Six women sat around a folding table. They filled dough with eggplant to make a special holiday treat. And they talked.
They were making burekas, a Turkish pastry they sell at Congregation Or VeShalom bake sales. As they worked, they talked of the old days and the old ways.
“We’re all related in the synagogue,” Rachiel Berger said, joking that her family would advise against saying anything bad about anybody they knew because “you’re probably related.’”
The six were among about 40 people gathered to prepare for Or VeShalom’s 39th annual Hanukkah Bazaar. The Brookhaven congregation is celebrating its 100th year this year. These women have known one another for years.
Or VeShalom is a Sephardic synagogue, meaning members are descended from Jewish families that fled Spain in the 15th century. They departed after the government there tried to force Jews to convert to Christianity. “Many chose to leave,” Renee Feldman said. “They couldn’t go to Italy because it was Catholic, and they couldn’t go to France because it was also Catholic.”
Those who didn’t go to England or Holland spread around the Mediterranean and settled in the Island of Rhodes area of Greece, and in Smyrna, Turkey, Feldman said.
“We try to maintain Sephardic traditions,” Grace Benator said. “Instead of Yiddish, we speak Ladino,” which, she explains, is a Spanish-based language, whereas Yiddish is a German-based language.
Food also differentiates Sephardic Jews from other Jewish groups, the women said. Women from Or VeShalom gather every Tuesday to bake burekas for the synagogue.
Benator said being a Sephardic Jew, to her, means enjoying Mediterranean food like the burekas she has been making with friends throughout her life.
“The tradition of baking together came from when the women would gather to bake for the Sabbath,” Feldman said. “They would share and bake together, so that’s what we do. We didn’t have freezers and caterers in those days so you had to get together the week before and do all of the preparations.”
In 1914, after a group from Turkey had formed a Sephardic synagogue and another group from Greece formed a separate Sephardic synagogue in the area, the two joined to create the current congregation, Benator said.
“They just used to meet in homes for services,” she said, adding that the building where Congregation Or VeShalom exists currently on North Druid Hills Road is the third building the congregation has used as a synagogue. The original was on Central Avenue, she said.
Betty Handmacher, who lives in Dunwoody, said her grandfather, Moreno Benbenisty, was one of the founders of Congregation Or VeShalom.
“So was my father, Louis Cohen,” Sarah Diamond added, as she folded another bureka into its flag shape.
Born in Atlanta in 1937, Rachiel Berger says all the women at the table that day were born within three years and three months of one another.
Benator said her mother is the first cousin of Handmacher’s mother. Handmacher sat at the end of the table, manipulating a bureka so the eggplant filling wouldn’t spill out during baking.
Berger explained that her grandfather on her mother’s side, who lived in Turkey, sent her father to America to avoid conscription into World War II. “It was time to go into the draft, and the regime was very anti-Semitic, so his father sent him to this country,” she said.
While her father did return to Turkey before finally emigrating to the United States, Berger added that he was married nine years before he could afford to bring her mother to America.
“It was about nine years before he could make enough money to bring back my mother and her younger brother,” Berger said. “They were in Turkey, so my grandparents had, like, a second family. Can you imagine being married nine years before you could get your family together?”
The women preparing for the Or VeShalom baking have known one another for years. Benator said that her mother-in-law and fellow baker Feldman’s father are sister and brother.
Benator, Feldman and Stella Firestone’s families shared a duplex when the girls were growing up, with one family upstairs and the other downstairs. “When they wanted to talk on the phone, they’d knock on the wall with a broom and we’d pick up the phone,” Benator said.
“We thought life was easy,” Feldman said. Firestone joked, “We didn’t realize we had it so bad.”
“We used to hate going to Hebrew school,” Berger laughed as the other ladies chimed in about walking to Central Avenue four times a week. “We were petrified of the rabbi,” Berger said. “He was tough, but he was good.”
The tradition continues, Berger said, with her granddaughter who helps make burekas. “She calls and says ‘Mimi, my bureka box is empty,’” Berger said. “She’s carrying on the tradition.”
“There’s no such thing as a bad bureka,” Benator says from the other end of the table. She admits that some of them don’t look perfect, but said she believes the burekas and Mediterranean cuisine are what keeps people coming back.
“It’s very authentic,” Benator said.