A Refutation of the Twenty-first Chapter of Stephen Birmingham's Book "The Grandees"
by David N. Barocas
Because he is of Sephardic extraction and a part and parcel of the contingent of Sephardim who came to America between the years 1910 and 1920, this reviewer proposes to challenge the veracity of the 21st -- a blistering -- chapter of the book "The Grandees" by Stephen Birmingham and to refute categorically the statements which the author makes in that chapter. The historical review of the book he leaves to the authorities on that subject, Prof. Mair Jose Benardete and Dr. Paula O. de Benardete. The history of the Sephardim in the Iberian Peninsula and throughout the diaspora is a complex subject and this writer is not qualified to comment on the historical aspects of the book.
So that one may be able to write a comprehensive and intimate report on the life, background, customs and usage's of a people, one must be either a part of them or else one must at least live very close to them for a given period of time. To rely on hearsay information, or to select at random passages from books and then try to weave them into the fabric of one's text or report constitutes in the final analysis a combination of misstatements, incomplete truths and factual omissions tending to present a perverted opinion of an innocent people. There is no doubt, as well shall prove it, that this was the case in the preparation of the twenty-first chapter of the book entitled "The Grandees". The author titles that chapter "AN ALTOGETHER DIFFERENT SORT."
"To rely on hearsay information, or to select at random passages from books and then try to weave them into the fabric of one's text or report constitutes in the final analysis a combination of misstatements, incomplete truths and factual omissions tending to present a perverted opinion of an innocent people."
Mr. Birmingham should have consulted some of the more responsible Sephardim here in New York who would have been glad to enlighten him on Sephardic life and culture of yesterday and today. He did not do this and as a result he produced a monstrous chapter that is more of a blot on the quality of his pen than it is a reflection on a particular ethnic group. An Ashkenazic professor of English in a renowned university in this city, when writing to this writer about "The Grandees" said: "It is a poorly written, sensational book whose purpose is to entertain. I refuse to regard it as serious (anymore than I did the sensation-mongering Our Crowd)."
On page 322 Mr. Birmingham begins the second paragraph by saying, "In the synagogue, the women were not only seated separately from the men, but behind heavy curtains, so that they would not distract the men from their prayers." The reason for the separation is well founded, but the custom of the separation between men and women was and still is prevalent in all orthodox synagogues, Ashkenazic and Sephardic alike. When was the last time that Mr. Birmingham visited an orthodox Yiddish synagogue? If he ever does, he will find that the custom is not one of the Oriental Sephardim alone. He was at the synagogue of the Congregation Shearith Israel. Did he not observe the elevated women's gallery all around the synagogue?
Again on page 332 Mr. Birmingham jumps from the synagogue to the "dinner table" to the "Meal", to the "Bath", to the "Prayer" as if to the Sephardim alone this is "a kind of trinity of Old World Sephardic Life." Has Mr. Birmingham attended a Seder Night or a Sabbath Eve dinner in an orthodox Yiddish home? Has he ever witnessed a night of Islamic Ramaddan Feast? This writer has and he can say without fear of being contradicted that the greater the piety of a people, the greater the solemnity in their appreciation for God's bounty at a dinner table. This is not peculiar to the Sephardim alone, old and new.
And then Mr. Birmingham comes to "such traditional Spanish dishes....."Does he not know that all ethnic people in the United States have their particular cuisine which they brought with them from their respective native lands? When speaking of them it is most distasteful and embarrassing to identify them by their particular dishes. It is a folly to identify the Italians by their love for spaghetti, the Chinese by their love for chow mein, the Japanese by their love for a variety of cooked insects, the Irish by their love for Mulligan stew, the Roumanians by their love for mamlega, etc. Did Mr. Birmingham mention in his "Our Crowd" that the Ashkenazim have an unusual affinity for gefilte fish? Perhaps he was then concentrating on the creme of their lot, the German Jews. This writer did not read the book and never will.
