Rafael Cohen of Izmir, a language teacher and newspaper writer, circa 1900.
Rafael Cohen, a Turkish Sephardic Jew in Smyrna (now Izmir), sent letters about Jewish life in his city to the Spanish senator Ángel Pulido in the early 1900s. According to Pulido, Cohen was a language teacher who also worked for the Turkish Jewish newspaper El Messeret. Excerpts of his letters appear in Pulido’s second book about Sephardic Jews, published in 1905, whose title we could translate as Spaniards without a Country and the Sephardic Race.
Cohen writes that some Turkish Sephardim found it hard to believe that their language (Judeo-Spanish, also called Ladino, Judezmo, etc., which they wrote in the Hebrew alphabet) was a form of Spanish. But when he would hand them a newspaper from Spain, they generally found that even with their limited knowledge of the Latin alphabet, they could understand what they were reading.
In a letter dated September 8, 1904, he recalls:
Recently, one of them said to me, “Is it true that what we speak is a European language? Isn’t what we speak Judezmo?” I responded by handing him an issue of El Liberal. He laughed and began reading it and replied with great amazement, “This is one Spanish and ours is another…” Who could help feeling heartbroken at that reaction? I laughed ruefully and my heart ached at seeing a people, my people, speaking the most beautiful language without knowing, or rather without realizing, what they were speaking…
Cohen, something of a language purist, was one of the era’s Sephardim who advocated making Continue reading →
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 →
This fascinating 1903 article from the French magazine Le Monde Illustré has good and bad points.
Its positive side: An eloquent journalist gives us a rare, vivid look inside the modernization of Jewish education in the Middle East more than a century ago. Its negative side: His biases. The author was a staunch colonialist whose writings bashed non-European cultures, exalted all things French, and reserved special scorn for Orthodox Jews and religion in general. Despite these shortcomings, the article contains great information and illustrations. It is therefore worth trudging through the rough bits, which are mostly near the beginning.
I first translated this for an English edition of Ángel Pulido’s book Sephardic Jews and the Spanish Language. That book abridges the article and omits most of the pictures, so I’m posting the full piece here with all the original images. Since it’s from 1903, expect a certain amount of now-dated terminology (“Oriental,” “Moslem,” sexist language, etc.).
THE FRENCH LANGUAGE IN THE EAST
The Educational Work of the Alliance Israélite
(Le monde illustré, April 11, 1903.
English translation ©2016 by Steven Capsuto.)
It looks best from a distance, in the great silence and vast peace of the desert: the silky Sea of Gennesaret, nestled mysteriously in a hollow among the iridescent mountains, dominated by the snowy cap of Mt. Hermon. The still surface of the water is an intense azure that holds your eye, and the pale-blue sky itself looks so deep that it could be another Continue reading →
The Between Wanderings book series publishes new translations of vintage books celebrating Jewish life from the 1850s to 1920s—a time of intense migration, changes and challenges for Jews. Some of the books feature first-person accounts of the era’s Jewish communities, customs, folklore, synagogues, schools, foods and culture.