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Snatches of Spain in the Stories of Sephardim in Bulgaria. Leah Davcheva & Richard Fay Paper for the 1st Global Erensya Platform Summit September 19 th -21 st 2011. 1. The researchers.

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snatches of spain in the stories of sephardim in bulgaria

Snatches of Spain in the Stories of Sephardim in Bulgaria

Leah Davcheva & Richard Fay

Paper for the 1st Global Erensya Platform Summit

September 19th-21st 2011


the researchers
The researchers
  • Leah- Bulgarian, Sephardic, Ladino-memories from childhood, largely field-based, ‘insider’ vis-à-vis researched context
  • Richard Fay – non-Bulgarian, non-Jewish, no Ladino memories, largely desk-based, research experience, ‘insider’ to Spanish, Spain, and the Spanish speaking world, hispanophile
  • Shared – intercultural expertise, narrative and Balkan interests (incl. history, music, culture, politics) and research experiences
briefly about the research study
Briefly about the research study
  • In the spirit of the oral history tradition, we want to preserve for posterity the linguistic history and experiences of Sephardic Jews in Bulgaria.
  • An exploration of the understandings of middle-aged and elderly Sephardic Jews in Bulgaria regarding the language they tend to call Judesmo (but which is also known as Judæo-Spanish and Ladino)
  • 14 storytellers aged between 43 and 92 (who we will introduce shortly).
  • Multilingual – research about one language (Ladino), through stories told largely in another (Bulgarian) as analysed and (re)presented in a third (English)
erensya supporting the relations between spain and the sephardic diaspora
Erensya: supporting the relations between Spain and the Sephardic Diaspora
  • Ours is a study of the Ladino speaking experiences of Bulgarian Jews, giving rise to insights about their closeness to Spain, the Spanish language and the Spanish speaking world
six emergent themes
Six emergent themes
  • Naming the language
  • Spanish - Ladino interaction
  • Felt links with Spanish speakers globally
  • Participation in / identification with Sephardic diaspora
  • Felt links with Spain
  • Participation in Ladino / Sephardic revival activities
a naming the language
a) Naming the language
  • At home they spoke Spanish and this was the most natural thing in the world for me. Our whole life then was run in Spanish. [Andrey]
  • I call this language Judesmo-Espanyol. I cannot be absolutely sure what the difference is between the various names of this language, but that is how I call it. [Elli]
  • We lived with my maternal grandparents. … They spoke to me in Spanyol. [Gredi]
  • When I was a child we called it Spanyolit. [Sophi]
  • She must have been a good ‘teacher’ because in less than three months, I was able to communicate with her in Ladino. [Reina]
b spanish ladino interaction 1
b) Spanish-Ladino interaction (1)
  • My developing relationship with Reyes and the exaltation from mutually understanding each other (mind you, my Ladino was far from perfect), inspired me to register on a course to learn Spanish. At the time, I thought I could understand almost anything that was said in Spanish and decided to go straight for 2nd year classes. But I didn’t take my limited knowledge of Spanish grammar into account. It turned out to be a mistake because there was no solid foundation I could step on. In the end, however, I made up for all that. Soon after I completed the course, I was able to speak contemporary Spanish. Ladino helped a lot but surprisingly, it also got in the way to some extent. [Reina]
b spanish ladino interaction 2
b) Spanish-Ladino interaction (2)
  • Every time I hear somebody speak Spanish now, I get a general idea of what is being said. I wouldn’t be able to repeat any of the words or sentences, or say anything myself, but I imagine I can capture the general sense of the conversation. I rarely get this general idea wrong and this makes me think that Ladino is part of my ‘basic programming’. [Solomon]
  • The younger Jews here do not speak proper Judesmo any more. For them, Judesmo is a foreign language. If they tell you they understand Judesmo, it is because they have studied Spanish. The Spanish they have learned interferes with their Judesmo and in many ways harms it. Pronunciation changes, as well as the usage of some words. Judesmo does not sound authentic when they speak it. I liken their way of speaking Ladino to a joke, it is not serious. [Maxim]
b spanish ladino interaction 3
b) Spanish-Ladino interaction (3)
  • When I opened my mouth to speak to them in Spanish, their first question would be, “Where does your Spanish come from?” I always responded by first saying „Lo aprendi de mi abuaela, que avlava de Ladino”, meaning that I could speak Spanish thanks to the Ladino which I had learned from my Grandma. A long conversation about Ladino then followed. When they heard me speak Ladino, they would say one of two things – either that my Ladino sounded like the language of Cervantes, or that I spoke the Castilian dialect which is considered to be the basis of modern Spanish. We, the Sephardic Jews, have actually preserved that ancient language when we were expelled from Spain in 1492. [Reina]
c felt links with spanish speakers globally 1
c) Felt links with Spanish speakers globally (1)
  • Have you ever heard Cubans speak Spanish? They tend to swallow their consonants and it’s hard to understand them. For a whole week I kept my mouth shut and did not dare speak. By and by, I gathered courage and would put in a word here and a word there. …

