Tag Archives: Sephardim

Litvaks and Galizianers II

8 Oct

In an old post I try to give gentiles — or non-New-Yorkers, or New-Yorkers under 50 — a sense of the cultural divide among Yiddish-speaking Jews between “Litvaks” (from Lithuania) and “Galizianers” (from western Ukraine and south-eastern Poland).  I lumped Warsaw Jews into Litvaks and an astute reader told me that that was a mistake: that Vilna (Lithuanian) Yiddish was the high standard form of the language and that “Poylish” was considered a bit more common.

Stand corrected.  By reader and by this cute Jewish guy in video:

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

 

 

Turkish Jews: A Spanish right of return redux

15 Oct

istipol-synagogue-istanbulİştipol in Istanbul

When I first came across this idea of that Spain was granting Sephardic Jews Spanish citizenship I was mildly condescending, thinking that it was the most pointless kind of Western guilt for the past and that maybe Europe had better things to think about.

Then a friend sent me this article about the shrinking Jewish community of Istanbul from Young Turkish Jews trickling away from shrinking community from the Times of Israel:

Turkey’s economic boom in the first decade of the 21st century has slowed, and its currency has lost 20 percent of its value against the dollar in the past year alone.

As tuition prices in Turkey’s increasingly competitive universities have skyrocketed in recent years, the quality of education lags behind schools in western Europe, the United States and Canada.

Like many middle-class Turks, Turkish Jews have contributed of the country’s brain drain.

“There’s no doubt anti-Semitism is a motivating factor,” said Louis Fishman, an assistant professor at Brooklyn College who has split his time in the last decade between New York, Istanbul and Tel Aviv. “But there are other groups [in the Jewish community] that are leaving because they’re part of the middle class, they can go to school in the US and get a job abroad.”

T., a 30-something resident of Istanbul who, like other Turkish Jews, preferred to speak anonymously for fear of backlash, works in a multinational company, which he said offers many Turks a means of emigrating with financial security.

“Almost all my friends think about what to do next,” said T., especially after the 2010 and 2014 anti-Israel uproar in Turkey. “Even though we are staying here, everyone is thinking of their next move.” He said that in the past five years he’s noticed a marked rise in Jewish emigration from Turkey.

Another indicator of the anxiety pervading the community is the number of Turkish Jews who have jumped at the opportunity to acquire Spanish citizenship. The vast majority of Turkey’s Jews are descendants of Spanish exiles who were welcomed into the Ottoman Empire.

Earlier this year the Spanish government announced its intention of extending citizenship to descendants of Sephardic Jews expelled in 1492. Shortly thereafter 5,000 Turkish Jews — roughly a third of the community — applied for dual citizenship, potentially opening the doors to life in Europe, according to a recent Financial Times report. [my emphasis]

I don’t know why this idea — that Spanish citizenship would open the doors to life or work anywhere in the European Union — completely skipped my mind; it’s the reason that I got my Greek citizenship (along with a little bit of a more personal tug, granted…)  Maybe it’s because all discussion of the issue was focused on the Israelis that would be granted citizenship and I totally forgot about the only real Jewish community in the Muslim world (aside from Iran) that still exists.

Still, the article gives you enough to worry about in terms of minority life in Turkey: the people who wouldn’t go on record for the writer is just one.  And, I wonder if having dual citizenship is actually allowed in Turkey and if you’re not setting yourself up for trouble.  In 1964, Turkey expelled all Greeks who held both Greek and Turkish citizenship from Istanbul, in such an over-night fashion that it effectively meant confiscation of their property as well.   Next time you’ve found the perfect Airbnb space in Pera or Tarlabaşı, ask the owner if he knows anything about the building’s history.

Below is my first post on “Spanish right of return” and below that a 1964 article from The New York Times article on the Greek expulsions.

Turkish synagogueMembers of Turkey’s Jewish community pray at Neve Shalom Synagogue in Istanbul on October 11, 2004, during a ceremony to mark the official reopening of the synagogue (AP/Murad Sezer)

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A Spanish right of return for Sephardic Jews?

9 Feb

Boy, that’s a wild idea…

And I can’t help but think it’s EU-ish political correctness taken to the point of silliness.  Don’t you folks have a few other things to think about right now?

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“Why make a fuss about Spain’s ostensible effort to atone for bad behaviour, even if it’s about 524 years too late?” asks this Al Jazeera article about the Spanish offer, as it also examines some of the other complexities, ironies and…hypocrisies…behind the whole notion:

“To be sure, atonement in itself is far from fuss-worthy. Goodness knows this world could use more apologies, reparations, and truth-telling – and in fact, 1492 is not a bad place to start.

“That year happens to be rather synonymous with the decimation of indigenous populations in the Americas in the aftermath of a certain nautical expedition, authorised by the very same Ferdinand and Isabella who expelled the Jews from Spain.

“This is not to say, then, that the repercussions of centuries-old injustice aren’t alive and well; it’s merely to point out the ironies of an international panorama in which Mossad officials are granted additional homelands in Spain while Palestinians languish in refugee camps for nearly seven decades.”

And just another thought: it could hypothetically mean a minor flood of Sephardic Jews from Argentina, say, or other Latin American countries, looking for better economic possibilities.  But in Spain?  At this particular moment?  I think the days of heavy Latin American emigration to Spain have been put on hold for a while.

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ISTANBUL, Turkey, Aug. 8 —Harassment and deportation of Greek nationals in Istanbul in retaliation for Turkish set­backs on Cyprus was declared today “an open policy” of the Government.

Unless a solution to the strife between Greek and Turkish Cypriotes is found soon, the Greeks here fear that their community, once numerous and prosperous, will be dispersed before winter.

“The pressure on the Istanbul Greeks will be gradual,” said a spokesman for the Foreign Min­istry in Ankara.

