Interviewed by Eli Keren
15 October 2019
It all started in Spain
When the Jews were driven out from Spain in 1492, the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire was willing to accept them. They were treated differently to the Muslims, but not as bad as if they stayed in Spain. My family went to live in Izmir, a city in Turkey, and they stayed there for hundreds and hundreds of years. Although they integrated into Turkish society or Bulgarian society, or wherever they lived, they never ever forgot where they came from. Obviously, they never forgot Israel because they were Jewish, but they also never forgot Spain.
The main area where Judaism flourished was in Spain [before the Inquisition] and they say that what happened in Spain was never replicated elsewhere later on, because in Christian-controlled areas there was never that freedom and therefore they didn’t flourish as much as they would have. I read somewhere that the economy of Spain dived when the Jews left and never really recovered. The Jews were doctors of medicine, poets, writers. The greatest rabbis came from Spain, economists. They were considered the best of the best by other Jews, and also by the Spanish. They came to the very highest positions. Spain was the leading country in Europe at that point of time and after it became the most backward. Maybe they should have thought about it before they threw us out…
My family came from a small village, called Floris or Floria. My maiden name mentions that village: I was Raya Farhi. Farhi in Hebrew means flower and they think – no one knows for sure – that the origin came from that Spanish village. The family spent some times in the south of France and northern Spain, because in those days there wasn’t a border. They moved in and out. So, when the Christians in France threw them out, they went to Spain, and when the Christians in Spain threw them out, they went to Turkey. It was a continuous story of being thrown out. But they kept the family name from that small village they came from, for hundreds and hundreds of years.
I think the fact that I’m here is a miracle. I’m thinking about what my ancestors went through in Spain: either they were burnt alive because they didn’t want to renounce their religion; or they were given a day or an hour to leave all their possessions to leave their country and they didn’t know what their fate would be; or they had to become Christian and secretly keep their Jewish tradition. Either one of those choices was horrible and obviously my ancestors decided not to become Christian and didn’t want to renounce their religion, so they went to live miles and miles away in the Ottoman Empire. They had to start all over again after hundreds of years living in Spain.
Ladino was my first language
I was born in Israel and I grew up there. My grandmother from my dad’s side came from Bulgaria, and my grandfather from my dad’s side came from Turkey. They married in Europe, and lived in Vienna, where my father was born. They came to live in Israel after the war; they had to spend a year in Cyprus first. My father, on the other hand, was sent on his own when he was younger, because they obviously were worried about his fate. He came to Israel at a very young age, was taken care of, and later on his parents managed to join him.
My grandfather died quite young, so my grandmother, having only one child (my father), lived with us – myself, my three brothers, my sister and my mum and dad. My mother and father worked full time, so my grandmother really raised us. She was like a second mother.
My grandmother spoke to us in Ladino. That’s the language I spoke until, I guess, I was six years old and I started going to school. By then, I didn’t want to speak Ladino. I didn’t want to be different – I wanted to be like everybody else, so I started to speak Hebrew. But I still with my grandmother only spoke Ladino.
My father spoke Ladino with his mum, but not with us. He spoke with us Hebrew, but when the three of us were involved – my grandmother, my father and myself – then obviously we spoke Ladino between us until she passed away in 1992.
When I was seven or eight years old, my father was sent over as the Shaliach of the Soufut[i] in Argentina. So, I learned Spanish, which confused the hell out of me, because there are similarities with Ladino but they’re not identical. The Spanish people speak today in Spain – I can make the differentiation between that and Ladino. If you give me a word, I can tell you if it’s Spanish or it’s Ladino purely. I guess only someone who has knowledge of both languages can make that distinction.
Over the years, I’ve acquired other languages and Ladino really became a forgotten language as far as I’m concerned – at the back of my mind. It’s only now when I meet up with my sister, who still lives in Israel, that we speak in Hebrew. But, once in a while, some expression comes up in Ladino.
I don’t know how many people still raise their children in Ladino. I think less and less do. I didn’t – my main concern was to raise my children speaking Hebrew. They obviously knew English, but I wanted them to speak Hebrew, so Ladino wasn’t a consideration. I think that’s part of the sad story. It’s like dying as far as I’m concerned.
My parents’ ‘mixed marriage’
So, my father was Sephardic. My mother was – I don’t think she was even an Ashkenazi; she came from France – just a Jew. There are French people who don’t speak Yiddish because they’ve been living in France from Day One. My mum spoke with my dad in French. Over time she learned Ladino, because she lived with my grandmother and my father, and she heard us as well.
When my parents married, there was a big hoo-ha in my dad’s family. They were very much marrying very close: you had cousins marrying second cousins and stuff like that, very inter-marriage. I think it was the first time ever in the family that someone married a non-Sephardi. Neither of my grandparents liked the idea, but they accepted my mum and in the end my grandmother loved her as her own daughter, and the fact that she wasn’t Sephardi was completely irrelevant.
