Continuing his mission to publish aesthetically pleasing works of Spanish-Judeo literary and historical interest, François Azar retells ten humorous and suspenseful folktales in Ladino, side-by-side with English translations. The stories are all based on those gathered from Sephardic immigrants to Israel by Matilda Koen-Sarano. Though some variants may be known from other sources, they have not appeared before in any of her English collections.
Azar asserts in his afterword that the ingenuity of protagonists in Spanish-Judeo stories prevents tragic outcomes. The heroes and heroines here do solve their dilemmas with quick wit and clever maneuvers. However, in his retelling of the opening titular story, the longest in the book, Azar chose to remain strictly faithful to a cultural past in a way which will alienate contemporary readers. The king’s son has initiated a teasing flirtation, which escalates when Solika, a young woman of more humble status, counters with more of the same. The prince is both intrigued and offended when she banters he should go to the devil. To teach her a lesson, he arranges to trap Solika in a cellar, where he grabs her, nibbling, kissing, and pinching, until she almost faints. When she realizes that it was the king’s son who has done this, she disguises herself as a witch and thoroughly frightens him by pretending to be Satan, who has come to take his soul away. Solika convinces the prince that he will only be saved by drinking two glasses filled with “something I’d rather not mention.” A few days later, when she reveals that she was the one who played the trick on him, the prince sends a matchmaker to her parents’ house. Worried that he may be seeking retribution, Solika fashions a life-size doll filled with honey. He speaks, and she pulls its head to nod with a rope. Angry that Solika will not answer, the prince slashes off the doll’s head and, immediately, is filled with regret, thinking he has really killed Solika. Seeing his true remorse, Solika reassures him that she is very much alive, and they wed. In our time, the prince’s use of power and status to physically abuse a young woman feels more uncomfortable than funny and overwhelms the celebration of her cleverness, which other variations promote.
This is too bad, as the nine other short tales — with the exception of a greedy tailor jumping out the window when he does not get what he was hoping for — are filled with playful justice and wit … and no violence. As a judge, Djoha settles a quarrel of land ownership between two men by putting his ear to the ground and reporting what the ground says. A wife realizes how this seder night is different from all the others when her husband, who cannot read the Haggadah, brings home a stranger to do the job — who, it turns out, cannot read either. Hungry Moshiko figures out a way to shame the master who insists to a guest that his servant does not want a boreka because he never eats. An uneducated bargeman, who has been called ignorant for not knowing how to recite Kaddish, has the last word when it turns out that the pompous rabbi belittling him does not know how to swim. A sad king realizes that he does not need to own the shirt of a happy man in order to change. The only other story which falters in humor here is the silent debate between the Pope and the butcher; their explanations for each other’s signs are more esoteric and less humorous than those given in variants elsewhere.
Still, this is a fascinating book picture book for, best suited for adults. Expressive, mysterious full-page color graphics face each tall page of the pleasingly-spaced text within each story. Source notes for each story are included, and Azar provides a full description of Ladino culture and storytelling at the end.
Sharon Elswit, author of The Jewish Story Finder, now resides in San Francisco, where she shares tales aloud in a local JCC preschool and volunteers with 826 Valencia to help students write their own stories and poems.