Tactic Held Ineffective

Sources close to Premier Is­met Inonu said the Government believed “pressure on Greek na­tionals” was the only way left to Turkey to force Athens and the Greek‐dominated Cypriote Government to accept a satis­factory compromise.

Istanbul’s Greeks have many Turkish friends who believe the new tactic will prove as ineffec­tive as it is harsh. The consen­sus among the Greeks them­selves is that Turkey is using Cyprus as “an excuse to do what they have long wanted to do—get us out.”

This week 58 more Greeks were added to nearly 1,000 who had been deported on short no­tice since March.

New lists are expected within a few days, and the 9,000 re­maining Greek nationals are sure their days here are num­bered. Turkey has canceled, effective Sept. 15, a 1930 agree­ment under which Greeks have been privileged to live here.

There is fear now in the hearts of 60,000 Turks of Greek descent, They, too, complain of harassment, “tax persecution” and ostracism, although Premier Inonu has declared repeatedly that these minority nationals will not be discriminated against.

In the business districts of Istanbul, many Greek‐owned shops may be seen under pad­lock. They were closed on Government order or because the owners were summarily or­dered from the country. Wives and other dependents are in many cases left destitute.

Many Born in Turkey

Every morning large numbers of Greeks crowd into the arcaded foyer of the Greek Consulate to ask help and advice. Some ac­cept an emergency dole provided by the consulate; others are well dressed. Some are old and frail.

Most of those deported so far were born in Turkey, according to the consulate, and many had never been to Greece. They have no particular place in Greece to go, and they say they have no idea what to do when they get there.

Greeks scan the Istanbul newspapers for published lists, fearing they will find their names. When they do, they go to the police to be fingerprint­ed, photographed and asked to sign deportation statements. They are given a week to leave the country, and police escorts see that they make the dead­line.

Asset Sales Difficult

Families of deportees protest that it is impossible to sell businesses or personal property in so short a time. “Few want to buy from us, and no one wants to pay a fair price,” one victim said. A deportee may take with him only his cloth­ing, 200 Turkish lira (about $22) and his transportation ticket.

At first the Government de­nied that these deportations had anything to do with the dispute over Cyprus. AU the deportees were charged with “activities harmful to the Turk­ish state.”

The Greeks have found wry humor in this claim. According to a source close to the con­sulate, the deportation lists have included the names of six per­sons long dead.

There have been 121 deportees more than 70 years old and 20 over the age of 80.

Many charges have been raised against the Greek aliens: smuggling money out of the country, for example, or evad­ing taxes and military duty. The Turkish authorities say the Greeks have invested their wealth abroad and that this has damaged the Turkish economy.

Wealth Put at $200 Million

Turkish estimates of Greek wealth here have gone as high as $500 million. But recently this figure has been reduced to $200 million. Greeks say the Turks “reduced their inflated estimates when they realized that someday they might have to settle for properties taken from us.”

They blame Turkey for not having offered better invest­ment opportunities.

In addition to abrogating the 1930 agreement on residence, trade and shipping privileges, Ankara has suspended a 1955 agreement granting unrestricted travel facilities to nationals of both countries. A number of Greeks caught outside Turkey when this suspension took ef­fect are reported to be unable to return.

More seriously, Ankara re­cently decided to enforce strictly a long‐overlooked law barring Greek nationals from 30 professions and occupations. They cannot, for example, be doctors, nurses, architects, shoe­makers, tailors, plumbers, caba­ret singers, ironsmiths, cooks or tourist guides.

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Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

“Correction…”: See, nobody knows when Tishabuv is.

31 Jul

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Sorry; I couldn’t resist.  I wrote a few posts about the observation of Tisha B’av (or Tishabuv) a few years ago during the Romney campaign, which I’m reposting below, and the initial date confusion here seemed to confirm my, upon rereading, slightly snarky take on the observance.

I know I offended the website Jewish London (see below) when I wrote those posts, the writer of which felt personally attacked.  I certainly hope I haven’t offended the folks at Kehila Kedosha, the shul of the Jewish community of Jiannena, my mother’s hometown, to which I feel intimately connected (see an old Purim post, also below).

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Tisha B’Av?

Sorry, but it’s pretty funny that Romney’s trip has made of Tisha B’Av such a central metaphor for contemporary Israeli politics and the problematics of Jewish conscience (see previous post).  In old Ashkenazi humour — at least as I know it from Brooklyn — Tisha B’Av, Ti-shabuv in Yiddish pronunciation, is used ironically because it’s such an obscure holiday that no one ever knows when it is.

“When is he gonna finally paint the kitchen?  Who knows?  At Tishabuv…”

“If you’re waiting for the perfect girl to come along, you’ll be waiting till Tishabuv…”

And the like…

But Beinart’s piece, Mitt Romney Misuses Judaism to Support Israel and Buttress His Own Campaign, is truly beautiful, expressing the best tradition of Jewish moral self-reflection, which time and again has saved them and saved us too, in ways too complex to get into here:

“Sorry, but that largely misses the point. Tisha B’Av is less about steeling Jewish resolve against our enemies than fostering self-reflection about the Jewish misdeeds that allowed those enemies to prevail. The Talmud says that God allowed the Babylonians to destroy the First Temple because the Jews committed idolatry, bloodshed, and sexual sins. Similarly, the Romans are bit players in the Talmud’s intricate explanation of the chain of Jewish sins that led to the Second Temple being destroyed. Among those sins—none of which easily lends itself to a GOP stump speech—are “baseless hatred” among Jews and a concern for ritual stringency so obsessive that it trumps concern for human life. [my emphases]”

What other people, even if they lapse so often and so often tragically, are so honest and clear-eyed about their faults?

 

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

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A reader writes: “Tishabuv?”

