(Art work on this blog is copyrighted.)
“Mr. Birmingham is deliberately attempting to make us
appear before our fellow citizens as a queer tribe.”
Assimilation is the loss of the specificities of a culture that make it “that culture,” that make it distinct, in order to have it disappear into a larger group. One’s own language makes one distinct. And so, too, do one’s historic practices around raising families and maintaining life.
To think about reviving Ladino is to think about Sephardic culture. Sephardim come with historic experiences and ways of being in the world, including how they view sickness and health, and who they trust to help them. And thinking about reviving any language is by default also about dominant cultures and their various ways of forcing assimilation.
For Sephardim in the US, the push for assimilation did not just come – or may not even mainly have come – from American Christian culture. Much came from Jews already in the US, who saw Sephardim as inferior, backward. Some seem to have seen Sephardim as an embarrassment who reflected poorly on themselves as Jews who had already assimilated into American culture and wished to maintain their position. Many of these earlier Jews were not thrilled with the arrival of the Sephardim, with their different history and customs, their darker coloration, their different language, their differences in education. Many, in fact, did not even recognize Sephardim as Jewish.
Shame was applied. It was a shame, but only in the sense of being a waste. The established Jews did not recognize value when they saw it – a different historical view of the world, different ways of being in the world, different beauty, different language, different ways of “knowing.” In short, the advantages the Sephardim brought with them were looked on as negative because people were guided by a rigid way of thinking – there was only one way of being and it must be like those who had status. This, of course, negated other types of status, based on other value systems. (See an earlier post given an example of status within a non-hierarchical value system.)
Stephen Birmingham, in his book, “The Grandees,” applied all the common means of denigration of another culture, to shame a people into giving up who they are, what knowledge they held, and their way of functioning as a group. Many Sephardim today are unaware of what this devaluing did to them. How many even know that their culture had ever relied on the wisdom of older, experienced women in the community to treat people who were sick?
In reading the following section of David Boracas’s criticism of Birmingham , it becomes apparent that Sephardim depended on natural health treatments and that those methods were way ahead of their times.
Now we come to the painful subject of “Endurcos,” so blatantly described by the author, as conducted by the “tias” or “aunties.” We begin first by explaining the meaning of “tia” and the conotation it carried which the author failed to explain. The word “tia” means “aunt.” But in the sense it was used by the Sephardim of old it constituted an appellation of respect when referring to or addressing an elderly woman whose experience in life excelled that of the average woman. The “tias” were more observing, they assisted physicians, they had done much in their lives and therefore they knew more. This writer at the age of ten, following his mother’s death in Constantinople about the year 1916, was sent to his grandmother in Rodosto (Tekirdag), a small town on the north shore of the Marmara Sea. She was in here eighties and she conducted many “endurcos” with success. Now let us see what it was, or rather what it still is, although today it bears another name. Actually it is the isolation of the sick from the moises of the household to induce natural rest, that is, without the use of drugs. This grandmother, a “tia”, was outspoken enough to remove all mystic aspects from this system of healing by saying, “Endurco sin tanid no vale nada.” (Endurco without fasting has no effect.) Certainly she would rebel at all interference and would “shoo everyone else” not out of the house but out of the room, if a private room were available in which to isolate the patient, and she had many rooms in her big house. And when the patient showed signs of improvement she would point with pride at the progress made.
Let us now bring the “Endurcos” closer to our times. Dr. Herbert M. Shelton, foremost natural hygienist now living in San Antonio, Texas, wrote a book (third printing June 1967) which he called “Fasting can Save your Life.” In it he describes in detail many common diseases and their causes and stresses two basic principles for the elimination of the causes of diseases: physical and physiological rests. The first form of rest is intended for the body as a whole. The second, is intended for the internal organs of the body by means of fast, that is the elimination of food-intake, preferably under the care of a hygienist. “The most important technique of the fast is that of reducing activity, mental, sensory, and physical, to a bare minimum, so that the energy of the faster may be conserved and his healing and excretory processes may be accelerated.” (Fasting Can Save Your Life, page 64) and on page 17 of the same book on the subject of fasting Dr. Shelton Says:
“Fasting is centuries old; we read of it in the Bible and in the works of Homer. It was employed in the care of the sick in ancient temples of Egypt, Greece and throughout the Mediterranean world. The use of the fast in acute diseases dates back to remote times.