… the response of the Cubans was twofold. First, they thought they heard somebody who had risen from their grave. So obsolete was the language I produced. They were enormously delighted and would make me repeat what I said, time and time again. [Aron]

c felt links with spanish speakers globally 2
c) Felt links with Spanish speakers globally (2)
  • I have not got too many specific memories connected with Ladino but one thing I do know – I have always been keen to establish common ground between myself and other speakers of Spanish. I have actively sought out such contacts. Take, for example, something that happened during a trade fair in Frankfurt. … [Aron]
  • So, I was greatly encouraged by the way I managed to get along with my Spanyol in Argentina. I spoke it in the streets, in the shops, and with my relatives, some of whom were born there, my cousin’s daughter, for example. I bought myself a Spanish textbook. [Itsko]
c felt links with spanish speakers globally 3
c) Felt links with Spanish speakers globally (3)
  • Another fine Ladino episode in my life is related to my friendship with a Cuban singer. His name was Jorge Frances. I first met him in the opera canteen ... One day, I heard somebody asking for a glass of water in Spanish but the canteen ladies could not quite catch what this man was saying. I went closer and helped him get want he wanted. By and by, we became good friends. Jorge spoke Ladino with my mother and, from time to time, comic situations arose. We laughed a lot together. One day Jorge came to visit … In one part of the room my mother was talking with a friend of hers, in Ladino, and in the other part of the room I was talking with the two Cuban men. All of a sudden, we heard my mother say to her friend, “Mi sta comiendo las tripas!” The two Cubansburst out laughing - this wasn’t a phrase they would ever use in Spanish. Its literal meaning is ‘let him eat my guts’, and figuratively, it meant “He is getting on my nerves”.
c participation in identification with sephardic diaspora 1
c) Participation in / identification with Sephardic diaspora (1)
  • I have been using Ladino as an international language and I have a whole range of experiences to share. Time ago, a group of French Jews visited and with two of them, I communicated in Ladino. Another example is when I was in Israel and set out to see a Holocaust museum. It happened to be on a non-working day and the museum was closed. I wanted to find out about the working hours and came across a man from Egypt who spoke Spanyol. He said to me, “If you walk a bit further, you’ll find a guy who can also speak Spanyol.”
c participation in identification with sephardic diaspora 2
c) Participation in / identification with Sephardic diaspora (2)
  • Five or six years ago she [my mother] designed a beginner course in Judesmo. She compiled the course textbook basing it on a French textbook written by Marie-Christine Varol. My mother not only translated from the original, she also wrote new material. The publication came out with pictures from our family album. [Elli]
  • If I could speak Ladino, I could easily communicate with people in Greece and Turkey, and elsewhere, especially with the elderly. I would have been very well positioned, exactly because of that. But even as it is, I am being well-positioned and accepted now. [Solomon]
c participation in identification with sephardic diaspora 3
c) Participation in / identification with Sephardic diaspora (3)
  • … we became ‘Bulgarian Jews’ only 70-80 yrs ago. Before that, we used to be Balkan Jews. Should we find ourselves among Jews from other Balkan countries, there would hardly be anything to make us inherently different from each other – except for the language of our passports. We behave in similar ways. Everywhere on the Balkans I feel at home. My great Grandad was born in what is now Turkey. What was he? What kind of Jew was he exactly? My Grandma used to tell me about her family -they came from what today is Serbia and Macedonia.[Solomon]
