The Sephardic Drinking Song, “I give my life for a taste of raki”1
By Eugene Normand2 and Albert S. Maimon3
There is an old Sephardic song, lustily sung even today by Jews whose families were connected to the Ottoman Empire called “La Vida Do Por El Raki”, meaning that “I give my life for a taste of raki [arak]”. To some it may be considered a Ladino drinking song, but with a catchy, upbeat tune; it has been popular within Turkish Sephardic communities far and wide for many generations. Today, many diverse versions of this song, traditional and modernized, are available on the internet, as both video and audio recordings (Sarah Aroeste4, Niko Castel5, Moshico Cohen6, Kol Sepharad Choir and Ensemble7, etc.). It is enjoyed by a wide variety of audiences, Jewish, both Sephardic and Ashkenazic, as well as non-Jewish.
Like other traditional Ladino songs, the music often transcends the words, especially in such an exuberant song, with the words becoming somewhat less important. Even when the words are considered, such as the following lines of the first verse, “No puedo (yo) desharlo, De bever nunca me harti, De tanto amarlo; (I cannot leave it, I never get tired of drinking, I love it so much”), we see exaggeration combined with a deep appreciation for the unique taste of this liquor, raki.
One of the keys to the hallowed status of raki over the generations is the fact that it was usually made at home, with a home-made still, by the few men in the community to whom the brewing art was known, having been handed down by brewers of the previous generations. Raki was so very popular not only among the Turkish Sephardim but also amongst their non-Jewish neighbors, Turks and even Greeks and Armenians. All of them drank an anise-based distilled hard liquor that packed a wallop, 80-120 proof, but the Turks and Jews called theirs raki while the Greeks called theirs ouzo, yet they were essentially the same drink.
Because the standard raki was made primarily from raisins, which are essentially dried grapes, for Jews there was the issue of kashrut involved with the raki, just as there is with other grape-based alcoholic products, like wine and brandy. It had to be made by Jews to be kosher. Of course very few of the observant Jews had the knack of making the raki. It was only those very few who received the time-honored instructions of how to prepare the ingredients, operate the still and produce the final product.
One of the famous raki makers of the 19th century was in fact a rabbi, Rabbi Meir Jacob Nahmias, who produced fine quality raki in the city of Salonika on a commercial scale. Apparently his raki production secrets were passed down to his children because an advertisement in the Salonika Ladino language newspaper El Avenir more than a decade after the rabbi’s death proclaims that this is the raki from the House of Rabbi Nahmias of Salonika, thus a well-regarded name brand of raki.8 It was a well-regarded brand name, comparable to Seagram’s and the Bronfman family in the world of Canadian whiskey, which also was the beneficiary of rabbinic assistance during its development.9
When the Ottoman Sephardim began immigrating to the United States, those who had the knowledge of how to make the raki set up shop on these shores. We see this very clearly in the experiences of the Turkish Sephardim who settled in Seattle, Washington, in the Pacific Northwest. These Sephardim came mainly from small Ottoman towns such as the island of Marmara, the island of Rhodes, Tekirdag and Gallipoli but also some from Istanbul. All of these men, and some of the women too, loved their raki, so in short order those men who knew how to make the raki, set up shop in their own homes and began producing because there was a large customer base waiting for the product.
The Sephardic raki makers in Seattle opened up shop because there was a very strong demand for the raki but no commercial source for it in the United States. Decades later kosher arak, the same as raki, became available from Israel (Carmel, Ashkelon and other brands), but from the 1920s to the 1950s, if you wanted raki, you would have to go to the men who made it in their homes.
In 2012 Kirby Kallas-Lewis and his partner, Jeana Harrington, opened up their Oola micro-distillery in central Seattle producing clear liquors like vodka and gin which quickly became very popular.10 Little did they know that they were following in the footsteps of Sephardic raki makers more than 80 years earlier who also produced a clear liquor less than a mile from the Oola distillery. These Sephardim produced raki, their own clear, home-made liquor that was widely sought after by a large following. These Sephardic men, mainly Avarham Amon, but also Behor Chiprut and Morris Tacher, produced raki or arak, a liquor with its distinct anise-flavor and made from dried grapes, that has been extremely popular in the Middle East for centuries.
