An Ode to Salonika: The Ladino Verses of Bouena Sarfatty

An Ode to Salonika: The Ladino Verses of Bouena Sarfatty

by Renee Levine Melammed


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780253006813
Publisher: Indiana University Press
Publication date: 03/12/2013
Series: Indiana Series in Sephardi and Mizrahi Studies Series
Pages: 336
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 9.20(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Renée Levine Melammed is Dean of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem and author of Heretics or Daughters of Israel: The Crypto-Jewish Women of Castile and A Question of Identity: Iberian Conversos in Historical Perspective. She is academic editor of Nashim: A Journal of Jewish Women's Studies & Gender Issues, published by IUP, and a columnist for the Jerusalem Post.

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An Ode to Salonika

The La Dino Verses of Bouena Sarfatty

By Renée Levine Melammed

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 2013 Renée Levine Melammed
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-00709-4


Bouena's Ode to Salonika

In order to appreciate the vast array of coplas written by Bouena, one needs to consider the themes that recur in each collection and to attempt to view the verses in a historical context. This poet displayed an uncanny awareness of the intricacies of her community and its history and integrated her perceptions into her poetry. She was also extremely cognizant of the changes that society was undergoing at the time, especially because its younger members were being exposed to modern notions that often threatened ancient traditions. The dissonance that resulted did not escape her attention; it was often unsettling. As a result, she is critical or sarcastic at times about, for example, the greediness of young men seeking marital matches or about the way in which the latest fashions dictated the lifestyles of the youth and of the women. In her writing, she displays the utmost respect for the traditional lifestyle as manifested in her detailed descriptions, often containing Ladino proverbs, woven into her coplas. In order to present a clearer picture of the life that Bouena describes, the themes under discussion appear in the same order as the reordered verses (and their translations) in chapter 3. These themes deal with coplas and expressions (nine verses), dowries and marriages (fifty-one), births and children (twelve), family dynamics (forty-six), social commentary (forty-seven), philanthropy and education (twenty-seven), economic status (twenty-six), women's work (ten), Ladino publications (seven), the Sabbath (twelve), holidays (thirty-five), changes in tradition (twenty-eight), the dictates of fashion (twenty-seven), nationalism (thirty-one), historical developments (eighteen), and assorted anecdotes and expressions (twenty-six).


It is interesting to note the attitude Bouena and the Salonikans had toward their rhymed couplets and Ladino expressions. The nature of coplas changed over time, since originally they were more or less part of the rabbinic world and only later were they adopted by laypersons. They also became more satirical and less elitist in the twentieth century; one can see that many of Bouena's poems reflect this particular development. Some modern coplas were published, but many of them were extemporaneous and remained unpublished. The more spontaneous copla was part and parcel of everyday life, a common means of expression in the popular culture. Bouena does not hesitate to inform us that coplas were an integral part of life for the Selaniklis. They were tossed out in informal settings such as the home, often accompanied by a toast to whatever or whomever was appropriate. The workingman returned home at the end of the workday and spontaneously tossed out a verse about what had transpired that day.

There is no doubt in Bouena's mind that there are various levels of talent involved here, from the simplest to the most sophisticated; she insists that coplas are innate to Salonikans who are born to create them. Nevertheless she is well aware that there is an art to creating them, in which she herself engages and seeks to revive or at least to preserve to the best of her ability. In her opinion, there was even a divine aspect to the role of the creator of coplas, for his or her talents are considered to be a gift from God. In her opinion, the finest of the copla versifiers were the journalists whose pens flowed freely, and she specifically mentions two of the many journalists in the city whom she greatly admired. The Jewish residents of Salonika appreciated coplas, especially since they provided a great deal of pleasure to one's family and friends. In this culture, wishing one well with a copla was as effective as, if not more so than, a greeting card or presenting a loved one with flowers or chocolates. Presumably, the more successful coplas were recorded for posterity and copied in order to circulate in certain milieux or families, and some made their way to local printing presses.

One is also advised that the Salonikans had their own expressions and this is not surprising, for every society has its own linguistic proclivities, nuances, and sayings. However, Bouena seems anxious to emphasize the strong Judeo-Spanish tradition of quoting ancient sayings and expressions, a prevalent and pervasive custom among her brethren. There may be many ways to express a particular feeling or describe a situation, clearly a tribute to the rich Ladino heritage; numerous proverbs are included at the end of this collection. Proverbs and coplas were passed down from generation to generation, usually from father to son; as far as the poet is concerned, they are part of the genetic makeup. The irony here is that Bouena wrote her ode as a collection of coplas, and it is she who remembered the poetry and the traditions; a woman was blatantly entering the male cultural domain. Her father was long gone: when she was a toddler (about two years old), he left the city limits despite the prohibition to do so; he explicitly ignored the quarantine that was declared due to an outbreak of the plague. He was determined to check on his granary and paid a heavy price for this decision, for he (and possibly Bouena) contracted the disease that led to his demise. Years later, his only son, Eliaou, perished in Auschwitz; consequently there were neither fathers nor sons remaining in her family. Nevertheless, Bouena did not perceive the fact that she was not male to be a problem, for she continued this age-old tradition, recording both coplas and proverbs galore. This Salonikan lady was extremely prolific, presenting anecdotes and information from her own personal experience and from that of the society in which she lived.