d felt links with spain 1
d) Felt links with Spain(1)
  • I remember my first visit to Spain. It was quite an emotional experience. I felt completely comfortable in the Spanish speaking context and was pleasantly excited by listening to the people around me and actually, being able to understand. Although I was not at home and not in my own country, I still had this amazing sense of being in a linguistically familiar context. I must have sounded ridiculous and primitive because I had never specially studied Judesmo, but what I said was very well received. People applauded me. I did a presentation at the Chamber of Commerce in Barcelona and I said my last couple of sentences in Judesmo-Espanyol. … I felt at home and an insider. [Elli]
d felt links with spain 2
d) Felt links with Spain(2)
  • I have a sense of Spain being a motherland to me. … . I now remember something and I think you would like to hear it. It happened on 24th May. I was invited to the residence of the now ex-president of Bulgaria Zhelev. He was hosting a reception to celebrate the Bulgarian alphabet and literacy achievements. I asked to be introduced to Juan Carlos, king of Spain, who was also present at the reception. And indeed I was. I spoke to him in Spanyol. [Itsko]
d felt links with spain 3
d) Felt links with Spain(3)
  • [he] was keen to hear the language which he had never heard anybody speak before. The time we spent together made me aware of the special attitude the Spanish have for us, Sephardic Jews: they find it truly amazing that not only have we preserved Ladino for five centuries but we also cherish the warmest sentiments for Spain itself. [Reina]
f participation in ladino sephardic revival activities 1
f) Participation in Ladino/Sephardic revival activities (1)
  • But it might be that Ladino is a like a live coal hidden among the ashes – it might spark off a fire. [Aron]
  • I became a member of the Dulce Canto choir. My time is already gone, but it was a beautiful experience singing in that choir. Dulce Canto is one example of how we tried to preserve and revive Ladino. [Aron]
f participation in ladino sephardic revival activities 2
f) Participation in Ladino/Sephardic revival activities (2)
  • All of this has inevitably shaped our worldview and has made us distinctive. Through Ladino I can trace a connection with one of the most progressive civilisations in Europe of those times. And now, all of this is disappearing. Whether it will disappear for good, I don’t know. I wish it could stay alive, and deep down I believe it will be here forever. From something which used to be practical, usable and indispensable, Ladino is now turning into a kind of intellectual brooch. And you know how it is with brooches – you wear and enjoy them if you have them, but you can very well manage without them. Brooches are somewhat eccentric but on the other hand, what would life be without a certain dose of eccentricity. [Solomon]
f participation in ladino sephardic revival activities 3
f) Participation in Ladino/Sephardic revival activities (3)
  • But look at me, in spite of everything that I can see happening, I keep being interested in this language. I have collected more proverbs – 400 of them … I realise that this language is an important part of our evolving culture. Our ancestors took it with them and went on speaking it … for a long time. It is worth the effort to help preserve some written traces of it. This is not only because of its spoken order structures. You can follow the traces of so many other languages - the languages of the peoples with whom the Jews had lived when they left Spain, for example Portuguese, Italian, Turkish, Bulgarian and maybe others. Ladino is an unbelievable mixture and our ancestors have spoken it while communicating with each other, when trading, making love, singing their songs. To cut it short, Ladino has preserved many diverse aspects of the lives we had lived in the past. It is part of the history of a big branch of the Jewish people – those who once lived in Spain. [David]