(Sorry…only now getting a chance to respond to some of these)

The Arch of Titus in Rome, built to commemorate the Roman suppression of the first Jewish revolt in 70 A.D. (click)

In reference to Jadde posts: “Romney in Israel: How High To Jump?“and “Tisha B’av?,”  “Jewish London” writes:

“it seems appropriate that he should visit on Tisha B’Av, a day when great calamities befell the Jewish people”

Oooooofffff…  This is like teaching…when you’ve spent hours researching and preparing, and then another half hour conducting, a brilliantly detailed and structured, thrillingly executed lesson on participial phrases, only to have one student, while you’re catching your breath right after, ask a question that proves none of the class has understood shit the entire time you were lecturing.

My point was simply that there’s a genre of Ashkenazi jokes, among the many, based on “When is Tishabuv?”  Beinart’s point, “Mitt Romney Misuses Judaism…” is that in the long tradition of Rabbinic and Talmudic learning, Tishabuv has been a time to reflect on why a certain tragedy has struck Jews and not just commemorate that tragedy in a victimized and ad nauseum form.

Yes, brother, “terrible calamities befell the Jewish people” on Tishabuv.  The Second Temple, the One and Only House of God in the One and Only Holy City, was levelled.  Jews were slaughtered in unbelievable numbers.  In trying to figure out whether these events happened as part of the Roman response to the Jewish rebellion of 70 A.D. or that of 135 A.D. — which has never been clear to me — I learned that there’s a trend of Jewish mystical thought that fascinatingly believes all Jewish tragedies occurred, occur and will occur on Tishabuv: the selling of Joseph into slavery; Moses’ shattering of the first tablets at seeing the Jews revert to idolatry; the destruction of the First Temple and the Babylonian captivity; the destruction of the Second Temple; the first massacre of European Jews at the beginning of the Crusades; the issuing of the Edict of Expulsion from Spain in 1492; the day the first train left for Auschwitz – all become mystically assimilated into Tishabuv.  That’s a tragic and moving idea.  However, I do know that the Roman suppression of the revolt of 135 A.D. was so brutal in its massacre and expulsion of Jews that it’s easy to say that it officially marks the beginning of the Jewish Diaspora.

Tishabuv is also intimately related to Jewish messianic thought.  The revolts themselves were partly inspired by messianic expectations.  And the crushing of those hopes by the greatest cluster of disasters to befall Jews before the Holocaust made Rabbinic thought retreat into the sharpest of all cautions against any such expectations.  This, I suspect, is what marked the final rupture between Christian Jews and the rest of Jewry.  It’s not that Jews didn’t succumb to the temptation again.  Kabbalism is a mystic desire to correct the world that is a barely concealed messianic impulse.  And there was the great fever of messianic ecstasy that swept the Jewish world in the seventeenth century, when Sabbatai Zevi, a rabbi from Smyrna, started declaring himself the Messiah – one of the most fascinating and, in the end, sadly absurdist, episodes in Jewish history.  Zevi, either a con artist or a psychotic, had raised Jewish expectations to such a frenzied pitch, that when he ended up converting to Islam and becoming a ward of the Sultan, it sent shockwaves of psychological distress, not only through Ottoman Jewry, but throughout the entire Jewish world; in fact, due to renewed persecution and massacres at the time in Eastern Europe, the effects on Ashkenazi Jewry may have been even greater than on Sephardim.  The crisis sent the Eastern European Jewish universe careening into two different directions: on the one hand a trend that reemphasized Rabbinical textualism and that eventually responded to the Jewish Enlightenment, the Haskalah, the movement out of Germany that attempted to bring European Jewry into the modern world; and on the other, a retreat into the most introverted mysticism, out of which Hasidism, and an even greater immersion in Kabbalistic thought, grew.  To some extent, this split is one that old New York Jews still codedly refer to, whether they know it or not, as “Litvaks” and “Galizianers” (explanation in subsequent post).  See Michal Waszynski’s 1937 film version of S. Ansky’s Dybbuk.  I think there’s no greater primary text of Jewish spiritual impulses and its conflicts.

Lili Liana as Lea, the bride who becomes possessed by the spirit of her wronged beloved on her wedding day to another man, in Waszynski’s 1937 Yiddish film, the Dybbuk. (click)

(Two interesting notes that I’d like to make here.  One is that the Jewish revolts of the early first millennium were partially led by political groups whom we, today, wouldn’t hesitate to compare to, not only the first New England Puritans, but even the Taliban, and who engaged in certain tactics, like the surprise slaughter of masses of innocent civilians that we like to associate with Palestinian “terrorism” – or that of…errrr….Irgun, Haganah, the Stern Gang, Mssrs. Ben Gurion and Begin and all the rest.  The other is that maybe the real basis of Tishabuv jokes is still unconsciously based in messianic expectations, the way older Greek women who, say, have missed a bus, will mumble: “Oy, now we’ll be waiting till the Second Coming.”)

But if “Jewish London” is to understand my point, he needs to better understand the transformation that Tishabuv has undergone in Israel since its founding, because I suspect that, not living among the most vibrant Diaspora communities in the world, Israel is his model.  Obviously, Zionism didn’t need to worry about the Messiah, since it had solved the “Jewish Question,” as must be obvious to anyone who throws even a cursory glance at the Middle East today and sees the peace and happiness in which Jews there live can attest to, and no Messiahs need apply anymore.  Tishabuv had been forgotten by the Jewish Diaspora, reduced to such an obscure holiday that it was the object of humour; I’ve lived most of my life in a city, and worked for a great part of it in an environment, where, believe me, it was impossible to not know that a great, or even just important, Jewish feast was being celebrated or was coming up, and Tishabuv wasn’t one of them.  In Israel, however, the “secular” Jewish state raised Tishabuv to new, official status as a holiday-fast day.  But not as a day of introspection; but as a day to remember, as “Jewish London” puts it, “a day when great calamities befell the Jewish people.”  This is because “calamities” are Israel’s justification for being; it was Israel’s down-payment and it’s still how it pays its mortgage; it’s the currency in which it trades.  And the ignorant Romney’s visit to the Western Wall with Netanyahu or whoever on that day, was just another slimy exchange in that same currency — and, in fact, a dishonour to centuries of Jewish suffering.