Within the last decade a Syrian Jew, Marty Kairey, opened up his own distillery, Zachlawi, which commercially produces the original raki, as well as special flavored raki liquors, such as fig arak, in New Jersey. The fig arak in particular has attracted a strong following and is unique because it is made using figs as the base fruit, instead of raisins, which differs from the true flavored araks that add flavorings to raisin-based arak. The fig arak has a more muted anise flavoring and so has become popular with people who are not as fond of the original raki with its strong anise taste.
Today, many Sephardim mix their raki with water, creating a white, cloudy appearance, which also occurs when ice cubes are put into the raki. However, in the old days, the men and women usually drank their raki straight. Further, they often had their raki with an appetizer, a mezè consisting of finger food, such as a pandera dipped in haviar (tarama, whipped fish roe), humus or another topping. How much did the Sephardim love their raki, the song, “La Vida Do Por El Raki [I give my life for a drink of raki]” provides an exaggerated answer.
Thus, an aura and a mystery has been built up about the home-made raki that had been made in the Seattle Sephardic community in bygone eras. Middle aged Sephardic men and women and seniors too recall how their fathers and grandfathers (papus) used to treat the acquisition and sampling of the raki with such great gusto. Sometimes they shared a tiny taste with the inieto or inieta (grandchild), so that they too could begin to acquire the taste.
What is really noteworthy is that this love affair with raki and its unique taste took place wherever Sephardim were living. They acquired the taste in the Ottoman Empire many generations ago, but it remained with them, as strong as ever, wherever they have migrated. It went with them as far as Seattle, but also to many other locales all along their migration paths.
Those memories of raki are treasured decades later, so below we record a few of these memories to whet the appetite for a truly Sephardic alcoholic drink. We collected these memories from various people within the Seattle Sephardic community, some even from Sephardim who grew up elsewhere in the US but moved to Seattle, yet wherever they lived, the love for raki was always present11.
Al S. Maimon recalls “when I was a kid, I remember pestering my dad for a "drink of his ‘special water’ so much until he let me have a drink... wow!” His sister, Esther Normand, remembers the small green-tinged glass decanter that contained the raki, which always remained in its hallowed spot, in the back of the refrigerator on the right side.
David S. Azose has similar memories “My grandfather, Papu David Benezra, did make raki for a while. I recall that Mr Avram Amon had a still in his basement on 20th and Fir, across from Sol Halfon's home during prohibition time. I was sent over with a milk bottle to get some for my Grandfather Benezra. I believe Mr. Bohor Chiprut made some also. From the time I was little my Grandfather always let me dip my finger in his glass of raki for a taste. I still have that taste and enjoy raki to this day.”
Al Cordova remembers the famous raki maker, Avraham Amon. “During the days of Prohibition (1920-1933), when the manufacturing of liquor was forbidden by federal law, people who violated the law were tracked down by the police. Avraham was caught by the police and put in jail. The police raided his house and smashed the still and associated raki production equipment that he had in his basement. An influential Sephardic friend was able to able to get him off so he didn’t have to go to trial.”
How good was the homemade raki in Seattle? Louise Kiss and her husband Charles have an opinion. Louise remembers that “Mike Alkana used to make the raki and deliver it to our dad. When she was dating Charlie, he found out where dad kept it and so would sneak a drink when he picked me up to go skiing in the early cold mornings, to give him some heat! He loves it to this day and we remember when we were visiting Tekirdag, Turkey a few years ago there was a raki plant there and we bought a bottle. Charlie didn't think it was as good as the ‘bootleg’ raki he drank from dad's supply many years ago.”
