They came from a collapsing Ottoman Empire, landed in New York and were sped on their way by Jewish agencies to the verdant Pacific Northwest.
They arrived in Portland and built a small community that in many ways replicated the village and small city life they abandoned along the shores of the sun-kissed Mediterranean.
These Jews from Turkey, Rhodes and Greece bought homes and opened shops in southwest Portland, on the fringes of a growing urban center trading in timber and fish.
It was a rambunctious frontier place with the likes of native son John Reed, the soon-to-be legendary socialist journalist, stomping about town. Across the river, Simeon and Amanda Reed, unrelated to John, donated the farmland that would become Reed College, and would draw me to Oregon and its Sephardic community many decades in the future.
The Jewish community burgeoned several avenues west of the south-to-north surging, plump Willamette River, which must have reminded more than a few of the Sephardim of the waterfronts of Izmir, the port of Rhodes and Salonika.
Their families bore names redolent of mysterious lands: Hasson, Babani, Policar, Funes.
One clan grew so numerous that monikers had to be attached to their first names to distinguish one from the other. Thus, one ebullient pillar of the community was “Sarah the Blond” Menashe, to distinguish her from a darker complected Sarah Menashe.
Descendants of this band of pioneering Jews are celebrating a century of life in Portland with a series of events anchored by an exhibit, “Vida Sefaradi: A Century of Sephardic Life in Portland,” at the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education in northwest Portland, an area made famous by Carrie Brownstein and Fred Armisen in “Portlandia.”
The museum has teamed up with Congregation Ahavath Achim, the long-time Sephardic synagogue in the city, to mount the exhibit. Judith Margles, executive director of the museum, said the exhibition celebrates “a small community that is deeply imbued with family history and an awareness of how they came to Portland.”
The first thing that a museum visitor encounters is a large photo mural of an Ahavath Achim 1949 banquet in a crammed synagogue social hall. As one stands before the mural, one can almost smell the fragrant potato bourekas and spanakopita.