1. Introduction: Sephardic Romance, and the gendering of the Mediterranean


I begin with Jewish music that embraces the Mediterranean in its most local and global forms, the Sephardic narrative genres of romance, romancero, and coplas. Expelled from the Iberian Peninsula in 1492, Sephardic Jews sought a diaspora beyond the Jewish diaspora of separation from Jerusalem after almost a millennium and one half. The Mediterranean quickly provided the most effective landscape for the double diaspora, for it symbolically represented both departure and return, a place of more extreme diaspora that nonetheless drew Mediterranean Jews closer to Jerusalem, the holiest of all places in the Mediterranean world.

Sephardic narrative genres emerged during the age of double diaspora, and as they did, they also remapped the Jewish history of the Mediterranean and beyond using gendered narratives. Through the romance and romancero gender envelops the histories of Jewish narrative at numerous levels. First, the narrator in the Sephardic ballad tradition—the voice of Jewish history—is feminized. Second, the stories and histories of the ballads are told through the perspectives of a woman, and thus Sephardic Jewish history itself becomes extensively gendered. Third, Sephardic Jewish history is musically woven into the larger history of the Mediterranean, itself a contested history of conflict between Christian and Muslim claims for the Mediterranean. By removing the Jewish response to these centuries of conflict, Sephardic music creates a new historical space, a space of double otherness, a space marked as Other and female.

The first musical example illustrates the ways in which the romance possesses an historiography that is both Jewish and gendered from a woman’s perspective, that is juifemme, to borrow Elaine Marks’s provocative description of this form of double otherness (1994).

Mi madre mia (My Mother, My Mother)

O madre mia, tu muy querida de que ‘stas triste en este día.
Queridos hijicos lloro la mancilla que amargó muestra familia.
Tu hermano, el grande qu’el era soldado el fue matado en Lule Burgaz.
Es en esta guerra lo que se vidó las crueldades de la Bulgaria.
L’armada Turca era comandada por el ministro Enver Pasha.
Adelante, adelante iban gritando a Edirne iban entrando.
Maldicho seas tu Rey Ferdinan’ que tu cautastes todo ‘ste mal.
Gemidos amargos de criaturas iban subiendo a las alturas.

(Transliteration of the ladino text)

English summary of the ladino text:

A song of the independence war of the Bulgarians against the Ottoman Empire. A mother is weeping for her song who died. It is the fault of King Ferdinand of Spain. He expelled the Jews. For this reason my son had to take part in this cruel war.

"La esposa fiel" ("The Faithful Wife") complicates the presence of gender in the romance, at once mapping it on Mediterranean histories and locating it in the symbols, especially Jewish symbols, of the wedding. In "La esposa fiel" the morphological relations to the shechinah are more direct, with the period of seven years perhaps symbolizing the seven days during the week during which the Jewish community is separated from the Sabbath bride. Local time—the weekly cycle of the Sabbath—is extended to Jewish history in its diasporic forms, metaphorically recurring in the song according to seven-year cycles of expectation and postponement.

La esposa fiel (The Faithful Wife)

For your life, soldier,
tell me the truth,
have you seen my husband,
my dear husband?
I have seen your husband,
a month elapsed since he died.
He left me the sign, my lady,
for me to marry with you.
Seven years I waited,
seven years more I shall wait,
even if after fourteen he does not come,
I will never marry.
I am your husband,
your dear husband,
I proved your [faithfulness] señora,
if you were going to marry.

(English translation of the ladino text)

As a genre ballads represent not only through their extensive narrativity but also through their extensive historicism. Ballads participate in the instantiation of culture by historicizing, empowering it with historical voice. It is hardly surprising, then, that ballads have such a powerful presence in the representation of the Sephardic Mediterranean (cf. Armistead and Silverman 1971; Armistead and Silverman 1981; Armistead and Silverman 1986). In Sephardic ballads Jewish history is mapped on the Mediterranean in distinctive ways. History itself is enacted by men, but it is narrated musically by women. A sharp wedge is therefore driven between music as a performance of Jewish history, hence Self, and music as a discourse about Jewish history, which is possible only from the distance of Other.

The language of diaspora is crucial, namely ladino, a vernacular language that is at once Jewish—in written form it employs Hebrew orthography—but anchored in the culture of the Other, that is the surrounding non-Jewish world of Spain; the proximity of ladino to the Spanish language is evident in the transliteration of Example 1. In the case studies I present throughout this article the vernacular of women’s song draws from the world of the Other, and it facilitates the passage of Jewish women musicians between the worlds of Self and Other throughout the Jewish Mediterranean. The music of women, therefore, intrinsically comments upon a diasporic, Mediterranean world of otherness. Its "being"—the ontological selfness of Jewish women in the Mediterranean—emerges from its outsider status, which music should, but never quite does, diminish and eliminate.

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