Listen to another of your angels – Moshe Shaul

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There are people who have been working to keep alive the soul of our culture for us, while we, unaware of what was slipping away, have been slurping on corporate culture, as real as a Coke.

Meet another angel, Moshe Shaul, of the Autoridad Nasionala del Ladino i su Kultura (The National Authority of Ladino and its culture).   He has been sheltering Ladino in his heart and working hard to protect it.  Perhaps you can see that caring in his face.

If you don’t understand Ladino but can pick out a few words that sound familiar, that’s all to the good.  If you can’t even pick out a single word, but you can feel the warmth of the New Year’s wishes Mr. Shaul offering to you, dayenu.  It is enough.  You are, even with just that, inside your own culture.

Take a break for a few minutes.  Slow down from the craziness of every day.   Sit and take in what is yours.  Just listen.  It is the music that carried your culture through so much.  You may not know the lyrics, the words may just wash over you, but their tune will be pouring a very old blessing over you – for your health and for peace in the world.  All their melodious sounds filled with love  for you.

Conferring blessings for the New Year is a ritual.  Those blessings are especially rich and caring in Ladino.

Kortadura de fashadura – Sephardic celebration of pregnancy

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Are you and your friends aware that there are Sephardic rituals for celebrating pregnant mothers?  Or are you left with nothing related to  your own historic customs?

These wonderful Sephardic rituals for pregnancy celebrations are nice reminders that in losing our culture, we lose historical richness.  We also devalue and not pass on personal skills to the degree that we depend solely on purchases.  And we miss out on communal fun.

If that much is lost in losing one celebration, think of the immensity of what is lost if we lose our language and what is gained as we begin to reclaim it.

Sephardic Pregnancy Celebration

Traditions from around the world to celebrate an expectant mother

Ashkenazi Jews in the shtetl believed that proud talk when a pregnancy was barely established would invite catastrophe. Like other Jews, they feared the evil eye, expecting it to do harm when their affairs were prospering.

In contrast, Sephardic Jews have often celebrated a first pregnancy. This celebration has been named kortadura de fashadura (in Judeo-Spanish) or tekti’ a el-g’daouere (in Judeo-Arabic), meaning “the cutting of the swaddling clothes.” The ceremonial cutting of a cloth to make the baby’s first costume, which is the same for a girl or a boy, is an old Sephardic custom still continued by some Jews in Istanbul.

When a Jewish woman reaches the fifth month of her first pregnancy, her family invites all her female relatives and in-laws, as well as friends and neighbors. Liqueurs and chocolates, tea, cakes, and sugared almonds are set out on the best china, on hand embroidered tablecloths. The cloth is of excellent quality and traditionally comes from the expectant woman’s dowry. A relative who is herself a mother and whose own parents are still alive (a good omen for long life) receives the honor of making the first cut in the cloth. At the moment of the cut, the pregnant woman throws white sugared almonds on the cloth, to symbolize the sweet and prosperous future she wishes for her child.

Around the World

Algeria and Morocco

Sephardic Jews in Algeria and Morocco celebrated the cutting of the first layette when a woman was in the last trimester of her first pregnancy. The pregnant woman’s parents provided lengths of cloth on a copper tray covered with a silk scarf. In Algeria, the person who made the first cut was similarly a woman whose parents were still alive and who clearly lived in a happy home. In Morocco, the midwife cut the cloth into swaddling clothes in the presence of women friends and relatives who offered their good wishes and shared tea and cakes.

Kurdistan

Jewish women in Amadiya, Kurdistan, in the early 20th century, also celebrated a first pregnancy. When a young woman was certain that she had conceived, she went to her father’s house, where her mother and female relatives sewed clothes for the expected baby. They bestowed the honor of making the sheets for the cradle on an old woman who had delivered many babies. The women invited musicians, sang and danced, and offered the mother-to-be tidbits of advice about childbearing. In the evening, they prepared a feast for the men in the husband’s house.

Yemen and Aden

Jews in Yemen and Aden prepared clothes for the newborn in the seventh month of a woman’s pregnancy, but without ceremony. It was customary to conceal pregnancy from the public eye for as long as possible, and each woman sewed what she would need for her own baby.

Modern Traditions

Unlike the bat mitzvah at puberty and the wedding, which both mark a change in status, no Jewish ritual marks the new role of becoming a mother. Some women have sought to create a new ceremony, in the style of a Jewish ritual, to express their feelings of spirituality and Jewish identity at this milestone in their lives.

To read more ….

Do you give a damn?

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Many Sephardics believe there is no way that Ladino can be revived because they see it as an all or nothing proposition.  They can’t imagine themselves working to learn the language.  And to whom would they speak unless everyone did all that work.

But  the revival of a language comes piece by piece, just as learning a language does.  Babies use words because they want to be part of the world around them.

A Ladino revival is going on.  Three steps is all it takes to be part of it.

The first step is to ask yourself – do you see in fact give a damn whether Ladino exists?

  • Would you rather there were some people speaking it rather than none?
  • Does its existence have the least relevance to you?

The second step – if you find you got past step one and do give at least a tiny damn that Ladino is still in the world – is to recognize that that tiny damn on your part actually just made you a part in reviving it.

  • For a language to be revived, it must be wanted.
  • To contribute your own wanting Ladino to exist, is big.
  • In just caring that the language is alive, you’re creating the essential habitat for it to stay alive and begin to trickle back in.
  • When enough people care, others have stronger footing to go further, and the language grows.

The third step is to learn one word.

  • One word makes you a speaker.
  • One word takes you from outside observer to inside.
  • One word puts you in the fold of the language.

