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Jewish High School of CT pays tribute to Sephardic heritage

By Cindy Mindell

STAMFORD – In the early 19th century, Rabbi Eliyahu Mani and his wife set out from Baghdad, leaving behind family for the dream of a new life in the Holy Land. With a treacherous desert journey ahead, they hired the right caravan driver: not only someone who is trustworthy, but a religious Muslim who would agree to stop the caravan on Friday evening so that the couple could observe Shabbat.

The couple made it to Hebron, where they raised three children. The rabbi was so admired by the Arab residents of the city that they dubbed him “Sheikh,” and, according to legend, wanted to bury him in the Muslim cemetery when he died.

These are the maternal ancestors of Mimi Cohen, a Stamford resident and longtime Jewish educator whose mixed “ashkephardic” background – her father and his family escaped pre-Holocaust Berlin – is the subject of A Link in the Chain, a new short documentary by filmmaker Elena Neuman Lefkowitz. A trustee of the Jewish High School of Connecticut (JHSC), Cohen, 72, will be honored at the school’s annual gala on Sunday, May 8, when the film will debut. The event will be a celebration of Sephardic culture -– developed by Jews who lived on the Iberian Peninsula before the Inquisition and their descendants – with an art show curated by the Fernando Luis Alvarez Gallery, and Sephardic Jewish cuisine.

A Manhattan native, Cohen attended Jewish day schools, graduating from the Ramaz School and eventually forging a career in Jewish education. In addition to teaching, she worked at the Jewish Theological Seminary’s Melton Research Center for Jewish Education and then as an administrator at Solomon Schechter School of Westchester for 15 years before retiring in 2003. She and her husband, Saul, raised two daughters who both attended Bi-Cultural Day School in Stamford.

“There’s an article that I translated from Hebrew which describes how my ancestors would change into their Shabbat clothes in the middle of the desert, and make kiddush and sing Friday-night zmirot,” Cohen says of a family history published centuries later in the Israeli press. “It was so colorful; it just touched my heart in a way that I knew that my involvement in Jewish education and in the Jewish world and my kids’ strong commitment to Jewish life and their Jewish communities were being transmitted through the generations.”

The title of the film reflects Cohen’s passion for genealogy, cultivated over the last several years, and only matched by her dedication to Jewish education.

One of the Manis’ grandchildren was Avraham Castel, Cohen’s maternal grandfather, who was sent from Hebron to Portugal in 1921 to serve as rabbi of the first synagogue opened there since the Inquisition. On a family trip to Portugal several years ago, the Cohens met with a rabbi who opined that some 75 percent of the population has some Jewish blood.

“He told us that more and more people are coming forward to be converted,” Cohen recalls. “We see this happening in Spain, Mexico, New Mexico, and many of the Caribbean countries. So who knows what kids will learn about their ancestry? For all the intermarriage of today and throughout the generations, there are so many people who have some Sephardic genealogy. Every family has interesting stories and we’re all links in a chain and the more the links, the stronger the chain, and the more the chains, the stronger the whole.”

Cohen thought that her own genealogical inquiry could serve a broader purpose: not only to bring Sephardic culture to JHSC students and the community at large, but to inspire the teens to shake the branches of their own family trees.

“I would like to see the kids exploring their own family history and getting a sense of who their families are and how they have maintained or changed tradition over the years, as a way to strengthen their own Jewish identity,” she says. “At the same time, I would like them to be able to appreciate differences within Jewish populations. We tend to be very xenophobic and look at the world through the only lens that we know. If we can broaden our vision and see different kinds of Jewish observance and see a mosaic or a tapestry of a quilt, I think that it strengthens who one is through the appreciation of difference and maybe piques one’s interest in exploring something different.”

All families have remarkable stories that can strengthen family identity; they just have to be uncovered and transmitted, according to Cohen.

“Today, in the age of technology, with everybody on their devices and the lack of face-to-face interaction, those dinnertime conversations which could be about family history will get lost,” she says. “I say, talk talk talk, share share share. It will strengthen who you are and your connection to family and Jewish identity.”

Jewish High School of Connecticut Annual Gala honoring Mimi Cohen will be held on Sunday, May 8, 5 p.m. at Temple Beth El, 350 Roxbury Road, Stamford. For information or tickets: jhsct.org, (203) 357-0850.

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