Sara Benveniste Benrey Judeo-Spanish Poetess, Dramatist and Translator Helps Cultivate Modern Sephardic Literature in Israel
As Moshe Shaul writes in the May 1999 edition of 'Aki Yerushalayim', the world's only cultural magazine written entirely in Judeo-Spanish, starting a new Ladino publication in the late 1970s was considered 'una aventura ke tenia muy pokas shanses de reushir' (a venture with little chance of success). Nonetheless, he and his colleagues of Kol Israel's daily Judeo-Spanish broadcast decided to begin 'Aki Yerushalayim', '...pushados por el sentimiento imperiozo ke deviamos azer algo para salvar del olvido el ladino y su kreasion literaria ke ya se topavan entonses en medio de una kriza muy grave.' (...Pushed by the strong feeling that we had to do something to save Ladino and its literary creation, which were already in the midst of a serious crisis, from being forgotten). Moshe Shaul's efforts were apparently successful, as evidenced by the continued publication of his magazine and its regular introduction of new Ladino authors. Yet he and his colleagues from Kol Israel were not alone in their literary efforts. New writers of Judeo-Spanish prose, poetry and theatre have also been emerging elsewhere in the last twenty years with a large degree of success. Matilda Coen Sarano, now a leading Ladino literary figure, began writing only in the mid-eighties after enjoying a successful career in the foreign ministry. She has since authored numerous collections of Sephardic stories, composed poetry, written a musical comedy, and published a book containing Ladino verb charts. Rita Gabbai Simantov, a resident of Athens, Greece, only began composing Judeo-Spanish poetry towards the end of her career as a Cultural Officer in theIsraeli Embassy, publishing her first anthology in 1994. She, too, continues to write and publish new Ladino poetry in 1999. Sara Benveniste Benrey began writing poetry and playscripts in the 1980s, and staged her first play in 1990, also 'despise de un largo period de silence' (after a long period of silence), as Moshe Shall puts it. She has since written several comedies, sketches, and poems; tenaciously continuing to compose new works in Ladino despite serious health problems.
The movement to preserve the literary monuments of the past while cultivating a contemporary Ladino literature and culture has evidently been proving successful long after many had considered the language to be little more than a fading memory.
Sara Benveniste Benrey and the Renaissance of Judeo-Spanish Literature Born in Izmir in 1920, Sara spoke Ladino at home with her family, learning Turkish and French at the school sponsored by the Alliance Israelite Universelle. After finishing her basic education, she continued to take courses leading to a French teaching certificate issued by the Ministry of Culture and Education in Paris. In 1937, Sara moved to Istanbul where she worked as a secretary and bookkeeper for various organisations until her marriage in 1944. Although Sara spoke Judeo-Spanish at home with her husband and two children, she recalls that others were reluctant to speak the language for fear of anti-Semitism. During WW II and after the Holocaust in particular, she adds, some Jews felt more comfortable speaking Turkish in public. This tendency was partially due to official Turkish policies promoting the national language among all its citizens, but the traumatism and instability caused by the Jewish casualties in Greece and Eastern Europe also played a role. The Shoah apparently claimed cultural as well s human casualties, even in countries, which had not been occupied by the Nazis. In 1969 Sara emigrated with her family to Israel, where she studied English and Ivrit. Soon she discovered the budding movement for the preservation and propagation of the Judeo-Spanish language, literature & culture, and began attending Sephardic conferences at Bar-Ilan and other universities. Further inspired by Yishak Navon's play "Bustan Sefaradi", Sara decided to write poems and sketches in her native Judeo-Spanish. She wrote for the weekly periodical "Haber" while it was still in prints, and eventually became a successful playwright and poet. After she had produced a substantial amount of material, Sara published her 'complete works' in a volume entitled "Espertando el Djudeo Espanyol" ('Reviving Judeo-Spanish') in 1995.
