Eighteen Sephardic/Ladino proverbs

Book cover - Collection of Sephardic proverbs.

In 1889, Rabbi Meyer Kayserling published a short book of “Spanish Sayings or Proverbs of the Sephardic Jews.” It contained Ladino versions of Spanish sayings that Sephardim continued to use for centuries after the expulsion. Some of the old maxims had fallen out of use in Spain but survived in the Jewish world, while others are still popular sayings in Spain. It also includes a short section of specifically Jewish proverbs.

Two years ago I translated excerpts of this, quoted in Ángel Pulido’s 1904 book Sephardic Jews and the Spanish Language. Here are eighteen of the quoted sayings. The Ladino spellings are Rabbi Kayserling’s. English translations ©2016, 2018 by Steven Capsuto.



He who sells the sun must buy candles.

Quien vende el sol, merca la candela.

A broken pot lasts longer than a whole one.
Mas tura un tiesto roto que uno sano.

If your enemy is an ant, make him a camel when you tell the story.
Si tu enemigo es una urmiga, contalo como un gamello.

If you love a rose, you must ignore the thorns.
Quien quere á la rosa, non mire al espino.

A person who has a quilt but won’t use it deserves no pity.
Quien tiene colcha y no se cobija, no es de agedear.

Better a donkey that carries me than a horse that throws me.
Mas vale un asno que me lleva, que un caballo que me echa.

It is better to fall in a raging river than into gossiping mouths.
Mas vale caer en un rio furiente, que en la boca de la gente. Continue reading

Jews of Fez, Morocco: The Burton Holmes photographs (1894)

In 1890s Morocco, Jews in Fez were concentrated in the city’s crowded walled ghetto, the Mellah. (Click photos to enlarge.)

Today’s “guest blogger” from the past is Burton Holmes (1870–1958), the noted American traveler, lecturer and photographer who coined the term “travelogue.”

His first published travelogue includes about 20 photos of the Jewish ghetto in Fez from his 1894 trip to Morocco. By modern standards, his narration often lacks cultural sensitivity, and I do wish he had chosen a broader range of subjects. Even so, the pictures are worth a look. Here are some of them, along with bits of his narrative. 


From the book Burton Holmes Travelogues
with Illustrations from Photographs by the Author
, vol. 1
(1919 edition)

The next day we devote to the Jewish quarter, a distinct and separate city, called the “Mellah.”

The “Mellah” or “ghetto” of Fez.

We approach it through the Hebrews’ burial ground, a place of whited sepulchers, dwellings for the dead, and dingy huts, temporary abodes for living men and women; for there are two populations in the Jewish cemetery, a fixed population of the wealthy dead, a passing population of the living poor. You must remember that in these Moorish cities the Jews are still compelled to dwell apart [from Muslims]… Their houses are confined in the restricted Mellah, where no provision was originally made for an increase of population. Therefore the poorer and the weaker Jews have been squeezed out of its gates and have found refuge here in the city of the dead, where they have built crude huts and begin life anew…

The right to build these shelters in the cemetery was granted by the Sultan to the poor, when the overcrowding of the Mellah proper became a menace to public health…

The Jewish cemetery, a “place of whited sepulchers…”

 

“…and dingy huts.”

 

Poor neighbors of the wealthy dead.

Continue reading

A chapter from “Scenes of Jewish Life in Alsace: Village Tales from 19th-Century France”

Below is the first chapter of Auguste Widal’s charming 1860 book Scenes of Jewish Life in Alsace, from a newly published English translation.

Widal grew up in Yiddish-speaking village communities in 1830s France, and his stories evoke a rural Jewish world that was vanishing quickly. The tales first appeared in the French Jewish magazine Archives Israélites starting in 1849. Under the pen name Daniel Stauben, he later revised and expanded them for a mainstream French magazine and for this book.

