Renee Levine Melammed. An Ode to Salonika: The Ladino Verses of Bouena Sarfatty. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2013. 336 pp. $35.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-253-00681-3.
Reviewed by Diane Matza (Utica College)
Published on H-Judaic (September, 2013)
Commissioned by Jason Kalman
An Addition to Twentieth-Century Literature in Ladino: The Coplas of Bouena Sarfatty
Renee Levine Melammed’s Ode to Salonika is a work of history and translation. The historical material brings together two stories, one the life of a remarkable young woman, Bouena Sarfatty, transformed by circumstance and inclination from a comparatively privileged Jewish woman of Salonika to a heroine of WWII. The other tells of a once Jewish city from the throes of the economic, political, and cultural upheavals of the late nineteenth century to the onset and immediate aftermath of the second World War. Melammed does not propose a new thesis of Salonika. Instead, she relies on the work of the major historians of the city, among them Michael Mazower, Michael Molho, and Steven Bowman, to create the context for the heart of her book, the hundreds of coplas written by Bouena Sarfatty more than twenty years after the end of the war to memorialize her lost world.
In the main, the content of the explanatory chapters, though rich in detail about the inner workings of the Jewish community and the external forces leading to its transfiguration and then destruction by the Nazis, is not served particularly well by the discursive prose. A firm editorial hand should have tamed the occasionally awkward transitions and repetitiveness. Still, Melammed’s meticulous translation of Sarfatty’s coplas, which express both the tonality and cultural distinctiveness of Sephardi Jewish life, is a genuine contribution to scholarship and deserves praise.
Ode to Salonika expands Melammed’s June 2004 article in Nashim, A Journal of Jewish Women’s Studies and Gender Issues, “The Memoirs of a Partisan from Salonika.” This earlier piece, based on a typescript of Bouena Sarfatty’s memoirs, establishes the singularity of this young Sephardi’s experience as one who survived the Holocaust by working with the Greek resistance. Aided by quick thinking, flexibility, connections with leaders in the Jewish community, and fluency in Greek (uncommon among Salonikans who spoke Ladino at home and at business and were more likely to know Turkish than Greek), Sarfatty worked as a spy for the partisans, once serving as a cook in a camp for German officers, and smuggled Jewish children to Palestine during the war. Melammed reworks some of this material in Ode to Salonika, but readers interested in the full story of Sarfatty’s wartime activities, fascinating in themselves, should refer to the article in Nashim.
Ode to Salonika’s introduction offers historical background, a discussion of Sarfatty’s Ladino as an oral and written language, and an explanation of the copla’s role in Sephardi life. Chapters 1 and 2 introduce and analyze Sarfatty’s coplas about Salonikan culture and daily life prior to WWII. The copla is a four- to eight-line verse, modeled on a popular Spanish song form and in Sarfatty’s hands presented as a toast to a particular person or family. Chapter 3 presents these coplas, both in the original Ladino and in Melammed’s English translation. Chapter 4 introduces the coplas Sarfatty composed about the war period, providing further information about Bouena’s war work and the community’s destruction. Melammed places particular emphasis here on the brutal traitor, Victor Hasson, who very nearly cost Sarfatty her life, and the controversial role of Rabbi Koretz in the almost complete decimation of Salonikan Jewry at the hands of the Nazis. Chapter 5 presents Sarfattty’s coplas about these events, again both in the original Ladino and in Melammed’s English translation.
Readers unfamiliar with Salonika’s transformation from an Ottoman economic hub with a strong Jewish identity to a modern city asserting a self-conscious Greek nationalism will appreciate the introduction’s historical summary. From the sixteenth century to the nineteenth, Melammed explains, Jewish Salonika was a traditional society, communal in outlook and behavior. By the time of Bouena Sarfatty’s birth in 1916, however, this world was convulsed by all the destabilizing forces of the twentieth century--rapid modernization, natural disasters, and war. For the Jews, nothing perhaps was as disruptive as the loss of their ethnic and religious primacy in this city. Awash in change, from within and without, regarding gender expectations, social and religious customs, educational institutions, political and economic realities, the Jewish community’s adaptations were frequently uneasy ones.
