Oral Literature of the Sephardic Jews – sephardifolklit.org

Posted By on July 16, 2017

Oral Literature of the Sephardic Jews Samuel G. Armistead, University of California, Davis

The edict by which all Jews were exiled from Castile and Aragon was signed by the Catholic Monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabel, on March 31, 1492 (Baer 1961-1966: II, 433). But we should not think of this banishment, radical and catastrophic as it surely was, as an altogether sudden, definitive occurrence. It was, in a certain sense, a quite gradual, centuries-long process. Some Jews, when threatened by the alternative of exile, were to accept Christianity and some were to become sincere converts, but many other conversos who remained in Spain were to practice in secret their ancestral religion for centuries after 1492. For example, Inquisitional records tell us in detail of just how such Crypto-Jews continued to celebrate, in secret, Sukkoth (Tabernacles) and Pesach (Passover), in Madrid, even in the early 18th century, well over two centuries after the banishment of Jews from Spain (Alpert 1995; 1997). And a number of Crypto-Jewish communities have survived, even down to the present day, in Portugal, along the northeastern border with Spain.[1] There was also a secret Jewish community on the Island of Ibiza until the early 1940s and vestigial memories of the presence of Jews also persist elsewhere in Spain and in the Americas.[2] Over the centuries, many other Crypto-Jews in Spain and in Portugal, faced with oppressive conditions at home, opted to joined their exiled coreligionists in North Africa, the Balkans, the Near East, and later in Holland, where they could practice their ancestral religion openly and without danger of Inquisitional retribution.[3] This aspect of the Exile, as a gradual, ongoing process, was to have an important impact on the folk literature of the exiled communities. The close link between the Moroccan Jewish settlements and the Iberian Peninsula was never brokenfrom Tangier, after all, one can clearly see the coast of Southern Spainwhile, in Eastern communities, more distant and relatively more isolated, there were still numerous conversos who had opted for the welcome offered to Western Jews in the Ottoman domains and who settled in what is now Bosnia, Macedonia, Bulgaria, Rumania, Greece, and Turkey, bringing with them cultural perspectives and oral-literary texts of a more modern character than was reflected in the essentially medieval repertoire brought out of Spain in 1492.

Until recently, two different dialects of Judeo-Spanish were spoken in the Mediterranean region: Eastern Judeo-Spanish (in various distinctive regional variations) and Western or North African Judeo-Spanish (also known as akita), once spoken, with little regional distinction, in six towns in Northern Morocco and, because of later emigration, also in Ceuta and Melilla (Spanish enclaves in Morocco), Gibraltar (Great Britain), Casablanca (Morocco), and Oran (Algeria).[4] The Eastern dialect is typified by its greater conservatism, its retention of numerous Old Spanish features in phonology, morphology, and lexicon, and its numerous borrowings from Turkish and, to a lesser extent, also from Greek and South Slavic. Both dialects have (or had) numerous borrowings from Hebrew, especially in reference to religious matters, but the number of Hebraisms in everyday speech or writing is in no way comparable to that found in Yiddish.[5] The North African dialect was, until the early 20th century, also highly conservative; its abundant Colloquial Arabic loan words retained most of the Arabic phonemes as functional components of a new, enriched Hispano-Semitic phonological system. During the Spanish colonial occupation of Northern Morocco (1912-1956), akita was subjected to pervasive, massive influence from Modern Standard Spanish and most Moroccan Jews now speak a colloquial, Andalusian form of Spanish, with only an occasional use of the old language as a sign of in-group solidarity, somewhat as American Jews may now use an occasional Yiddishism in colloquial speech (Hassn 1969). Except for certain younger individuals, who continue to practice akita as a matter of cultural pride, this splendid dialectthe most Arabized of the Romance languageshas essentially ceased to exist. Eastern Judeo-Spanish has fared somewhat better, especially in Israel, where newspapers, radio broadcasts, and elementary school and university programs strive to keep the language alive. But the old regional variations (Bosnia, Macedonia, Bulgaria, Rumania, Greece, Turkey, for instance) are already either extinct or doomed to extinction (Sala 1970; Harris 1994). The best we can perhaps hope for is that a Judeo-Spanish koin, now evolving in Israelsimilar to that which developed among Sephardic immigrants to the United States early in the 20th centurymay somehow prevail and survive into the next generation.[6]

