Excerpt: Sephardic Jews and the Spanish Language by Ángel Pulido

A SPANIARD TRAVELING almost anywhere in Europe, especially in the East or the South, typically will have this pleasant surprise:

On his train or his ship, or at shops in countries and cities with native languages radically different from his own, he will notice strangers eavesdropping on his Spanish with astonishing frequency. They will listen intently and then strike up engagingly spontaneous conversations with him in a very peculiar Spanish, of highly erratic intelligibility. They will take conspicuous joy in introducing themselves as his countrymen from the East, and will gaily, warmly draw him into long dialogues about race, history and nationality. These are members of the far-flung race of Spanish Jews, whose existence and nature we in Spain view clumsily, with the greatest indifference, and with our usual shortsightedness…

* * *

On August 31, 1883, I was on one of those lovely steamships that glide down the Danube from Vienna to Budapest. I was talking with my family on deck when three male passengers approached us. One—a thickset old man with a tidy gray beard, holding his hat in one hand—greeted me in perfect Spanish and said, “Excuse me, are you Spanish?”

“I am, indeed,” I replied. “And so, I take it, are you.”

“Yes, I am,” he said. “But not Spanish from Spain. I am a Spaniard from the East.”

I was surprised and frankly baffled at this enigmatic explanation. Another aged member of the trio, who had kept a respectful distance until then, decided to join the conversation. He surprised me further by saying, “I’m a Spaniard, too, but from Servia.”

“I’m sorry,” I said, not understanding a type of statement I would hear so often in the future, “but I don’t see what you mean about your nationality.”

“We are Spanish Jews,” the first added, smiling.

“Ah, there we have it!” I exclaimed, using a particularly Spanish turn of phrase.

Another Spanish Jew introduced himself, and the four of them joined my family’s party of three. All seven of us then had a long, animated discussion, asking tirelessly about a thousand aspects of each other’s lives and customs. The whole time, our companions showed a strange sense of Spanish identity and an inexplicable pride and gratitude at our having met. Clearly they wanted to assist and please us, which was of great help in the Hungarian capital, where we all left the ship together. I jotted down their names and mentioned them at the time in letters published in the newspaper El Liberal, later collected in one of my books, Plumazos de un viajero: Semaria Mitrany was a native of Kalarash, Roumania,and the other three—Moisés Isak and his son and Arón-Leví—were from Belgrade, Servia.

Two decades later, last year, as the sun rose on August 24, 1903, my family and I left Belgrade at 5 a.m. on a steamship bound for Orsova. We were fleeing from Macedonian insurgents and hoping for safe passage to Constantinople via the Black Sea. On deck just out of port, we realized our conversation had piqued the curiosity of a short, gaunt, venerable-looking man, accompanied by a visibly grief-stricken, silent, gray-haired woman, also compactly built, on whom he lavished phrases of consolation in that strange Spanish we had heard before.

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ENRIQUE BEJARANO
HEADMASTER OF THE SPANISH-JEWISH PRIMARY SCHOOL FOR BOYS IN BUCHAREST

We all soon fell into conversation and, after mutual introductions, we learned he was a noted scholar from Eastern Europe, a renowned polyglot conversant in many European and Asian languages: Arabic, Hebrew, German, English, French, Italian, Spanish, Greek, Armenian, Slavic, and Roumanian, among others. He was the headmaster of the Spanish-Jewish School in Bucharest, traveling with his wife to assuage their grief over the recent loss of a beautiful daughter. She had died of tuberculosis at an age when her feminine charms (for she had been a splendid blonde beauty, we were later told in Bucharest) had reached their greatest expression.

He was of a different social class than the Jews mentioned above—he is a learned rabbi, while they described themselves as wealthy merchants—but he, too, exuded a strange elation and pride at our meeting, a certain lively sense of brotherhood, which he expressed in exclamations and phrases so hyperbolic and flattering that they sometimes bewildered us. At one point, for instance, I recall him returning to his disconsolate wife, who stood motionless staring out at the river. “Do you see how Providence cares for us and consoles us?” he said to her. “Today He is giving us the pleasure of traveling on this ship and meeting these people, who are from Spain, from our beloved mother country, and of becoming their friends. Do you see how good God is?” And so with soft words and exquisite tenderness and grace, he celebrated our happy meeting and the chance to talk with native Spaniards, his brothers, and to hear news, information and expressions of culture, tolerance and love for things authentically Spanish, of which he said he so often dreamed.

I was intrigued, even moved by this pure, legendary love for his remote ancestors’ homeland, this heartfelt tribute of connection and affection for children of Spain whom they had only just met casually for the first time. At that moment, I knew I wanted to build a friendship with this impressive man whom fate had put in my path. I wished to gain some personal knowledge through his diligent indulgence, and mount a campaign to open relations that I consider appropriate.

From 6 a.m., when we first exchanged words, until 4 p.m., when we disembarked in Orsova and the Jewish couple transferred to their ship bound for Bulgaria, we never stopped talking. In that time, I came to appreciate his deep knowledge of old Spanish prose writers and ballads, his literary Atticism, his mastery of the expressive arts and many languages, his gift for storytelling, his familiarity with countless long-ago tales and fables from Spanish literature, and other varied evidence that here was a superior, truly erudite man. Later, through comments from people in Constantinople and Bucharest, I learned that this fine gentleman, Mr. Enrique Bejarano (for that is his name), was a scholar with an established, exemplary reputation throughout the East.

On hearing of my journey and profession, he promptly provided me with two letters written in Spanish, in rabbinical characters, addressed to Drs. Elías and Isaac Pasha, physicians to the Sultan of Turkey. Surely he would have given me others related to famous figures in most of the eastern nations had I needed and requested them, as he took extraordinary pleasure in pleasing me.

A few days later in Bucharest, my wife, my children and I had the pleasure of visiting the Spanish-Jewish school where this teacher’s family lived. I also met his charming daughters, whose keen intelligence and knowledge made sense when we learned that they, like their good father, were educators. We examined the classrooms of the new school building, which had cost 130,000 francs to build, raised by subscription among the Spanish Jews, and we could appreciate its elegant architecture and layout. It resembles a hotel, and its classrooms, reserved for children of one sex or the other, are little but well ventilated, as if meant for small classes. They contain few teaching materials.

Founded in 1730, the school has a four-year elementary education program. It teaches secular subjects in Roumanian, the country’s language, but the Catechism, Bible and Religion are taught in Spanish.

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THE SCHOOL
THE SPANISH-JEWISH PRIMARY SCHOOL FOR BOYS (BUCHAREST)

As previously mentioned, headmaster Bejarano is also a rabbi: his synagogue, built in a handsome Byzantine style, stands next to the school. He was born in December 1850 in the small city of Stara Zagora, where he studied theology. At eighteen, he became a religion teacher and at twenty-two, he began learning modern languages, an interest he has embraced ever since “with great devotion and happiness” (his words).

Sephardic Jews and the Spanish Language
Ángel Pulido’s classic 1904 book, originally published in a mixture of Ladino (Judeo-Spanish) and Modern Spanish.

First English edition, translated by Steven Capsuto, 2016.

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