Ralph Maimon remembers ”a rather gruff gentleman named Mike Alkana who drove delivery for the White Kosher butcher shop. I am told that he may have either produced raki and delivered it in 5 gallon jugs or at least delivered it when delivering meat for the butcher shop. I also recall that my good friend Irv Hara's parents made the unfortunate mistake of leaving their jug in Irv's bedroom closet, where I would visit often and enjoy.”
Ralph’s brother, Albert I. Maimon has similar memories. “When I drove the delivery truck for 24th Avenue Market, I used to be asked to pick up raki from various ‘distilleries’ in the neighborhood, and deliver these 1 gallon jugs and 1 quart mason jars to other ‘locations’. I think this is where Hollywood got the idea for the Robert Mitchum movie Thunder Road. I remember my grandfather (Rafael Policar) used to love his raki with his Friday night and Holiday meals and had a rating system for the strength of the raki, from ‘Atomic’ and ‘Dynamite’ on down. He made wine in his basement so he had to buy his raki on the open market.”
Another memory about raki and the raki maker Avraham Amon is provided by Sol A. (Mo) Azose. “We lived in the upstairs apartment from my mother’s uncle, Avraham Amon, who used to make raki from raisins. He had a small coffee shop next door to Jack Maimon’s grocery store on Yesler Way. Many times officers of the law would come there and leave with a pint in their pockets. Bohor Chiprut also had a still in his home that blew up one Saturday morning and caused a fire. I was about ten years old and remember all the girls huddling in the garage in the back of the house. I have also heard that Morris Moshcatel got his start and was also chased by the Feds.”
Regina Barkey Amira has memories of raki from before she arrived in Seattle. “I did not come to Seattle until 1946 when I was 14 years old. My family was lucky to be able to leave Rhodes in 1939 and settle temporarily (7 years) in Tangiers, Spanish Morocco, until we could join my uncle Ralph Capeluto in Seattle.
I was about 11 or 12 years old when my father would send me to a woman's house in Tangiers on Fridays to buy a wonderful smelling liquid. We lived in a 3rd floor apartment and, while going from the 1st floor to the 3rd, I would stop and take a few sips of this licorice-tasting drink from the bottle. When I would reach our apartment, my father would say "Hmmm, next time tell the woman she didn't fill the bottle all the way."
If my father had known that I was the one responsible for the bottle not being full, he would have killed me and I was not ready to "dar mi vida por el raki." To this day, I love having a few sips of this wonderful licorice-tasting liquid, raki.”
Stan Handaly recalls that some Sephardic women also made raki. “About 65 years ago when I was living in Brooklyn among Turkish Sephardim with similar family names as we have in Seattle, I had my first encounter with raki. I was about 6 or 7 years old and my parents would often visit an old widow woman in the community named Matilda Barlia, who always wore black dresses and shawls and had snow-white hair, pinned back severely in a bun. She was the neighborhood ‘mystic’, advising folkloric remedies for illnesses and broken bones, and she knew everybody's business.
During dinner, my mother would often pull out a gallon jug of Gallo red table wine that she and my father drank with their meal. When the gallon jug was empty, my mother would wash it out and take it to Matilda Barlia's home. Mrs. Barlia would take the empty jug and give my mother a full jug of raki. This was a bottle exchange, and I'm sure some money must have also exchanged hands. Once during this visit, I needed to pishar so I went into her teeny weeny bathroom where I was amazed to see her distillery - copper tubes up and down, in and out and over and under every space in her bathtub. I didn't know what I was looking at, at that time, but later understood that this ‘still’ was the source of my parents' raki.”
The Sephardic love affair with raki extended to Western Europe too. Judy Amiel recalls
My first recollection of raki is that my father (Hazan Rev. Samuel Benaroya) had a small glass cup and a large enamel bowl that he hid behind the sink in the kitchen of our apartment in Geneva. Every once in a while, I would smell a strong odor of anise permeating throughout our house that would linger forever.
