Hazzan Isaac Azose was born in Seattle in July of 1930. His parents, Jack and Louise (Kadoun) Azose, met for the first time in Seattle in 1928 and were married in June, 1929. Jack Azose, Alav Ashalom, passed away in March of 1987. Louise passed away in May of 2005.
Having been born to parents who were born in Turkey, Hazzan Azose, spent his early years attending Sephardic Bikur Holim drinking in every little word and nuance of the ‘tefilah’ from such hazzanim as Nissim Azose (the same one who was at the Sephardic Hebrew Center in Los Angeles for many years), his uncle Bension Maimon, Leo (Lia) Azose, the Reverend Moshe Bezalel Scharhon and Reverend Samuel Benaroya A’H. From time to time after his Bar Mitzvah in 1943, Hazzan Azose would be invited to lead services on a Shabbat afternoon which also called for the reading of the Sefer Torah, and in this way, gained a measure of experience in leading services. Hazzan Azose married the former Lily Shemia in March, 1962 and together they raised four children; Aimee, Jack, Solomon and Yossi.
In 1962, the same year they were married, the Sephardic Bikur Holim purchased the two lots on which the synagogue currently stands. (The Ezra Bessaroth had already built their own All-Purpose Social Hall in the Seward Park area, which, as the name implies, served both as a synagogue as well as a hall in which to hold social events). At that time, about half the membership of the Sephardic Bikur Holim was living in the Seward Park area and the other half was still in the old Central Area. An old ramshackle house stood on the property on which the synagogue was to be built. Several of the young members decided to turn that old house into a ‘branch’. They gutted the interior, put in paneling, lighting, built a ‘tevah’ and ‘aron kodesh’, brought two sifreh torah’ and some folding chairs from the old synagogue, and they were in business.
Hazzan Azose became the primary hazzan, not only leading Shabbat services, but also leading services on the High Holy days, as well as Pesah, Shavuot and Sukkot. Of course, he could not do all this by himself, particularly reading sefer torah. This was parceled out among many young men, including himself. Those three or four years retain a special place in Hazzan Azose’s heart.
In 1965, he was the first vice-president of the Sephardic Bikur Holim, ready to step into the position of president, when his future changed. On the second day of Shavuot, in June, 1965, as he was having lunch at his parents’ home after synagogue services, he heard a knock at the door. It happened to be Bob Franco, of blessed memory. He greeted the family and asked if he could see Hazzan Azose on the outside porch. He indicated that he would like Hazzan Azose to try out at the Ezra Bessaroth for Rosh Ashanah and Yom Kippur. Hazzan Azose was flabbergasted. He tried to beg off, pleading that he wasn’t experienced enough, that he had had no training (which was true). However, Bob was very persuasive and convinced him to give it a try.
One month before Rosh Ashana, Isaac was asked to meet with a select group of people in the tiny school office below the social hall at Congregation Ezra Bessaroth. Reverend Behar and a few others were already gathered in the office. He was asked by Reverend Behar to sing the Nishmat of Rosh Ashanah. He sang it for him, exactly as he had sung it and heard it sung for many years at the Bikur Holim. When he finished, Reverend Behar said, “our people won’t go for it” “Sing the Kedushah of the Shahrit” the Reverend asked. Isaac did as he was asked. Again came the same answer “our people won’t go for it.” “Reverend” Isaac said, “I can’t promise anything, but if you will record those two pieces for me, Ill try to learn them”. As it turned out, with a family and working full time for Boeing, Isaac had no time to learn the two selections, which were difficult enough in their own right.
Although everyone at the Ezra Bessaroth was very nice to him and indicated how much they enjoyed his services, Isaac was not too sure how well accepted he had been. He called Bob Franco after Rosh Ashana and told him that he would not be coming back for Yom Kippur. Bob would hear nothing of it. “First of all, you promised me”, he said, “and second, you did a great job on Rosh Ashana; the people loved you”. Isaac wasn’t any too sure of that, but he gave in and performed the Yom Kippur services.
Afterwards, he heard nothing whatsoever from anyone at the Ezra Bessaroth until the first week of March, 1966. Bob Franco called and told him that he had been hired as hazzan and they wanted him to start immediately. That was the beginning of a long, warm, and caring relationship between Hazzan Azose and Congregation Ezra Bessaroth.