But back to the Diaspora, and a time when Judaism hadn’t locked itself into a barricaded nation-state.  More than just self-reflection and introspection, the repeated, century-after-century dashing of Jewish hopes may have generated an even more important element in the Jewish psyche: doubt.  The great Christopher Hitchens, quotes the equally great Rebecca West in his introduction of her book, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, and her own ruminations about the origins of anti-Semitism:

“West reflects on the virus of anti-Semitism, shrewdly locating one of its causes in the fact that ‘many primitive peoples must receive their first intimation of the toxic quality of thought from Jews.  They knew only the fortifying idea of religion; they see in Jews the effect of the tormenting and disintegrating ideas of skepticism.’”

That’s why on Easter night, the night of the Resurrection, I always remember to have one, only one, glass of wine that’s offered to the suspicion – the same one born out of the fact that Elijah never actually walks through that open door at Passover — that this whole idea is bullshit.

So what is Tishabuv for (when we know when it is)?  Introspection, moral responsibility, skepticism, doubt and the saving beauty of being eternally able to convert suffering into humour and irony – these last may be the most important — a pretty whole summation of what Jews have given us, given me, at least.

When “Jewish London” can tell me what Israel has given us, he should let us know.  These Days of Awe might be the perfect time to think about that.

 

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

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It’s Purim tonight! — something like a letter to my mother…

 

Nicolas_Poussin_E_before_Assuerus_c.1640Esther before Assuereus, Nicolas Poussin, circa 1640 (click)

For Purim this year I’m posting this poem by Greek Jewish poet Joseph Eliya, who was from my mother’s hometown of Jiannena in the northwestern Greek region of Epiros.  (See the tab box on the right for the hundred references to Jiannena and Epiros on the Jadde).

The Jews of Jiannena were Greek-speaking Romaniotes, descendants of the Jewish communities of Greece, the Balkans and Asia Minor that existed since Hellenistic times and that held out culturally against the flood of Spanish-speaking Sephardim that found refuge in the Ottoman Empire after their expulsion from Spain in 1492.  They were called Romaniotes because Romania (the kingdom of the Romans) was what the Byzantines called their polity and what we too – till the early twentieth century – also called ourselves: “Romans” – which it always aggravates me to have to explain.  But it is one of the rich ironies of history that the only inhabitants of Greek lands that stayed faithful to their true name for themselves were Jews, while we sold our souls to the West for the promises and prestige we thought the re-excavated neologism “Hellene” would curry us from the Frangoi.

So Eliya’s native language was Greek, and though he wrote some of the most beautiful translations of Jewish Biblical texts into Modern Greek, particularly one of the Song of Songs and a series of love poems to Rebecca, in a rich, florid, archaic idiom, he also wrote homelier poems in a folksier Jianniotiko style like this one, “something like a letter to his mother” on the occasion of the feast of Purim.

For those who don’t know, Purim is the day that the Esther, the Queen Consort to the Persian King Ahasureus, and her uncle Mordechai, foiled the plans of the king’s evil minister Haman, to have the Jews of the kingdom massacred.  It’s generally celebrated by listening to the book of Esther in synagogue, the Megilla, sending food and giving charity to the poor and dressing up in costume, an aspect of the celebration that may be an interborrowing due to the fact that it tends to fall around Christian Carnival.

Eliya was a poor schoolteacher who died at the young age of thirty, and I believe this poem was written when he was away from his beloved Jiannena, and his beloved mother, on a teaching post in the Macedonian city of Kolkush.  It’s a sad, therefore — and very Epirotiko in that sense and in tone — poem, that’s in sharp contrast to the happiness of the holiday.

This poem also has an added emotional subtext for me.  My mother’s best friend when she was in elementary school was a Jewish girl, Esther — Esther Cohen.  “Astro” they called her, in the Epirotiko diminutive; “Tero” is also another form for the same name.   And as a little girl from a peasant family recently moved to Jiannena from their village in the mountains just to the south, I could tell that her stories about her friendship with Astro were her first lessons in tolerance and difference, whether she would’ve called them that or not (we certainly wouldn’t in our day…I’ll leave them for another post).  And she may have known it even less, but her friendship with Astro may have prepared her for life in New York in ways she was probably never conscious of.  And what she may have been even less conscious of — though maybe I should give her some credit: I do know for sure that my mother’s stories of her friendship with Astro served as my first lessons in decency and openness to those different from you.  Of that there’s no doubt.  So this post is something like a letter to my mother too.

Always they ended in a kind of distracted silence, for she never knew what had happened to her friend during the war: “Τι νά’χει γίνει η Άστρω;” she would mumble.  “What can have happened to Astro?”  And what was strange was that she could’ve found out; there were surviving Jews in Jiannena that she knew and there were even Jewish Jianniotes in New York she could have asked.  But it was like she didn’t want to know.  Even odder, I’ve had several opportunities to find out as well; Kehila Kedosha Jiannena, the Jianniotiko shul in New York on Broome Street has records on the whole community.  But it’s been almost as if I don’t want to know either.

Here is Eliya’s original Greek, with my free verse translation below.

Purim

Purim

(Something like a letter to my mother)

It’s Purim tonight!  The thrill and joy of the great feast!

Light in our souls, and a smile on the lips of all.

And I, my orphaned mother, the refuse of exile*

Waste away in a chill joyless corner.

It’s Purim tonight!  And the synagogues open their arms wide to the faithful children of my ancient people.

And they read again with wonder, from the white parchment, the triumphs of Mordechai and Esther through the ages.

