Seven Songs, Seven Identities:
Bridging the Past and the Future
By Jane Mushabac1
It's well known that singing has played an important role in traditional Sephardic culture. Singing was sustenance, like daily bread; it was nourishment in the most profound sense. Emotional and entertaining, singing provided identity and belonging.
But how has Sephardic singing fared with assimilation to American culture?
Let's clarify that we're speaking here of singing as personal and communal, not commercial. Today in the U.S., singing has been largely replaced with listening to professionals singing.
Singing in traditional societies was very different. A traditional home was directly enlivened by song. Sephardic women sang regularly while busy with tasks and in social gatherings; their songs were full of pleasure, angst, bitterness, joy, and sexual innuendo. Men's singing was liturgical. At home and in synagogue, men's prayers and blessings celebrated Jewish history and coherence. For both women and men, singing was both easy and habitual, and physical and intense.
This presentation describes seven individuals from a Turkish-American Sephardic family: two grandmothers, a father, mother, granddaughter, and two great-grandsons. Each of these individuals has responded differently to the stresses and liberation of assimilation, either rejecting the past or cherishing it. Each individual can be linked to a Sephardic song. The particular songs, all but two in Ladino, consist of a Passover song, a Turkish lullaby, a song probably adopted from Spanish singers in the early 1900s, a song about the mountain air, a Greek song about an Egyptian girl, a song about the drink raki, and a Hebrew song asking that "He who creates the harmony of the spheres" create peace for us all.
A man we'll call Victor, who went on to be a father of three daughters in the United States, was born around 1901 in Canakkale, Turkey, on the Strait of Dardanelles. While the Turkish port where he grew up lacked Istanbul's sophistication, his home was not technologically backward. A sewing machine was as central to his family as any computer is today; and in 1912, the town appears to have had a rudimentary cinema (a newsreel about the Titanic caused great excitement). Nonetheless, culture, a very rich culture, was not primarily disseminated through technology, but rather—directly—through the human voice. It emanated from fluency in six languages: Ladino, Hebrew, Turkish, Greek, French, and Armenian—and the awareness that each culture reflected both a specific history and the human condition at large. Singing carried these fluencies deep into the heart and everyday clamor of life. Victor's mother was not literate until after she'd moved to the U.S. in her forties, but, like other Sephardic women, she knew a great many songs by heart. Her dawn-to-dark days of cooking, sewing, and raising eight children, resonated with her songs.
Victor arrived in the U.S. in 1920. As with many immigrants, his desire for assimilation accompanied a hunger for economic opportunity. New York was nearly thirty percent Jewish at the time, but Sephardim arrived at the tail end of massive Ashkenazi immigration. The proud son of a culture-rich and cash-poor minority within a minority, Victor married a Harlem-born Sephardic woman, her family also from Canakkale, and they had three very American daughters. He knew his father's prayers and blessings by heart, of course. Years later he saw that one of his daughters, as a teenager, was receptive to his mother's songs. What started on daily car-rides one summer, led two decades later (when she had her own children) to two years of a weekly course in Ladino singing led by Joe Elias at the Hebrew Arts School in New York. Rabbi Marc Angel had encouraged Elias to perform and preserve this music. With three generations attending the class together, Victor recovered many familiar Ladino songs, including this Passover one:
Elohenu shebbah shemayim, el Dio nos yeva a Yerushalaim, Kualo es el uno? Uno es el Kriador, Baruch Hu Barushemo. [Our God in the heavens will bring us to Jerusalem. What is one? The Creator, bless Him, bless His name.] The song goes on: What are two? Moshe and Aron, and continues to our three fathers, four mothers, five books of the Law, six days of the week, seven days with Shabbat, eight days for Brit Milah, nine months of pregnancy, and ten commandments.
The song eventually found its way onto the daughter's Passover song-sheet, for rousing singing at seders.
A second song is from Victor's mother, a one-line lullaby, probably a Turkish song translated into Ladino,"Ya se va durmir." She must have sung it to her children in Canakkale; in New York her son sang it to his children, his daughter to her children, and then to him at the end of his life. The simple words are "so-and-so is falling asleep already"; the line is sung four times, the last time without the child's name. Ya se va durmir, Vitali, Ya se va durmir, Vitali, Ya se va durmir, Vitali, Ya se va durmir.
A sharply contrasting song was "Ken me va kerer a mi?" [Who is going to love me?] . This one Victor and his daughter sang often in the car, belting out "Sabiendo ke yo te kero, me muero de amor por ti"[Knowing that I love you, your love is the death of me], as if the greatest questions of life were decided in Ladino, driving on Flatbush Avenue. "Who is going to love me? You're abandoning me for another woman."
Why did Victor's mother enjoy such a tragically bitter song when she herself was well-loved? The song says, "I remember that night when the moon tricked me!" Yo me akodro de akeya noche, kuando la luna me enganyo." Ethnomusicologist Judith Cohen says this song was one of many early 20th century Spanish songs that reached Ottoman Sephardim "through touring singers, and perhaps on the 'new' phonograph machines. Istanbul," says Cohen, "was a very early center of the recording industry." "You abandoned me for another woman, you know well I have a son, he was born from that misery," the song says. "I was so disgraced even my mother abandoned me, tomorrow night I'm going to make my way with my son to the salty sea, to throw away all my sins, because I know that I am going to die."