One day after coming home from school, I found my father at the kitchen table, a small glass in hand, and mixing the alcohol in the enamel bowl with that glass for hours, until he liked the consistency and taste of the raki he was making. Of course, it was illegal to do this privately in Switzerland, but Dad never shared it except with his brother Vitalis. Knowing my Dad, he probably made the raki so that he could drink it on Shabbat with the borekas that my mother baked. Later, when we came to live in Seattle, raki took its place at the Shabbat table of my parent's house. However, to this day, I dislike the taste of anise, black licorice and fennel.
Conversely, some women tried to take shortcuts, as Al Shemarya remembers. “I seem to recall Mama taking gin and adding anise to give it the licorice flavor.” It probably didn’t compare to the true raki that Mrs. Barlia made in Brooklyn.
Back in Seattle there were others who tried their hands at making raki. As Louise Berman, granddaughter of Behor Chiprut, recalls, “I’ve been told that my papu, Behor Chiprut was known for making kosher raki. Apparently, he used only sugar and raisins so it was deemed pure and it was a drawn-out process, taking a few hours. Nona complained because of all the pipes and the kitchen got very hot. It was made on their Monarch stove (both gas or coal could be used).
His raki was made inside the kitchen of the house on 20th, just east of the synagogue. The raki had to be monitored well and it came out only in drops and did not net much. This was quite different than others who made it every day. Papu’s raki was used for special occasions. He also made wine after an Armenian friend would occasionally bring him Zinfandel grapes.”
Regarding her own experience with raki, Louise remembers that “when my husband, Leonard, went to my father to ask for my hand he was indoctrinated into the family with raki! El prove!” Some members of the synagogue of the Turkish Sephardim, Sephardic Bikur Holim (SBH), only recall the drinking of the raki, rather than its manufacture. Sam Viesse asks, “Who was lucky to have attended the legendary Simhat Torah SBH extravaganzas at which copious amounts of raki were consumed. The Turks partied like “rock stars” and the party didn’t really get started until the Ashkenazim from the Ashkenazic Bikur Cholim (ABC) rolled in to start the dancing. We sang till our throats were hoarse!!”
Morris B. (Mo Mo) Azose spent a number of years in Columbus, Ohio. After all, his wife Helene had grown up there and so they were often flying in to visit with relatives and friends. Further, as a young couple they themselves had lived in Columbus for about two years. Helene had attended the Orthodox Beth Jacob Congregation since she was a little girl.
On one of Mo’s early visits to Columbus, when he had been invited to the home of Rabbi David Stavsky, the Beth Jacob rabbi, he was surprised to have been offered a glass of raki by the rabbi on which to make Kiddush. Mo certainly was no stranger to raki, having sampled it for years as he was growing up in his parents’ home in Seattle. Both of Mo’s parents were 100% Sephardic, so the raki fit right in with all of the other wonderful Sephardic fare that was always available in the Azose home. But in the home of an Ashkenazic rabbi in Columbus, Ohio, what was a good bottle of raki doing there?
Rabbi Stavsky explained that after receiving his rabbinic ordination, he served in the US Army as a First Lieutenant at Fitzsimmons Army Hospital in Aurora, CO, and he also was assigned as the Post-Chaplain at nearby Fort Carson, Colorado. He thus had a busy schedule and so he was grateful to find one of the Jewish men at Fort Carson who could serve as his chaplain’s assistant. The man’s name was Eddie Mezistrano and he came from the Turkish Sephardic community in Seattle.
Eddie was very fond of raki and introduced the rabbi to the anise-flavored liquor, and before long, Rabbi Stavsky became enamored with raki too. Eddie was also known to Mo since they had grown up within the same synagogue in Seattle. In his office, the rabbi had a photo of himself with Eddie from their army days. He also had a bottle of raki available to offer to his guests, especially the few like Mo who came with a pre-existing love for the test of raki. Rabbi Stavsky was elated when he found in Mo a fellow aficionado of the liquor, a man who enjoyed the raki as much as he did. To the rabbi it was fitting tribute to his former friend and assistant, Eddie Mezistrano, who had introduced him to raki, and had passed away so prematurely. May his memory be for a blessing.