It’s Purim tonight!  Young and old gather at home, at hearth, to hear the Megilla’s** tale.

And I mother – with the burning lament of exile – tearily thumb through my Bible in a lonely corner.

Your son won’t be bringing you candles or flowers from shul*** tonight, mother.  And if your crying is bitter, don’t lament too deeply.  My Fate has been decided, and poverty — poverty, mammele**** – has no feel for sympathy.

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Notes on my translation:

*”Exile” here does not imply political banishment or anything of the sort.  It’s the word “ξενητιά” as Eliya spells it, that’s so central to understanding the Greek and — it probably goes without saying — the Jewish soul, but is so devilishly difficult to translate precisely.  It means absence — absence from the place where one should be, from one’s heart’s homeland.  Through and because of emigration and poverty most often but not always; it’s often something one feels without having had to leave.  The Turkish “kurbet” is the word closest in meaning that I know from another language.

**Not to be disrespectful, but the Megilla, the Book of Esther, is quite long, and is proverbial, in at least Ashkenazi humor, for being tedious and monotonous to listen to — but one bears it.  It’s exactly the same as the Greek term “εξάψαλμος,” the Hexapsalm, a selection of six psalms that is always read at the beginning of Matins and I’m not sure if during other offices, and would be beautiful if correctly and carefully recited according to the rules of Orthodox recitation.  Unfortunately, it’s usually read in an incomprehensible blur of mumbled boredom by the lector or cantor, which actually makes it even more tedious and irritating to sit through.  It’s usually a good time to go out for a cigarette.  I just always thought the similarity was funny.  “Ωχ, τώρα θα’κούσουμε τον εξάψαλμο,” a Greek will say with dread when faced with a berating lecture or kvetch session or someone’s tiring complaint that’s so repetitive you just tune it out, just like a Jewish New Yorker will say: “I really can’t listen to his whole Megilla right now…”

***In the second verse, Eliya uses the Greek word for synagogues and I translated it as such.  In this last verse, he uses a homier, Epirotiko form whose intimacy I felt was better conveyed by “shul.”

****And last but not least, we run into the painful translation issues that are generated by the fact that English is almost completely lacking in a system of diminutive terms of affection, especially compared with the highly elaborate diminutive terminologies of Slavic languages or Yiddish (or I assume Ladino) or even Greek.  At no point in the poem does Eliya refer to his mother as “mother” but rather “my little mother” — “μανούλα’μ” — “manoula’m.”  This is a term of affection used often by Greeks and especially Epirotes to refer to anyone, not just one’s mother, not even necessarily a female (Athenian idiots making fun will darken or double up the “l” to make it sound more northern and Slavic and hickish; for me it’s just more beautiful…); one will say to a young boy or even a friend: “Come here, manoula mou… What’s wrong, manoula mou?”  Just like “mammele” is used in Yiddish.  But I felt that using “mammele” throughout would have sounded too Yiddishy and cute, and so I saved it for that last, most intimate verse, and used mother elsewhere.  After all, this is a poem that above all is an expression of the most Jewish kind of mother-son bond.  But Yiddish and its many beauties is cursed now, by its sudden, dramatic extinction in Europe, and its shadow survival only in American entertainment, with the danger of always lapsing into a default comic tone.  It’s sad.  The translation from the Greek of the last line of the poem, for example: “poverty has no feel for sympathy…” would literally be: “…but poverty doesn’t know from sympathy.”  But then I’d be writing Larry David dialogue.

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FINALLY, I’d like to thank Marcia Haddad Ikonomopoulos for the scan of the Greek text of the poem.  I’m in Athens now, away from my library and couldn’t find it anywhere online.  I wrote to her and within five minutes she had written back to me with both “Purim” and “Esther,” another of Eliya’s poems about the biblical heroine.  She suggested that “Esther” is a poem more appropriate to the happiness of Purim than the melancholy of “Purim.”  Unfortunately, it’s written in a much more difficult, semi-biblical, archaic language that I didn’t have the time to translate.  I promise her however, that as soon as I get a chance I will work on it and post it on the Jadde — out of gratitude to her helping me out for this, and out of gratitude to the one-woman pillar of the Kehila Kadosha Janina community that she is.  I’d also like to thank the whole congregation there for always making me feel so welcome when I attend on Erev Simchas Torah; the rabbi and his stentorian voice, the three young men who lead prayer and are perhaps the community’s most precious resource — let’s see if I remember correctly: Seth, the rabbi’s son, and the brothers Andrew and Ethan, who though they’re from a Sephardic family from Berroia, devote their shabbes and yontif time to energizing this tiny community in need of outside help.  The warmth of the community has always moved me and I’m grateful for both the odd need for Jewishness in my life and the link to my mother and her childhood that they unknowingly provide.  Thank you.

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

 

RAE recognizes Ladino

3 Dec

Piri_Reis_map_of_Europe_and_the_Mediterranean_Sea

A late 16th century copy of the Mediterranean by Ottoman cartographer and geographer Piri Reis from Kitab-ı Bahriye.

RAE, the Real Academia Española, (Royal Spanish Academy) the body of academics that sets the standard for correct Castillian with all the sadistic glee of Spanish pedantry, but which has significantly lightened up in recent decades, especially in regards to Latin American usage, has hired eight academics to guide its Judeo-Spanish or Ladino “branch.”  The full article for Spanish-speakers is here.

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

It’s Purim tonight! — something like a letter to my mother…

15 Mar

Nicolas_Poussin_E_before_Assuerus_c.1640Esther before Assuereus, Nicolas Poussin, circa 1640 (click)

For Purim this year I’m posting this poem by Greek Jewish poet Joseph Eliya, who was from my mother’s hometown of Jiannena in the northwestern Greek region of Epiros.  (See the tab box on the right for the hundred references to Jiannena and Epiros on the Jadde).