Another of Victor's mother's favorites is very famous, "Arboles yoran por luvias, y montanyas por ayres" [Trees cry for rain, mountains for air]. The song says, "So do I cry for you, my beloved. Come hither and we'll be one." Victor never sang the song's chorus, "Penso y digo, ke va ser de mi? En tieras ajenas no puedo bivir"[I think—I ask—what will become of me?—I cannot live in foreign lands]. Is the song about exile from Spain, or about leaving Turkey? For Victor, "Arboles" was simply a love song. Although their relationship was stormy, he lovingly sang "Arboles"in 1984 to his wife of fifty years at their anniversary party. Then in 2011 his daughter and her three sons sang "Arboles" at Victor's oldest grandson's wedding. "Enfrente de me, ay un angelo, kon dos ojos me mira. Avlar kero i non puedo, mi korazon suspira." [An angel stands before me, looking at me with her beautiful eyes. I want to speak and cannot; my heart sighs.] Thus the bride was welcomed.
Victor's mother-in-law, like his mother, was born in Turkey in the late 19th century. But while Victor's mother bore eight children in Turkey before emigrating, Victor's mother-in-law came here at age eighteen for an arranged marriage and had a deliberately more modern number of children— two. His mother-in-law also, however, was immersed in Turkish Jewish culture, enjoying Turkish musicales every week in their modest Bronx house with her violinist small-businessman husband, and friends like singer Victoria Hazan. The latter was asked to sing at so many gatherings that in the 1940s, despite her initial worries that making money would cast aspersions on her husband's ability as a bread-winner, she agreed to make twenty-four commercial recordings of Sephardic songs that sold in North and South America.
Victor's mother-in-law was a cosmopolitan hostess in her Ladino Bronx world, her burekas and biscochos perfectly formed. She was often asked to sing a favorite song, "Ach ya habibi," about an alluring Egyptian girl. She was a big woman with a Turkish hauteur; she'd get a diva-ish puckering of her lips, and start with a low mysterious sweetness this song to Misirlu, "my little bird, my sweet, my dear, my beloved oh my love I will steal you away from Arabic Lands": "O polimo i gli casu imay ya (2x), Ach ya habibi, ah ya haleli, ah, Mono no si klepso, Mam aptin Arapia, Aah, a-ah ah, ah ah ah, a a ah, Misirlu."
In addition to their weekly musicales, Victor's in-laws had a Victrola and many brittle heavy 78 records of Turkish and Sephardic music. They played them a lot—to the dismay of their daughter, who found this music harsh and primitive. She rebelled against her patriarchal family and its music. This young girl on the cusp of modernity became Victor's wife. and even though she'd hated Turkish music as a girl, in her seventies, with some skepticism, she joined Joe Elias's Ladino song class. A song she'd always loved, and loved again now, was "La vida do por el raki"—about the potent licorice-flavored raki; this song throws caution to the wind. Its salty rebelliousness fit her refusal as a girl to be brought up as a second-class citizen. " La vida do por el raki, no puedo yo desharlo, de bever nunca me arti de tanto amarlo."[I live for raki, I can't give it up, I can never get enough of it, it's my great love; when it's in the barrel, it doesn't say a thing to me, but when I'm drunk, I go down in infamy.]
The seventh song, "Ose shalom bimromav," Victor and others knew from synagogue. Again it was family ceremony which carried this traditional Hebrew song over the barrier of assimilation. Victor sang this one at his grandson's bar mitzvah. His daughter found she knew the words, and of course many others did also: "Ose shalom bimromav, hu ya'aseh shalom alenu, ve'al kol Yisrael ve'imru amen." Rabbi De Sola Pool translates it as "May he who creates the harmony of the spheres, create peace for us and for all Israel: and say ye, Amen."
By way of a coda, I'll add an eighth song from Victor's second grandson, who once sang at a street fair on the Lower East Side with Joe Elias's class. Victor's wife was Estelle or Stella, from Streya, star. Although she was a difficult, impetuous woman, she was storied and well loved. So another song, "Streya biva," made it into the family songbook. Many Sephardic songs end tragically with the unrequited lover throwing herself into the sea, but this song is different. In 2012 this grandson learned "Streya biva" to present as a gift to his mother— her grandparents were long gone, and his own as well. "Tu sos una streya biva, abaxada de ariva, si venites a tomarme, en tus brasos abrasarme, en tus brasos abrasarme. Las tus karas koloradas, la dulsura ke me dates, komo ti ya no ay otra, ni aki ni en Evropa, ni aki ni en Evropa." [You are a bright star, descended from above. If you come to take me, you'll take me in your arms to embrace me. Your cheeks are rosy; ah the sweetness you bring me. There's no one like you, not here or in all Europe.]
"Ah, the sweetness you bring" suggests the transformative journey of Sephardic song, as individuals hearken to singing even in our complicated, sophisticated, American world.
1. Jane Mushabac's short novel about a Turkish Jew won a 2012 Honorable Mention in the Leapfrog Press Fiction Contest for novel manuscripts. Her Ladino short story, "Pasha: Pensamientos de David Aroughetti," appeared in Sephardic Horizons 1:4 (Fall, 2011). Dr. Mushabac has won fellowships from the Mellon Foundation, NEH, and Harvard University. She is Associate Professor of English at City University of New York. This is an edited version of the paper presented at the annual Modern Language Association convention in Boston, January 2013, as part of a session of the Sephardic Studies Discussion Group entitled "Bridges between Past, Present and Future Sephardic Cultures, Literatures and Identities."