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Feature

Songs of the Sephardim

By Pedro Ponce | HUMANITIES, March/April 2000 | Volume 21, Number 2

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 Judeo-Spanish 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 Tetuán, 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 Judeo-Spanish 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 one-volume 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 settled 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. The Second World War and the devastation of the Holocaust created greater urgency among scholars to study and preserve the Spanish-speaking Sephardic culture, which had been virtually wiped out in Greece, Macedonia, Bulgaria, Rumania, and what is now Bosnia.

Folk Literature of the Sephardic Jews is the first comprehensive study of Sephardic literature to consider not only the texts collected by Armistead and his colleagues, but also those previously collected by scholars since 1885.

The immensity of the project is matched only by the painstaking work involved. Each recording, culled from interviews with more than two hundred Sephardic Spanish speakers in the United States, North Africa, and Israel, must be carefully transcribed and then compared with other versions collected in the field or compiled previously by other scholars. This laborious process can help to explain how the structure and content of a text might have evolved over time.

Armistead began collecting material in 1956, while he was an instructor at the University of California, Los Angeles. The following year, the late Joseph H. Silverman, then a colleague on the Spanish faculty, joined Armistead on the project. The university supported them with a modest grant of $17.50 to buy reel-to-reel tape. From its humble beginnings with the large Sephardic immigrant community in Los Angeles, the project grew as the two interviewed more sources in San Francisco, Seattle, and New York.

In 1959, Armistead and Silverman were joined by Israel J. Katz, then a doctoral student in ethnomusicology at UCLA. After transcribing the melodies sung by Sephardic sources and comparing transcriptions of different renditions, Katz determined how the ballad music has changed through years of oral transmission. He now works at UC Davis as a research associate for the Folk Literature project.

According to Armistead, the Spanish ballads, or romances, evolved from epics recited at banquet halls, marketplaces, or other public gatherings. They were particularly influenced by the chansons de geste, heroic French poems that were adapted by peoples across medieval Europe. Chanson protagonists like Roland and Charlemagne, who fought against the Muslims in eighth-century France, and the legendary El Cid, who later battled them in Spain, appear in early Sephardic poems.

Certain scenes from the longer epics were more popular than others, says Armistead. Because of their brevity and compelling narrative, these epic fragments were easily memorized by listeners who went on to adapt and perform their own versions. Epic fragments became independent pieces of poetry.

Over time, the ballad was adapted to narrate stories of family and marriage. Advice, like that in this Moroccan Sephardic wedding ballad, was given in song:

My daughter, if you are departing,
Look out and pay attention.
On the roads you will travel,
There are no cousins or relatives.
Unknown women will be your family;
Be sure you're not disliked.

Singers also used the medieval ballad form to describe historical events that were in the recent memory of the community. Called romances noticieros, these ballads were being written until relatively recent times by Spanish-speaking Moroccan Jews, says Armistead. There is one, possibly from early this century, that tells of the capture of Jewish muleteers on the road to Tangier by members of the Beni êder tribe and their subsequent ransoming and release.

In studying the ballad tradition, Armistead has particularly enjoyed discovering that the tradition is eclectic and far from frozen in the Middle Ages. He recalls that when he began his research, "Many Hispanists who approached this material assumed that everything that the Sephardim sang dated from the epoch of the expulsion. Little attention was directed to material the Sephardim may have acquired after their exile from the diverse peoples among whom they lived."

Armistead, however, has been pondering the ways Sephardic singers adapted new material almost since the beginning of his research. He remembers going to a used-book store in Los Angeles in the late 1950s and coming across a collection of Greek folk poetry, translated into English. The old poems had been gathered in the nineteenth century. While perusing the collection, he ran across a poem that closely resembled a Sephardic ballad that was believed to be from Spain. In the Sephardic version, seven brothers are on the road to Aragon when their thirst leads them to devise a dangerous plan for getting water from a bottomless well.

