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Hebrew/Ladino book connects Sefardic children with their roots

Updated: Jan 24

By Daniel Santacruz

Zehava Chen-Turiel is the author of several books, including A Agada Sefaradit
Zehava Chen-Turiel (Courtsey).

In a world where Ladino children’s books are extremely rare Agada Sefaradit, which translates as A Spanish Legend in English, stands out.

Written in Hebrew by Modiin resident Zehava Chen-Turiel and translated into Ladino by Sarah Sufrin-and Medi Malki-Koen, the book went into a second printing a week after it was published, an unusual feat in the publishing world.

In bilingual format, the 15-page book is funded by the Jerusalem-based National Authority for Ladino and The Salonika and Greece Jewry Heritage Center, in Petach Tikva, and published by Nivbook of Hertzliya. Maya Uziel’s beautiful illustrations capture the essence of a unique story.

Included in the book is a convenient bookmark, with words like nona (grandmother), inyeta (granddaughter) and kuento (story, tale) in both Hebrew and Ladino.

A Spanish Legend features a conversation between Chen-Turiel and her seven-year-old granddaughter Shira as they walk on the Seawall Promenade in Vancouver, Canada.

The conversation starts when the car they are riding in passes by Cordoba Street, named after a Spanish Viceroy of Mexico, which peaks Shira’s curiosity.

“What is Corboba?,” the girl asks Chen-Turiel, to which she replies, “A city in Spain.”

She then starts telling her about Jewish life in that country and how Jews, after being expelled from the land they called home for centuries, settled in different parts of the world, including Israel, where both Chen-Turiel and Shira were born.

Cover of A Agada Sefaradit, by Zehava Chen-Turiel.
Cover of "A Spanish Legend" (Agada Sefaradit).

Wanting to know more about Spain, Shira asks Chen-Turiel to tell her a Spanish legend.

She chooses the legend of Doña Blanca, which tells the story of a beautiful princess who lived in the kingdom of Aragon, in northern Spain, in a fabulous castle on top of a mountain.

The legend has a tragic end, which doesn’t please Shira, so she asks Chen-Turiel to come up with a different one.

She agrees. The new version has a happy ending and includes Jewish characters, the Even-Tzuriel family, who lived in comfortably in the town of Albarracin, in the province of Teruel, in Aragon, until they were expelled from the country.

Their descendants eventually made their way to Turkey and then to Israel. The story is based, in part, on Chen-Turiel’s family who, like the Even-Tzuriels, were tax collectors for the Aragonese king, she said.


Inspired by her grandchildren

Asked what motivated her to wrote the book, she said in an e–mail: “My grandchildren very much like my stories about Ladino culture. We traveled together to Spain and we love and enjoy creating a lot of new stories together. They are my great inspiration.”

Ladino has been part of Chen-Turiel’s life since childhood.

“My mother spoke to me in Ladino before I started speaking Hebrew, and I grew up in the Ladino culture and spoke Ladino with my grandmothers until they passed away,” she said. “My parents are descendants of families expelled from Spain in 1492. My family's roots are from Rhodes and Turkey.”

Fluent in English, Chen-Turiel, who lived in Maryland for four years where she worked as a teacher at a Jewish day school, was director of the Leadership and Citizenship Center at the Institute for Quality Government in Israel for several years.

Since retiring she has been concentrating on writing, mostly about Sefardic history and culture.

In 2018 she published her first novel, Hanashim Shel Teruel (The Women of Teruel), and most recently HaBakit MiNapoli Sipurah Shel Bienvenida Abravanel (The Woman Banker from Naples—The story of Bienvenida Abravanel). Both are in Hebrew, published by Nivbook.

The Women of Teruel ties together historical and cultural events, such as the role Sefardi Jews played in developing the chocolate industry in France and the story of Rabbi Shlomo Turiel, a kabbalist who set the customs for Tu Bishvat, as well as the development of Ladino-speaking communities in Rhodes, Greece, and Milas, Turkey.

The main character of her second novel, Bienvenida Abravanel, was one of the most influential Jewish women of the 16th century, who arrived in Naples after the expulsion from Spain.

Chen-Turiel lectures frequently about Ladino communities and is always looking for topics no one has written about yet, “so I can innovate and revive stories from the past,” she said.

She’s pleased with how A Spanish Legend has been received, and proof of that, she says, are photos that Ladino-speaking grandparents send her reading the book with their grandchildren.

“A week after the book was published, I published a second edition,” she said.

The book costs 68 NIS and is available from the Salonika and Greece Jewry Heritage Center or directly from Chen-Tzuriel at chenzenator@gmail.com.

January 2021

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