Closing the circle: Seattle’s Sephardic liturgy is complete

By Emily K. Alhadeff, Associate Editor, The Jewish Sound

Looking back on the past 84 years, Isaac Azose is most proud of the family he built. Next, he’s proudest of his books — the five prayer books in the Sephardic tradition of the Isle of Rhodes that he edited and published.

Ike Azose

Hazzan Ike Azose in his home, holding a copy of Kol Yaakov, the new Sephardic Yom Kippur prayer book.

Azose, the hazzan emeritus of Seattle’s Congregation Ezra Bessaroth, was honored Nov. 2 for the completion of the updated Sephardic liturgy, which started in 1994 with a vision to create an updated Sephardic daily/Sabbath siddur.

Since the 1950s, Sephardic congregations have largely used Rabbi David De Sola Pool’s Spanish-Portuguese siddur.

But the prayer books lacked some important parts of the service, and Azose wanted the Seattle Sephardic community to have books that reflected the liturgical tradition of Rhodes and Turkey that he had internalized during his childhood in the Central District. So he began looking for a computer program that could scan the Hebrew — with vowels — from a prayer book out of copyright.

“If I could find something like that, I could publish a book in a few months,” Azose told me in his Seward Park home. But he was before his time. In 1994, no one was yet able to scan Hebrew with the vowels without confusing the program. “I guess I’ll have to start from scratch,” he had said.

To his delight, he found a program called Dagesh Lite, one of the first programs that could handle Hebrew typing with vowels.

“I was very excited, because I would be able to begin typing my siddur,” Azose said. “The first thing one says in the morning is ‘modeh ani lefanecha’” — the morning blessing on awakening — “So I type in the ‘mem,’ then I type in the ‘vav,’ then I type in the dot that goes on the top that gives it the ‘oh’ sound, then the ‘dalet,’ then a ‘segol’ underneath that gives it the ‘eh’ sound, then finally the letter ‘heh’…it’s taken me almost a minute to type in one word!”

But he didn’t give up. A few months into the painstaking process of typing the Hebrew characters one by one, the Davka Company, the creator of Dagesh Lite, notified him of a floppy disk with an Ashkenazi siddur he could copy and paste. Despite the difference of tradition, Azose figured he could use a good chunk of the liturgy. The day the disk arrived, Azose said he skipped dinner and worked until 3 a.m.

Gradually, new programs came out, making this part of the work easier. Deep into his retirement years, Azose would even pack his reference books and materials and work poolside on vacations.

Finally, in 2002, Siddur Zechut Yosef was published. It has been the go-to prayer book at Ezra Bessaroth and Sephardic Bikur Holim ever since.

Following the book’s well-received publication, Azose went on to publish Zichron Rachel, with liturgy for the festivals of Sukkot, Passover, and Shavuot. Then came Machzor Tefilah L’David for Rosh Hashanah, then Tefilah L’Moshe for the five fast days, then the culminating work just this fall: Kol Yaakov, the Yom Kippur machzor. This fifth and final prayer book is named in honor of Azose’s father, Jack.

What began as a pet project for local congregations has gained international standing. Azose’s siddurs and machzors can be found in Sephardic congregations in Portland, Atlanta, San Francisco, Indianapolis, Rockville, Md., as well as in Cape Town and Rhodes itself in the Kahal Shalom synagogue. Over the years he has produced other editions upon request. Azose has found that Egyptian, Lebanese and Syrian Jews who did not take to the De Sola Pool books have welcomed his siddurs.

“I think the prayer books are a tremendous achievement and legacy,” said Maureen Jackson, who met Azose while researching Turkey and ethnomusic-ology at the University of Washington as a doctoral student. “It puts Seattle on the map as sort of an alternative Sephardic cultural center.”

Jackson is impressed by Azose’s commitment to transmitting an oral tradition from an older generation to
the younger.

“He contributes to our understanding of the diversity of Sephardic liturgical practices, because he’s paid close attention not only to the Turkish but also to the Rhodes traditions,” she said. “It’s a richness that would have been lost had the De Sola Pool prayer book become uniform across the United States.”

Jackson also commented on Azose’s “devotion and enthusiasm that has seen him through five publications.”

Azose seems happy to humbly rest on his laurels now.

When it came to publishing the final book, Azose had to send the book to his new Israeli publisher before his family’s trip to Israel to celebrate his grandson’s Bar Mitzvah July 3. On June 6, his hard drive crashed and he nearly lost the entire project.

“I had to get the machzor done before we left for Israel,” he explained. “I got it done the day before we left for Israel.”

Overwhelmed by a handful of technical problems between the manuscript and the new publisher, Azose spent his trip to Israel worrying that the book would not be done and delivered to Greece and South Africa in time for Yom Kippur.

“As it turns out,” he said, the books destined for Rhodes “got there two days before the holiday.”

The clean, easy-to-follow white machzors made it to Ezra Bessaroth in time, too, where they were well received. Sponsorship of the opening pages and book sales brought in tens of thousands of dollars for the synagogue to boot.

Azose is finishing up a machzor for Sephardic Bikur Holim for the five fast days in the Turkish tradition, which he expects will take a few more months. Then, it’s on to more personal projects, like scanning his family photographs and organizing his house.

“I have piles and piles and piles of papers that need to be annotated and put away,” he said, pointing to stacks of files on his hearth. “You should see my office — but I won’t let you see my office.”