An Ode to Saloni­ka: The Ladi­no Vers­es of Boue­na Sarfatty

Renee Levine Melammed

  • Review
By – February 13, 2013

Read­ers pick­ing up Renee Levine Melammed’s An Ode to Saloni­ka: The Ladi­no Vers­es of Boue­na Sar­fat­ty expect­ing to find an undis­cov­ered Keats or Dick­in­son may be dis­ap­point­ed, but those want­i­ng insight into the world of Greek Jews before, dur­ing, and after the Holo­caust are like­ly to find this unique work well worth their time. Melammed divides the book into two sec­tions, pro­vid­ing a bio­graph­i­cal, his­tor­i­cal, and so­ciological essay to intro­duce Bouena’s poems about Saloni­ka before the war. A sec­ond essay dis­cussing the Holo­caust and the after­math intro­duces the sec­ond set of poems. These suc­cinct, well writ­ten essays give the read­er a sense of the cul­ture and dynam­ic of this part of the Sephardic dias­po­ra, spread­ing out­ward from Boue­na Sarfatty’s per­son­al sto­ry, to that of her town, and to Greece as a whole.

Read­ers unfa­mil­iar with the tra­di­tion of coplas” may find the poems a bit odd and even unpo­et­ic.” The tra­di­tion­al copla is an im­provised verse, typ­i­cal­ly prais­ing or pok­ing fun at a neigh­bor or com­ment­ing on some­thing hap­pen­ing in the vil­lage, and end­ing with a toast to an indi­vid­ual, most often not even allud­ed to in the poem. At the balls there is a dance card./ The boys write which dance they are going to dance./ If the girl has a lot of mon­ey, every­one waits his turn./ Let us drink to the health of Salomon Amar.” Most of Sarfatty’s 413 coplas in the first col­lec­tion and 99 in the sec­ond fol­low this tra­di­tion, cre­at­ing such a sense of inti­ma­cy with the town that read­ers will want to raise a glass in toast to peo­ple who have come to feel like their own neighbors.

Sarfatty’s tone is iron­ic, amused, sar­don­ic, and ten­der in the first col­lec­tion. In the sec­ond half, anger, hor­ror, and bewil­der­ment oc­casionally cause her to aban­don the tradi­tional copla style alto­geth­er. Col­lab­o­ra­tors, par­tic­u­lar­ly the Ashke­naz­ic rab­bi (an out­sider who nev­er both­ered to learn Ladi­no and manip­u­lates the sit­u­a­tion to save his own life at the expense of oth­er Jews) and Has­son (a neigh­bor turned thug­gish enforcer for the Nazis), are fre­quent tar­gets of her out­rage. The last coplas were writ­ten after the war, as Sar­fat­ty reflects on what was lost and the mag­ni­tude of the tragedy.

Those inter­est­ed in Ladi­no will also enjoy the lay­out of this book, with Ladi­no ver­sions of the coplas on the ver­so side and Eng­lish trans­la­tions by Melammed on the rec­to side.

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