By Daniel Santacruz
The Sentro Sefardi de Estambol (the Sephardic Center of Estanbul) has scored a hit with the republication of a series of romance novels, or romansos, in Judeo-espanyol targeted to a new generation. Six books from the collection, titled “Romansos en Judeo-Espanyol,” have been released so far.
The Alliance Israélite Universelle, a political organization founded in Paris in 1869 to help Jews who were facing diplomatic, social and educational discrimination, in cooperation with Aki Estamos, a French cultural organization, digitalized the novels.
Published originally in Istanbul in the early 1930s, they were part of the Israel Salvator Revah collection. Revah was a French Hispanist born in Berlin to a Sefardic family with roots in Salonika who did extensive research on Ladino, as well as marranism, Spinoza and Uriel da Costa.
According to a blurb in Judeo-espanyol on the back of the books, the Center “decided to republish them, corrected and written in a modern way, geared to achieving the widest possible dissemination.”
For future generations
Publishing the books, it continues, “will give future generations an idea how the language of our grandparents was used to write romansos.” It acknowledges that the literary quality of the books isn’t the best but what must be considered is their “high linguistic interest. A language doesn’t die easily when it’s written and read, and that’s what we are fighting for: doing our best so that Judeo-Spanish doesn’t die.”
Karen Gerson Sarhon, founder and director of the Center, who edited the present edition of the books, wrote in the preface of each of them that they were rewritten to offer the reader “texts that are, as much as possible, mistake-free.”
The influence of several languages on the Judeo-espanyol spoken in the country can be seen in several of them are a wealth of information for language buffs.
From French, for example, we find madmuazel (mademoiselle); musyu (monsieur); madam (madame); bankiero (banquier); bonjur (bon jour); and mersi (merci). From Turkish, shaka (joke); chay (tea); kave (coffee); tulumbadji (fire fighter); chini (china); and kibrit (matches). Besides malsinar (to inform on someone, from the Hebrew hilsin), no other Hebrew words are found.
They were published in the style of the French feuilleton—novels, mostly of romantic nature, that appeared in newspapers—and geared exclusively for women. They may appear too sentimental by today’s standards, but offer a glimpse of what was published for them and the mores of Turkish society back then. The same themes run throughout the books: money, family relationships, drama, class status and lots of love.
'Moving and curious'
Four of the books are subtitled romansos muy ezmovientes i kuryozos (moving and curious love stories). The exceptions are La mujer pasenzyosa (The Patient Woman) and La ija del kazalino i Anriko (The Villager’s Daughter and Anriko), billed romanso de la vida actual (a contemporary love story) and un kuento muy divertyente (a very entertaining short story), respectively.
Their richly illustrated covers follow the design formulas of romance novels: attractive, well-dressed couples expressing affection, or a woman crying. Fast-paced page-turners and very descriptive, they can be read in about 15 minutes. All are 16 pages long, with the exception of La ermoza Janeta entre dos amantes (Janeta’s Love for Two Men), with 30.
Here are the six titles (the books haven't been translated into English (the English titles are for identification purposes only):
El amor de Antonyo por su mujer (Antonio’s Love for His Wife), written by Moiz Habib. Istanbul. 1931.
Antonio, a hunter lives alone in a town in Morocco, until he meets a woman who has a young boy and whose husband has abandoned her. She and the boy move in with Antonio, and live happily for several years until one day he’s accused of killing an old woman. Unable to prove his innocence, he is sent to prison for eight months. His lover dies during this time and the boy is sent to be raised by a priest and his wife.
He gives up hunting and becomes a fisherman but is detained by the police for not having a license. Having problems making ends meet, he robs a woman and lives off the money for a long time. He takes up drinking and, realizing that his lover’s death is the cause of his misery, makes a stunning decision.
La ermoza Janeta entre dos amantes (Janeta’s Love for Two Men), written by Eliya Gayus. Istanbul, 1932.
Janeta lives with her evil stepmother and her father, but the relationship between the two women is tense. To worsen the situation, the stepmother has a nephew, Gustav, who falls in love with Janeta, but she dislikes him. Aunt and nephew put pressure on her to marry him, but her true love is Pier. One day the two men get into a fistfight over the girl, and Gustav, enraged, tries to shoot Pier. The bullet ends up wounding her.
After recovering, Janeta marries Pier, Gustav is sent to prison, and her father moves out of the house, leaving the stepmother alone.
El amor de Matidle kon dos jovenes (Matilde’s Love for Two Men), written by Moiz Habib. Istanbul, 1931.
Matilde, a 21-year-old woman born in France, falls in love with her cousin, 24-year-old Lusien, a cabinetmaker. But one day she meets Jozef, a rich count’s son and a bovo (fool), who loves her madly. She agrees to marry him just for his money and, after scheming with Lucien, she leaves Josef, taking his money, and marries Lucien.
She confesses to him that that is the only way to secure a financial future for the two of them.
La ija del bankiero (The Banker’s Daughter), written by Moiz Levi. Istanbul, 1933.
Alberto, a good looking and wealthy man, wants to marry Fani, a banker’s daughter. He is well liked by her family, but she doesn’t feel attracted to him.
One night a fire destroys the banker’s house in Salonika’s Jewish neighborhood, where his family lives, and Fani is saved from the flames by Leon, a firefighter. His bravery was enough for her to fall in love with him. Fani’s uncles, grateful for what he did, go to see Leon a few months later and ask him to marry her, but he turns them down, as well as the dowry he is promised. He is already engaged, he tells Fani’s uncles, much to the disappointment of everyone.
The man she marries isn't the one the reader has in mind.
La mujer pasenzyoza: Romanso de la vida actual (The Patient Woman: A Contemporary Love Story), written by EliaKarmon. Istanbul, 1930.
Alfredo Roter, the son of a London millionaire, and Madam Marketa, have two children. She is the daughter of a poor basket maker and the niece of her husband’s personal cook. Alfredo pretends he dislikes children and after the two pregnancies of Marketa he tells her he gave them away, which is not true. He isn’t cruel, he just likes to give his wife challenges to test her love for him.
She accepts several during their married life, but the last one is the toughest: she is to attend his wedding to another woman. What is she to make about this unusual request?
La ika del kazalino i Anriko (The Villager’s Daughter and Anriko), written by Eliya Gayus. Istanbul, 1932.
A philosopher, Yosef, adopts Anriko, a bright boy from an orphanage. The boy grows up and at age 20 already holds a high position at a bank. He falls in love with the house’s maid, for which his father scolds him.
He leaves the house and wanders through the countryside, where he befriends a villager, who invites him to his house. There, he meets the man’s daughter, who impresses him with her intelligence, and decides to marry her.
© Daniel Santacruz