Rivka Abiry

The Phenomenon of Rivka Abiry

By Jane Mushabac *

Rivka Abiry is a phenomenon. Her 2015 Ladino book, Una Lagrima, Una Riza: Lo Ke Mos Konta Rivka [Tears and Laughter: The Stories Rivka Tells Us], contains an explosion of a hundred short tales, published 2007-2015 month by month in the Ladino supplement of the Istanbul newspaper Şalom.

While her style is playful and conversational, the tales are threaded through with longing and desire. They are rich with a pleasure in language. She writes from Haifa, her home for much of her adult life, and her Ladino is deeply energized by the linguistic hybridity central to Sephardic lives and literature.  

Who is Abiry? She was born in 1920 in Marseilles, her mother from Istanbul and her father from Vidin (Bulgaria). She spent her childhood in Vienna, her adolescence in Varna (Bulgaria) and, during World War II, was in exile with her family in Teheran, where she received her diploma and had her first job. Afterwards she moved to Israel with 45,000 other Bulgarian Jews; she has spent over sixty-five years in Haifa, marrying, and raising her two children there. She lost her older son in the Yom Kippur War two days after his wedding. A later loss was her younger brother. Then in 2000 the international internet chat group Ladinokomunita went live, and shortly afterwards a new Ladino supplement, “El Amaneser” [The Dawn], began appearing in Şalom, giving Abiry, over eighty, the opportunity to embark on a decade as a remarkable writer of evocative Ladino stories.

Amazingly, Abiry did not grow up speaking Ladino. The language she grew up speaking in Vienna—at home and in school—was German. Over the years, she added five or six well-known languages.  But her grandmother, who lived with her family for most of her childhood, used to tell stories in Ladino, and that was Abiry’s touchstone for the language which she honors here to connect with family and Sephardim worldwide. She loved her grandmother, her warmth, even (in the way children experience the world) the smell of her bed. The stories inspired by her nona reflect the closeness of human life, individuals’ anxieties, frights, eccentricities, and an indomitable instinct for the good. As with other contemporary Ladino writers, Ladino was the language Abiry reclaimed to reclaim her own life. She brings back her grandmother’s Ladino to feel close to her readers, and to suggest the importance of people’s wild persistence in finding what they need.

Many of her tales end by clinching the absurdity or sagacity of people’s actions. But the tales are not relentlessly upbeat. The grimness underlying the many happy endings gives a quiet depth to the author’s impulse. Also, don’t expect to be constrained by the writer’s memories; far from it. Abiry is very much the cosmopolitan.  The tales reflect her decidedly international upbringing, penchant for world travel, and immense desire to connect to others; and her naturally infused Ladino can provide a challenge to the Ladino reader, with words slipped in from Russian, Bulgarian, Turkish, Italian, Hebrew, French, and Portuguese. In fact the book’s charm lies in the way a storyteller’s modesty of bearing opens up a feeling for the great broad scope of the world.

Let’s consider a few of the kuentos.   The opening story, “Mi Ermaniko,” less than a page long, introduces her baby brother who was so luscious with his calm blue eyes and a curl over one ear, that she, fifteen months older, wanted to just eat him up.  In fact, jealous of the attention he gets from his grandmother, when the latter steps out of the room, she quietly feeds him medicine sitting on a nearby table, although it’s for a sore, not for the baby to eat. Ultimately we gather the baby is unharmed, and the toddler has received some unnamed punishment after several panicked shrieks from the returning grandmother.  Here, in a seemingly innocent little tale of two cuddly siblings, we get a taste of the Cain and Abel story at the root of all human affairs.  This is the beloved brother, we may guess, whose death years after her son’s death as a soldier, spurred her to write her one hundred Ladino kuentos.  

La Reunion” opens by noting the great ironic benefit of two domestic accidents befalling a husband and wife on the same day, the husband with a broken leg from a fall and the wife with severe burns from a burst of hot oil spattering from the stove.  The injuries bring their adult children to the hospital and then to their house for an entire week together, feeling really close and having the pleasure of an extended stay. Mixed in eventually with these celebratory remarks is the author’s acknowledgment that this occurred at a time of terrible fear; Saddam Hussein was sending missiles from Iraq, Israelis had prepared their houses “for this cursed war,” gas masks were always at the ready, and no one dared to go outside once the sirens wailed. The “reunion” was a gift in the midst of the madness of war.

In “Bumuelos,” a street vendor who turns up daily for recess at the entrance to the author’s school in Bulgaria is a Russian emigrant who fled with people of all backgrounds after the October 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. From his tray he sells sugar-dusted homemade bumuelos, which provide his family’s only income.   By a stroke of luck, the school’s Russian teacher suddenly falls sick, and the man Abiry calls her “Russian hero” is able to return to his former profession as a teacher of Russian language and literature.  He holds her class in rapt attention, teaching the works of Dostoyevsky, Chekhov, Gogol and Pushkin.