In 1959, after his experience in the bookstore, Armistead and Silverman collected yet another version of the well ballad in Brooklyn. Their source was an 84-year-old Sephardic Spanish-speaking woman who had been born in Greece. After comparing the Greek poem and the Sephardic well ballad, Armistead concluded that the well ballad was not of medieval Hispanic origin at all. Sephardic singers at some point had simply taken a traditional Greek song and, in translation, put it into the ballad formula that characterizes Sephardic works.

But how does Armistead know that the song traveled from the Greeks to the Jews and not the other way around? Because the well story is known throughout Greece. "Sephardic culture in Greece was largely marginalized," says Armistead. "It would have been hard for the Sephardim to get the poem so widely dispersed," says Armistead.

Armistead has since created a critical text of "The Bottomless Well" from all of the known Sephardic versions of the ballad. It appears in the 1993 essay collection Sephardim in the Americas: Studies in Culture and History, edited by Martin A. Cohen and Abraham J. Peck:

Now the seven brothers depart,
Now they depart for Aragon.
The heat was intense;
they could find no water.
Along the way,
they found a deep well.
They drew lots;
it fell to the youngest.
Now they tie him to the rope;
they lower him into the well.
Halfway down that well,
the rope broke.
The water became blood for them;
the stones became serpents.
"If my father asks you,
tell him: 'He was left in the well!'"

Among the Sephardic ballads many virtues, says Armistead, is its plain, concise language. That plainness is central to the form's vitality because it leaves so much to the listener's imagination. "The ballad appeals to us to participate in the poetic process."

Studying the ballads also show the process of change that languages undergo. Sephardic Spanish would seem familiar to modern Spanish speakers, says Armistead. It retains pronunciations from the Middle Ages as well as words that have since died out, but along the way it borrowed from Arabic and Turkish. Hebrew words usually appear in a religious context.

Sometimes the words used change meaning over time. For instance, the Hebrew phrase 'sheth hayil from Proverbs is translated variously as capable wife, virtuous or wise woman, or woman of valor. Sephardic women in Morocco, who did not know much Hebrew, interpreted these words to mean a woman who is brave and heroic. This mistranslation led to a body of North African Sephardic ballads featuring courageous female characters significantly different from those seen in ballads from Spain.

In terms of music, Katz's analysis has revealed how the melodies of the ballads have changed since exile. The Sephardic Jews who had moved to the eastern coast of the Mediterranean continued to sing medieval Spanish narratives. But they set these stories to the Turkish and Greek tunes they heard after leaving Spain.

Such insights into the history of Sephardic language and literature are threatened by the dwindling resources available to scholars like Armistead. From 1962 to 1963, one Moroccan woman provided Armistead and fellow researchers with about a month's worth of interviews. Luna Elaluf Farache, a champion ballad singer, knew more than sixty ballads and numerous stories, says Armistead. To hear her and others was often a thrilling experience because "we heard things that were never written down from their creation in the Middle Ages. It was like hearing the echo of voices of centuries ago."

For now, the work of Armistead, Silverman, and Katz serves as a crucial resource for the study and preservation of a culture that is being forgotten.

Armistead says that there are currently efforts under way in Israel to revive Judeo-Spanish by teaching it in school and by establishing an organization devoted to preserving both Sephardic and Yiddish cultures.

While he admires these efforts, he is keenly aware of the cultural and economic obstacles that stand in the way.

"Some people in Israel say they can bring Judeo-Spanish back," observes Armistead. "I hope they can."

About the Author

Pedro Ponce is a freelance writer in Kalamazoo, Michigan.

Funding Information

Since 1979 Samuel Armistead, has received several NEH grants totaling $819,510 to support his work on Judeo-Spanish ballads and poems. His contributions to the study of Spanish language, literature, and culture earned him the 1999 Elio Antonio de Nebrija International Prize given by the University of Salamanca. It is Spain's highest award to foreign scholars.