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B'siyata d'shmaya - With the help of Heaven

Hank Halio, 91 - A Sephardic Cultural Icon

By Shelomo Alfassa / January 23, 2008

On January 15, 2008, the Jewish people lost a pillar of the Sephardic cultural world, Mr. Hank Halio, a memorist of American Sephardic life, past away at the age of 91. Mr. Halio will always be remembered for his book Ladino Reveries, a lasting volume of remembrance of many of the long lost Sephardic traditions of the Ladino speaking Sephardic Jews of the United States.

Mr. Halio was born on the Lower East Side of New York City to Sultana (Susie) and Yusef (Joe) Halio, both who were born in Ottoman Turkey. Hank Halio lived most of his early life in New York City, being raised in Harlem and the East Bronx. In 1947, he married Phyllis Torres, daughter of Albert Torres, publisher and editor of the New York City based Ladino newspaper, La Vara, an important paper for Sephardic Jews, which published from 1922-1948.

In addition to a commitment to the military reserves that began as a private at the advent of World War II, and which culminated in his retirement with the rank of Lt. Colonel, Mr. Halio enjoyed a fruitful career in the printing trade and the garment industry. His business endeavors took him from New York to Japan and other parts of the Far East. Beyond his military, business, and family activities, Mr. Halio found time to give of himself to various fraternal, social and religious organizations. He was a director of the Jewish Community Center of Bensonhurst and was Chancellor Commander of George Gershwin Lodge #649, Knights of Pythias. He was an officer and director of the Sephardic Social Club of Florida and served as editor of its newsletter for several years.

His column, Ladino Reveries, started running in 1992 in the Sephardic Home News, after being reprinted from earlier writings taken from the newsletter of the Sephardic Social Club of Florida which was founded in 1978. The articles were celebrated and cherished by Jews across America, including in Brooklyn, New York where the Sephardic Home for the Aged had a newsletter readership of near 10,000 across the world. In 1999, his columns were turned into a book, Ladino Reveries: Tales of the Sephardic Experience in America. While a wonderfully rich, funny, and informative book, it did have a serious side. Mr. Halio realized that the Spanish Sephardic culture relocated from Turkey, Greece and the Balkans to America was fading, he comments:

Intermarriages with the Ashkenazim and other ethic groups eroded much of our culture. Yet those who strayed still have a yearning to hear, read and remember their culture that was lost to them, lamenting that their children and grandchildren will have no knowledge of their heritage. Sad to say that the progeny of first-generation Americans will only hear of our wonderful Sephardic family experiences, but never truly appreciate them.

"Hank Halio manages to convey the old stories from Sephardic Turkey and 'dahntown' New York City with a warmth and affection that brings them to life and makes them as entertaining now as they were then," a reviewer recently wrote.

Hank Halio was one of the older members of the Turkish Jewish community in America. He was a branch from the tree of Sephardic scholars and intellectuals of the 20th century that developed the field of Sephardic Studies and brought it to the universities across America, this included men such as Meir Benardete, Albert Mataraso, David N. Barocas, Louis N. Levy, and Henry Besso. While Mr. Halio's book may not be considered "academic" in a traditional sense, his book does remains as one of the very few superb volumes on real-world Sephardic life--life as it was lived by real everyday people. Mr. Halio's writings are a time capsule, a window into a now vanished history of a people that once possessed a cherished heritage but lost it to assimilation in just 100 years. Mr. Halio's words and memories will forever dwell as a memorial to his family, his people, and the descendants of the Sephardic Jews in America.

Long a New Yorker, Mr. Halio spent his last years in South Florida. He leaves behind his beloved wife of over 60 years, Phyllis Halio nee Torres, three children and grandchildren.




© Shelomo Alfassa