Ladino Author Matilda Coen Sarano. Reflects on her work, her mission
Born into a Milanese Jewish family in 1939, Matilda Coen Sarano has every reason to question how she has managed to survive, and for what end. Just as millions of Jews were to be exterminated in Nazi death camps, she and her family not only survived, but also actually managed to grow and eventually prosper. Her father, a Sephardic Jew from Rhodes, had studied and settled in Milan, marrying a young woman from Izmir, Turkey, in 1938, a year before the outbreak of World War II.
Being in the fortunate position of speaking English as well as various other languages, he was later chosen to serve as an interpreter for the Allied Forces in Italy. "I don't know how we survived," claims Matilda, "but we did". Remaining in Italy until the age of 21, Matilda married a shaliakh for Bnei Akiva and made aliya with her young husband in 1960. In Israel, she stayed at home with her three children for 13 years, after which she entered the work force as an employee in the Foreign Ministry. "We were well integrated," she recalls, when a serendipitous meeting with Moshe Shaul changed the course of her life.
Matilda had always spoken "spanyol" at home, but never reflected on the future of her cultural heritage until her father decided to write Moshe Shaul, lamenting that their language and folklore were all but disappearing. Upon
receipt of his letter, Moshe Shaul paid Matilda's father a visit at home. She remembers hearing them discuss saving their heritage, and immediately agreed the language needed to be preserved. After all, virtually nobody was speaking spanyol anymore, she thought to herself. Shortly afterward, she heard Moshe Shaul's radio announcement for a training seminar in editing Judeo-Spanish programs. Her father strongly encouraged her to attend, claiming that she could always use another professional qualification.
Not only did the seminar lead to her present job of broadcasting Judeo-Spanish programs for Kol Israel, but also it inspired her to write.
Having reflected on what to write in order to best preserve Sephardic culture, Matilda decided to start collecting stories. "Los sefaradis contan," she explains. And indeed, she soon collected over one hundred stories from her own parents, who convinced her to publish them in an anthology. "Mis djenitores,"she stresses, "es eyos ke me mandaron a hazer esto. Yo no entendi, pero para eyos era imortante."
After a long search for funding, Matilda's husband found a wealthy patron in Milan who donated $3,000. towards initial printing costs. She made Hebrew translations of her stories, which appeared alongside the Judeo-Spanish originals in her first book, Kuentos del Folklor de la Famiya Djudeo-Espanyola, in 1986. At first she thought that her book would collect dust on some library shelf, but soon found that her material had a much wider audience than expected. After three months, her book had already sold 1,500 copies. In the years immediately following, she published three collections of Judeo-Spanish stories in Italian translation, along with a second bilingual edition in Hebrew and Judeo-Spanish, Djoka ke dize? Kuentos Populares Djudeo-Espanyoles, in 1991.
Since her first publication in prose, Matilda has also discovered she can write poetry in her collection Vini Cantaremos (1993) and has most recently published a musical comedy, Sefaradis de Dor en Dor(1997), that was staged in Mexico City.
Matilda's inspiration, although largely rooted in her family's history and story-telling tradition, also comes from other Sephardic writers, researchers, and artists. Banak, a Judeo-Spanish singer from Istanbul, encouraged her to
write her musical comedy, while Haim Tsur, the comedy's musical director, convinced her that she should write poetry as well as prose. Other writers such as the editor of Shalom in Istanbul, poetess Rita Semanto in Athens and Margolit Netatyahu in Jerusalem provide Matilda with inspiration and support in their literary activity alone.
Matilda is in constant contact with researchers such as Klara Perahya, author of a French/Judeo-Spanish dictionary, and Marie Christine Varol, who has published a grammar of Judeo-Spanish with an accompanying cassette. "We see each other at international conferences," she muses, where they freely exchange ideas. At a
congress in Ancora in 1996, Matilda found the motivation to write her comedy, Sefaradis de Dor en Dor. "I didn't have anything to do, so I wrote a little every day," she adds.
When asked to comment about future prospects for Judeo-Spanish, Matilda notes what there are movements to preserve the language not only in Israel, but also in Mexico, the United States, Italy, Greece, and Turkey. "Es verdad ke no esta muerta la lingua," she concedes, but continues "no domando ke lo avlen de nuevo kon sus famiyas, no domando eso." Although she herself has transmitted the language to her own children with varying degrees of success, Matilda does not expect the same from others. However, she would like that people be
familiar with the language and culture of Sephardim as it existed before the Holocaust. She laments that people commonly associate the Shoah with Ashkenazim, ignoring the human casualties of Salonica and Rhodes. In Israel, she claims, most people don't even know there was a distinctive Jewish language and civilisation in Greece and the Balkans, "...los sefardim no tuvieron shoa segoun eyos!" She sighs before confessing "...ma la kulpa es muestra". The importance of transmitting her heritage to subsequent generations weighs so heavily upon her that she rhetorically asks "de ke vivo?" and replies "...la razon es porke tengo ke hazer este lavoro".
Yet everybody can help continue the Sephardic tradition. "Si tienen kosas, ke las eskrivan, si pueden contar, ke conten, y eyos ke kieren estudiar, ke lo hagan," she says with conviction. Judeo-Spanish is living, she concludes, even in language classes at universities. "It's not just academic...when someone studies spanyol, he takes the whole Sephardic world with him!"
This article is based on an interview I conducted with Matilda Coen Sarano in her home in Jerusalem on Thursday, August 20th, 1998.
De ke vivo ? L'écrivain judéo-espagnol, Matilda Coen Sarano, réfléchit sur son oeuvre et sa mission.
Née en 1939, à Milan, au sien d'une famille juive, Matilda Coen Sarano se demande pourquoi a-t-elle survécue à la deuxième guerre mondiale. Elle trouve que sa mission, en tant qu'écrivain, est de recueillir, dans sa langue maternelle, le judéo-espagnol, les contes séfarades et les transmettre à la postérité. Toutefois, son inspiration artistique ne se limite au passé. Elle profite de ses liens étroits avec d'autres écrivains, chanteurs, et artistes
séfarades pour produire poésie et comédies contemporaines. En apprenant le judéo-espagnol, chacun peut contribuer à sauver la culture séfarade de l'oubli
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