La Siya de Charley” [Charley’s Chair] highlights the indomitable Sephardic habit of talking to strangers, which we see in one tale after another.  Everyone in her tales is reaching out; no one wants to miss out on the opportunity to tell a story, or the story of their life. Abiry, like many people her age, requests a wheel chair at the Tel Aviv airport to expedite getting to the gate amidst mobs of pre-Passover travelers. The elderly commanding man pushing her chair introduces himself as Charley, and not surprisingly the two strike up a conversation. His rider learns he’s miserable having lost track of his niece who may not even know he exists; and by the next paragraph Abiry, having reached her destination in the Moabit neighborhood of Berlin, has managed to find Charley’s niece and, unannounced, brought her back to Ben Gurion airport to find her uncle.  Sometimes it’s a stray niece, sometimes a discarded piece of furniture, a bufetiko with gold coins hidden in it during the Shoah, sometimes an estranged brother who had embraced communism in Bulgaria in his youth before becoming a famous singer and later as an old man moving to Israel, sometimes it’s an inviting package of biskochos. But in a kind of expressionist magnetism, untold numbers of objects and people seem destined to find their way to each other, because of the immense desire at the root of their personalities, their transnational geographies of the heart, and simply the desire to live.

I have translated the Ladino title of another tale with help from Adam Sandler:  “Don’t Mess with an Old Lady.”  An elderly woman driving from Haifa to Tel Aviv, when stopped for speeding, blandly responds to the policeman that she has no license, that her vehicle is a car she stole with the help of her husband, but since her husband has been annoying her, she has locked him in the trunk.  Soon the narrator’s car is surrounded by screaming sirens and five police cars. When the chief of police asks for her license and registration, she promptly hands over the documents; the trunk meanwhile has been found empty. The chief tells her the absurd things the original officer had told him, and she laughs, saying he probably also said I was speeding! Then off she goes.

The storyteller in her eighties and nineties is alive and well. No thinking these are outdated little old lady Ladino tales, bureka recipes, sweet nothings delivered in handkerchiefs wrapped around cloves of garlic to keep off the evil eye.  Life goes on, brutal and full of desirings and tricks. Welcome to the world of Rivka Abiry.

At the start of a review a reader expects to learn the book’s publisher. While all the stories in the collection have been published in the Istanbul newspaper, and many republished in the U.S., Chile, and Belgium, for instance, the book as a collection is simply a 184-page self-published pdf. It’s only a matter of time, however, before an Israeli or American publisher will want the book or a collection of its best tales, and translations into Hebrew and English are sought. In the December 2016 New York Times Magazine we read that, in the previous month, Google’s computer-generated translations had suddenly made immense game-changing strides; and people are wild about the improvement. Awkward reiterations have been replaced with poetic conversational prose! And more and more languages are being added to the program each month because of the new use of artificial intelligence in Google Brain.  That transnational neural network flexibility, whoa! reminds me of the polyglot Sephardic brain.   Who knows, maybe The Stories Rivka Tells Us will be the first computer-generated English collection of Ladino fiction.  Abiry’s stories, most each just a page or two, go down easily, many clinched with evocative endings.  But their power lies in the longing that draws people together with people, people with things, families with hardships and solutions, and stories with meanings.

A Final Note on Abiry’s Ladino

In her bio on the book’s last page, mentioning that her family only spoke German in her Vienna childhood, Abiry continues: Entourada de esta lingua dura, se oyiva komo de leshos la boz melodika i atirante de mi nona, ke bivio todo el tiempo kon mosotros.  Es mi nona ke me metio en mi kuna el Ladino kon los kuentos de su chikes en Estambol, i de los anios del sieklo pasado. Sin saver el ladino, los kuentos sonavan komo una musika, i me tresalian. . .  [Surrounded by this hard language, I heard as if from afar the melodic appealing voice of my nona, who lived with us all the time. It is my nona who brought Ladino into my cradle with her stories of her Istanbul childhood and of the years of the past century. I didn’t know Ladino, but her stories sounded like music, and overjoyed me.]

About the book, Abiry says that to succeed with it and communicate with her relatives, she should write it in Ladino, “ke fina este tiempo yo no lo avlava din el todo” [which until this time—in all fairness— I didn’t speak]. She goes on, “Me parese ke el saver avlar esta lingua lo yevava siempre kon mi, ma ke fue komo enserado en mi korason, i ke se topava en un kiche (pina) olvidado. Tenia solo avrir la puerta. En una vez, i subito, todo salio en medio, i esto kon una fortalesa maraviosa.  [It seems that I always carried with me the knowledge of how to speak this language, but it was as if it was buried in my heart and I’d find it in a forgotten chamber. I only had to open the door. And in one moment, suddenly, everything spilled out, and with it this astonishing feeling of power.]

*Jane Mushabac is professor of English at City Tech, CUNY and a member of the Sephardic Horizons editorial board. She wrote a Ladino short story, “Pasha: Pensamientos de David Aroughetti,” which appeared in Sephardic Horizons 1.4. Her 2016 novel, His Hundred Years, A Tale (Albion-Andalus Books) is in English. She wrote both with the pen name Shalach Manot.

Copyright by Sephardic Horizons, all rights reserved. ISSN Number 2158-1800