The Jews of Jiannena were Greek-speaking Romaniotes, descendants of the Jewish communities of Greece, the Balkans and Asia Minor that existed since Hellenistic times and that held out culturally against the flood of Spanish-speaking Sephardim that found refuge in the Ottoman Empire after their expulsion from Spain in 1492.  They were called Romaniotes because Romania (the kingdom of the Romans) was what the Byzantines called their polity and what we too – till the early twentieth century – also called ourselves: “Romans” – which it always aggravates me to have to explain.  But it is one of the rich ironies of history that the only inhabitants of Greek lands that stayed faithful to their true name for themselves were Jews, while we sold our souls to the West for the promises and prestige we thought the re-excavated neologism “Hellene” would curry us from the Frangoi.

So Eliya’s native language was Greek, and though he wrote some of the most beautiful translations of Jewish Biblical texts into Modern Greek, particularly one of the Song of Songs and a series of love poems to Rebecca, in a rich, florid, archaic idiom, he also wrote homelier poems in a folksier Jianniotiko style like this one, “something like a letter to his mother” on the occasion of the feast of Purim.

For those who don’t know, Purim is the day that the Esther, the Queen Consort to the Persian King Ahasureus, and her uncle Mordechai, foiled the plans of the king’s evil minister Haman, to have the Jews of the kingdom massacred.  It’s generally celebrated by listening to the book of Esther in synagogue, the Megilla, sending food and giving charity to the poor and dressing up in costume, an aspect of the celebration that may be an interborrowing due to the fact that it tends to fall around Christian Carnival.

Eliya was a poor schoolteacher who died at the young age of thirty, and I believe this poem was written when he was away from his beloved Jiannena, and his beloved mother, on a teaching post in the Macedonian city of Kolkush.  It’s a sad, therefore — and very Epirotiko in that sense and in tone — poem, that’s in sharp contrast to the happiness of the holiday.

This poem also has an added emotional subtext for me.  My mother’s best friend when she was in elementary school was a Jewish girl, Esther — Esther Cohen.  “Astro” they called her, in the Epirotiko diminutive; “Tero” is also another form for the same name.   And as a little girl from a peasant family recently moved to Jiannena from their village in the mountains just to the south, I could tell that her stories about her friendship with Astro were her first lessons in tolerance and difference, whether she would’ve called them that or not (we certainly wouldn’t in our day…I’ll leave them for another post).  And she may have known it even less, but her friendship with Astro may have prepared her for life in New York in ways she was probably never conscious of.  And what she may have been even less conscious of — though maybe I should give her some credit: I do know for sure that my mother’s stories of her friendship with Astro served as my first lessons in decency and openness to those different from you.  Of that there’s no doubt.  So this post is something like a letter to my mother too.

Always they ended in a kind of distracted silence, for she never knew what had happened to her friend during the war: “Τι νά’χει γίνει η Άστρω;” she would mumble.  “What can have happened to Astro?”  And what was strange was that she could’ve found out; there were surviving Jews in Jiannena that she knew and there were even Jewish Jianniotes in New York she could have asked.  But it was like she didn’t want to know.  Even odder, I’ve had several opportunities to find out as well; Kehila Kedosha Jiannena, the Jianniotiko shul in New York on Broome Street has records on the whole community.  But it’s been almost as if I don’t want to know either.

Here is Eliya’s original Greek, with my free verse translation below.

Purim

Purim

(Something like a letter to my mother)

It’s Purim tonight!  The thrill and joy of the great feast!

Light in our souls, and a smile on the lips of all.

And I, my orphaned mother, the refuse of exile*

Waste away in a chill joyless corner.

It’s Purim tonight!  And the synagogues open their arms wide to the faithful children of my ancient people.

And they read again with wonder, from the white parchment, the triumphs of Mordechai and Esther through the ages.

It’s Purim tonight!  Young and old gather at home, at hearth, to hear the Megilla’s** tale.

And I mother – with the burning lament of exile – tearily thumb through my Bible in a lonely corner.

Your son won’t be bringing you candles or flowers from shul*** tonight, mother.  And if your crying is bitter, don’t lament too deeply.  My Fate has been decided, and poverty — poverty, mammele**** – has no feel for sympathy.

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Notes on my translation:

*”Exile” here does not imply political banishment or anything of the sort.  It’s the word “ξενητιά” as Eliya spells it, that’s so central to understanding the Greek and — it probably goes without saying — the Jewish soul, but is so devilishly difficult to translate precisely.  It means absence — absence from the place where one should be, from one’s heart’s homeland.  Through and because of emigration and poverty most often but not always; it’s often something one feels without having had to leave.  The Turkish “kurbet” is the word closest in meaning that I know from another language.

**Not to be disrespectful, but the Megilla, the Book of Esther, is quite long, and is proverbial, in at least Ashkenazi humor, for being tedious and monotonous to listen to — but one bears it.  It’s exactly the same as the Greek term “εξάψαλμος,” the Hexapsalm, a selection of six psalms that is always read at the beginning of Matins and I’m not sure if during other offices, and would be beautiful if correctly and carefully recited according to the rules of Orthodox recitation.  Unfortunately, it’s usually read in an incomprehensible blur of mumbled boredom by the lector or cantor, which actually makes it even more tedious and irritating to sit through.  It’s usually a good time to go out for a cigarette.  I just always thought the similarity was funny.  “Ωχ, τώρα θα’κούσουμε τον εξάψαλμο,” a Greek will say with dread when faced with a berating lecture or kvetch session or someone’s tiring complaint that’s so repetitive you just tune it out, just like a Jewish New Yorker will say: “I really can’t listen to his whole Megilla right now…”

***In the second verse, Eliya uses the Greek word for synagogues and I translated it as such.  In this last verse, he uses a homier, Epirotiko form whose intimacy I felt was better conveyed by “shul.”

