Sephardi roots lead photog to vibrant culture in Turkey

One woman stands inside a crumbling synagogue. One displays a plate of fresh borekas. One records a traditional Jewish song. Another poses surrounded by her wedding trousseau. One, cane at her side, sits in a cushioned chair, holding a small coffee cup. The self-assured gazes of the women in the photographs seem to say, “This is who we are.”

The 23 black-and-white photos make up “Sephardi Women of Turkey,” an exhibit by Audrey Ray Daniel at the Addison-Penzak JCC in Los Gatos. Daniel, 53, captured the images during a five-week trip to Turkey 20 years ago.

Lisa Ceile, coordinator for cultural arts at the APJCC, said Daniel’s exhibit is an opportunity to celebrate a piece of the diaspora. “Audrey’s images of Sephardi women, young and old, are a beautiful way to help this culture continue on, and we want to be a part of this journey,” Ceile said.

Grandmother in Istanbul takes time for tea after talking about her childhood and changes in the Jewish community over her lifetime. photos/audrey ray daniel

Daniel traveled to the cities of Istanbul, Bursa, Edirne and Izmir in the fall of 1991 to connect with women who could tell her what was going on in the Jewish community. At the time, the community was shrinking rapidly, due to anti-Semitism. “Yet what I found was a cultural renaissance created by Sephardi women,” Daniel said. “They were exploring their roots, making an effort to keep their traditions alive.”

Daniel, who lives in San Francisco with her husband, composer-musician Joe Scuderi, had a second mission in Turkey — to explore her own heritage. “I’m half Sephardi and half Ashkenazi,” she said. “My parents moved here from New York and I grew up in Saratoga. I knew about my Ashkenazi roots, but not much about my dad’s family.”

Early in 1991, Jerry Daniel sent his daughter a photo from the New York Times that accompanied an article about the exhibit “In the Court of the Sultan: Sephardi Jews of the Ottoman Empire” at the Jewish Museum of New York. The photo was of a woman wearing traditional Salonika clothing. The woman was Daniel’s great-grandmother.

“When I looked at that photo of Nona Cignoru,” Daniel said, “I thought, who is this woman? I realized I didn’t know anything about my Sephardi heritage at all.”

At the time, Daniel was studying documentary photography at Marylhurst University near Portland, Ore., in preparation for a graduate degree in art therapy. She already had a bachelor’s degree in Spanish literature from New York University. “I proposed to Marylhurst that I go to Turkey and explore my roots photographically for my thesis,” Daniel said. The school said no, but Daniel decided to go anyway.

Preparing the Sabbath lights, a woman whose family has lived in Bursa for two centuries pours oil into a tin with six cotton balls twisted with wicks.

A Sephardic woman from Turkey who lived in Oakland, Rachel Bortnick, agreed to go with Daniel to help her set up meetings. Bortnick, a writer, now lives in Dallas.

Daniel recalled that the two spent their first week in Turkey making phone calls. Early in the trip, honeyed syrup from a piece of baklava Daniel was eating dripped into the mechanism of one of the two cameras she took to Turkey, rendering it useless. Still, Daniel returned with thousands of photographs, all shot without a flash and developed by Daniel “the old-fashioned way.”

The Magnes Museum held the first exhibit of “Sephardi Women of Turkey” in Berkeley in 1993, and since then the photos have been displayed at several JCCs in the Bay Area. “Each time I have a show, I add something new,” Daniel said. “This time I have some Sephardi items in a display case.”

The current exhibit includes Sephardi proverbs, some more than 500 years old, compiled by Beki Bardavid, one of Daniel’s subjects in Istanbul. “Beki spent 20 years compiling the proverbs, and she has more than 2,000,” Daniel said. “I chose proverbs that reflect women’s relationships with one another, to support the theme of some of the photos.”

Audrey Ray Daniel photo/paul dahlquist

In an effort to expand the reach of her photographs, Daniel is approaching Jewish museums around the country. She also produces videos for websites and makes short documentaries about people who inspire her ( All of the women in her photos inspire her, and Daniel hopes to re-establish contact with some of them through the Internet.

“Sephardi Women of Turkey” has been well received in the past, Daniel said. “Many people who have viewed it have come to understand the importance of preserving cultural heritage,” she said. “It’s so important to pass down our traditions. Otherwise, they will end.”

“Sephardic Women of Turkey,” through Aug. 24 at the Addison-Penzak JCC, 14855 Oka Road, Los Gatos. Reception 2 p.m. June 17 with Sephardi music by Rivka Amado. or