The first few years at the Ezra Bessaroth were difficult when it came to reading perasha. What with raising a family and working full time at Boeing, it was difficult to put in the many hours that were required for the learning of each perasha week after week. There are many weeks when the perashiyot are ‘mehubarot’ (joined together), i.e two perashiyot on the same Shabbat. That was the most difficult time of all. Many were the times when he would meekly walk to synagogue on Shabbat morning and Reverend Behar was already there. He would ask, ‘Reverend, I was only able to learn until ‘shishi’ (the sixth of seven portions). Would you be able to do ‘shevii’ for me?’ And he would very graciously say yes.
Hazzan Azose believes Rev. Behar knew all the perashiyot by heart. He also believes he has carried on the tradition as passed down to him by Reverend Behar, but is sorry that he didn’t spend more time recording various minhagim (customs) that are specific to the Rhodes tradition. It was a sad day when Reverend Behar passed away in August, 1977. In December of 1998, Hazzan Azose gave notice to the Ezra Bessaroth of his intention to retire at the end of 1999.
Although feeling physically fit for someone his age, being hazzan precluded any long vacations because he had to find people within the synagogue to read perasha in his absence. There was no one in the synagogue capable of reading an entire perasha unless they were given several weeks notice, and, even then, it would have been too much of a burden for them. Arranging for a weeks’ vacation meant assigning the various ‘aliyot’ of the perasha of the week he would be gone, to several people. It was a luxury when he was able to take more than one week at a time.
One of the requirements of Hazzan Azose’s contract was that he teach the Bar Mitzvah boys of all members. In order to give each boy the maximum opportunity to do his best, Hazzan Azose would start with each boy a year before his Bar Mitzvah. In this way, if the boy was capable of doing the entire perasha, it was a ‘feather in the boys’ cap’ and it made the family very proud. During the first several years of his tenure, there were no more than four or five boys per year becoming Bar Mitzvah. In recent years, however, the average has been ten boys coming to his home each week to study for an hour each. This kept Hazzan Azose very busy.
When he was still working for Boeing, this did not leave much of a family life. However, his retirement from Boeing in July, 1995, allowed him more time for other things. One of those ‘other things’ was a project that has been a lifelong dream for him. There is no Sephardic prayer book that incorporates the ‘nusach’ (order of prayer) of the Seattle Sephardic community, Turkish or Rhodesli. As mentioned earlier, in growing up, he made mental notes of those portions of the service where words or phrases were inserted or deleted from that which was written in the prayer book. As he would lead a service, those words or phrases were inserted or left out automatically.
The Ezra Bessaroth has been using the De Sola Pool Daily/Sabbath Prayer Book (as well as the other Holiday prayer books) for approximately fifty years. They went for the De Sola Pool (as did the Bikur Holim a few years later) because it was the only Sephardic prayer book in America with an English translation. Most of the old-timers in the synagogue were still using the old prayer books they had brought with them from Rhodes. Even those who did switch to the De Sola Pool siddur knew those words and phrases that were inserted or deleted by heart. However, in recent years, many of the young men growing up in the synagogue have been treating the De Sola Pool as if it is their ‘nusach’, which it is not.
In order to preserve the unique flavor of the Seattle Sephardic community ‘nusach’, Hazzan Azose, who has always been a computer ‘buff’, bought a Hebrew Word Processing program from the Davka Corporation in Chicago called ‘Davka Lite’. It came on a small floppy disk and took up very little room on the hard disk. However, he learned very quickly that, at the rate he was putting in one letter and one vowel, it would take several years before he would be able to finish the siddur.
There was no Hebrew scanning software available that would have allowed him to scan in a siddur and modify it to his needs. A few months later, Davka came out with an Ashkenazic siddur on disk. Hazzan Azose thought, this is my big break! The Ashkenazic siddur must be at least fifty to sixty percent compatible with most Sephardic siddurim. He was very excited and couldn’t wait until the disk arrived. When it did arrive, he dropped everything he was doing, cancelled the Bar Mitzvah lessons for that day, and spent the next several hours on the siddur, working until three or four in the morning. It gave him a great sense of accomplishment. Of course, those original programs were very rudimentary with limited capabilities. Some time later, Davka came out with Dagesh, version 1.0 on CD with a lot more capabilities and much later, with version 2.0 and 2.1. Soon after he finished a first proof copy of the siddur, and placed copies in the hands of several knowledgeable people from both synagogues as well as a few outside Seattle to help proof-read it before publication.