****And last but not least, we run into the painful translation issues that are generated by the fact that English is almost completely lacking in a system of diminutive terms of affection, especially compared with the highly elaborate diminutive terminologies of Slavic languages or Yiddish (or I assume Ladino) or even Greek.  At no point in the poem does Eliya refer to his mother as “mother” but rather “my little mother” — “μανούλα’μ” — “manoula’m.”  This is a term of affection used often by Greeks and especially Epirotes to refer to anyone, not just one’s mother, not even necessarily a female (Athenian idiots making fun will darken or double up the “l” to make it sound more northern and Slavic and hickish; for me it’s just more beautiful…); one will say to a young boy or even a friend: “Come here, manoula mou… What’s wrong, manoula mou?”  Just like “mammele” is used in Yiddish.  But I felt that using “mammele” throughout would have sounded too Yiddishy and cute, and so I saved it for that last, most intimate verse, and used mother elsewhere.  After all, this is a poem that above all is an expression of the most Jewish kind of mother-son bond.  But Yiddish and its many beauties is cursed now, by its sudden, dramatic extinction in Europe, and its shadow survival only in American entertainment, with the danger of always lapsing into a default comic tone.  It’s sad.  The translation from the Greek of the last line of the poem, for example: “poverty has no feel for sympathy…” would literally be: “…but poverty doesn’t know from sympathy.”  But then I’d be writing Larry David dialogue.

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FINALLY, I’d like to thank Marcia Haddad Ikonomopoulos for the scan of the Greek text of the poem.  I’m in Athens now, away from my library and couldn’t find it anywhere online.  I wrote to her and within five minutes she had written back to me with both “Purim” and “Esther,” another of Eliya’s poems about the biblical heroine.  She suggested that “Esther” is a poem more appropriate to the happiness of Purim than the melancholy of “Purim.”  Unfortunately, it’s written in a much more difficult, semi-biblical, archaic language that I didn’t have the time to translate.  I promise her however, that as soon as I get a chance I will work on it and post it on the Jadde — out of gratitude to her helping me out for this, and out of gratitude to the one-woman pillar of the Kehila Kadosha Janina community that she is.  I’d also like to thank the whole congregation there for always making me feel so welcome when I attend on Erev Simchas Torah; the rabbi and his stentorian voice, the three young men who lead prayer and are perhaps the community’s most precious resource — let’s see if I remember correctly: Seth, the rabbi’s son, and the brothers Andrew and Ethan, who though they’re from a Sephardic family from Berroia, devote their shabbes and yontif time to energizing this tiny community in need of outside help.  The warmth of the community has always moved me and I’m grateful for both the odd need for Jewishness in my life and the link to my mother and her childhood that they unknowingly provide.  Thank you.

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

fog_in_my_hometown

Jiannena

 

Litvaks and Galizianers

12 Oct

Back in a previous post/response to “Jewish London‘s” comment on “Tishabuv” I made a reference to the difference or self-categorization among Eastern European Jews as “Litvaks” and “Galizianers.”  Here’s a map of Europe in 1648.

(have to click)

Between the beginning of the Crusades and the end of the religious wars in the German states in around 1648, a giant wave of the majority of the world’s Jews moved eastwards from German-speaking lands to Eastern Europe, preserving their form of late medieval German (Yiddish, which just means “Jewish”) in their new countries, like Spanish Jewry preserved late medieval Castillian (Ladino, but which Sephardim themselves usually refer to as “Kastelyano”) throughout the Ottoman sphere and general Mediterranean area after being expelled from Spain in 1492.  What I’d like to illustrate with the maps above and below is that no Jew ever actually migrated and settled in Russia.  The vast majority of Central European Jewry moved to the united Kingdom-Commonwealth of Poland-Lithuania, because Poland was perhaps the most progressive and open and tolerant state in Europe at the time and welcomed them gladly.  Jews later ended up in Russia and Austria when Poland was finally partitioned between those two empires and Prussia in the eighteenth century.  Otherwise, what Jew in his right mind would have gone to live in Russia?  Which was then a backwards, mediaeval theocracy — as, arguably, it still is.

(click)

The term “Litvak” refers to those Jews who lived in those territories of northeastern Poland centered around Vilna, Minsk, Bialystok and eventually Warsaw — regions more advanced or somehow “modern” than the rest of the Polish kingdom.  “Galizianer” refers to those Jews who lived in the southeastern areas of Poland — and after Partition — Austria and Russian Ukraine.

“Litvak” refers to Lithuania obviously, but mostly derived its prestige as an appellation from the central role of Vilna* in rabbinical and Jewish scholarship; as a reverse honour-indication of that role, Salonika was known as the Sephardic Vilna.  Galicia, what’s now southeastern Poland and Western Ukraine, roughly round the twin urban poles of Cracow and Lwow became, and remained into the twentieth century, one of the most overpopulated and impoverished parts of Europe — so much for enlightened Austrian rule.

One can take it from there in obvious ways: Litvak was more modern and sophisticated; Galizianer was more backwards and isolated; Litvak was more open to the modernizing influences of the German Jewish Enlightenment; the Galiizianer was more closed and isolated in his shtetl life; the tragically aborted explosion of Yiddish-language literature and theater and cinema in the early twentieth century was Litvak — with its center now moved to Warsaw; many of its themes, however, were the tales and mysticism and Hasidic other-worldliness of the Galizian south.  Opposites but complimentary.  Sholem Aleichem was a Litvak who wrote about Galizianer themes.  Renaissance and Enlightenment Jewish scholarship was Litvak; klezmer and Der Dybuk and Fiddler on the Roof are Galizia.  Helen, the receptionist for take-out orders at my dad’s coffee shop in the 70’s used to say she wouldn’t eat the store’s pastrami and corned beef because they were delivered by a “dirty Galizianer,” but she and an insurance salesman who used to have lunch there — and kinda used to hit on her — used to kid about he would never trust a “sneaky Litvak” like her; by that time, both of them were joking.