Dowries and Marriages

One of the most salient themes in this collection pertains to marriage and dowries and the socioeconomic repercussions of this complex rite de passage. In Salonika, all of the girls were privy to the intricacies of the customs and preparations involved. Bouena herself never had the luxury (as a bride) of experiencing the ceremonies surrounding this major life event, although when she was engaged to a fellow Salonikan, her family did begin the traditional and time-consuming preliminary preparations as was customary. Bouena's fiancé, Chaim, had been recruited by the Greek army when the Italians attacked on October 28, 1940, and subsequently fled from these ranks. Once he took this bold step, the couple sensed that their lives were in jeopardy and decided to arrange to be wed quickly at the "Midrash" synagogue. However, when Bouena arrived at the appointed time, she was shocked to discover that Chaim had been murdered by the Germans.

Despite the fact that she had to contend with this traumatic event, her memories of the varied marriage customs, especially concerning the trousseau and the dowry, are extensive and quite vivid; her poetry is replete with references to different stages of the marriage process. For example, in Salonika, fathers opened special savings accounts earmarked for their daughters' dowries. Many parents were careful to save in increments so that financial disaster would not befall them when faced with the actual expenses of the wedding preparations. At the same time, a young workingwoman did not take home all of her salary; a portion was automatically set aside for her dowry.

Every family was anxious to provide an impressive dowry for its daughters, and, as it turns out, young men were often extremely demanding in their negotiations with the prospective bride's parents. Negotiations between the fathers of the two families were always quite stressful. Bouena paints a scene in which the mother restricts her activities to the women's sphere, busying herself in the kitchen with food preparation, hoping to hear her husband utter the words "Be-siman Tov," an indication that the deal was closed.

As would be expected, problems and complications arose before, during, or after these financial arrangements were completed. Some brides were fortunate enough to inherit essentials such as linens, a trousseau, or jewelry. Others faced a different reality: a poor girl had difficulty finding a match in this society, although special dowry funds or dotar societies strove to replace the parental provision. In her memoirs, Bouena mentions the fact that there was a dowry society in New York called La Ermandad that sent funds for the dowries of less-fortunate girls. She informs us that two girls arrived from France whose parents were Salonikan, but whose prospects for marriage were nil. Although attractive and educated, the absence of a dowry doomed them; one can imagine the frustration caused by such demands. Bouena advocates abandoning this stress-inducing and unfair tradition.

She is not exactly gracious when referring to the young men who belong to the Jeune Juif Association, for she considers them to be gold diggers. The poet is extremely critical of these young men who, in her opinion, were only concerned with obtaining large dowries and profiting from the matches they obtained. Likewise, there is a description of rather self-centered and opportunistic young men—wearing Panama hats in the summer and Borsalino hats in the winter combined with elegant shirts and fine silk socks—gallivanting about in order to impress onlookers. This was a façade; their intention was to obtain the maximum possible from the bride's family, whether in terms of the size of the trousseau or the amount of the dowry. Bouena is clearly disgusted by this behavior and is critical as well of the families that played by these rules and imagined that these young men might actually be worthy of their daughters. Obviously it was difficult to make the correct decision, especially when dealing with less-than-trustworthy characters whose main interest was profit. Despite efforts to achieve a good match, complications resulting from poor judgment sometimes occurred. Although most of her examples point to grooms as being less than honorable, occasionally there were brides who took advantage of grooms as well.

At any rate, accumulation of a dowry is a recurring theme in this collection. Her family was invited to a wedding held in the ballroom owned by the Matanot La-Evionim Association. The bride had a substantial dowry, including a full set of lingerie, a thousand pounds in gold, and an inheritance from her grandmother. Many grooms found themselves profiting nicely from matches made by their parents. In addition to the dowry and trousseau, the bride's parents sometimes provided what is known the meza franka, literally "French table," but actually referring to a period of time—usually between twelve and eighteen months—during which the groom lived with his in-laws at their expense, obviously an additional and significant perk.

