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Jewish Journal

Avalon in August

During the past 75 years, Rhodesli Sephardim have flocked to Catalina to reconnect with their island heritage.

by Adam Wills

August 17, 2000 | 8:00 pm

Women observe the Sephardic tradition of ondas a la mar (waves to the sea).

Women observe the Sephardic tradition of ondas a la mar (waves to the sea).

Catalina is only 22 miles across the sea from Los Angeles, but to many visitors it feels like a distant land. For one particular community of Sephardic Jews, it's that very feeling that has kept them coming back over the past 75 years.

To Rhodeslis, Ladino-speaking Jews from the Greek island of Rhodes, a trip to Avalon takes them halfway around the world.

Every third week in August, more than 200 Sephardim - some from the East Coast and Canada - travel en masse to Catalina for a cultural experience they don't always get on the mainland.

"The first time I went there, I felt like I was in Rhodes," says 91-year-old Rosa Franco. "It was beautiful."The trip is an annual pilgrimage around which everything else is planned. Reservations are often made a year in advance, and there's little that will make a Rhodesli consider canceling."If you want to have low attendance at a wedding or a Bar Mitzvah," says Clement Cohen, 65, "have it on the third week in August."

While the island's only city doesn't always hold the public spellbound, Rhodeslis see Avalon as an opportunity to indulge nostalgia and spend quality time with loved ones.

"We spend half the time reflecting on old memories and the other half creating new ones," says Sarita Fields, 57, whose family has been going to Avalon since 1925.

Most Rhodeslis who immigrated to the United States did so shortly after Italy took control of Rhodes from the Ottoman Empire in 1912. Those who came to Los Angeles settled primarily in Boyle Heights. By the 1920s, word of Catalina's temperate climate, pebbled beaches and slower pace of life had spread through the tight-knit Rhodesli community. Avalon's streets and fountain reminded them of Rhodes' la Juderia (the Jewish quarter). Catalina was a taste of home, and the "Island of Romance" quickly became a honeymoon destination for the first generation.

The annual trip to Avalon was the only vacation many Rhodeslis took from their jobs as shoemakers, flower peddlers or grocers. Friends and families - among them the Hassons and Benvenistes - would meet at the Sephardic Hebrew Center on Hoover Street and discuss travel plans.

"Relatives from Rhodes would talk about Catalina all year long," says 62-year-old Rose Benon.The trip from the mainland on the luxurious S.S. Avalon or S.S. Catalina was an event in itself. Most travelers spent the two-hour steamship trip ballroom dancing to big-band music, and dressing up for the crossing was de rigueur.

"My mother always wore a nice dress with spectator heels, and my father wore a suit and tie," says Fields.For lodging, singles and couples without children turned to The Island Villas, a collection of affordable one-room wooden bungalettes that could hold up to 1,100 guests comfortably. Those married with children would rent homes, and some toted their own pots, pans, dishes, silverware and food.

"They would bake there," says Benon. "They would make boyous, boerekas, comidas, fry fish that the men caught. Everyone would have dinner together."

With little money for entertainment, adults and children would hike to the Wrigley House or the Bird Park, which displayed 3,600 rare birds for free until it closed in 1966. At night, they bought ice cream and walked to the Catalina Casino, the Art Deco landmark that featured acts like Benny Goodman and Glen Miller. For a dime, many would take moonlit rides around the bay in the shoreboat.

Like other Los Angeles Jewish communities, Rhodeslis had moved from Boyle Heights to both the Westside and the San Fernando Valley by the late 1960s. As the community spread, the annual trek to Catalina became an increasingly significant cultural event. By the 1980s, the third week in August had gradually become the time to meet in Avalon to reconnect with other Rhodesli Sephardim.

"I've been going since I can remember," says 41-year-old Larry Peha. "It's the cousins that you haven't seen in a long time. We take over the island. Everywhere you walk, you know somebody. It's a lot of fun."The epicenter of today's Rhodesli Avalon experience is arguably the Pavilion Lodge, which overlooks the beach on Crescent Avenue. A favorite for more than 30 years, the Pavilion's garden courtyard is the regular scene of commun-ity events [see sidebar, page 27] and parties.

"We always have an excuse to throw a party," says Clement Cohen, who, with his wife Esther, hasn't missed a summer since 1959. "A birthday, an anniversary, someone caught some fish. We'll make up an excuse to have a party."

Several people celebrate their birthdays while in Catalina. One of them is 73-year-old Al Huniu. For his 50th, several of Huniu's friends had teenagers march through the streets yelling "Huniu! Huniu!" while carrying a banner and signs bearing his name. People who stumbled onto the scene thought it was a political rally.

"They really surprised me," says Huniu, who has seen similar marches for his 60th and 70th birthdays.There are more serious rituals, too. The community's matriarchs will often choose one day to observe a Sephardic tradition called ondas a la mar (waves to the sea).

"I Remember Rhodes" author Rebecca Amato Levy, 88, says that the women walk into Avalon Bay to "wash their faces, arms and feet to draw sickness and bad luck into the ocean."

Catalina has inspired many to travel to Rhodes to experience their ancestral home, sometimes with groups of other Rhodesli descendents from around the globe. A tour last year featured High Holiday services in Kahal Shalom, Rhodes' only remaining synagogue.

Regulars say that interest in the Catalina trip has been on the rise in recent years. Though no one has taken an official count, the number of Jews who travel to Avalon for the third week in August has jumped from roughly 150 to almost 250 during the past decade.

"The merging of the temple had a lot to do with that," says Cohen. In the early 1990s, Rhodesli synagogue Beth Shalom (formerly the Sephardic Hebrew Center) merged with Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel in Westwood. At the Rhodesli community's invitation, the Sephardic Temple's congregants - mostly Moroccan, Syrian and Greek - have joined the party in recent years.Another contributing factor has been the unshakable enthusiasm of the younger generations. Many who spent their summers in Catalina in the '70s and '80s are now bringing their own children to Avalon, some just weeks old, to pass on the torch.

"I've been going to Catalina almost every summer of my life," says 40-year-old Cynthia Seider. "My children have not missed a summer. It's a place we really cherish. When I speak of Catalina to people, I get goosebumps."

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