On their departure from late medieval Iberia, the Hispanic Jews took with them into exile a rich body of oral literature. Ongoing, if in some cases only sporadic, contacts with the homeland significantly modified and enriched this original medieval Spanish corpus. Even more important was the impact of the many linguistically diverse folkliterary traditions of the peoples among whom the Jews settled, particularly in the Balkans and in the Near East, but also in North Africa.[7] Hispanists, who were among the early pioneers in collecting Sephardic oral literature, tended to look on the tradition as an essentially static, richly evocative treasure trove of medieval survivals (Menndez Pidal 1973: 335-336). While there are, indeed, highly significant and invaluable instances of the survival of medieval text-types and other medieval features in both Judeo-Spanish traditions, to assume that any and all texts, simply because they were sung or told by Sephardic Jews, must, for that reason alone, be of medieval origin falsifies and diminishes this tradition, one of whose most characteristic features is, precisely, its rich synthesis of diverse cultural components, gathered from the many peoples encountered by the Spanish Jews during their multisecular pilgrimage in Mediterranean lands.

Sephardic oral literature includes the following generic types: narrative ballads (romansas), lyric songs (cantigas), cumulative songs, prayers and medicinal charms, riddles (endevinas), proverbs (refranes), and folktales (consejas).[8] Other traditionaland partially oralgenres were also cultivated in Judeo-Spanish. Two especially deserve mention here: complas (paraliturgical poetry: popular, sometimes traditionalized, religious or didactic songs) and plays, originally staged to commemorate important holidays (compare the Yiddish Purimspiel). But, though complas especially and, to a lesser extent, also the drama, both involve an oral component, these must be considered essentially written literature.[9]

Though there are, as we shall see, traces of ballads from as early as the mid-16th century, oral literature in Judeo-Spanish began to be collected only in the late 19th century.[10] Such early attempts were haphazard and sporadic. Systematic efforts began only in the early 1900s, with balladsthe supposed repository of an exclusively medieval traditionbeing given almost all the attention, to the grave neglect of other genres.[11] Some folktales were, however, very accurately transcribed and published for their value as linguistic documents. There are also a number of extensive early 20th-century proverb collections, usually edited without interpretive commentary. Only after World War II, faced with the full, horrendous significance of the Holocaust and the ongoing threat of Balkan and North African nationalism, did Sephardic and Western scholars come to realize that the entire folkliterary tradition would have to be collected during the next few decades if it were to be saved at all.[12] Only then did the systematiccollecting and evaluation of various forms of lyric poetry begin to come into its own, while the other forms, though collecting had already started, began to be studied seriously according to the norms of modern scholarship. But riddles have continued to be the black sheep of Judeo-Spanish folk literature and have been gravely neglected almost to the present day.

Judeo-Spanish romansas (Spanish romances) are narrative ballads characteristically embodying 16-syllable, usually monorhymed verses, divided into two octosyllabic hemistichs, with assonant rhyme in each second hemistich.[13] The eight-syllable assonant ballad verse ultimately derives from the anisosyllabic assonant verse of the medieval Spanish epic, and a certain number of Judeo-Spanish ballads, together with some ballads from other Hispanic regions, can be shown to be genetically derived, through direct oral tradition, from medieval Spanish heroic poetry.[14] The earliest evidence we have for the existence of ballads among the Hispano-Jewish exiles does not consist of full texts, but involves an extensive corpus of incipits (or, in some cases, of crucial internal verses), used as tune markers in 16th- and 17th-century Hebrew hymnals (piytm collections): A typical heading might read: Pizmn lean Arbolera tan gentil (A hymn to the tune of Arbolera etc.), thus giving us the earliest Judeo-Spanish documentation for The Husbands Return (in - assonance). In Morocco we have no full texts until the late 19th century, but 18th-century hymnals give us similar, though more limited data from an earlier time (Armistead and Silverman 1973; 1981). The earliest extensive text from the East comes to us in the form of a fragmentary Dutch translation of a ballad, sung as a mystical allegory, in Izmir (Turkey), in 1665, by the false Messiah, Shabbatai Zevi (Scholem 1975: 396-401; FLSJ, V, Chap. 14). By the early 18th century, we have a substantial corpus of handwritten ballads from the Sarajevo community and, towards the end of the century, also from the Island of Rhodes (Armistead, Silverman, and Hassn 1978b). Three early Hispano-Portuguese ballads were copiednostalgicallyby Sephardic Jews in Amsterdam in 1683 (Armistead and Silverman 1980a; 1980b).