All this constitutes the material Sarfatty examines in the coplas set forth in chapters 3 and 4, written more than twenty years after she left first Salonika and then Israel for Montreal. Sensitive to Sarfatty’s marginalization as a Sephardi Jew in the new world, Melammed notes such dislocation as a motivating force in the creation of these coplas as well as the nearly hundred verses regarding the German occupation.
Sarfatty ranged over too many topics in her coplas about prewar Salonika to allow a tidy organization to contain them. Melammed’s first two chapters try to explain these coplas, and it is here that the book’s formal weakness is most obvious. Melammed tries to impose greater structure by categorizing the coplas to highlight Sarfatty’s preoccupations. This gives us such specific and useful intra-chapter headings as “Births and Circumcisions,” “Marriages and Dowries,” and “Sabbath and Holiday Observance.” Yet, oddly, the chapter titles themselves are overly general and create confusion. Chapter 1 is titled “Bouena’s Ode to Salonika” and chapter 2, “Tradition versus Modernity and Historical Developments.” However, the content of both chapters reveals Sarfatty’s role as witness and chronicler, aware and deeply involved in the full life of her community. Chapter 2, then, is as much part of her “ode” as is chapter 1. Furthermore, few of the subjects Sarfatty examines in chapter 1 (dowries, marriages, workers’ lives, and so on) escaped the conflict between adherence to tradition and the imperatives or appeal of reform. So the chapter division severs valuable connections. Perhaps this complaint is minor, but it is also easily corrected. In any case, despite an awkward effort to make a clear distinction between the content of the two chapters, Melammed succeeds in fleshing out the social tensions, the individual and group attitudes, and the historical forces that shaped the topics Bouena’s coplas address. Since the coplas quite deliberately focus on essentials, elevating simplicity and directness to art, readers will find helpful Melammed’s commentary, copious footnotes, and references to additional sources.
Chapter 4, “The Miseries that the Germans inflicted on Salonika,” avoids the organizational problems, though not the discursiveness, of chapters 1 and 2. Here the story Melammed has to tell comes organized by chronology, from the Italian invasion to the liquidation of the ghetto to the return of the survivors. Melammed moves back and forth between Bouena’s own memories, recorded in her memoir and in the coplas, and the corroborating sources to portray a woman of enormous strength of character, involved from the very beginning of the occupation in repeated efforts to nurture and save members of her community.
As a historian Melammed is of course primarily interested in what the coplas reveal about Sarfatty’s world and in how their spontaneous informality is modeled on the instructional or liturgical coplas so ubiquitous in Sephardi culture and once the exclusive province of men. The publication of these verses, however, also offers literary scholars a significant addition to post-World War II literature written in Ladino. These coplas deserve to be read alongside other significant works by Sephardim of Greek background, works such as Leon Sciaky’s Farewell to Salonika (2003), and the anthologies of Sephardi Holocaust poetry And the World Stood Silent, edited by Isaac Jack Levy (1990), and Un Grito En El Silencio by Shmuel Refael (2008). While Melammed is certainly correct to note the lack of literary sophistication in Sarfatty’s coplas, she is careful to point out the significant variations in tone she achieves, from the critical to the lighthearted. She also mentions the poet’s use of the present tense in her coplas about the war to convey both empathy and the hopefulness she tried to feel at the time. Close reading of the coplas shows Sarfatty’s artfulness in other ways, too. She made frequent use of parallel structure, repetition, and rhyme, and a song-like rhythm pervades each verse. The result is work that captures the ordinary and the tragic in daily life with striking realism and immediacy.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-judaic.
Diane Matza. Review of Renee Levine Melammed, An Ode to Salonika: The Ladino Verses of Bouena Sarfatty.
H-Judaic, H-Net Reviews.
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