Sara's literary works are divided into the following four categories: (a) Poemas Realidas I Philosophia, (b) Kantes de mi Kompozision I Traduksiones, (c) Sketches, and (d) Piesas de Teatro. In her 'Poemas Realidas I Philosophia', Sara deals with topics ranging from contemporary political events in Israel to the sexual revolution and general philosophical contemplation. Most poems in this section contain a Sephardic proverb at the bottom, which serves as a pithy summary of the thematic content. The Yom Kippur War is eternalised in her poem "Kippur 1973-1994", where Sara relates her own experience of the war as a civilian and expresses her disappointment that peace negotiations had only resulted in 21 years of terrorism. Israel's vulnerability to attack on Yom Kippur is expressed by the proverb 'el lovo I la oveja es una triste konseja' (the wolf and the sheep together is a bad idea). Negotiations between the United States, Israel, and the Arab nations are a persistent theme in her poetry, as demonstrated in "La Pas en Washington". Here Sara laments the futility of a peace agreement when terrorism against Israelis continues on a daily basis, concluding that "si no vez la luna no digas la beraha" (if you don 't see the moon, don't say a blessing over it). In another poem entitled "Un Akordo de pas kon Arafat", Sara focuses on her hope for successful peace negotiations between Arafat, Peres and Rabin, which she summarises with the proverb 'mas vale entenderlo tadre ke nunka' ('better to understand him late than never').
Other poems focus on historical, religious, and culturally important geographic locations in Israel. In two poems entitled "Oh Yerushalayim", Sara expresses both her personal attachment to Jerusalem as well as the collective desire of the Jewish people for the Holy City. Each of these poems is laced with political concerns, however, as the first one ends "El enemigo no mos podra firir ni matar, De muestros brasos dingunos te podran apartar" (The enemy won't be able to hurt or to kill us, from our arms nobody will be able to tear you, i.e. Jerusalem). Likewise, the second poem ends with the assertion that Jerusalem belongs to the Jewish people, and will never be lost: "Munchos te dezeyan, te keren alkansar, De muestros brasos nunka te espartiran" (Many desire you and wish to reach you, From our arms you will never be separated). The proverbs associated with these poems are also interesting in that they seem to express clear political objectives. The first proverb, "siempre alkansaremos dezeyos buenos" (good ishes will always come true), refers to the desire of the Jewish people to keep Jerusalem in its control. The second proverb, "prometos I djuras deven ser respetadas" (promises and oaths should be respected), alludes to the annual exclamation of the Jewish people during the Passover Seder 'Next year in Jerusalem', also found at the beginning of the poem in question, and seems to imply that the Jewish people should not give the Holy City to the peoples of the world after it has become their possession.
In "Kantes de mi Compozision I Traduksiones", Sara assumes a lighter tone, and includes songs of her own composition as well as translated melodies, which are sometimes used in her vaudeville productions. '<Todo Bueno Kon Marido Viejo', for example, is her own composition and appears in her theatrical work of the same name. 'Mi Eskrivano', a translation of the Turkish song 'Uskudara Giderken', is used in her play "La Ija del Altezake"<:IB>. Other songs put her own compositions to well known melodies, for example 'El Kanto de las Mujeres de Poko Mazal' uses the melody of 'Hatirla Sevgilim', and is sung in her play "La Ermoza Sesilya".
While Sara's poetry is mainly political and philosophical, her theatrical works are devoted to the more comical aspects of life. "I'm a happy person", she claims, and prefers not to write drama. "Sigundo Kazamiento" (Second Marriage), a comedy in two acts, is a good example of her flair for the farcical. Avram, a new immigrant from Bulgaria, visits Josef, the traditional matchmaker, in order to find a second wife. He soon learns that 'women of 60' are expensive, however, and much more complicated than he had anticipated. After a series of mishaps, Avram winds up married to a woman exclusively out for his bank account and are duped into signing a marriage contract to the tune of 500,000. Shekels, when he had only been talked into 50,000. His new wife's shopping spree in Paris leads to disaster, and Avram is left to fend for himself in Spain.
Problems with the in-laws make the situation even worse, only for everything to be resolved in a sudden and unexpected 'happy ending'. The themes of materialism, loneliness in one's old age, second marriages, in-law tensions, the challenges of being a new immigrant in Israel and the secular-religious divide all find a riotous way of expressing themselves in Sara's play. This production, as well as "Todo Bueno Kon Marido Viejo", was staged by the Ladino Cultural Club in Bat Yam and is available on videocassette in the original Judeo-Spanish. Other comedies by Sara Benvenise Benrey include "La Ermoza Sesilya", "El Gigoletto" and "La Ija del Altezahe (del Trapero)".
Although Sara's works have been collected and published in one volume, they are by no means complete. She continues to write poetry and theatre with every intention of publishing her new material. In the meantime, her first book may be ordered by writing to Sara c/o Yossi Benbenisty, 6 Tzamarot str., Hertzeliya, Israel (Fax: 972-9-7413565). Salvador Santa Puche has also published her poems in an anthology (1999) And may be ordered by writing to him at Hospital 50, Universidad Murcia, Spain (Fax: 68-75-21-31).
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