The Sephardic ballads are very much a part of the Pan-Hispanic ballad tradition and they cannot be studied in isolation. The two Sephardic traditions (Eastern and North African) and the repertoires of other Hispanic language areasCastilian-speaking regions of Spain, the Canary Islands, and Spanish America; Galicia, Portugal, the Portuguese Atlantic islands and Brazil; and the Catalan-speaking areas of Spain, France, and Sardiniaare mutually complementary, from a philological perspective, offering crucial data for reconstructing the ballads early development and for studying the oral tradition as an ongoing dynamic process, involving constant recreation and a high degree of poetic creativity (Bnichou 1968b). The entire ballad tradition (the Romancero) is, then, very much a Pan-Hispanic phenomenon, but, at the same time, many Hispanic ballads also have recognizable, genetic relatives in other European linguistic communities (RPI: II, 624-644; Armistead 2000a). Like the other branches of the Pan-Hispanic Romancero, the Judeo-Spanish ballads include songs based on medieval Spanish and French epics; others concern events in Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian history; still others recreate Biblical episodes, legends from Classical Antiquity, or details of medieval romans daventure; many ballads embody a variety of topical, novelesque plots: prisoners and captives, the husbands return, faithful or tragic love, the unfortunate wife, adultery, various amorous adventures, tricks and deceptions (CMP). Many ballads can be traced back to medieval Iberian origins, others were invented by the Sephardim in exile, still others can be shown to have reached the Jewish communities well after 1492, doubtless brought there by converso emigrants; a few Eastern romances are adaptations of Modern Greek ballads (tragodia), while others translate French chansons populaires, or Italian and Catalan narrative songs.[15] Though the two traditions (Eastern and North African) have remained very different, a few ballad-types have migrated from one tradition to the other (CMP: I2, S6, X6, X13). The Moroccan traditionlike the local Judeo-Spanish dialecthas been profoundly influenced by Modern Spanish traditional ballads brought in by 20th-century Spanish immigrantsparticularly Andalusiansto the Spanish zone of Northern Morocco.

Here is a Sephardic ballad of medieval originsung in both branches of the Judeo-Spanish tradition, as well as in Castilian-, Galician-, and Catalan-speaking areas of Spain, in northern Portugal, and in Mexico and Argentina (RPI S4). Apart from its delightful content, it eloquently illustrates the basic principle that each ballad has its own, sometimes highly distinctiveif not, as in this case, uniqueindividual history. The ballad of La bella en misa (The Beauty in Church) originated as the central episode of a Greek ballad, learned and transcribed by Catalans during their occupation of Greece (1311-1388), then taken back to Catalonia, whence it spread to Spain and Portugal, later to be taken back to its land of origin, when the Jewish exiles departed from Iberia in 1492 (Setton 1948; En torno: 50-60). This ballad also illustrates the very considerable presence of a Christian ambience and sometimes even specifically Christian details and motifs in the Sephardic balladsoriginally learned from an essentially Christian traditionconserved as an integral part of the ballad repertoire, despite almost 500 years of exile (En torno: 127-148; Armistead 2000b). Note, however, how here the originally Catholic priest has been transformed into an Orthodox papazico.

Tres damas van a la misa

Three ladies are going to mass

por hazer la orasin.

to say their prayers.

2 Entren medio va mi spoza,

With them goes my bride,

la que ms quera yo.

the one I love most of all.

Sayo yeva sovre sayo;

She wears many pleated skirts

un xiboy de altornasin.

and a waistcoat of fine cloth.

