Benefit helps area writer who suffered stroke

The well-manicured lawns and cool summer winds of Portola Valley set the stage Sunday night for a benefit where the champagne was from Spain, the auction was silent, and the music, poetry and spirit were all Sephardi.

The benefit, which drew more than 100 people, was on behalf of Victor Perera, a journalist and author known for his work chronicling the Sephardi Jewish experience.

Perera, who wrote "The Cross and the Pear Tree: A Sephardic Journey," suffered a major stroke in July 1998 that impaired his speech and brought his writing to a halt.

A former Berkeley resident, Perera is now living in a Santa Cruz care facility and undergoing speech therapy. The benefit was organized to help pay for the costs of his care.

Perera has gradually recovered his ability to communicate, although his speech is still slow and halting. The author, who was on hand Sunday, seemed both surprised and touched by the outpouring of affection.

In a short interview, Perera spoke with great difficulty. Still, his moxie came through when he whispered that before the evening came to end, he needed to discuss a book deal with a guest.

Many of the participants at event came to pay respect to Perera and to celebrate their own roots, whether they were Sephardic, Ashkenazi or otherwise.

Jordan Elgrably, the director of the L.A.-based Ivri-New Association of Sephardi/Mizrahi Artists and Writers International, called Perera an important voice in a community that has often been marginalized.

"I grew up in the United States without any real knowledge of my Sephardic heritage," Elgrably said. "To understand Jewish culture, one has to understand Sephardic culture. A thousand years ago, the majority of Jews lived in Spain, and spoke Spanish, Hebrew or Arabic. The Ashkenazi population was still quite small."

"Unfortunately, with the hegemony of European culture, it's as if Sephardic Jews and Arabs fell off the map. Victor Perera is a seminal figure in preserving and distilling that cultural knowledge."

Myra Lappin hosted the event at her home. In between doling out hummus, pouring champagne and corralling renegade children, she spoke of her appreciation for Perera's teachings.

Lappin, who studied Ladino with Perera, said the writer deserved credit for his doggedness in keeping a culture and a language alive. Lappin was also inspired to do some genealogy work, and discovered that she had Sephardic roots herself.

"Jews just didn't sprout out of the ground in Russia or Poland," Lappin said. "Even though my ancestry is Eastern European, I always had an intuitive sense that there were roots that had been overlooked. Victor was a large part of opening my eyes to a culture that I belonged to but was largely unaware of."

The event, sponsored by Ivri-NASAWI and Albert L. Schultz Jewish Community Center in Palo Alto, raised nearly $5,500. Lappin said she wants to raise $10,000 altogether.

As the Berkeley-based band Za'atar sent the methodical pounding of the darbuka and the sweet chords of the oud out into the night, Jeffrey Masson sat poolside and expounded on Perera.

Masson, a Freudian scholar who sued the New Yorker in an infamous libel suit that eventually wound its way to the Supreme Court, said that Perera was a respected figure not only in the Ladino culture, but also as a naturalist.

"Victor Perera's work with whales is fascinating," Masson said of a book Perera had started before his stroke. "He's working on a really ground-breaking study between man and mammals. I think the book will prove to be a landmark study of our antecedents."

In between bites of baba ghanoush, Dorothy Schwartzberg, who was not familiar with Perera's work until recently, said that she nevertheless felt a kinship with the author: Her mother also had suffered a debilitating stroke.

"When Myra called me, I accepted the invitation immediately. I felt very moved by the generosity of the event. I think being here tonight is about tikkun, which the act of giving. It's a concept that connects Jewry all over the world."