At times Mr. Birmingham undertakes to chew more than he can swallow. Or, if his pen can not record the truth he should throw it away. He says "eggs baked in their shells for days and days." Let him try to bake an egg in the shell for five minutes and he will be greeted by a blinding explosion. The Sephardim know the preparation of their dishes. Eggs in their shells are not baked, they are boiled, not for days but from four to six hours at the most, and for two sound reasons: first, the more the egg is boiled the more easily it is digested, and second, when thus boiled it becomes more flavorful.
"And to refuse food when it was offered was regarded as the highest form of insult". Who would not be insulted?
One page 333 Mr. Birmingham calls the Sephardic husband the king of the house. Here again the author displays his lack of knowledge of old Oriental life. This custom has survived since the times of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. It was common in old Oriental life and was not peculiar to the Sephardim alone. Possibly it may have been practiced more eagerly during their stay in the Ottoman Empire because it was more prevalent there. The Osmanlis held the father of the house in high veneration and the sons were at birth invested with a title of distinction. It is doubtful that this custom is continued today. But what was the purpose of the Suffragette Movement here in America and the present day liberation considered to hold a higher social stratum than women? The Sephardim were and are no different from any other people.
Once again on page 333 we see Mr. Birmingham looking into the Sephardic kitchens through the eyes of others to see WHAT'S COOKING, and closes his examination by saying "that the worst punishment a man could inflict upon a woman was to reject -- by pushing aside his plate -- food that she had prepared." This quotation is part of a sentence and has, no doubt, again reference to the Sephardic woman. We ask, what woman of any nation of any period would not consider it a disgrace and suffer inwardly to see her cooking pushed aside by her husband. Any woman who may not feel resentment under such circumstances must be emotionally callous, devoid of all feeling.
In the second paragraph of page 333 the author returns to the "Sabbath Meals." We can not help wonder what the author has in mind when he ascribes to the Sephardim alone customs and usage's which prevail in all orthodox Jewish homes, whether they be homes of Sephardim, of Ashkenazim, of Yemenites, etc. The use of separate dishes for different types of food fall under the observance of the laws of Kashruth, observances preserved and maintained with Judaic strictness in all orthodox Jewish families. And when the author injects the notion that "Onion could not be mixed with garlic," or the "Even threads of different origins -- linen, cotton, and silk -- could not be used in the same fabrics if these were to be brought forth, or worn on the Sabbath," we must conclude that Mr. Birmingham is deliberately attempting to make us appear before our fellow citizens as a queer tribe. Onion and garlic are grown vegetables and there is no reason why they can not be mixed without violating the laws of Kashruth, unless because of their harshness, their combination might have an adverse effect upon the lining of the stomach. Linen and cotton come from the same source, the earth. Both are products of vegetational plants. I have never heard of any religious objection to wearing at any time garments made of these fabrics or of their combined ingredients. As for silk, here too the same logic applies to wearing silk garments at any time, except perhaps, on the day of Tisha Be Av, the day of fast commemorating the destruction of the Temple, when silk might be considered luxury. Talethim or shawls worn during certain prayers may be made of silk. They were never so forbidden, except the mixture of linen and wool which is forbidden by the Scriptures. "My statutes shall ye keep..............and a garment of mingled kinds, of linen and wool, shall not come upon thee."(Leviticus, Section XXX, Kedoshim, Chapter XIX, Verse 19.)
"Mr. Birmingham is deliberately attempting to make us appear before our fellow citizens as a queer tribe."
Now we come to the painful subject of "Endurcos," so blatantly described by the author, as conducted by the "tias" or "aunties." We begin first by explaining the meaning of "tia" and the conotation it carried which the author failed to explain. The word "tia" means "aunt." But in the sense it was used by the Sephardim of old it constituted an appellation of respect when referring to or addressing an elderly woman whose experience in life excelled that of the average woman. The "tias" were more observing, they assisted physicians, they had done much in their lives and therefore they knew more. This writer at the age of ten, following his mother's death in Constantinople about the year 1916, was sent to his grandmother in Rodosto (Tekirdag), a small town on the north shore of the Marmara Sea. She was in here eighties and she conducted many "endurcos" with success. Now let us see what it was, or rather what it still is, although today it bears another name. Actually it is the isolation of the sick from the moises of the household to induce natural rest, that is, without the use of drugs. This grandmother, a "tia", was outspoken enough to remove all mystic aspects from this system of healing by saying, "Endurco sin tanid no vale nada." (Endurco without fasting has no effect.) Certainly she would rebel at all interference and would "shoo everyone else" not out of the house but out of the room, if a private room were available in which to isolate the patient, and she had many rooms in her big house. And when the patient showed signs of improvement she would point with pride at the progress made.
