy in 1943, the Germans occupied Rhodes. On July 23, 1944, they deported to Auschwitz the 1, 673 Sephardic Jews  who were living on the island. All but 151 perished. Díaz-Plaja tried to retrace his steps to where Mazaltó de Jacob Israel lived, on the street running through the old "judería" (Jewry),  which was now named the "Street of the Jewish Martyrs."

Stunned by the change, Díaz-Plaja wrote a poem, weaving memories of his first visit hearing the Ballad of the Three Doves with his shock and despair at the Jewish community's decimation. Believing that Mazaltó de Jacob Israel had died  at the hands of the Nazis, Díaz-Plaja wrote in the last verse of his poem:

The songs are stilled-
Mazaltó de Jacob Israel.
My memory has become black
From tears and bitterness.
But your remembrance I preserve
Mazaltó de Jacob Israel.

Robinovitch, who has written music for symphonies, film, radio and television, discovered Díaz-Plaja’s poem over 30 years ago in a now defunct journal called “The American Sepharadi."

“When I was in Barcelona in 1979, I had the opportunity of meeting Díaz-Plaja, who died some 5 years later,” Robinovitch recalls.

Robinovitch set  Diaz-Plaja’s poem to music at the request of  “Music of   Remembrance,” a concert organization in Seattle dedicated to performing music related to the Holocaust.  Prior to the  performance of Robinovitch’s  Rodas Recordada in Seattle in 2006,  Mina Miller, the artistic director of Music of Remembrance, sent him an email in which she wrote:

“We have started working with the Sephardic community to advertise the performance of your work. … We have discovered something quite unbelievable.  It turns out that Mazaltó de Jacob Israel did not perish… …. Apparently, she was rescued and came to Seattle!  This is not a joke. Mazaltó  even had a family here.”

In a rather amazing turn of events, a  woman named Lily Dejean, who was part of Seattle’s Jewish Sephardic community had volunteered to assist Music of Remembrance  in advertising  the  upcoming performance of  Robinovitch’s work.  In the midst of the planning, Dejean realized  that she herself, some 40 years earlier, had  known  Mazaltó de Jacob Israel, who was the subject of Díaz-Plaja’s poem.  As Dejean, age 79, recalls,

“I was invited to join the committee [promoting Robinovitch’s composition] and when they started to talk about the woman Mazaltó, I realized that the name sounded familiar.   I put two and two together.  Mazaltó  had lived in my neighborhood [in central Seattle] with her son  and his family, just a few houses away from where I lived!”

In  fact, Mazaltó  de Jacob Israel had two sons and a daughter Rosa who had come to Seattle.  In 1939, they arranged to get Mazaltó  out of Rhodes to Seattle where she lived until she died in 1945. 

Dejean adds, “Mazaltó  had actually boarded at my home from December to February in 1945, just before she passed[away].”
As Mazaltó ’s granddaughter Irene Eskenazi, now age 76, says “ My grandmother got on a ship and landed in  New York.  My cousin, Ike Alhadeff, [ now age  92] went  to New York and brought her to Seattle.  She lived with my parents.  I remember her singing melodies when I was young.  We never spoke Spanish or Ladino and the grandchildren couldn’t understand her and she couldn’t understand us.  But I remember she was always laughing and happy…”

After escorting his grandmother to Seattle in 1939, Mazaltó's grandson, Ike Alhadeff, went on to become  a B-17 pilot in the  398th Bombardment Group  in the U.S. Air Force that flew on D-Day.

Eskenazi and Alhadeff, and Max Israel, another of Mazaltó’s grandchildren , as well as  other family members, were all present for the U.S premiere of  Robinovitch’s  Rodas Recordada in Seattle . Eskenazi says of the performance, “It was absolutely marvelous.”

According to Eskenazi, her grandmother Mazaltó actually had “eleven children who  are scattered all over the world, including Africa.”

Robinovitch’s  newly released Sefarad album  marks the first time Rodes Recordada,  has been recorded on a CD. The piece is set for 3 singers along with guitar, clarinet, and cello. 

Robinovitch, who is an Ashkenazi  Jew  and grew up in Western Canada, became interested in  Sephardic music when he later lived  in Toronto.

“ I started attending a Sephardic synagogue where the congregants were from Tangier.  They spoke Spanish amongst themselves.  I attended services and tried to soak up some of  their music," he says.

 Robinovitch originally taught social sciences at York University in Toronto, but since 1977 he has devoted himself to musical composition, having studied at Indiana University and the Royal Conservatory of Toronto.  Robinovitch’s album Klezmer Suite, a recording devoted entirely to his music performed by the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra was nominated for a 2002 Juno award and received a Canadian Prairie Music Award for outstanding classical recording. In July 2006 a special concert including music by Robinovitch was presented in Tel Aviv under the sponsorship of the Canadian Embassy.

About his CD Robinovitch says, “the music on Sefarad represents some of the ways that I have brought the Sephardic world into my work as a composer." In addition to Rodas Recordada, included on the album are a song cycle based on Shir Hashirim (Song of Songs), arrangements for  a guitar trio of Judeo-Spanish folk-songs, and a hybrid work charmingly titled "Klezmer in Granada."

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Rhonda Spivak, Editor

Publisher: Spivak's Jewish Review Ltd.

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