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Sephardic Folklore – the Spanish Romancero

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Dr. Samuel Armistead, who passed away this year, considered his scholarly work on the Spanish Romancero to be his crowning achievement.  The Romancero is a tradition of stories and ballads handed down in Sephardic folklore.  Dr. Armistead’s website Folk Literature of the Sephardic Jews provides a wealth of information on the oral literature of Sephardic Jews dating back to medieval times.

Origins of the Sephardic Ballad Tradition

Judeo-Spanish romansas (Spanish romances) are narrative ballads characteristically embodying 16-syllable, usually monorhymed verses, divided into two octosyllabic hemistichs, with assonant rhyme in each second hemistich.[13] The eight-syllable assonant ballad verse ultimately derives from the anisosyllabic assonant verse of the medieval Spanish epic, and a certain number of Judeo-Spanish ballads, together with some ballads from other Hispanic regions, can be shown to be genetically derived, through direct oral tradition, from medieval Spanish heroic poetry.[14] The earliest evidence we have for the existence of ballads among the Hispano-Jewish exiles does not consist of full texts, but involves an extensive corpus of incipits (or, in some cases, of crucial internal verses), used as tune markers in 16th- and 17th-century Hebrew hymnals (piyûtîm collections): A typical heading might read: “Pizmôn leḥan Arbolera tan gentil” (A hymn to the tune ofArbolera etc.), thus giving us the earliest Judeo-Spanish documentation for The Husband’s Return (in  assonance). In Morocco we have no full texts until the late 19th century, but 18th-century hymnals give us similar, though more limited data from an earlier time (Armistead and Silverman 1973; 1981). The earliest extensive text from the East comes to us in the form of a fragmentary Dutch translation of a ballad, sung as a mystical allegory, in Izmir (Turkey), in 1665, by the false Messiah, Shabbatai Zevi (Scholem 1975: 396-401; FLSJ, V, Chap. 14). By the early 18th century, we have a substantial corpus of handwritten ballads from the Sarajevo community and, towards the end of the century, also from the Island of Rhodes (Armistead, Silverman, and Hassán 1978b). Three early Hispano-Portuguese ballads were copied—nostalgically—by Sephardic Jews in Amsterdam in 1683 (Armistead and Silverman 1980a; 1980b).

La bella en misa (The Beauty in Church)

Here is a Sephardic ballad of medieval origin—sung in both branches of the Judeo-Spanish tradition, as well as in Castilian-, Galician-, and Catalan-speaking areas of Spain, in northern Portugal, and in Mexico and Argentina (RPI S4). Apart from its delightful content, it eloquently illustrates the basic principle that each ballad has its own, sometimes highly distinctive—if not, as in this case, unique—individual history. The ballad of La bella en misa (The Beauty in Church) originated as the central episode of a Greek ballad, learned and transcribed by Catalans during their occupation of Greece (1311-1388), then taken back to Catalonia, whence it spread to Spain and Portugal, later to be taken back to its land of origin, when the Jewish exiles departed from Iberia in 1492 (Setton 1948; En torno: 50-60). This ballad also illustrates the very considerable presence of a Christian ambience and sometimes even specifically Christian details and motifs in the Sephardic ballads—originally learned from an essentially Christian tradition—conserved as an integral part of the ballad repertoire, despite almost 500 years of exile (En torno: 127-148; Armistead 2000b). Note, however, how here the originally Catholic priest has been transformed into an Orthodox papazico.

            Tres damas van a la misa Three ladies are going to mass
            por hazer la orasión. to say their prayers.
2         Entre’n medio va mi spoza, With them goes my bride,
            la que más quería yo. the one I love most of all.
            Sayo yeva sovre sayo; She wears many pleated skirts
            un xiboy de altornasión. and a waistcoat of fine cloth.
4         Su cavesa, una toronǧa Her head is round like a grapefruit;
            sus caveyos briles son. her hair is golden thread
            Cuando los tomó a peinare, and when she combs it,
            en eyos despuntó el sol. it glistens in the sun.
6         Las sus caras coreladas Her red cheeks
            mansanas d’Escopia son. are apples from Skopje;
            Los dientes tan chiquiticos her small teeth
            dientes de marfil ya son. are all like ivory.
8         Su boquita tan chequetica In her tiny mouth
            y que no le cave’n peñón. a rosebud would not fit;
            La su seja enarkada her arched eyebrows
            árcol de tirar ya son. are like taut bows.
10      Melda, melda, papazico, The priest, reading his prayers,
            de meldar ya se quedó. stopped in his reading.
            —Melda, melda, papazico, “Read on,  little priest;
            y que por ti no vengo yo. I’ve not come here for you.
12      Vine por el hijo del reyes, I have come for the king’s son,
            que de amor v’a muerir yo. for I am dying of love.”[16] 
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Author: Daniela

I was born in Croatia, at that time Yugoslavia. My family moved to the US when I was very young, but I still treasure the memories of my grandfather teaching me how to protect myself against the "evil eye," my grandmother shopping early every morning, at the open air market, to buy the freshest vegetables for the day's meals, and the traditions that were the underpinnings of our society. Someone once noted that "For all of us that want to move forward, there are a very few that want to keep the old methods of production, traditions and crafts alive." I am a fellow traveler with those who value the old traditions and folk wisdom. I believe the knowledge they possess can contribute significantly to our efforts to build a more sustainable world; one that values the individual over the corporation, conservation over growth and happiness over wealth.

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