Let us now bring the "Endurcos" closer to our times. Dr. Herbert M. Shelton, foremost natural hygienist now living in San Antonio, Texas, wrote a book (third printing June 1967) which he called "Fasting can Save your Life." In it he describes in detail many common diseases and their causes and stresses two basic principles for the elimination of the causes of diseases: physical and physiological rests. The first form of rest is intended for the body as a whole. The second, is intended for the internal organs of the body by means of fast, that is the elimination of food-intake, preferably under the care of a hygienist. "The most important technique of the fast is that of reducing activity, mental, sensory, and physical, to a bare minimum, so that the energy of the faster may be conserved and his healing and excretory processes may be accelerated." (Fasting Can Save Your Life, page 64) and on page 17 of the same book on the subject of fasting Dr. Shelton Says:
"Fasting is centuries old; we read of it in the Bible and in the works of Homer. It was employed in the care of the sick in ancient temples of Egypt, Greece and throughout the Mediterranean world. The use of the fast in acute diseases dates back to remote times.
"It was prescribed by Arabian physicians during the long dark night of Europe's Medieval Age. In Italy, Neapolitan physicians as long ago as one hundred and fifty years employed fasts...."
And in the Hygienic Review of April 1971 Dr. Shelton reiterates the same thought:
"The frequent reference to fasting in ancient literature, for example in the Bible and in the works of Homer and the frequency with which it was used in the care of the sick in the Aesculapian temples in Greece, as well as in Egypt, Babylon, etc., indicate that fasting was a vitally important ingredient in the care of the sick long before there was a medical professional."
Is it not interesting to know that these "tias," classed as superstitious, knew long ago that the rest and fasting were means of removing the causes of diseases:
On page 334 the author, Mr. Birmingham, says about the "tia": "Or she may be called in when the doctor has done all he can for his patient and ordinary medicine will no longer suffice." This is true today. Ninety percent of those who put themselves under the care of natural hygienists are those whom the physicians have given up as incurables. In natural hygiene they will find help only if the organic tissues in their bodies have not been deteriorated beyond repair as a result of excessive medication.
To digress: (Scholars are generally prone to write commentaries by the volumes on the prose, poetry, literary styles of famous poets and writers. But they never search into the sidelines of these men. Much has been written on the life and works of Maimonides but we know of no one who has ever looked into his medical career. Maimonides was a physician. It is a fact that the ailing Richard the Lionhearted could not be helped by his physicians who finally recommended to him Maimonides. The English King felt incensed when the Rambam refused to go to England, but when told of the king's symptoms, Maimonides prescribed a change in the dietary "regimen," and the King's health finally improved. Maimonides lived in an Arabic country. Could he have originated the Endurco? (Who knows?)"and there will follow a strict regimen on diet and regular bathing for the patient" says Mr. Birmingham. The physicians pay no attention to body cleanliness as a factor in the recovery of the patient's health. The "tias" did. A knowledge of the importance of cleanliness has been in mankind's possession since the dawn of recorded history. Religious leaders like Moses and Mohammet taught cleanliness to the followers. It would appear now that the daily lustrations practiced by the members of the old Essenian institution were intended primarily for hygienic reasons. The precursors of natural hygiene or nature-cure, some of whom were accredited physicians who abandoned the use of drugs, began to administer the water cure with a measure of success. (See Ma Cure D'eau pour la Guerison des Maladies et la Conservation de la Sante par Seb. Kneipp, Strassbourg, Imprimerie de L'Alsacien.) So these ancient Sephardic "Tias," so deeply rooted as they were in obscure cities and hamlets of the Orient knew somehow that wrong eating habits are the causes of diseases, hence the "strict regimen" and the "regular bathing" intended the body of its waste matter and open the skin pores. Of course "A cure may take days or even months....."not until "Assorted demons, devils and evil spirits are cast out....." but until the healing forces of the body are marshalled to cast out the body poisons.
