Sefardi Woman

A Sefardi Woman from the Island of Rhodes

by Jaime Cader

Sara Levi, a Berkeley, California resident, is a Sephardic Jew born on the Greek island of Rhodes in the year 1915. She is a descendant of the Jews that were expelled from Spain in 1492, and along with being well-versed in her cultural heritage, she speaks “Ladino,” which is similar to medieval Spanish, but has assimilated words from Hebrew, Turkish, Greek, and other languages. Sara is a linguistic consultant for the Sephardic songs recorded by the acclaimed singer Judy Frankel.

Sara has many fond memories related to living in a Sephardic Jewish family and community. Her father, who always dressed in Turkish garb, was a rabbi, and even wore his fez (a North African and Middle Eastern hat, also known as tarboosh) in the synagogue. The Sephardic culture on Rhodes was, as a whole, more Turkish than Greek, and the Sephardim kept better relations with the Muslim Turks than with the Christian Greeks. According to Sara, the Turks were compassionate and respectful. Greek villagers on the other hand, had the derogatory term tchifutis (dirty Jews) for the Jewish inhabitants of the island.

Sara and her younger sister, Renée, believe they are the last generation of Ladino speakers, because the language has been gradually falling into disuse. Both of their parents died in Auschwitz in 1942, when the Nazis came to take all of the Jews from the island. Two of Sara’s sisters are survivors of the holocaust.

Ladino was Sara’s first tongue, the language she and her six brothers and sisters heard their parents, grandparents, and the entire Jewish community on Rhodes speak. As Sara says, “It is the only remembrance that we have of our youth, of the times we spent in so much happiness with the family, and of the affection we received. The Ladino to which we were accustomed was about the affection our parents had for us. For example, they would use terms of endearment like hijo querido (my dearest son), presiado (precious one), mi alma (my soul), and mi corasón (my heart). We believe we inherited this affectionate manner from our ancestors in Spain. It is a family tradition. Yes, we are very affectionate with our family, and we do not want to forget the Ladino language.”

In contrast to many Sephardic songs from other countries, Levi feels that those from Rhodes were, in general, romantic. She remembers the romansas sung by her mother. The following are the words and musical notations of a Rhodesli variant of a Sephardic song sung by Sara’s mother:

“Ah Sarica bre”

Ah Sarica bre

Dame un poco d’ agua (bis)

Ah Sarica, linda y hermosica

yo te voy tomar sapatos d’ el Capan

 

Las tus caras son

mas sanas floresidas (bis)

Ah Sarica, linda y hermosica

yo te voy tomar sapatos d’ el Capan

 

English translation:

Oh little Sara

Give me a little water (bis)

Oh little Sara, pretty and beautiful

I’m going to buy you shoes from Capan

Your face is the

most healthy flowering (bis)

Oh little Sara, pretty and beautiful,

I’m going to buy you shoes from Capan

Author’s note: the word bre is actually a Turkish expression that means, more or less, “wait a minute.” Capan is a place on the island of Rhodes.

 

Jaime Cader has been involved in tracing the roots of his family through their migration from Spain, to Central America and the U.S. He has found evidence of Sephardic influence in his family tree, and has written numerous articles in both English and Spanish on his family and Sephardic music and culture. One of his ancestor’s last names was Evora, which is a city in Portugal. Evora is of Hebrew derivation: the Hebrew word for Hebrew is “Ebrí”, and in Spanish, “hebrea” (silent ‘h’) means “Hebrew woman.” Mr. Cader has performed and taught Northern Spanish and Latin American folk dance, and Middle Eastern line dance in recreation departments and schools for over twenty years. jmcader@yahoo.com

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