The differences mean even less today, except for that, due to New York Hasidim, Galizianer Yiddish is the most alive form of the language.  But even young New York Jewish kids know what the two words imply.  For what that was worth…

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*Lithuanians — yes, I get hits from Lithuania — please do not write me and tell me the name of the city is Vilnius.  For Jewish purposes it’s Vilna; for Polish, Wilno.  See: Names: Istanbul (not Constantinople)

Note: Roumanian Jews and “Bessarabtsy” (Moldavian) Jews were kind of a separate category, though I suspect that linguistically and culturally they were pretty similar to Galizianers, aside from a reputation for being especially humourous and quick-witted and high-livers and partiers, and for introducing pastrami to New York, a linguistic and culinary kin to pastirma, one of the many ways that Roumania has always been a bridge between Ottoman and Eastern-European-Russian worlds.

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

Yom Kippur, Kol Nidre, Moishe Oysher and the First Roumanian (a little late…sorry)

10 Oct

Yom Kippur (pronounced “Yum Kip-per” or “Yun Kip-peh” and not “Yom Kip-pur”) is the holiest day of the Jewish year; just thought I should explain, I don’t want to under or overestimate my readers’ knowledge.  It’s the Day of Atonement, which closes the ten beautifully named Days of Awe that begin with the Jewish New Year (“Happy New Year to Everyone“), when Jews fast and atone for their – “sins” is too Catholic – for their moral failures, let’s say.

Kol Nidre, the first few words of which are heard sung by Moishe Oysher in the clip from “Overture to Glory,” (see Kol Nidre) is sung on the eve of Yom Kippur.  “All Vows” in Aramaic, the prayer, which in many ways has become the center of the day’s observance, asks God for release from any promise or oath that one will make in the coming year.  Controversial even among Jews at certain periods in Jewish history, in the Gentile world the prayer has generated volumes of anti-Semitic garbage, along the lines that one can imagine: sneaky Jews starting their year off with a legal loophole, etc.  What Kol Nidre asks of God is understanding for the many ethical obligations that an honest man knows he will not be able to completely live up to in the coming year; it’s not a request for a moral pass or a license to lie.  It’s an expression of terrible honesty, in fact.

Moishe Oysher (click)

Moishe Oysher was a Moldavian-born star of Yiddish theater and cinema, first in Europe, then mostly in the Americas, who almost accidentally stumbled into the real-life role of cantor at the First Roumanian Shul* on Rivington Street on the Lower East Side.  His powerful voice, entertaining and dramatic style (disliked by many purists), and movie star looks made him, and the First Roumanian, a sensation in the 1930s and 40s when he sang there, apparently increasing the congregation’s size to overflowing.  “Ooooh yeaaaah….” the ancient caretaker who showed me and a friend the decrepit interior the one time I was in there in the early 90s, “Moishe Oysher…they say he really packed in the gallery [where the women sat] in those days, he he…”

Unfortunately Oysher died young, at 51, and unfortunately the First Roumanian Shul (see below) was torn down or — like used to happen to “landmark” buildings in Greece — allowed to collapse in 2006.  It wasn’t any stunner of a building, but it was a historic center of Jewish New York and it had some of the best acoustics of any interior space in the city.  Its congregation was tiny at that point and only used the basement, even on Yom Kippur, but it could have easily been used as a concert hall or musical venue of sorts like so many houses of worship in the city whose demographic environment has changed.  In fact, it was in the process of being designated a landmark when, under shady New York real estate circumstances that may have involved the leaders of the congregation itself, city money for repairs was delayed for so long that the roof collapsed, the building was declared irreparable and the shul was demolished a few months later.

Like so much of the neighborhood, once the site of terrible poverty and the greatest population density of any equivalent set of square miles of urban space in history, but the wellspring of so much of New York’s historical and cultural and political life, the shul’s space is now occupied by a condo, with the old yeshiva side-door set into the glass façade in one of those contrived architectural pastiches that only add insult to injury for me, and Rivington Street no longer echoes to the booming voices of cantors on the High Holy Days but the screeching of drunk white girls pouring out of its series of identical bars at closing time.  At least Katz’s can still make a living.**

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*Shul: “school” literally, in Yiddish, is the traditional Ashkenazi term for “synagogue,” a Greek word which means roughly the same thing: a place to come together and pray and study (“train,” if you like, for those that recognize the second half of the word from “pedagogue” — or the movie 300…  Venetian Jews called their synagogues “scuole.”  Oddly enough, I don’t know what Sephardim call theirs.)  I don’t know where American Reform and Conservative Jews got the, frankly, sacrilegious idea of calling a “synagogue” a “Temple.”  There was only One Temple to the One God in the One City; you can’t rebuild one in Great Neck or Forest Hills.  I cringe whenever I hear it.

**Katz’s is a delicatessen on the corner of Ludlow and Houston, literally around the block from where the First Roumanian used to be.  Like most Jewish businesses on the Lower East Side by the 1980s, it was sliding downhill and hanging on by a thread, when the sudden explosion of the neighborhood (starting with, and especially, Ludlow Street) into the center of under 35 nightlife in the city gave it a new lease on life.  It’s now on every New York tourist’s itinerary and is open twenty-four hours a day, packed when the bars close after 4:00 a.m.  It has decent undistinguished pastrami, but nothing there is especially good.  A better post-bar munchies choice is Bereket, down the street on the corner of Orchard, the Turkish place that has a variety of meat-kebab-doner choices and zeytinyagli-ladera-vegetable dishes, but you have to deal with vegans there.

There’s still excellent pastrami to be had in New York around the clock, but I’m not telling where.

 

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

 

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