We shall come back to these "demons" and "evil spirits" and to all the other absurdities which appear on page 334 and 335.
On page 336 Mr. Birmingham says: "At the same time these Sephardic Jews were fiercely independent, proud to the point of crustiness, disdainful of Christians and the 'fairy tales' of Christianity, filled with a sense of heightened religiosity and superior Purpose." Here several thoughts are cramped together without explanation. They were neither fierce nor independent. They were a peaceful people dependent upon the protection of the governments under which they lived. They could have been a proud people in the knowledge that they were surviving the ordeals inflicted upon them but certainly they were not "disdainful of Christians and the "fairy tales' of Christianity....."They wanted to be left alone, unmolested carrying the religious dogmas of their faith with the same strictness of observance as their homes always close to their synagogues.
In the second paragraph of page 336 Mr. Birmingham begins to describe the arrival of the new Sephardim to America. In his introductory sentence the author says that "Sephardic life could continue uninterrupted, unchanged, its tribalistic injunctions and habits passed on from generation to generation." If Mr. Birmingham had first read carefully Prof. Benardete's book entitled "Hispanic Culture and Character of the Sephardic Jews" he would not have reached this baseless conclusion. The vast majority of the Oriental Sephardim had attended the younger generations were attending the schools of the Alliance Israelite Universelle. In the larger cities such as Constantinople they were attending the Hilsferein der Deutschen Yuden and the Birgen Schule, schools where they were learning also the German language. The truth of the matter is that when they came to America in the 1920's those of school-age made public schools in two years and still others in one year.
And the younger generation did not leave their domiciles against the will of the father of the family. They adhered steadfastly to the cardinal principle of honoring both, father and mother. Sometimes the father would come first and then send for his family and sometimes the father would send a son first and report on the possibilities of earning a livelihood in a more peaceful and tolerable life free of persecution. It is not true that there were already here "Jewish millionaires, with yachts and automobiles and mansions" among the Ashkenazim?
We disagree entirely with Mr. Birmingham when he says that we looked for "Sephardic synagogues.....controlled by an aristocratic if somewhat diminished Jewish Establishment." If the author is referring to the remnant of the Grandees, indeed, they were a diminished lot. The remaining number of their families could be counted on the fingers of one hand., The Sephardim did not "curl up on blankets and bedrolls in the corners of synagogues" until they found shelter. They did sleep on the floors of rented bedrooms three and four in one room until they earned and saved enough to rent apartments. And there never was an encounter "with the impact of a collision" with the then few Grandees left here. The new Sephardim settled in the lower EAST SIDE and the few Grandees scattered in the upper WEST SIDE. Their only act of charity to the newcomers was extended by the Sisterhood of the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue who rented for them the Settlement House at 133 Eldridge Street. Mr. Joseph de A. Benyunes, a native of Gibraltar, and possibly old Iberian stock, threw off his Grandee's robe and came to live and pray with them down town, for obvious reasons.
"The Sephardim did not "curl up on blankets and bedrolls in the corners of synagogues" until they found shelter."
At the bottom of page 336 Mr. Birmingham calls us "Greek and Turkish-looking people (with skins darkened from generations in the Mediterranean sun, plus a certain amount of intermarriage) claiming to be cousins of the Lazaruses, Cardozos......etc." We have no objection to the comparisons he makes. It is the character of a people that counts and not the color of the skin. But we are glad he mentioned the name of the late Judge Benjamin Cardozo. This writer was for many years private and confidential clerk to the late Judge Abram I. Elkus, a very close friend of Judge Cardozo. Judge Elkus introduced this writer as a Sephardi to Judge Cardozo. He did not see any difference between the color of the skin of Judge Cardozo and that of the late Nissim Behar who was born in Palestine. If both were examined closely together Nissim Behar's complexion would have been declared whiter than that of Judge Cardozo. This reference to facial complexion is altogether unfounded and unjustifiable.
