Once upon a folk tale

The Jewish-Folk Story in Mediterranean Countries conference tells the story of the language and culture of the different communities in the region.

Prof. Tamar Alexander (photo credit: Mishkenot Sha'ananim)
Prof. Tamar Alexander
(photo credit: Mishkenot Sha'ananim)
Brits of a certain vintage may recall that comedian- crooner-raconteur Max Bygraves often opened his act with the catchphrase “I wanna tell you a story.”
If the now frail 89-year-old Bygraves could make it over here he would, no doubt, enjoy next week’s conference at Mishkenot Sha’ananim (December 8-9) which goes by the title of The Jewish-Folk Story in Mediterranean Countries. The event is the 2012 installment of the annual Mediterranean Cultures Conference which, naturally, culls from a wide range of Jewish folklore and artistic endeavor from Morocco to Spain, and from Egypt to Israel and much in between.
One of the common denominators of all Jewish groups around the Mediterranean is that most originated from Spain and, after their expulsion at the end of the 15th century, took the Ladino language and other cultural add-ons with them to their new countries. Over the years and generations the language and customs they brought with them morphed and embraced local cultural baggage so that a range of dialects evolved in the different Jewish communities.
That is something Prof. Tamar Alexander knows all about. Alexander curated the conference, which will take place under the auspices of the Mishkenot Sha’ananim Programs Department, and is a leading light in several relevant fields of study and research. She heads the Hebrew Literature Department at Ben- Gurion University, as well as the Gaon Ladino Cultural Center.
“The conference addresses all the countries around the Mediterranean, in geographical terms and through the ages,” she explains. “The conference starts with an Israeli theme, then moves on to Egypt, to Morocco and Tunisia, and then we cross the Mediterranean, with the third session which is called ‘The Bridges across the Mediterranean Sea, to Italy and Spain in Medieval Times.’”
The conference program leaves few bases uncovered. Former MK and Jewish Agency chairman Avraham Burg will be at hand to regale attendees with stories of the sages, while Jezreel College head Prof. Aliza Shinhar will shed some light on the legend about the death of the sons of female Talmudic scholar Bruria. Later on Thursday Dr. Esther Yohas and Dr. Hagar Salomon will offer us a glimpse of some eastern boudoirs in a session enticingly entitled “The Fattening up of Jewish Brides in Tunisia: A Look at their Bodies, from Story to Picture.”
Gastronomic matters also appear elsewhere in the program, including at the 5:30 p.m. slot on Thursday, which is simply called “To Eat, To Love, To Pray: Stories of Food and Ritual in the Culture of Spanish Jewry,” and will be presented by Dr. Gila Hadar from the University of Haifa. And there will be a selection of dishes available corresponding the various communities which feature in the conference sessions.
“Food is a very important part of culture,” declares Alexander. “Food has to be in there.”
Alexander and her conference co-organizers, including radio personality Yaron Enosh, were keen to convey the subject matter via a pan-sensory experience.
“There is blend of academia and the arts,” she says. “We wanted to have music in all the sessions, including a concert by Yehuda Poliker and a sort of standup comic spot by Meir Suissa. Humor is always integral to culture.”
In addition to helping to devise the conference program Alexander will also present a session on Friday morning entitled “Jocha Went to the Bathhouse and Had Enough Stories for 100 Years.” The session subtitle explains that the slot will examine the common ground, and gray areas, between stories and proverbs in Spanish Jewish communities in northern Morocco. The eponymous figure is something of a universal character right across the Arab world, and other areas of Asia such as the Caucasus. Jocha also takes on various guises. He can be young, old or any other age, married or single, and alternates between buffoon and trickster.
“There is a Jocha-like character in all cultures, because all cultures need a figure like that,” states Alexander. “Jocha certainly features in all the Mediterranean cultures, in the Spanish Jewish community and in the Arab culture, in Sicily and Malta, all over.”Alexander says the Ladino language and culture pop up in all sorts of guises around the Mediterranean, and evolved in a particularly intriguing way in the Jewish community of northern Morocco.
“There, Ladino developed into a special dialect called chakitya, which probably comes from the word chaki, which means ‘to speak’ in Arabic. Chakitya is a language that is disappearing from the world because the Spanish conquered that part of Morocco and the Spanish language took over. I did some research work together with Prof. Ya’acov Ben Tulila and we had a lot of difficulty finding stories in chakitya. But we did manage to collect 1,000 proverbs in chakitya. Proverbs frequently appear as part of stories and I will use that context in my lecture.”
Twilight zones are an intriguing subject and the conference will also touch on where fact-based tales diverge from stories spawned by a storyteller’s imagination. As author-painter Yoram Kaniuk, who will take part in one of the closing sessions together with Iraqi-born author Eli Amir, noted in 1948, his recollections of the War of Independence published earlier this year, he does not guarantee that all the incidents retold in his book happened as described or, indeed, took place at all.
“Our memory often plays tricks with us, and is selective, and we all reshape our stories when we tell them,” Alexander says, adding that historical accuracy is not necessarily the crux of the matter. “I don’t think it is important at all for our purposes,” she continues. “We research stories and there are plenty of stories that don’t even pretend to have any connection with actual reality. As soon as you start off with ‘once upon a time,’ you know that the story never happened, not even once upon a time.”
Alexander is keen to point out, however, that legends are in a different category.
“Many people believe that legends stem from reality, that includes legends about miracles, or about leading figures in the community such as a rabbi or some other holy person.”
There is still a basic difference between legends and historical episodes.
“Legends generally have some miracle in them, at some point or other, and that differentiates them from accounts that are claimed to be historical. For example, if a child has died, in the legend he or she might come back to life and say who the murderer was.”
Alexander and her colleagues are certainly doing their best to keep Jewish Mediterranean cultures alive and kicking. •
The Jewish-Folk Story in Mediterranean Countries conference will take place at Mishkenot Sha’ananim on December 8 and 9. For more information: