To begin ...

As the twentieth century fades out
the nineteenth begins
it is as if nothing happened
though those who lived it thought
that everything was happening
enough to name a world for & a time
to hold it in your hand
unlimited.......the last delusion
like the perfect mask of death

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Outsider Poems, a Mini-Anthology in Progress (15): Michael Castro, “Some Sephardic Proverbs”

Proverbs are folk poetry. They express a people's collective wisdom, values, outlook, and spirit; and they do it with a turn of phrase that reveals truth gracefully and memorably — and, frequently, with humor. Unlike a written literature, proverbs are known by everyone—literate and illiterate, young and old--passed on as situations demand them by family, friends, business associates, and acquaintances.

Proverbs connect people, shape attitudes with acquired wisdom, distilled through the ages. Their familiarity, the “deja-vu“ they genetically project, breeds solidarity. For Sephardic Jews, scattered in insular communities throughout the Ottoman Empire, North Africa, and Europe, after the century of persecution and Inquisition that culminated in their expulsion from Spain or Sepharad in 1492, proverbs were an important means of passing on and reinforcing values and identity. They articulated the unwritten laws of how to be and how to see, and represented the distilled wit and wisdom of Ladino, or Judezmo, the medieval Spanish with a dash of Turkish, Hebrew and other influences, spoken as the main language in Sephardic communities throughout the world until the devastation of the Holocaust.

Ladino and its proverbs set the Sephardim off from their Turkish, Moroccan, Greek or other neighbors, as well as from Ashkenazic Jews. It reinforced their already clannish tendencies. (Archaeological finds in Spain suggest that the Iberian Jews maintained their own communities there from the time when Sepharad was on the frontier of the Roman empire, and through the successive periods of Visigothic, Muslim, and Christian rule.) At the same time Ladino and its proverbs reinforced links between Sephardic communities, peppering the conversations and negotiations along the international Sephardic trade networks throughout the Mediterranean region. And while Ladino reinforced Sephardic clannishness, its proverbs typically expressed a worldliness and cosmopolitan outlook. As the proverb says:

Quien no tiene su casa, es vecino de todo el mundo.
He who has no home is neighbor to all the world.

Spanish is an elegant and expressive language. Its inner dynamic encourages expansiveness and floridity. Spanish literature, from Cervantes to Garcia Marquez (with the recent notable exception of Borges) has been characterized by the prolix. The proverb, on the other hand, turns on spareness and concision. Sephardic proverbs are particularly notable for their music, wordplay, and wit:

El que corre, se cae.
He who runs, falls.

Quien no risica, no rosica.
Whoever doesn't laugh, doesn't bloom.

Along with concision, parallelism and rhyme are other qualities commonly found in proverbs making the saying easy to imprint on memory. Note, for instance, the parallel structure of,

Si Mose morio, adonay quedo.
Moses may be dead, but God endures.

or the rhyme of,

Aboltar cazal, aboltar mazal.
A change of scene, a change of fortune.

While the meanings of many of the proverbs are universal, some almost identical to those found in other cultures, others express viewpoints more specific to the experience of Sephardic Jews as a subjugated and often persecuted minority,

Si los anios calleron, los dedos quedaron.
If the rings fell off, at least the fingers stayed.

and the profound wound of diaspora and exile,

Quien no sabe de mar, no sabe de mal.
He who knows nothing of the sea, knows nothing of suffering.

Sephardic proverbs speak with an ancient authority of the collective consciousness. Their particular perspectives subtly remind Sephardim, whether they come from communities in Greece, Turkey, the Middle East,Africa, Asia, Europe, North or South America, of their identity. Their beauty, grace and worldly wisdom evoke a proud heritage in Spain and its golden age of poetry and philosophy.

These proverbs have been gathered over the years from published sources and from relatives. I have organized them into groupings that presented themselves in developing the collection: Family, Self- Reliance, How to Do It and View It, The Value of Keeping Your Mouth Shut, Worldly Wisdom, Human Nature, and God and Mysticism. I am hopeful that these categories will suggest the scope of the proverbs' concerns, and that they will also suggest some of the emphases most important to the Sephardim, reflecting to some degree both their outlook and their history.

[Two groupings of proverbs follow in their entirety.]


El farto no cree al fambrento.
The well-fed doesn't believe the starving.

Guay! cuando el amares favla leshon hakodesh.
Beware when the ignoramus starts quoting scripture.

Cuando ganeden esta acerrado, guehinam esta siempre abierto.
While the Garden of Eden may be closed, Hell is always open.

El hombre es mas sano del fierro mas nezik del vidro.
A man is stronger than iron and more fragile than glass.

Poco tura la alegria en la casa del cumargi.
Happiness is shortlived in the house of a gambler.

El gamello non mira a su corcova.
A camel doesn't see his own hump.

Ande va la piedra, en el ojo de la ciega.
Where do they throw rocks, but in the eyes of the blind.

Cada gallo canta en su gallinero.
Every rooster sings in his own chicken coop.

Cuando te llaman azno mira si tienes cola.
When they call you a jackass, make sure you don't have a tail.

Quien de todos es amigo, es muy pobre, o muy rico.
Whoever is everyone's friend is either very poor or very rich.

Quien barbas vee, barbas honra.
He who sees beards, honors beards.

En la guerra no se esparten confites.
No one gives out candy during a war.

Un buen pleito trae una buen paz.
A good fight yields a good peace.

Quien da en primero, da con miedo.
Whoever gives first, gives with fear.

Quien no risica, no rosica.

Whoever doesn't laugh, doesn't bloom.

Tanto mi lo quero, que no mi lo cree.
So much is my need, I can't believe my greed.

El mal castigado, sabe bien castigar.

He who has been severely punished knows how to punish severely.

El palo en verde se enderecha.
A green tree can straighten itself out.

Grande i chica talamo quere.
The great & the small all want a marriage bed.

Cuando el gato se va de casa, ballan los ratones.

When the cat leaves the house, the rats dance.

Quien quiere ser servidor, es mal sufrido.
The person who desires to serve suffers the most.

En la boca tengo un grillo, qui me dice: dilo, dilo!
I have a cricket in my mouth that says: "Tell him! Tell him!"

Llagas untadas duelen ma no tanto.
Honorable wounds hurt, but not much.

Ninguno sabe loque me alma consiente.
No one knows what my heart feels.

Quien quere a la rosa, no mira al espino.
Desiring the rose, one overlooks the thorns.

Cuanto mas tienes, mas quieres.
The more you have the more you want.

El haragan es consejero.
The lazy one is the advisor.


Si no viene la hora del dios, no cae la oja del arbol.
Without God's decree, not a leaf falls from the tree.

Si Mose morio, adonay quedo.
Moses may be dead, but God endures.

El Dio es tadrozomas no es olvidadozo.
God may act slowly, but He never forgets.

. Al haragan el dios le ayuda.
God helps the lazy.

Al xefoj se senten las bozes.
When the last prayer is said & done, you finally hear the voices.

Quien al cielo escupe, en la cara la cae.
Whoever spits at the heavens, hits himself in the face.

En el escuro es todo uno.
In the darkness, all is one.

Pasa punto. pasa mundo.
A moment passes, a world passes.

El dios da la llago, y el da la medicina.
God inflicts the wound & provides the medicine.

El dios tiene cargo, y de de la horfigo del campo.
God even takes care of the ant in the field.

1 comment:

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