One page 337 Mr. Birmingham writes about the old American Sephardim to whom "the newcomers were like primitives from another planet." What an unfortunate statement to flow from the pen of an eminent writer! The "Boston Brahmin-like, entertaining their little circles of friends and relatives at tea parties, over teacups of fragile porcelain, with antique silver spoons, under darkening family portraits of Revolutionary ancestors in powdered wigs and lacy collars......." All this pomp and fanfare of the Grandees ended long ago -- to be sure, in the latter part of the last century. How could these newcomers of the 1920's have appeared to them like strange creatures "from another planet." The author seems to have a knack for twisting things around in, what he thinks the reader will find, embellished language. Only the gullible may be entertained by it.
"Mr. Birmingham writes about the old American Sephardim to whom "the newcomers were like primitives from another planet." What an unfortunate statement to flow from the pen of an eminent writer!"
"Vainly" says the author "the rabbis of the community at large tried to explain these Oriental strangers to their congregations....." It does not matter whether the author is speaking of the Grandee's congregation of the "diminished Jewish Establishment" or whether he is referring to the entire Jewish community of America. In either case all the Jews here in America then, if the author assumes to be correct in what he says, needed a bit of learning in Jewish history. The Sephardim in Turkey knew that there were Ashkenazim all over the world. But the Jews of America apparently did not know that there were Sephardim in existence. And the accusation "with certain accuracy" that the Grandees came "from Spain's Jewish gentry, while the newcomers descended from the riffraff," is a barbarous statement that should have never been printed and published.
On page 337 Mr. Birmingham thinks he is announcing a new discovery to the reading public when he says that "The Levantine emigration of the twentieth century also changed the traditional locations of Sephardic communities." Here again he displays his ignorance of knowledge of the religious integrity of all the peoples of the earth. Wherever people go there are always among them those who will establish places of worship. This is not peculiar to the new Sephardim alone. In the heart of Flatbush there is a Greek Orthodox Church. In the lower east side close to the Williamsburg Bridge there is a Catholic church. In Brownsville there is a church with a Cross at the Steeple indicating to be Russian orthodox. Wherever Sephardim and Ashkenazim settle, there too there will be found synagogues. So that if the Sephardim went to Seattle naturally they established there synagogues. (See Heirs to a Noble Past by Dr. Allen H. Podet with Dan Chasan)(and see also top of page 338 of "The Grandees.")
Coming back now to some of the absurdities which appear on page 335 and elsewhere in this chapter, such as demons, evil spirits, herbs, spices, salt, garlic, cloves, oregano, marjoram, tea placed on a window to induce sleep, etc., all are strange beliefs which somehow made their way into the lives of the Sephardim as they do into the lives of any people. No doubt among the TIAS there were those who resorted to magic and mystic acts to attract attention. This writer remembers such an interesting incident in the house of an aunt in Rodosto where he was invited to spend a weekend. On Saturday Eve, after the supper came a Turkish woman neighbor to visit. It was past bedtime and there was no way to tell her to leave. When his aunt complained to the maid in the kitchen, the latter picked up a dust pan and a hand broom and put a saltshaker in her apron pocket. Making believe that she was going to sweep crumbs from the floor near the guest's chair, she sprinkled some salt under it. As the maid got up and walked away, seconds later the guest got up, greeted all and she went away. We were stunned but we knew it was a coincidence. The maid however went about her duties thinking that the salt brought about the desired results. Similar beliefs are common among all the peoples of the earth including among ourselves today. Who knows who will write in the history of the American people of today that many building owners omit the 13th floor by calling it the 14th because tenants will not occupy them; that many people will not enter into a contract on a Friday if it falls on the 13th on the month; that many people will change their course if a black cat has crossed their path; that many others will not dare to open an umbrella in the house; that others carry a rabbit's paw as a measure of good luck; or that wearing a copper bracelet or pendant will forever dispel rheumatism, etc.