This new translation restores the Yiddishisms and Jewish wording that Widal deleted when reworking the stories for a general audience. The edition also adds illustrations by Alphonse Lévy, a 19th-century Alsatian Jewish artist whose drawings and etchings mesh perfectly with these tales.


CHAPTER ONE

IT WAS NOVEMBER OF 1856. An invitation from an old friend brought me back to Alsace, to scenes of village life I had known first as a small boy and which I now witnessed again years later with great emotion. As it happened, this short first trip gave me a chance to observe not only the curious characters who populate rural Jewish society in Alsace, but also some striking religious rituals: Friday’s and Saturday’s Sabbath observances, followed by a wedding and later a funeral. These episodes all happened in the order presented here. Imagination played no part in the many events I shall narrate.

The village of Bollwiller, with its large Jewish population, lies a short distance from Mulhouse. Bollwiller is home to Papa Salomon, a handsome old man of seventy whose face exudes wit and warmth. Papa Salomon was to be my host, so I set out from Mulhouse to Bollwiller one Friday afternoon late enough to avoid reaching the village before around four o’clock. Arriving earlier would have disrupted their preparations for Shabbes—the Sabbath. On Fridays, women and girls in Jewish villages do double duty: the Laws of Moses forbid handling fire on the Sabbath, and so besides supper they must also prepare meals for the next day. As I still recalled, Friday mornings and afternoons are hard work, but the evening is one of those rare moments of rest when a Jewish community fully displays its true spirit. For these good folk, when the last rays of the Friday sun fade, so do all the worries, all the sorrows and all the troubles of the week. People say that the Danyes Vage (Wagon of Worries) travels through the hamlets each night, leaving the next day’s allotment of grief on poor humanity’s doorstep. But they also say that this wagon, a painful symbol of country life, halts on Fridays at the edge of each village and will not rattle into motion again until the next evening. Friday is everyone’s night of joy and ease. This is when the unhappy peddlers that you see all week with a staff in their hand and a bundle of merchandise—their whole fortune!—bending their back as they trudge up hills and down valleys, living on water and brown bread… On this evening, without fail, those peddlers will have their barches (white bread), their wine, their beef and fish. In summer, they will lounge in the doorway of their home in shirtsleeves and slippers, and in winter, they will sit behind a nice hot stove in a jacket and a cotton cap. On a Sabbath Eve, yesterday’s deprived peddler would not change places with a king.

Shabbes in the village.

I arrived in Bollwiller just at the Shabbes Shueh: the Sabbath Hour. That is what we call the hour before people go to synagogue. It is when girls touch up their grooming, a bit disarrayed by the day’s extra chores. It is also when fathers, fully dressed except for their frock coat, await the signal calling everyone to prayer. They use this free time to light the wicks of the seven-spouted lamp that all Jewish families have in Alsatian villages, made expressly for them as a fairly faithful replica of the famous ancient seven-branched lampstand. As I walked down the main street, I saw such lamps being lit in several homes. Suddenly, I heard the periodic banging of a hammer at different distances: three knocks on a shutter here, three knocks on a carriage gate there, struck by the shuleklopfer in ceremonial dress. This signal was as effective as the liveliest pealing of the loudest bell. Groups of men and women left at once for services in their Shabbes best, a garb specific to our Jewish villagers: The men wear loose black trousers that nearly cover their big oiled boots, a huge but very short blue frock coat with oversized lapels and a massive collar, a hat that is narrow at the base and widens towards the top, and a shirt of coarse but white fabric. The shirt bears two collars so tremendous that they block the face entirely, and so starched that these fine people must turn their body to look left or right. The women wear a dark gown, a large red shawl adorned with green palm leaves, and a tulle cap laden with red ribbons. A band of velvet takes the place of their hair, which has been carefully concealed since their wedding day. This finery is completed by a beautiful tefilleh (prayer book) printed in Rodelheim and bound magnificently in green morocco leather, which every pious woman Continue reading