Bewitched by Soli­ka and Oth­er Judeo-Span­ish Tales

François Azar; Pet­ros Boulouba­sis, illus.
  • Review
By – June 6, 2017

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.

Discussion Questions