In the early part of the year 1969 this writer (Barocas) wrote a book called 'ALBERT MATARASSO AND HIS LADINO." Published and distributed by the Foundation for the Advancement of Sephardic Studies and Culture, the book was damned by a scholar as being poorly written. This writer is a layman and does not profess to be a professional writer. Yet, it is astonishing that an internationally renowned author like Mr. Birmingham has deigned to avail himself freely of information contained in that book. We would have had no objection if the material so taken were properly collated and presented more comprehensively. As a matter fact, when Mr. Birmingham addressed a gathering on October 10th, 1968 at Shearith Israel, Mr. Louis N. Levy, the president of the Foundation, asked Mr. Birmingham whether he proposed to write on the Balkan Sephardim. For some reason the audience burst into laughter and the answer was not heard. In spite of it, Mr. Levy forwarded all the material available directly to Mr. Birmingham in good faith.
"...Mr. Birmingham addressed a gathering on October 10th, 1968 at Shearith Israel, Mr. Louis N. Levy, the president of the Foundation, asked Mr. Birmingham whether he proposed to write on the Balkan Sephardim. For some reason the audience burst into laughter and the answer was not heard."
To clear the record on the twenty-first chapter of the "THE GRANDEES", entitled "AN ALTOGETHER DIFFERENT SORT", we reproduced on the following pages portions of the book "ALBERT MATARASSO AND HIS LADINO" followed by quotations from Mr. Birmingham's book. Let our readers draw their own conclusions:
The Ladino dialect could be defined and explained in as many ways as there may be scholars and students writing on this strange sounding Spanish. The Merriam Webster's Unabridged Dictionary, Second Edition, defines Ladino as follows: "The mixed Spanish and Hebrew language spoken by the Sephardim." This definition is partly true. The Ladino spoken by the Sephardim includes admixtures of other languages in addition to Hebrew. This dictionary would have come closer to the true definition if it had said instead: "The mixed Spanish spoken by the Sephardim." But even such a modified definition would only apply to the spoken dialect. What about the Ladino script?
In the opinion of this writer who has spoken the Ladino dialect all his life, Ladino is basically Spanish as used exclusively by the Sephardim, the Spanish speaking Jews in the Diaspora, during the last four hundred years with extensive variations injected into it.
During the four hundred years of exile the vast majority of the Sephardim had very little schooling of any kind. Even their religious training was very limited. Forced to live in ghettoes in their countries of adoption the Sephardim continued to use the Spanish which they had inherited from their parents drifting gradually, with the passing of each generation, from the original Castilian and adding to it foreign words which they had gathered from the lands in which they lived; adding to it also variations in genders, in pronunciations, in verb conjugation, etc. In short the Ladino became a vehicle of expression without regard to rules of grammar and of spelling adapted and used by the Sephardim exclusively for purpose of expediency in communication among themselves.
To express the Ladino in writing the Sephardim of the diaspora created an alphabet of their own, resembling strongly the Hebrew alphabet. It is written from right to left: Just as the spoken Ladino ignores all rules of grammar and of spelling, so also the written Ladino overlooks them. The unschooled Ladino writer will write it as he speaks it. Any discernible grammatical construction in his writing comes from hearsay, that is, like the person who plays a musical instrument by ear, to whom the notes on a music sheet are meaningless and yet produces correct tune. The Ladino writer who knows the grammar of any of the Western languages such as: French, Spanish, Italian, even English may easily adapt the basic rules of grammar when writing Ladino.
Here is an example of Ladino script written by Albert Matarasso:
The Ladino may also be written in Hebrew characters but it will be read and understood only by one who knows both Hebrew and Ladino. An extraordinary example of one well versed in the Hebrew but knowing nothing about Ladino is the incident related by Albert Matarasso: A professor of Hebrew from a Western university while reading the Shulchan Aruch of Caro came across the word EMPANADA in Hebrew characters which he could not find in any Hebrew dictionary. Inquiry after inquiry brought this professor finally to Albert Matarasso who immediately identified the word as being a special dish prepared by the Sephardim of Salonica and consisting of chopped meat or fish enveloped in a thin layer of dough and baked in the oven. (The Spanish dictionaries define EMPANADA as a meat pie.)
