Hola. This is Barbara with cultural news from the Spanish-speaking world. Well, so «ke ay de muevo»? This phrase is in Judeo-Spanish, also called Ladino. Ladino is the variant of the Spanish language the Spanish Jews continued to speak in the diaspora after their expulsion from their home country in 1492. Jews originating from Spain and Portugal are called Sephardim. Their culture is one of my research interests. So, let’s do a quick, virtual Ladino summer festival!
Video: Saved by language
Many Jews who left Spain and later on Portugal as well fled to the Ottoman Empire, where they were given special privileges by Sultan Bayazid II. Many settled in Turkey. Macedonia, Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina were, in a sense, secondary destinations: Sephardic people went to Sarajevo, Belgrade, Skopje and Bitolj, so that quite large Sephardic communities existed there until they got wiped out during World War II. Before the Holocaust, Sarajevo was sometimes even called «Little Jerusalem».
The video Saved by Language tells the story of Moris Albahari, a Sephardic Jew from Sarajevo (born 1930), who spoke Ladino/Judeo-Spanish as his mother tongue. We may even say that the knowledge of this Romance language helped him survive the Holocaust: Moris spoke Ladino to communicate with an Italian Colonel who helped him escape to a Partisan refuge after he had run away from the train taking Jews to the death camps. By speaking Ladino to a Spanish-speaking US pilot in 1944 he was able to lead the pilot, along with his American and British colleagues, to a safe partisan airport.
Susanna Zaraysky and Bryan Kirschen have created a wonderful documentary about Moris’s testimony and that of the Jewish community in Sarajevo. I love the Sephardic music which brings the pictures to life so well. You can watch the film on YouTube for free:
You may find this BBC report about Bosnians who continue to speak Ladino (the BBC calls it «medieval Spanish») also very interesting. The number of Ladino speakers in present-day Sarajevo is very tiny though. Flory Jagoda, a Ladino folksinger, was also born in Sarajevo, as I wrote in Tertulia, #4.
Novel: The beauty queen of Jerusalem
The history of a Sephardic family is the central topic of one of Israel’s best selling books of the last years. In The Beauty queen of Jerusalem, writer Sarit Yishai-Levi narrates the story of the fictitious Ermoza family who has been living in Jerusalem for many generations. The novel covers the time period from the 1930’s to the 1970’s with a focus on the years before Israel became an independent state.
I must admit that from a literary point of view I did not like the book that much. I found the transitions from one narrating perspective to another a bit clumsy (the character Gabriela is the narrator, but often she has to refer to her aunts to tell what happened before she was born). The characters remain flat even though we learn a lot about their existential struggles. The language is sometimes very redundant and simple. So no way to call it the Sephardi version of Amos Oz’s “A tale of love and darkness if you ask me.
However, the novel is important because it is - to my knowledge - the first popular saga that depicts the history of a Sephardi family in such detail. The plot with its historic references is intriguing. You can learn many typical Ladino expressions that are spread across the novel, which was originally published in Hebrew (btw, I read the German translation). These expressions range from intimate names for family members, like «ija kerida» (dear daughter), «tia Allegra» (Auntie Allegra), «kerido mio» (my dear), or the inevitable mentioning of the Sephardic cuisine rich in «borekitos», «sofritos», «biskochos», and «avas con arroz» (when there is no money left to cook something else). The book is also full of incantations, like «pishkado i limon» (fish and lemon, an expression used when the speaker wants to talk about something else) or «maschallah» (so God will). They use one curse word or incantation that I haven’t understood completely. It’s «kaparavanó». From its context, I guess it means something like «maldito sea» (damn it), but I am not sure. Maybe the expression is from another language than Spanish because the Sephardic Jews adopted many words from their new cultural contexts into their languages. If you know what the word means and where it comes from, please leave me a note:
On one hand, these Ladino language expressions that are sprinkled into the book remain a bit on the surface. The most typical recollection of Sephardic traditions are perhaps the old Merkada doing «livianos» for other people (foretelling the future) and the depiction of some Shabbat customs and other holidays. On the other hand, it is perhaps this automatic, unrflected use of sayings which gives the book a bit of authenticity because this is often what remains of a language when you have been living for so long in a cultural setting that has agreed to predominantly use another language. In this respect, the Ladino expessions in the book also help to underline the diversity of Jewish communities in Israel, many people outside do not know much about. These techniques and topics also turn the book into a kind of «novela costumbrista» without giving us a lot of direction about the culture the novel pretends to reclaim. Despite the folkloric flavour, the main storyline about the family dynamics of the Ermozas with all their love and hatred for each other remains all-embracing: People who live together in a tightly woven web of relations, but rarely talk to each other about their true feelings.
Even though I wouldn’t give more than three stars in a book review, I can’t wait to watch the series: hoping for more showing, less telling. With its multi-generational plot about family dynamics, strong female characters, its historic references, and Jerusalem’s old quarters being the main venue of the story, it’s the right stuff for a good soap opera. Unfortunately, it is not yet available on Netflix, only on Israeli TV. So, we have to wait and see. As would the characters say, we need «pasensia».
Online courses: Summer courses on Sephardi culture
La Red de Juderías de España ( a network of Spanish towns that aims at promoting tourism in their old Jewish quarters) and eSefarad (a news platform for the Sephardic world in Buenos Aires) offer three online courses on the Jewish Culture and History of Spain. The course language is Spanish. The following topics are covered:
Course 1: Getting to know Jewish culture - an introductory course to learn about Jewish customs, traditions, values, beliefs and, in general, the Jewish worldview.
Course 2: Jewish History of Spain - this course will give you a better understanding of the 15 centuries of Jewish life in Spain.
Course 3: Sepharad and Sephardim of yesterday and today - a panoramic view of Sephardic culture in the diaspora from the moment of its creation to the present day
You can register directly through the networks’ shop or use the entry through eSefarad’s announcement where they also offer you a special discount. The courses are not expensive anyway. One class costs 18 Euros. The registration process works smoothly.
Music: «Yo m’enamori d’un aire»
Let’s finish with what Ladino culture is probably best known for today, its musical legacy. Listen to Oi Va Voi’s declaration of love to one of the most popular Sephardi folk songs: «Yo m’enamori d’un aire» («I fell in love with a breeze»).
This is all for today. The Tertulia newsletter will probably go on summer vacation and be back in August. Salud buena para todas i todos ☺️.