Metered Keys to a Rich Tradition
By Rahel Musleah

I am on my way home, driving down familiar streets, only a few blocks to go, and out of nowhere a merciless hand comes and grips my heart and wrings it dry....
Hardly breathing, I reach my house. And when I open the door, I hear many keys clanging, the keys my ancestors stubbornly took with them to their exile.

"Prayer" from Everything I Kept (Todo Lo Que Guarde) by Ruth Behar

Like her fleeing Spanish ancestors hoping to return home someday, Ruth Beharís poetry unlocks the emotions connected with exile and reconciliation.

Born in Cuba in 1956, she is the product of Sefardi and Ashkenazi heritages. Her paternal Turkish grandparents fled to Cuba in the 1920ís, her maternal Polish-Russian grandparents fled the impending horror of Nazism. But the Cuban Revolution in 1961 left the Jewish population feeling threatened and Behar grew up in New York, watching the family remake itself as Americans.

For Moroccan-born Ruth Knafo Setton, "Poetry encompasses all the selves in me: the Sefardic pre-memory self, the exile and the immigrant, the assimilated American, the woman in all her roles and an ageless identity that includes and transcends all these."

 "When I grew up in Allentown, Pennsylvania, my house was like a little Morocco," she says. "I'd open the door and instead of palm trees and the sea, Iíd see snow and barns." She condenses some childhood experiences in "Nightfruits":

 Behind the closed door, Mom dances on toes round as marbles
to flamenco that makes her weep into mint tea.
"We were nightfruits," she says. "We bloomed in the dark."
I searched the coiled and nubbed snow for a splash
of music and fruit, a glint of sun and blood.

"Poetry begins with roots," she explains. "If you start with the roots and grow then it touches everyone."

Behar turned to anthropology to work out the "diasporic puzzles" of her identity. "[It] gave me the philosophic framework to understand how people relate to culture," explains the University of Michigan professor. It wasnít until a visit to Cuba in 1991 that she realized she couldn't treat it as just another field site.

Though her poems are not always specifically Sefardic, they often have a "Sefardic valence," she says. "In my family, it's very hard for people to reconcile. We were given the edict: Convert or die! That dictum left a legacy of intolerance." She expresses the struggle with her inability to forgive in "Nameless Daughter," a poem for Papi, her father. 

Says Brenda Serotte, who won a literary prize for her poetry from the National Sephardi Literary Contest in 1998, "I'm not a Sefardic poet." Serotte, who grew up in a Turkish family in the Bronx, explains: ìI'm a poet who writes about Sefardic things. We all have a touch of that longing that comes from pouring your heart out in secret."

Serotte used to be embarrassed by her Sefardic heritage. "Other grandmothers made latkes and chicken soup and knitted. My mother remembers that when she came home from school, her mother and friends were sewing their shrouds. I wanted to forget all that." Now she misses that warm, boisterous family and draws on her rich memories for a poetry collection, Dance Into Your Sultanís Heart, and a memoir, Turkish Delights and Other Fattening Recollections. Translating Ladino poetry has become a passion. In "The Scholarís Turban," Serotte recalls that a girlís job was to be pretty, a good cook and marry well.

 Ringed around my bed were the staring eyes of Father, Aunt Sultana and Aunt Alegra. Mother sucked Chesterfields at the kitchen table, each drag like the hiss of a distant steam iron. Then in marched Uncle Ovadiah wearing the kavuk, the scholarís turban, a huge, lavender silk wraparound with a ëdiamondí clip in its center. The kavuk was for playing Wizard at family parties.
Like a wise effendi, Uncle Ovadiah formed a pyramid with his fingers, bent his turbaned head, then commanded me:
Get up and dance! Dance into your sultanís heart!
I locked eyes with my Sultan. Unblinking, mine turned watery. Fatherís eyes squinted, begged. His face became dark red, like when he got mad. The command came a second time:
Dance NOW! Dance into your sultanís heart!

The quincentennial of the expulsion from Spain reawakened the Sefardic consciousness of Rosaly DeMaios Roffman, whose ancestry is Greek. She discovered people were still writing in Ladino, and later received a Witter-Byner foundation award to collect and create equivalencies for the small lode of twentieth-century Ladino poems. The editor of Aristeia, a myth journal, Roffman writes about "myth in contemporary dress" and about healing. Sefardic themes are one of many that animate her poetry. "Poetry is a search for a kind of language, not an explaining, straightforward language," she says.

