Siempre Te Ami
by Hazzan Isaac Azose
A strange title. It should be of interest to both our Seattle Sephardic synagogues. It appears to be Spanish, and it is, but it is also the name of a song composed and recorded by a relatively famous Sephardic singer by the name of Jack Mayesh. Its meaning is ‘I Always Loved You’. Jack Mayesh (born 1899) lived in Los Angeles, California from 1929 until his passing in 1969. In addition to ’love songs’, he also recorded several liturgical pieces. The original recordings were on vinyl records, and, with the advent of new technology, they were subsequently available on cassette, compact disks (cd’s) and now digital formats.
However, I would like to concentrate on the title song, Siempre Te Ami. My son, Rabbi Yossi, informed me that it was in maqam (musical mode) Huzzam. I first heard it sometime in 1941 or 1942, when I was eleven or twelve years old. My uncle, Bension Maimon, alav ashalom, was one of the two original hazzanim serving the Sephardic Bikur Holim. (The other one was Nissim Yahiel ben Shelomo Azouz). I am referring to the Bikur Holim in the old Central Area, on the corner of 20th Avenue and East Fir Street. One of the members of the Bikur Holim was Nissim Benezra, the brother of Henry Benezra who was, not only a past president of SBH, but also a graduate of the University of Washington. Nissim Benezra was married to someone by the name of Sarah Berro.
One Shabbat morning, as Uncle Bension got up to start the Nishmat prayer, he sang something I had not heard before in my very young life. I didn’t give it a lot of thought at the time. After services were over, I happened to be very close to Nissim Benezra and I heard him berating Uncle Bension for having used a love song as part of the liturgy. I’m paraphrasing, of course, but I heard the conversation between Nissim and Uncle Bension. They were speaking in Ladino, which, at the time, I knew well enough, because it was the language I was raised with. Nissim said something like “no te averguenses, Bension, de kantar una kantika de amor en muestras orasyones? (Aren’t you ashamed, Bension, to sing the tune to a love song during our prayers?) I’m paraphrasing, of course, but I believe Uncle Bension said something like “Nissim, no era la primera vez ni sera la ultima vez ke uzamos kantikas de amor en muestras orasyones” (Nissim, It was not the first time, nor will it be the last time that you will hear the tune of love songs during our prayers).
I don’t recall too well but, during the ensuing years, I must have heard it sung a few times. However, it was sung only when there was a wedding scheduled in the synagogue for the coming week or weekend. This was also the impetus for me to use it at Ezra Bessaroth two or three times while I was hazzan there from March 1966 to when I retired on January 1, 2000. However, this only came to mind recently when Alex Behar, the son of David E. Behar, returned to Seattle from New York with his new bride, Eliana. I thought to myself, ‘Although it’s the week after their wedding, why don’t I sing the same tune in honor of Alex and Eliana?’ I asked Rabbi Simon Benzaquen, who would normally have recited the services, if I could lead the prayers, starting with the Nishmat, through the end of the morning Amidah. He graciously said yes.
Afterwards, I let both David and Alex in on the significance of my leading the services that morning and the tune that I started it out with. Once they learned the meaning of the words to “Siempre Te Ami”, they thought that it was a nice tribute to their being in Seattle on the Shabbat following their wedding.
Earlier in this article, I had indicated that the maiden name of Nissim Benezra’s wife Sarah was Berro. I had only heard the name with that spelling at the Ezra Bessaroth. The wife of Rev. David Behar, Buena Leah, had a sister by the name of Rosa. She had married Bill Berro from Rhodes, affectionately known as ‘Uncle Bill’. Sol (Leo) Azose confirmed to me that Nissim Benezra’s wife was Sarah Berro and she was the sister of Uncle Bill Berro of Ezra Bessaroth.