This work, which began in March, 1994, culminated in the publication of Siddur Zehut Yosef, the Seattle Sephardic Community Daily and Sabbath Siddur in March 2002 and is now in use in both Seattle Sephardic synagogues.
In 2007 Isaac Azose completed a Makhzor for Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot in conformity with the Rhodes and Turkish traditions as practiced in Seattle.
Hazzan Azose could not have accomplished whatever he has accomplished without the help and support of his beloved wife, Leah (Lily) A’H. Over the years, she has invited hundreds of people to their home for a Shabbat meal or a holiday meal. One of the traditions in the Ezra Bessaroth community was to have a Sukkah Trail on the first two days of Sukkot, where a few families who had built sukkot, volunteered to host the members who attended synagogue services in their sukkah. Leah’s sukkah always drew the biggest crowd, because Leah would always go all out for these events. She would spend weeks beforehand baking bulemas, borekas, boyos and making yaprakes and fritada.
On the day they came to her home, she would put on the table as well, kezo blanko, kashkaval, azetunas, pishkado salado, pickled eggplant and drinks to no end. Although they could only accommodate 50-60 standing in their sukkah, there were always another 50 or 60 gathered inside the house. During the last two years, it had became too much for Leah to go through all the baking and preparation that was required. It was with a sense of regret that Leah gave up the annual Sukkah trail tradition. For Sukkot of 1999, however, Isaac asked his wife if she couldn’t invite, once again, the members of the synagogue to their Sukkah, since he would be retiring at the end of the year. Leah acceded to his wishes, and spent weeks again beforehand preparing all the wonderful Sephardic delicacies that everyone had come to expect. That year, it seemed, the turnout was greater than ever before. Leah was very tired but it was well worth it.
Over the years, many individuals have asked Hazzan Azose to record various and sundry parts of the liturgy for them and he has accommodated them whenever he could. Many have asked him to professionally record a cassette of portions of the service. The stock answer was ‘I hope to, whenever I can get some free time’. However, the ‘free time’ never seemed to come. At that time, one of the members of Ezra Bessaroth, Steven Baral, took the bull by the horns and told Hazzan Azose that he would just have to set aside some time to record some of the liturgy of Ezra Bessaroth. Thinking it over, the hazzan believed it would be a wonderful legacy for the synagogue, and possibly for any other synagogue carrying on the tradition from Rhodes.
Mr. Baral, underwriting the project, set aside a block of time in a studio for Hazzan Azose to do his recording. There was so much recorded that it turned out to be a two CD set. “The Liturgy of Ezra Bessaroth”. It is by no means comprehensive of the entire liturgy but gives a fairly good representation of the Shabbat, Holiday and High High Holiday liturgy. Since the Ezra Bessaroth has carried on the tradition of using the booklet published by Rabbi Reuven Eliyahu Yisrael, the last Chief Rabbi of Rhodes, which is all in Ladino, you will find a good portion of the CD’s done in both Hebrew and Ladino. Not all of the selections are done in their entirety. In many cases, only the first and last stanzas of a particular selection have been recorded in order to give a flavor of the pizmon or tune.
After years of intensive labor and research, Hazzan Azose produced the first ever Siddur according to the tradition of the Rhodes and Turkish communities of Seattle, WA.; The Zehut Yosef Siddur came out in 2002 and was immediately embraced by the two Sephardic Synagogues in Seattle. Zehut Yosef has become the worldwide standard for Turko/Rhodesli Siddurim. In June of 2004 Hazzan Azose came out with two new versions of the Zehut Yosef Siddur, a thinner lighter version with English translation and an all Hebrew version.
Hazzan Azose has given our community a gift that can never be repaid. He has endlessly and selflessly labored to preserve every tune and every nuance of our beloved Ladino Sephardic traditions and melodies. He and Leah (A’H) have served their community with enthusiasm, devotion and love and for this, and so much more we are eternally grateful. Hazak U Baruch Hazzan Azose!
Addendum: Hazzan Azose married the former Lily Shemia in 1962. Lily, of blessed memory, passed away in 2001. Hazzan Azose remarried in 2003 to Elisa Chrem, of Lima, Peru and Cleveland, Ohio. Hazzan and Elisa Azose both live happily in Seattle, WA.
Hazzan Azose may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Biography from Hazzan Azose’s website:
Listen to his recordings here.