Several of her works were inspired by a trip to Greece, where she felt she was "stepping on ground my ancestors may have stepped on." "Fabric" focuses on a drive from Salonika to Kastoria.

 The light is still here, grandfather
in the stones of Kastoria, of Yanninna

A man from these black and green hills
drove us for a fee through mountains

He could have been uncle Victor or Maurice
and he listens well to the singing of the treesó
A cross on the front mirror strikes his cheek
every time he pitches forward in this old cabó
But grandfather, he is stubborn like youó
he says he knows enough good men and women
who would still hide us in the stone hills,
and whose bones would push up these Greek roses

"The immigrant tale has been told and retold in mainstream American Jewish literature," says Judy Benoliel Belsky, a poet and psychologist who grew up in Seattle and now lives in Jerusalem. "In this literature Sefardim are invisible. The Torah observant are trivialized. Women are marginalized or eviscerated. I am all three: Woman, Sefardic, Torah observant. My poems rub against the friction of old lies." In "After Dark," these three selves emerge:

 Layers of identity
press against each other
like nested
peasant dolls
the walls are thin
voices call
in another
mother tongue
hijica ven aqui

my aunts are on vacation
no one
enters the cottage
until they scour
and kosher the kitchen
prepare the turkish coffee
and fresh biscochos

they dedicate a tiny temple
beside another
ocean shore

the sacred is portable

Schulamith Halevy, an Israeli poet and scholar, also combines feminist, religious and Sefardic themes. She became involved with anusim (forced converts) when in 1992 she was invited to speak at a conference on Conversos, and she has since become a resource for the community.

 "The anusim are a matricentric culture," explains Halevy, who writes in both Hebrew and English. A major figure for her is Santa Teresa de Avila, a patron saint of Spain said to be of Jewish descent, hence Halevyís poem "Santa Teresa."

 What scenes from our past
remain sealed in
you, what roots still not
Pine trees and sunflower patches
and olive groves
embrace me now
óthe meadows of your life
Yellow hill-pure skies.
What visions of Jerusalem
óthe skirts of Galilee
flow through your blood?
What voices came from the hereafter
to distill your tears?

While she writes about love, life, loss, Jerusalem and God, much of Halevy's poetry centers around the experience of the forced converts, whose "spiritual rape," she says, "is not only incredibly painful but also a metaphor for the human condition that almost always involves some loss of sovereignty. The Sefardic side of my life is connected to my calling in this world."

For Linda Ashear, the impulse to express things Sefardic is more subtle. "I write to express a feeling,î she says. Born in Brooklyn to a Syrian-Austrian family, many of her poems relate to her father, who came to New York from Aleppo.

Ashear says she tries to take the best of "both gefilte fish and kibbe." Though she now lives in Westchester, she has "strong links" to the Brooklyn Syrian community but does not write a lot about it. In "Revelation" she writes of being "the sum of all my parts."

Anger, hope, life, love and death mix in the poetry of Miriam Israel Moses, the daughter of Holocaust survivors from Greece. "The Holocaust is not just an Ashkenazic province," says Moses. "I want people to feel a fluidity of death and dying and horror. I want it to hurt." In "Survivors and Pieces of Glass" she describes the day she imagines when the German soldiers came.

I can see then my mother, sitting in her shop,... her adept fingers placed finishing touches on the beautiful dress she was making for her younger sister with the sun golden hair that I have never seen and whose name I never knew, who was my aunt before I was born and I cannot go on.

 Moses decided in her forties "to make poetry a serious part of my life, on a par with music in terms of craftsmanship and effect. I wanted to widen my audience." She lives in Seattle, but despite the cityís large Sefardic population, Moses still feels very separate. "Being Sefardic," she says, "is everything that I am."

Rahel Musleah wrote this story for Hadassah magazine after discovering the poetry of Ruth Behar, Ruth Knafo Setton, Judith Benoliel Belsky and Brenda Serotte in the Ismi Anthology, on Ivri-NASAWI's website. She is a writer, storyteller and public speaker of Indian Jewish origin living in New York.
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