The following is an illustration of Ladino in Hebrew letters. It is an excerpt from an article in La Vara, a Sephardic newspaper which ceased to exist in 1948, concerning the scholarship award at the Sephardic Brotherhood honoring at the same time the late and revered Nissim Behar:
The introduction of English words into the Ladino dialect by "Ladinoising" them became evident from the earliest days of the arrival of the Hispano-Levantines in the United States. These early settlers began to form new Ladino sounding verbs from the English language. The verb "to park" became "parkear" and the verb "to drive" became "drivear". Thus they would say: "esta driveando el caro" for "He is parking the car". And there were many other such English verbs similarly introduced into the Ladino dialect.
The strangest of such verbs was "abetchar" which they had formed from "I betcha" the slang for "I bet you." Thus "abetchar" became the new Ladino infinitive for "to bet". Expressions such as "Quieres abetchar?" for "You want to bet?" or "Yo te abetcho" for "I bet you" and the like were common place idiomatic expressions in every Sephardic household of that day.
Had the Sephardim remained cloistered together indefinitely, or even for several generation, living with their children and grandchildren as in the days of old in other lands, there is no doubt that many such new words with English roots would have made their way permanently into the Ladino.
But their removal from the Lower East Side shortly after their arrival, the prevailing laws of compulsory education, their children's daily association with other children of a variety of ethnic groups at school and in playgrounds, not only put a permanent stop to the introduction of such new English words into the Ladino of the New York Sephardi, but even forced the younger generation to abandon the use of Ladino forever and to concentrate on the language of the land. Ladino among the youngest of our Sephardim is now disappearing fast and in all likelihood it will never return to them.
[Compare] The following quotation is taken from pages 338 and 339 of "The Grandees."
"Probably the greatest loss has been the Ladino. It was always an amorphous, uncodified tongue, written like Hebrew from right to left, and in characters similar to (but not exactly like) Hebrew, and learning to speak it was always like learning to play a musical instrument by ear. Spoken Ladino ignores all rules of grammar and of spelling and written Ladino simply overlooks them. A writer in Ladino can employ the grammatical rules, or conventions, of any Western language he chooses -- French, Spanish, Italian or even English. Ladino words can pop up oddly in Hebrew texts, as happened when an American professor of Hebrew at the University of California found the word 'Empanada', written in Hebrew characters, when reading the Shulhan Aruk of Karo. He could find 'Empanada' in no Hebrew dictionary. He eventually discovered that an 'empanada' is a dish prepared by the Sephardic Jews of Salonica, a casserole of chopped meat and fish baked with a layer of pie crust on the top. In Spanish dictionaries, 'empanada' is defined as a meat pie.
"The new settlers from the Near East quickly began introducing English words and American expressions into the Ladino, thus making the language even harder to decode. One of the strangest examples of this sort of thing is the Ladino verb 'abetchar' meaning 'to bet', which came directly from the Americanism 'I betcha.' Expressions came into being such as 'Quieres abetchar?' meaning 'You want to bet?' and 'Yo te abetcho', meaning 'I bet you.' The verb 'to park' became, in new Ladino, 'parkear' and the verb 'to drive' was 'drivear'. Therefore, 'Esta driveando el caro' translated as 'He is driving the car', and 'He is parking the car' was 'Esta parkeando el caro.'"
The author of "THE GRANDEES", Mr. Stephen Birmingham, closes his ill fated twenty-first chapter by striking a note of solace. In pursuing his inquiry into the attainments of these new Sephardim he finally discovers that in law, medicine, literature, science, philanthropy, art, even in business, these descendants "from the riffraff" are holding their places with competitors of all other ethnic groups.
David N. Barocas
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