Rachel Hall: Mother Tongue
My grandmother’s mother tongue was Ladino—old Spanish, the language of the Sephardic Jews. Like Yiddish, it’s a kind of pidgin language, a collage of words drawn from multiple sources, among them: Medieval Spanish, Galician-Portuguese, Mozarabic, Greek, Bulgarian, French, Serbo-Croatian. And like Yiddish, it’s a vulnerable language. Once the trade language of the Adriatic Sea and the Middle East, and renowned for its rich literature especially in Salonika, it’s now under serious threat of extinction. UNESCO has called it “seriously endangered.” I’ve never heard it spoken in person, though one can listen online at the Ladino preservation council’s website. When I do, I feel like I should understand the voice that sounds like my grandmother’s, with its purring R’s, but I don’t. Not a single word.
I’m not sure how much Ladino my grandmother remembered when she died in the American Midwest at 103. As a girl, she’d studied in Egypt at French schools. Later, she studied law in France, married a Frenchman. French was the only language I ever heard her speak, besides a richly accented English. French was my mother’s first language. My brother and I never considered taking Spanish in school. We took French, naturellement. And explained our interest, if asked, by saying our mother was French.
In researching my collection of linked stories, Heirlooms, which is based on family stories, I came across old letters written in what I came to understand was Ladino. I knew from reading other old family letters that much about the writer could be revealed in their word choice or turn of phrase. I stared at the undecipherable swoops of cursive, wondering what the letters conveyed. My mother could glean a few words, because Ladino, like French, is a Romance language. My mother’s cousin who grew up in Israel couldn’t help us, as he’d heard Ladino only when the grown ups didn’t want the children to know what they were talking about.
It’s easy to imagine the speaker shrugging, her hands thrown up. What can one do but go on?
From my grandmother, I know one Ladino saying and this only in English: “The fish goes rotten from the head.” She mentioned this phrase to explain her older sister’s bossiness. This phrase was directed at Marguerite, the eldest of five, by their mother, a threat to keep the younger children in line. The saying seemed odd to my American ears, its suppositions and circumstances foreign and strange. Even now, hearing it, I imagine a grilled fish on a platter, its eyes intact, its mouth set into a grimace. So when I began looking into Ladino proverbs, I was surprised to find that many of them resonated for me. While my family didn’t use these proverbs, they reflect attitudes that I recognize, beliefs that shaped the way I see the world. The proverbs are darkly funny, like this one:
Culebra que no mir morde, que viva mil anos.
The snake that doesn’t bite me, may it live a thousand years.
Or this one: “He who gets burned by his soup, even blows on his yogurt.” The idea that once burned, we remain fearful, anxious, overly cautious of being hurt again. The fear transforms our behaviors, turns precaution into an impulse, unavoidable even when completely unnecessary. How ridiculous to blow on yogurt! And here again is that dark humor, accompanied by psychological insight and self-awareness.
There is to the Ladino proverbs a certain stoicism, an acceptance of life as hard, the world as unkind at best. The proverbs don’t make light of this; there is no lemonade being made from lemons, with its chirpy chin-up admonishment. I imagine the proverbs offered up not to instruct so much as in commiseration: “Trouble comes in gallons and goes in droplets.” It’s easy to imagine the speaker shrugging, her hands thrown up. What can one do but go on? I’m reminded of my mother’s lifelong engagement with liberal politics despite her near constant disappointment. She was out last month, for instance, canvassing for Bernie in Missouri. Once when I commended her on this, she said, “I know,” she said, “I’m just an old fool.” And somehow this response, too, seems informed by Ladino. Hazer y non agradecer. Do, but don’t brag.
They’re stilted and clunky, not smoothly translated into English, not pretty in sound or image. I’m thinking of that fish here, its milky stare.
The history of the Sephardic Jews is one of persecution and upheaval. Think: wandering Jew. Pushed out of Jerusalem, Spain, Greece, ending up in far-flung places India, Ethiopia, Iran, Yemen, always vulnerable to the whims of rulers and religious leaders. My grandmother’s life is a continuation of this tradition. After the war, she and my grandfather left France with my mother. They went, not to New York, as many Jewish refugees did, but to San Francisco, where my grandfather had a childhood friend. In the years that followed, they lived in Daly City, Burlingame, Oakland, Yucca Valley, Morongo Valley, Mexico, Arad and Tel Aviv, Israel before ending up in Columbia, Missouri—first in a modest yellow bungalow, then a retirement community, and finally in a nursing home. You might expect people whose early life was punctuated by moves and upheaval to hunker down somewhere, to lay down roots, but my grandparents kept moving. Though I never heard them say this, “a change of scene, a change of fortune,” might very well have been their motto.
In one letter my grandmother sent to her parents in Jaffa, in 1940, she speaks of the blue sky of Algiers “beckoning” her. She’s in Marseille having fled the Occupied Zone with my mother, a toddler, and only the clothes on their backs. Her impulse was to keep moving. This calls to mind another proverb, one that at first seems outdated in the present era of destination weddings and beachy Spring breaks: “He who knows nothing of the sea, knows nothing of suffering.” In their flight from persecution, the sea presented obstacles for my distant ancestors; it stood between them and safety. I can’t help but think of Aylan Kurdi, the two-year-old Syrian boy who drowned, along with his older brother and mother, in the Aegean Sea last September. The photograph by Nilüfer Demir, which went viral, shows Aylan face down in the sand, a thin band of diaper visible between his dark shorts and bright red T-shirt. This photograph makes real the dangers and degradations of the refugee, which sadly haven’t changed much since my ancestors fled the Iberian Peninsula.
The proverb seems also to be a statement about Ladino itself—if we’ve largely lost the language, many of its attitudes and beliefs, biases and assumptions remain.
A quick examination of proverbs reveals that they tend to have an appealing rhythm or alliteration, which allows them to be easily remembered. The Ladino proverbs, on the other hand, don’t really. They’re stilted and clunky, not smoothly translated into English, not pretty in sound or image. I’m thinking of that fish here, its milky stare. I find myself stumbling over the wording each time I try to use one. This could be the fault of translation, of course, but a good many of the proverbs also suffer from pronoun issues. The contemporary speaker might choose “One” rather than “he” but this adds an odd formality to what is earthier, unpretentious, down-home.
Si los anios calleron, los dedos quedaron. If the rings fall off, at least the fingers remain. This is the proverb I’ve chosen as an epigram for my collection of short stories, which is a meditation on all that is lost or abandoned during war and immigration, but also what remains and is passed on, including hopes and dreams, fears and anxieties. The proverb seems also to be a statement about Ladino itself—if we’ve largely lost the language, many of its attitudes and beliefs, biases and assumptions remain.
As my grandmother lay dying in Central Missouri, in a nursing facility named for the craggy limestone bluffs that overlook the Missouri river, she told us she heard faint singing, lullabies that her mother had sung to her in Ladino. “It’s so nice,” she said of the singing. “Can’t you hear it?” We couldn’t, of course, but we were glad that those lullabies, the soft murmurings of her mother tongue, accompanied her on that final journey.