Albert Matarasso Z"L

1890 - 1971

"His knowledge of Ladino was inexhaustible, he knew Ladino translation of Hebrew in a language so rich, so pure, and so virile, that Spanish scholars consulted him again and again."

Albert Matarasso was born in 1890 in Salonica, then part of European Turkey. His father, Yitschak Matarasso, was a simple man - a construction worker - and so Matarasso's inclination for learning was sparked by his paternal uncle, Yaakov Matarasso, one of the reknowned and leading Hebrew grammarians in Salonica.

Albert Matarasso was a product of the great schools of Salonica - a city with a considerable Sephardic population, and one which had been a center of learning and intellectual culture for centuries. When Matarasso graduated from theYeshiva Beth Yoseph - Seminario Teologico de Salonica, he was well-learned not only in Hebrew and Ladino, but had a good knowledge of French and Turkish. He developed a encyclopedic knowledge of rabbinical, journalistic and popular works and by the time he arrived in New York in 1915, at age 25, he was imbued with a sense of learning and of great cultural integrity.

By 1917, he headed west in search of work, and was well received by the Sephardic community in Cincinnati. He didn't remain there long and within six months was back in New York, becoming deeply involved with his Salonikli coreligionists and their organization La Hermandad. He married Dora Almaleh shortly afterwards, in 1920, and they soon began raising a family.

Though he resisted numerous offers to teach, Matarasso found occasional employment, and by 1924 he was teaching Hebrew at the Talmud Torah in Harlem. After the school closed in 1928, he went to Rochester as a Hebrew teacher, but returned the same year. Dissastisfied with the teaching profession in those days, he become an insurance broker the following year, and through hard work and perseverance his reputation and business soon prospered.

Albert Matarasso's life was devoted to religion, to learning and to wearied hours of toil in the service of his fellow men. As a student of the Bible he guided his steps through life by the light he found in its teachings. In those days, his teacher and mentor in this country was Rabbi Moshe Halevy, formerly a Dayan of the Beth Din of Smyrna, and a noted scholar in the Torah and Talmudic studies. They met every afternoon for years, studying and discussing the treatises of the great Hebrew masters, and conducting seminars after the Sabbath prayers. His death in 1928 was a severe loss to Matarasso.

Albert Matarasso never abandoned his pursuit of study of the Bible and the Talmud. Throughout his years he found time to read and to research in the Torah, in all its branches as well as in the responsa. He collected rare prayer books and bibles, amassing a magnificent library of rare books and volumes, which were ultimately donated to the Ben Zvi Insitute in Israel.

Albert Matarasso was also endowed with the silver tongue of an accomplished orator and his Ladino and Hebrew eloquence attracted large audiences. If there were speakers invited to take part in a solemn memorial service, Matarasso was usually one of them, speaking or delivering a moving invocation. If a bond rally took place during the Second World War, he was there at the invitation of its sponsors to move the public with his patriotic ardor. His talks abounded in profound scholarship, philosophical reflexion, and humor.

As the decades passed without an established Sephardic Community in New York City, Matarasso found himself performing the duties of a pragmatic rabbi. His rabbinical services were highly appreciated and much in demand, and yet he had no official position as a rabbi. He devoted much of his time to the service of his organization, the Sephardic Jewish Brotherhood of America, successor to the old Hermandad. He served as its secretary for almost forty years, acting also as its funeral director, and performing many of the funeral services himself. He was also the Secretary of the Sephardic Jewish Center of the Bronx, from its founding in 1948 up to the time of his retirement.

It was said that Matarasso had spoken more Ladino than he had ever written, and thus only a handful of his works survived. In his later years, spontaneous efforts were made by a few of his friends and contemporaries to honor him, but Matarasso refused to accept such tokens of appreciation. It was with considerable difficulty that he was convinced to allow even a small memorial volume to be published in 1969 by the Foundation for the Advancement of Sephardic Studies and Culture. It was simply entitled: Albert Matarasso and his Ladino.

Throughout his life, Matarasso refused to accept any public honor and recognition, and therefore his work and reputation was never widely known beyond the Sephardim of New York. At the time of his passing in 1971 it was the end of an era, for Matarasso was the last of the classically-trained Sephardic rabbinical scholars from Salonica. All of his contemporaries were already gone and the Sephardic public at large never realized they had lost a man of great learning, and a scholar of note.

Of his close friend and contemporary, M.J. Benardete was prompted to write: "It was a great satisfaction to have Matarasso as our learned man. He knew so much and he was ever ready to correct our distorted picture of our tradition. If Matarasso won the respect of Hebrew scholars, he was also an extraordinary well of learning. His knowledge of Ladino was inexhaustible, he knew Ladino translation of Hebrew in a language so rich, so pure, and so virile, that Spanish scholars consulted him again and again. Matarasso fulfilled himself… as a bunch of Málaga grapes… he grew, and he gave, and he reached plenitude in the realm of learning. At heart Matarasso belongs to the tradition of our great sages - men who also had secular knowledge and were at home in the world of science. There goes a real man, by the grace of God."

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