Poetics Passages from the ancient cemetery of Rhodes (L.M. 28)

Ecrit par webmaster Sefarad.org le 26 février, 2010

Poetics Passages from the ancient Cemetery of Rhodes

by Aron Hasson

On my recent trip to the Island of Rhodes, I came upon newly uncovered tombstones which reveal a fascinating perspective of life and death relating to the former Jewish community. The passages found on the tombstones refer to the ending stage of life, where words of love and death are emotionally intertwined with poetical epitaphs and religious references. The spiritual words emanating from the tombstones also reveal a remarkable historical disco-very.

The Island of Rhodes has maintained a Jewish community for centuries. During the 1920’s the Island had an estimated Jewish population of 4,000, whose social and cultural background was strongly influenced by the refugees of the Spanish Inquisition. The Jewish Quarter of the city was affectionately known as « La Juderia ». Since the Holocaust, the Jewish population has consisted of only a small number of people. Today, the Island of Rhodes maintains a Jewish cemetery in the new city.

Originally, the Jewish cemeteries in Rhodes were forced to be moved by the Italian government during the late 1930’s away from the Jewish Quarter to its present location in the new city. During the late spring of 1997 over 200 old tombstones were uncovered during a restoration of the cemetery undertaken by the Jewish Community. Until now, it was known that the cemetery maintained graves dating from 1850 to the present.

Based upon the translations I had made of the Hebrew, I found that the newly uncovered graves are older than 1850, in fact many are from the 1700’s as well as the 1600’s.

The names found on the tombstones are those commonly known among Sephardic families of Greece and Turkey, such as Alhadeff, Benveniste, Berro, Capelouto, Sourmani and Tarica. The tombstones are chiselled in Hebrew often times utilizing letters of the alphabet for abbreviations such as N.A. (« Nun, Ayin »), which stands for « Nishmata Eden », and means: His (Her) Soul in Paradise. This usage of abbreviations is equivalent to the English usage of « R.I.P » for Rest in Peace.

The romantic passages found on the tombstones reflect the Rhodeslis1 poetic usage of words in their language, called Ladino or Judeo- Spanish, as well as in the lyriks of their songs, called « canticas » and « romanzas ». For example, one of the gravestones from 1847 describes a very personal loss:
Blessed be the judge of truth, the sound of crying is heard like a ling from her husband on the youthful wife. My mouth decorated with silk has drunk a glass of bitterness: she left a son to be suckled; poor bitterness; storm become a pearl; she is the woman, the honourable, righteous and pure, Mrs. Miriam, the wife of Shabetai Israël; departed the 9th of the month of Kislev the 5607. May her soul be bound in the bond of life. This short poem describes the dramatic moment of the loss of life. The death is stated with an abundance of praise about the deceased prior to the mentioning of the name.

The newly uncovered tombstones on the Island of Rhodes are among the most numerous and oldest in all of Europe. One of the tombstones from 1655 has the following epitaph:
Burial stone, a doe of beauty, Mrs. Nerassah, the daughter of the dear and distinguished Avraham Hasson, her soul in paradise, died the 7th day of Adar, 5415. May her soul be bound in the bond of life.

This remarkable historical discovery is a part of a larger project currently being undertaken for restoring the Jewish history in Rhodes. The tombstone translations are a significant resource to the Jewish community for the preservation of their heritage.
(The author, Aron Hasson, is an attorney in Los Angeles, California, who has previously researched and written about this subject. He is currently involved in the establishment of a Museum in Rhodes, as well as other projects for perpetuating the Jewish community’s history. He is the founder of a non-profit organization, called « The Rhodes Jewish Historical Foundation ». His family previously lived in « La Juderia » in Rhodes before immigrating to the United States between 1912 & 1920.)

Aron Hasson


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