“It was prescribed by Arabian physicians during the long dark night of Europe’s Medieval Age. In Italy, Neapolitan physicians as long ago as one hundred and fifty years employed fasts….”
And in the Hygienic Review of April 1971 Dr. Shelton reiterates the same thought:
“The frequent reference to fasting in ancient literature, for example in the Bible and in the works of Homer and the frequency with which it was used in the care of the sick in the Aesculapian temples in Greece, as well as in Egypt, Babylon, etc., indicate that fasting was a vitally important ingredient in the care of the sick long before there was a medical professional.”
Is it not interesting to know that these “tias,” classed as superstitious, knew long ago that the rest and fasting were means of removing the causes of diseases:
On page 334 the author, Mr. Birmingham, says about the “tia”: “Or she may be called in when the doctor has done all he can for his patient and ordinary medicine will no longer suffice.” This is true today. Ninety percent of those who put themselves under the care of natural hygienists are those whom the physicians have given up as incurables. In natural hygiene they will find help only if the organic tissues in their bodies have not been deteriorated beyond repair as a result of excessive medication.
To digress: (Scholars are generally prone to write commentaries by the volumes on the prose, poetry, literary styles of famous poets and writers. But they never search into the sidelines of these men. Much has been written on the life and works of Maimonides but we know of no one who has ever looked into his medical career. Maimonides was a physician. It is a fact that the ailing Richard the Lionhearted could not be helped by his physicians who finally recommended to him Maimonides. The English King felt incensed when the Rambam refused to go to England, but when told of the king’s symptoms, Maimonides prescribed a change in the dietary “regimen,” and the King’s health finally improved. Maimonides lived in an Arabic country. Could he have originated the Endurco? (Who knows?)”and there will follow a strict regimen on diet and regular bathing for the patient” says Mr. Birmingham. The physicians pay no attention to body cleanliness as a factor in the recovery of the patient’s health. The “tias” did. A knowledge of the importance of cleanliness has been in mankind’s possession since the dawn of recorded history. Religious leaders like Moses and Mohammet taught cleanliness to the followers. It would appear now that the daily lustrations practiced by the members of the old Essenian institution were intended primarily for hygienic reasons. The precursors of natural hygiene or nature-cure, some of whom were accredited physicians who abandoned the use of drugs, began to administer the water cure with a measure of success. (See Ma Cure D’eau pour la Guerison des Maladies et la Conservation de la Sante par Seb. Kneipp, Strassbourg, Imprimerie de L’Alsacien.) So these ancient Sephardic “Tias,” so deeply rooted as they were in obscure cities and hamlets of the Orient knew somehow that wrong eating habits are the causes of diseases, hence the “strict regimen” and the “regular bathing” intended the body of its waste matter and open the skin pores. Of course “A cure may take days or even months…..”not until “Assorted demons, devils and evil spirits are cast out…..” but until the healing forces of the body are marshalled to cast out the body poisons.
It is in this context of discomfort with newcomers different from one’s self, that one can see the ridicule used to eliminate Sephardic customs around health. The dominant culture was becoming enthralled by a new medical hierarchy. Drugs (and the doctors who prescribed them) were displacing biologic wisdom embedded in cultures around the world that came with thousands of years experience in caring for themselves.
This displacement came at a great cost.
We are only now starting to emerge from the domination by a hierarchical medical model tied to profit-driven drug companies. People are seeking alternatives that work well, are cheaper, are safer, are gentler, and can often be applied at home. Whether it’s aryuvedic medicine or Chinese medicine, both going back millennia, people had developed medical models that were effective and safe.
(This is not to criticize the conventional Western doctors as a group because the best doctors have always welcomed additional treatments, especially those that are cheaper, gentler, and can be applied at home.)
In case of Sephardics, wisdom gained over centuries and were integral to Sephardic culture, has been lost through assimilation. With health and language assimilation, it is all of one piece – we lost ourselves.