Five hundred years after the expulsion of Jews from the Iberian peninsula, both the Judeo-Spanish language and its literature have not only miraculously survived, but are being further developed by contemporary writers such as Rita Simantov in Greece. Although many scholars and lovers of Judeo-Spanish have re-discovered the traditional ballad (romance ) in recent decades, comparatively little attention has been paid to contemporary artistic activity among Sephardim in Israel and the diaspora. While archiving linguistic and literary monuments of the past certainly remains a chief concern in the wake of the Holocaust, more recent contributions to the Sephardic legacy should not be overlooked.
Rita Simantovs poetry, which has already attracted serious literary criticism, is all the more interesting in that it comes at a time when most had thought that Judeo-Spanish literature in Greece and the Balkans was a closed chapter even in the most recent anthologies.
As a young girl, Ritas grandparents initiated her in the world of Judeo-Spanish and religious Judaism. Although her own parents would speak espanyol between themselves at home, they often spoke French as well, and were more traditional with regards to Judaism than scrupulously observant.
Rita fondly recalls her grandparents meticulous observance of Jewish holidays such as Yom Kippur, and in particular how they would all wait to see three stars in the sky in order to break the fast. Her early years in Turkey, steeped as they were in Judeo-Spanish and traditional religious practice, came to a halt in 1945 when she returned to Athens with her parents.
In Athens Rita attended a non-Jewish Greek school during the day, participating in the Jewish club later in the afternoon. She remembers speaking Ladino, as she commonly calls her ancestral language, with other girls in order to recount amusing stories, tell jokes, or to exchange everyday domestic experiences. Having finished her education, Rita went to Israel in 1952 in order to learn Hebrew, later returning to Athens to pursue a career as a professional dancer.
Her marriage put an end to her dancing career, but provided a boost to her lagging use of espanyol. Since her mother-in-law felt most comfortable speaking Judeo-Spanish, as did her newly married son, Rita found herself obliged to communicate with both her husband and his mother in that language on a regular basis. Even at her job in the Israeli Embassy, where she has worked first as a Press contact, then as a Cultural Officer since 1961, Rita can still be heard chatting to co workers in el espanyol muestro.
Rita continued writing Judeo-Spanish poetry in Greece, and published her first anthology in 1992. Entitled Quinientos Anios Despues (Five Hundred Years Later), her collection deals with a variety of themes. Rita was often inspired by natural phenomena such as birds or flowers. Some poems deal with metaphysical topics, for example ...fe en Dio.. (belief in G-d), while others are more narrative in nature and relate ...istorias komikas... (amusing stories). Her aim in offering a full gamut of themes is to represent the Sephardi diaspora experience in all its breadth.
Despite her natural selection of Judeo-Spanish as a medium of artistic creation, to the point of categorically rejecting eve translations of her work into Greek or other languages, Rita sometimes feels that she cannot find the appropriate words or expressions. She claims that Judeo-Spanish lacks vocabulary for so many areas of life, thereby limiting the forms she uses for her poems. Free verse is the most appropriate form, she feels, to express her thoughts and emotions.
Her next anthology, entitled Fuente de mi Tradision, is due to be published by Talos Editions over the summer. Mikos Stavroulakis, a well-known Jewish personality in Greece, is currently putting the finishing touches on the books illustrations, after which it will go to print. Readers interested in ordering either Quinientos Anios Despues or Fuente de mi Tradision may do so by fax (00-301-32-14-221; 00-301 98-80-848) or address their written enquiries to: Odos Thetidos 4, 17561 Athens, Greece.
With her next anthology, Ritas readership will doubtlessly extend to the Jewish communities in Latin America and the United States.
This article was based on a personal interview I conducted with Rita Simantov on Tuesday, May 18th, 1999
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