Another Sephardi in Seattle who was involved with making raki was Hayim Ben (Benaltabe). David E. Behar attests that his father, Elazar Behar, recalls “that the top producers of raki were Mike Alkana and Bohor Chiprut, but Hayim Ben (Benaltabe), also used to make it or sell it.”
However, David has had his own experience with raki. “When I was living in Israel (1978/79), I became close to a Monastirli couple that I met through Morrie and Jewel Capeluto, Isaac and Marie Sarfati. I was at their home quite often and one time I dropped by with a pretty bad cold – very congested. Isaac instructed me to extend my hands, palms up, and cup them. He then poured a little raki into my cupped hands and told me to inhale strongly through my nose – the idea being to create a spray effect from the small puddles in my hands. After some cajoling, I reluctantly complied and I can tell you, it is just as effective as Sinex nasal spray, if a bit more primitive.
Having used raki for that unusual application, however, I must say it is far better as the perfect accompaniment to a late morning Shabbat desayuno of boyos, borekas, keso blanco and azeitunas!”
Have these stories and recollections whet your appetite for a sip or two of raki? If that’s the case, L’Haim, drink up and join in a chorus of “La Vida Do Por El Raki.”
1. The present article is an elaboration of the article “La Vida Do Por El Raki: Sephardim Do Love their Raki: Memories of Its Seattle Makers” by Eugene Normand and Albert S. Maimon, Western States Jewish History, Vol. XLVII, No. 2, Winter 2015, p. 17.
2. Dr. Eugene Normand received his Ph.D. in nuclear engineering which he used to build his career in the aerospace field and in the design of nuclear power plants. He has always been active in his Jewish communities, in Seattle and Chicago, and served in many capacities such as the president of a synagogue, Hebrew Day School and Jewish historical society. He has been actively writing on Jewish subjects, having co-edited his father-in-law’s book, The Beauty of Sephardic Life, has had papers published in Western Jewish States History and Southern Jewish History, and has contributed many articles to the newsletter and website of his synagogue, Sephardic Bikur Holim (Seattle)
3. Albert Maimon received his Master’s degree in mathematics. Professionally, while employed mostly at Boeing, he was active in consulting with many firms and organizations to achieve improvements in business management. He has always been active in his Jewish community through working on projects and serving in community leadership positions through synagogue, school, federation, foundation and other boards, and in many other capacities. He is an active student of a wide variety of Jewish subjects, having co-edited his father’s book, The Beauty of Sephardic Life, made numerous presentations, has been teaching a weekly parsha class for more than 15 years, and has recently helped create the Seattle Sephardic Network.
7. Song La Vida do por el Raki, accessed January 19, 2015, http://www.kolsephardicchoir.com/#!repertoire/c18yp
8. A Guide to Sephardic Raki Drinking, Article by Esra Bakkalbasioglu, accessed August 10, 2014, http://jewishstudies.washington.edu/blog/guide-to-sephardic-raki-drinking/
9. Solomon Maimon and Eugene Normand, The True Secret of How Crown Royal Whiskey Was Developed, http://www.sbhseattle.org/category/sbh-blog/page/7/ accessed August 10, 2014
10. Oola distillery, accessed January 19, 2015 http://www.capitolhillseattle.com/2014/02/capitol-hill-fooddrink-oola-sees-continued-growth-as-biz-brain-behind-one-of-hills-few-craft-distilleries-departs/
11. All of the quotes cited within from personal recollections regarding raki are taken from the article Normand/Maimon, “La Vida Do Por El Raki: Sephardim Do Love their Raki…” see note 1