The poet informs us that there were appropriate days for pursuing each of the wedding-related activities. It should come as no surprise to learn that the chosen days for beginning a trousseau were Mondays and Thursdays, the weekdays designated for Torah reading in the synagogue during the morning prayer service. These were also auspicious days to arrange an engagement or make a significant purchase. Presumably, other days were not as conducive to a felicitous union. Apparently, once the agreement was made, the bride's family planned an open-house reception in honor of the engagement and filled their home with flowers.

In her memoirs, Bouena describes celebrations of engagements: the two families agreed on the size of the ashugar—which included linens, jewelry, clothes, and the biankeria (linen sets). Bouena explains that these items were included in set quantities; some might be provided in half-dozens, or in quantities of a dozen or two. Teenage girls began preparing their trousseaux well in advance, embroidering their initials on items such as sheets, aprons, and cloth napkins. Bouena, who was an incredibly talented embroiderer, enthusiastically began her preparations, as did all young girls, by age fifteen at the latest.

Since not all prospective brides were as talented as Bouena, other options were sometimes pursued in order to ensure the high quality of the contents of the trousseau. The poems reveal the lengthy and elaborate preparations that transpired in the bride's home. Because the trousseau contained so many different items, some of the work might be commissioned (even if the bride prepared the majority of it), although certain items were traditionally prepared at home. Bouena describes the preparations as being all consuming, claiming that on every balcony one could find a girl embroidering her trousseau. She seems to have been ambivalent about the amount of time involved; in one verse she says that the girls are wasting their time, whereas elsewhere she compliments them. The ability to embroider was highly valued; she praises young women like her cousin who made everything by themselves rather than by purchasing the numerous items required. Her attitude should come as no surprise, since the women in her family were known to have "golden hands." They were expert embroiderers and seamstresses whose handiwork was easily identifiable because of its high quality, and were so talented that their work was sought out even by non-Jewish women.

Clearly, not all fathers managed to save—or to save enough—in advance. The competitive and compulsive need to give only the "very best" to one's daughter is portrayed as nothing other than "madness." One family spent beyond its means because it frequented the high-class shops on Venizelos Street, where imported European clothes were sold for trousseaux and bridal lingerie. Many families were crippled by the costs of dowries and weddings. Again, of course, the mother and daughter wanted only the best for the bride; however, if and when arrangements were made without anticipating the cost,there were obvious pitfalls. The foolishness of such peer pressure and attempts to impress either society or the groom was often overwhelming. Bouena is quite critical of those who overindulged and became totally consumed by wedding preparations.

The very first copla in this collection describes "the old days," a phrase that appears frequently in her writing. A special cloth or bundle for the trousseau was used for storing clothes in the past, but later the bedroom contained a cabinet for this purpose. The demands and expenses of married life grew as time passes, for furniture was clearly more expensive than cloth and tablecloths were embroidered with fine silk thread.

Bouena managed to create a proper trousseau for herself but was uncertain about its fate during the war. Bouena eventually learned that her brother Eliaou gave numerous items from it to Greek neighbors for safekeeping before the deportations. Her memoirs note that she located the forcel and the bugget, or silk-embroidered cover of the basket, and a bundle of wool large enough to fill three mattresses, prepared or purchased in advance. There was material for covering the mattress, for dresses, eiderdown, and ample material for coats and for silk linings; her trousseau also included a set of dishes, buttons, thread, and trimmings.

Bridal preparations also included the time-consuming process of mattress making; Bouena's trousseau included all of the necessary components. There is a detailed description of the festive atmosphere that prevailed while the wool for the bedding was washed in the courtyard in basins and heated cauldrons. A day known as el dia de la lana (the day of the wool) was chosen during the summer before the wedding. Once this date was made known, all the women inherently understood that their services would be required. Female friends and relatives lent a hand, singing and making merry while they worked. After all the wool was washed, ropes for hanging it were correctly arranged so that the mother of the bride could dry it properly in the sun. At the end of six months, the mattresses were ready for the bride and groom. Some mothers added to the basic necessities by providing additional items such as canopies, chests, closets, and night tables.


Excerpted from An Ode to Salonika by Renée Levine Melammed. Copyright © 2013 Renée Levine Melammed. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
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Table of Contents

Introduction: 20th Century Salonika and Bouena’s Ladino Coplas
1. Bouena’s Ode to Salonika
2. Tradition versus Modernity and Historical Developments
3. Coplas Written by Bouena Sarfatty Garfinkle about Life in Salonika
4. "The Miseries the Germans Inflicted on Salonika"
5. Coplas about the Miseries that the Germans Inflicted upon Salonika from 1941-1943
Index of Community Members’ Names That Appear in the Coplas

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Bar-Ilan University - Shmuel Refael

An important contribution to Judeo-Spanish (Ladino) studies as well as to the history of Greek Jews during Holocaust. Melammed has done her best to present Bouena's impressive text.

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