Songs of the Sephardim

By Ponce, Pedro | Humanities, March/April 2000 | Go to article overview

Songs of the Sephardim


Ponce, Pedro, Humanities


IN THE EIGHTEENTH AND NINETEENTH CENTURIES, it was the dominant language of trade in the Balkans. Carried around the world by Jews expelled from Spain, Sephardic Spanish is quickly disappearing as the number of people able to speak it declines.

The rise of a global economy that favors modern languages and the spread of mass media, which use standard forms of a language rather than dialects, contributes to making JudeoSpanish obsolete, says Samuel G. Armistead, a professor of medieval Spanish literature at the University of California at Davis. "Today, Judeo-Spanish wouldn't get you into the world of commerce or technology. It is the language of the Sephardic past."

That past includes a rich legacy of storytelling and ballad making that stretches back to medieval Spain. To save those tales and songs, Armistead and his colleagues have been gathering them from Sephardic Spanish speakers in communities as far flung as Seattle, Washington, and Tetuan, Morocco, for more than forty years.

Decades of tape recordings have provided the raw material for Folk Literature of the Sephardic Jews, a study of JudeoSpanish ballads, lyric poetry, riddles, and folktales. Three volumes of Folk Literature have been published so far. The series is slated to include sixteen volumes on ballads, one each on Sephardic lyric poetry, riddles, and folktales, and a onevolume supplement and index. Armistead hopes to have volumes four, five, and six out later this year.

NEH grants have helped support work on volumes two through eight. The NEH is also helping create an online database of the collected materials through the Digital Library Initiative, a program conducted by the National Science Foundation in partnership with the NEH, NASA, the Library of Congress, and other federal agencies. The program promotes the use of computer technology in the humanities and other areas.

Lamenting the amount of time people today spend watching TV and going to movies, Armistead says, " We don't really participate in a creative way. Ballads and folktales and other forms of oral literature take us back to a time . . . when everybody was potentially a poet and everybody participated in this process of traditional creativity."

Storytelling in the Middle Ages involved much more than memorizing and reciting a particular tale. Ballads were sung while harvesting crops and doing housework. They were used to celebrate weddings and to mourn the dead.

Performing stories of family duty and love fulfilled or gone awry was a way for communities to preserve their shared values. It also gave people the chance to be creative by adapting ballads as they were passed down from singer to hearer and from generation to generation.

"For Sephardic Jews, the ballad was a way of affirming their own peculiar Jewish and Spanish culture,' says Armistead.

Jews in Spain struggled to preserve their communal values through several periods of persecution often aimed at converting them to Christianity. Many of these New Christians, or conversos, continued to practice Judaism in secret. Fearful of the influence that practicing Jews might have on Christians in Spain, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella finally issued a decree in March 1492 calling for the expulsion of all Jews who refused to convert.

While many Jews converted in order to stay, tens of thousands left Spain for North Africa, Italy, and what was then the Ottoman Empire. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries,

Sephardic Jews emigrated to parts of northern Europe, England, and North America. Approximately twenty-five thousand Sephardic Jews had moved to the United States by 1926. As they settied in communities around the world, Sephardim relied on ballads to help preserve their memories of Spain.

According to Armistead, there was some significant study of this Sephardic oral literature conducted in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

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