Here are a few words you might choose from.  Pick one, or find one yourself.

meoyudo – wise person

shamar – slap in the face

sorviko – sip  (Toma un sorviko.  Take a sip.)

You have a word.   Say it out loud.  You may not be exactly chatty,  but you are a Ladino speaker, however minimally.

What is significant, though, is that your care.  In wanting Ladino to live,  you give it energy.  Your heart has just moved things closer to renewing the language.

Sephardics and natural health

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From A Refutation of the Twenty-first Chapter of Stephen Birmingham’s Book “The Grandees”

“Mr. Birmingham is deliberately attempting to make us

appear before our fellow citizens as a queer tribe.” 

David Barocas

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.

A Refutation of the Twenty-first Chapter of Stephen Birmingham’s Book “The Grandees” by David Barocas

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.

The drug approach that was becoming  dominant at the turn of the 20th century was proving horrifically deadly and those deaths continue today, and not just with aspirin.

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.

Thoughts on Sephardic Jews in frontier America


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I pulled the last post about Sephardic intermarriage with Native Americans after receiving a very useful email from a reader questioning the person who gave the lecture, but not the idea of intermarriage of Sephardic Jews and Native Americans.The idea of intermarriage with Native Americans was yet another instance of learning something truly surprising about the Sephardic Jews who went West.   My attention has always been on the geographic trajectory and experiences of relatives who went East to escape the persecution of the Catholic Inquisition and Christian Europe.  To now be more seriously imagining Sephardic Jews, who had faced torture under the Inquisition and been expelled from Spain, trying to find a home in a place as foreign as frontier America at that time, brought up thoughts about what skills they came with, and what they were avoiding as well.Those who went East to the Ottoman Empire would have already been generally aware of where they were going and may even have had contacts via merchant routes.  Thanks to their own history of migration across the Mediterranean to Spain, they knew the Mediterranean, and they were familiar with Muslims.  They had gotten along well with other cultures – Muslim and Christian – before the Inquisition, helping to create a Golden Age in Spain while Europe was going through the Dark Ages.Some Sephardic Jews went West, not east, with Carjaval to what was to be Mexico and began to settle there in northern Mexico and on up into the US.  But despite their courage is giving up so much an traveling  so far to find a better world, they had not left the Catholic Inquisition behind.

Those Sephardic Jews who were not killed went underground (some only now emerging as Crypto-Jews and seeking to recover their Jewish identity).I knew there was a continuing Inquisition in Central and South America, but I had never really considered the differences in portions of  the New World that was not under Spanish rule.  For Sephardic Jews, some communities – Native American ones, for instance – would present the unheard of opportunity to be away from Catholic power, as well as Christian power, Muslim power and power altogther.  Native Americans did not tax anyone, did not impose religious controls of any sort., and did not treat other people as though they were a lower class of human beings.

It is hard to imagine how such a culture would appear to Sephardic Jews after all they had been through, and were still going through, even after fleeing to the New World.  It would certainly make logical and emotional sense that Sephardic Jews might have liked the freedom to be themselves and the equality of living among Native Americans.  And with a history of mixing with other cultures – even antagonistic ones.  If genetics showed they  intermarried, then they mixed freely enough with Native Americans to fall in love.  That would say something about a lack of fear and lack of condescension toward people different from themselves.  But then, Sephardic Jews has already shown that in Spain.

Did it happen?

One reader with expert knowledge of Native American history, wrote in that they’d

never want to completely discount any intermarriage theory, because there definitely was a tremendous amount of interracial marriage going on in those days and it was considered a squeamish topic by the white elites, so it didn’t get written about in history nearly as much as it actually happened.

When we think about Ladino as a way to bring back culture, do we wonder what qualities that culture contains?  It seems that Sephardic Jews have an ease in living among other people without hatred or fear.  To me, that’s a trait to be extremely proud of.  It stands out as a cultural gift.

And the simplicity of the freedom and human respect Native Americans may have offered people who had been tortured and expelled for not submitting to the controls of others, stands out like a great blessing, against the evil of religious persecution, hatred, .murder and warfare.   How might that disparity have felt to people whose old world offered not one single place to be fully themselves and for whom most of the new world continued to seek their death?

Due to questions raised …

There have been a couple of serious questions raised about the person who gave the lecture cited here (http://www.melungeons.com/articles/apr2004.htm).  Though the genetics involved  seem not to be the issue (so people may want to investigate the history on their own), I’m pulling the post because the author has written some dubious things in the past.  My apologies for posting prematurely.

September 21: Sephardic Concert at the Library of Congress

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Collage:  Enjoying music

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If you are in the DC area on September, don’t miss a very special concert celebrating Flory Jagoda.

There is no charge for performances at the Library of Congress, but reserved tickets are required.

The concert will celebrate the 90th birthday of Flory, internationally recognized as “keeper of the flame” for preserving, perpetuating, and expanding Sephardic music. At this once-in-a-lifetime event on the evening of September 21 at the Library of Congress in Washington DC, 20 distinguished musical colleagues of Flory and members of her family will join her on stage to perform the Sephardic songs that she has taught them in her quest to transmit her family’s musical heritage and keep it vibrantly alive.

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FLORY’S FLAME will be footage from the upcoming CELEBRATION CONCERT of venerable singer and composer Flory Jagoda.

JEMGLO will be recording the concert, and we would love our friends to attend! Tickets can be reserved by phone at 1.800.838.3006.

JEMGLO, itself, is a wonderful, award-winning documentary film organization focused on subjects broadly related to global Jewish culture or associated with environmental topics. dedicated to the production of educational material on Jewish culture around the world.