The food at home was very much Sephardic. I was just going through a recipe book that I was given when I got married, and I was remembering the food of my childhood. My grandmother did all the cooking, and my mother was very happy with that arrangement. So, all the food we ate at home was mainly Sephardic – Bulgarian, stuffed pepper, bourekas.
My mum was an amazing woman, she was unusual insofar that she didn’t mind that my grandmother ruled the roost. In fact, she welcomed it, they had a very great relationship. My mother learned Ladino to some extent, and she was happy to follow whatever tradition. She obviously respected the pride that my father and my grandmother had in their culture.
In our family, my grandmother was definitely ‘the’ person – the soul of the family. I’ve met other families and the mother was the one who kept the traditions more than the father. The father went out to earn his living; she kept the traditions, she raised the children with the language, the food.
We still eat the traditional food. We have some music which we keep, you know: Ladino songs. So, some things we do, but am I as immersed in that culture as my grandmother used to be? No. Even my father over the years I think wasn’t as immersed. You know, to be honest, a truly Sephardi living being was my grandmother. I think she was the last one.
It’s not what you say…
In Israel, you go to the local synagogue. We used to go to the Sephardi one – I find it easier to understand, because they pronounce the Hebrew words what I call ‘properly’. When I meet Ashkenazi people, and they tell me things, I struggle to understand, even in Hebrew. Because I don’t know Yiddish. I heard people saying, ‘Esrog,’ and I kept thinking, what is that? It took me a while to understand that they meant ‘etrog’. The Sephardi way is to pronounce the ‘ayin’ and the ‘chet’ properly, with your throat, as opposed to the Ashkenazi, who pronounces them completely differently.
My grandmother used say ‘kaparatavonot’ [ii] in Hebrew –Kaparat Avonot, meaning it’s a proper word – two words in Hebrew, but for her, she used to pronounce it differently. But only when you learn Hebrew, you start to recognise what words in Ladino are Hebrew-originated and what are Spanish-originated. There was also a mixture of Turkish sometimes in her and I think Bulgarian. It’s a mixture but mostly it was Spanish and Hebrew: that was Ladino, that was a composition. One word in Spanish, another word in Hebrew or two words in Hebrew, but pronounced in a way that you don’t necessarily think it’s Hebrew, but it is. And some words that are Spanish, a version of Spanish, not the normal Spanish, and I never realised that until I was 14 years old.
I once met a professor of Spanish on a plane, and she told me that Ladino preserved the Spanish of the Middle Ages. So, when I talked to her in Ladino, for her it was like hearing someone from the Middle Ages, like going back in time.
My Jewish identity
First and foremost, I’m Jewish. The fact that I’m Sephardi is just an addition. I find it funny when Sephardic can’t marry just Ashkenazi and Ashkenazi can’t marry Sephardi and all that, because we’re all Jewish. But, on the other hand, I’m interested in my family’s history. I’m thinking of what they’ve gone through. When I went to Spain, I visited a lot of the synagogues there, to see what was the life there. And I went to visit, around Barcelona, areas where my family lived.
I might not be an active Sephardi from the point of view that I don’t shout it loud and announce it to everyone, but I do read about the history of the Jews. I want to know. And I do speak about it with pride. Because I think there’s a lot of stories out there. Some of them sad and some of them happy, and it’s important to pass them on to my next generation.
The Sephardi-Ashkenazi divide
I guess maybe that makes them a bit different from Ashkenazi families. Also, I think some of the traditions would be different. We eat rice in Passover, which I understand Ashkenazi don’t. And, of course, the language spoken: I never ever spoke Yiddish in my life.
This is my understanding: an Ashkenazi is someone who’s originally from Ashkenaz, which I think was Germany and Poland maybe, and they spoke Yiddish at home. Sephardi were usually identified as people who spoke Ladino and mostly came from Spain, although I do know that quite a few Sephardic families moved to northern Africa – Morocco, Tunisia and so forth – and some of them, not all, forgot Ladino and spoke only Arabic.
I think what the Spanish government has done [to allow descendants of the expelled Jews to apply for Spanish passports] is a little bit too late, too little, but it’s better than nothing. I would probably be living in Spain today if it wasn’t for what happened there. And I think it brings, as well, awareness in Spain of what their ancestors did, which is good.
[i] Shaliach is the scout who goes out in advance to see if the area is good for settling. Many times a Shaliach is sent to be a religious leader for an area to help with daily prayer services, procure kosher food, shabbat/holiday programs etc.
[ii] Kaparat – meaning atonement, Avonot – sins. The expression is two separate words which is either used with an action/symbolic action – ie. Like swinging money over your head before Yom Kippur and that the money would be used for charity and in doing so that good deed would help atone for (unspecified) sins. Or one would pray to G-d during for example, the high holy services of Yom Kippur asking of him to atone our sins.