Focus Questions

How is this photograph different to your family photos today?

Which part of the photograph do you notice most?  What does that part tell you about the people in the photograph?

Why do you think this photograph was taken?

Have you noticed...The expression on Leon’s face? How old do you think he was when this photograph was taken? Click to reveal answer

Leon was 13 at the time this photograph was taken. It was taken to celebrate his Bar Mitzvah, the Jewish coming of age ceremony at age 12 or 13.

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Photograph of Leon Aelion

Photograph of Leon Aelion

Black and white portrait photograph of Leon Aelion taken to mark his Bar Mitzvah.

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The Object

Object name: Photograph of Leon Aelion
Date: 1920
Catalogue number: 795.3
Material(s): Black and White Photograph
On display in the Jewish Museum? No

  • Leon Aelion was born in Salonika, Greece, in 1907. He moved with his family to Turkey around the time of the First World War. This portrait was taken during his time in Istanbul, at his Bar Mitzvah, the coming of age ceremony for Jewish children.
  • There had been a large Jewish community in Salonika since 1492 when the Jews had been expelled from Spain. The majority of the Jewish people in Salonika were of Sephardi background, meaning that they originally came from Spain. Leon grew up in a majority Jewish neighbourhood, and most of the children at his school were Jewish. 
  • During this time Greece was ruled by the Ottoman Empire, however Greeks took control of Salonika in 1912-1913 and this made a lot of Jewish people emigrate from Salonika. The Jews of Salonika moved to the United States, to Brazil, the U.K. and France. 
  • Leon and his family left Salonika in 1918 and moved to Istanbul, Turkey. It was here in 1920 that Leon celebrated his Bar Mitzvah. Leon’s Bar Mitzvah was not a large celebration. Leon remembered, ‘It was snowing. We went to synagogue, I read the...part [of the Torah], we came home, I had lunch with my uncle and my aunt and my father and mother, and that’s it, and I got a few presents, that’s about it.’
  • After 4-5 years in Istanbul, Leon’s family moved to France. Then in 1927, Leon moved to London alone, without knowing the language, and without knowing anybody here. He began working in the carpet business. When he arrived he asked whether there was a Sephardic Jewish community in London. He was told about the Synagogue that was being built at Holland Park, and became very involved in helping to set up the congregation. 

  • Eventually Leon’s family joined him in England, just before the outbreak of the Second World War.

The Story

Leon’s Salonika

A Sephardi Jewish community had existed in Salonika since their expulsion from Spain in 1492. At this time Salonika was ruled by the Ottoman Empire, who welcomed the Jewish immigrants from Spain. Leon remembers that the majority of Salonika at that time was Jewish and there were about 40-50 synagogues in the area. Most of the Jews spoke multiple languages. They often spoke Spanish at home, French in school as many Jews attended French schools in Salonika, and spoke Greek or Turkish as well. Leon recalls that even the Greek population of Salonika had to learn Spanish to get by as there were so many Jewish people speaking it! Some Jewish people also spoke Ladino, a dialect which is a fusion of Hebrew and Spanish.

Leon has many memories of celebrating various Jewish festivals in Salonkia. After synagogue services there would always be a Kiddush, where blessings are said over wine and food. Leon remembers that there would always be some form of fish at the Kiddush since Salonika was by the seaside. He noted that there would often be a form of Turkish Meze, different small dishes, at the Kiddush as well. For Passover, the Aelion family would have a Seder Plate for all the symbolic foods, and would always eat a type of brown eggs cooked very slowly called Heuvos Haminados as part of the traditional Seder meal.

Leon’s grandfather was an Observant Orthodox Jew, but his father appeared to be less observant. The family kept Shabbat, the Sabbath, every week, but Leon remembers that his father would not go to Shabbat services at synagogue. Instead on a Saturday the family often went to relax at the sea. Sunday was an ordinary working day. Leon’s mother was very observant, but did not keep the kosher food laws.  

Digital Takeaway

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