4 Su cavesa, una torona

Her head is round like a grapefruit;

sus caveyos briles son.

her hair is golden thread

Cuando los tom a peinare,

and when she combs it,

en eyos despunt el sol.

it glistens in the sun.

6 Las sus caras coreladas

Her red cheeks

mansanas dEscopia son.

are apples from Skopje;

Los dientes tan chiquiticos

her small teeth

dientes de marfil ya son.

are all like ivory.

8 Su boquita tan chequetica

In her tiny mouth

y que no le caven pen.

a rosebud would not fit;

La su seja enarkada

her arched eyebrows

rcol de tirar ya son.

are like taut bows.

10 Melda, melda, papazico,

The priest, reading his prayers,

de meldar ya se qued.

stopped in his reading.

Melda, melda, papazico,

Read on, little priest;

y que por ti no vengo yo.

Ive not come here for you.

12 Vine por el hijo del reyes,

I have come for the kings son,

que de amor va muerir yo.

for I am dying of love.[16]

Traditional lyric poetry among the Sephardim also has strong ties to the Iberian tradition.[17] Certain poetic forms, notably the Moroccan wedding songs, embody a vocabulary of parallelistic, synonymous rhyme words identicalin partto that found in early Castilian and Portuguese traditional lyric poetry. Thus, for chemise, beloved, to sleep, and wine, we find the synonymic alternates: camisa/delgada, amigo/amado, dormir/folgar, vino/claro, among many others (Alvar 1985). Though some ballads also have specific communal functionsas wedding songs, lullabies, songs of mourningthe functions of lyric poetry, its uses in specific utilitarian social contexts, are in general much more sharply defined. In many cases, this is liminal poetry, marking the thresholds of human life, the crucial moments of transition: birth songs, wedding songs, funeral dirges (Armistead 1993: 364-367). Many of these songs, either in their poetic form or in their specific genetic relationship to known early counterparts, have ancient Iberian origins. However, some collectors of Eastern Sephardic lyric poetry were astounded to encounter almost exact word-for-word correspondences between certain popular lyric songs, well known in Istanbul and in Salonika, and identical songs, sung even to identical tunes, by modern Spaniards. But these were not ancient, pre-Diasporic survivals. A number of Spanish popular songs reached the Sephardic East on phonograph records and were quickly learned by Jewish singers, who gradually came to consider them as a venerable and authentic part of their own Sephardic repertoire, even despite some very obvious religious and cultural conflicts: A la una nas yo, / a las dos me baftizaron ... (I was born at one oclock, at two I was baptized ...). This same, probably quite modern, song is known today all over the Spanish-speaking world and must be a late addition to the Sephardic repertoire. On the other hand, the Sephardims long residence in Eastern Mediterranean lands also enriched their repertoire of lyric songs, several of which turn out to be close translations of Greek distichs (En torno: 178-182; Armistead and Silverman 1983-1984: 43-44). As an example of an authentically traditional lyric song, the following endechasung at funerals and also during the nine days of the month of Ab (Thish b-b) to commemorate the destruction of the Temple at Jerusalem, which is evoked in vv. 1-8. The rest of the poem involves a conversation between a mother and her deceased son or daughter:

aamim nombrados,

Famous wise men,

2 de honra y de fama,

of honor and of fame,

los yevan atados

are carried off bound

4 y arrastrados por la va.

and dragged along the streets.

Yoren, yoren, las seoras,

Weep, weep, you women,

6 las que tienen razn,

for well may you weep,

por la Caza Santa

for the Holy City

8 y el orbn de Sin!

and the destruction of Zion!

Si haba algn consuelo

If there were some comfort

10 y en ste mi corasn,

in this heart of mine,

yo vos rogo, la mi madre,

I beg you mother,

12 por las piadades,

for the sake of charity,

que escribis mi dulse nombre

to write my sweet name

14 y en vuestros lumbrales.

on the threshold of your home.

Y escrito lo tengo, escrito,

And I have inscribed it

16 y en la veluntade.

within my very soul.

Los das que fuere viva,

As long as I live,

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