Cantos judeo-españoles: Simbología poética y visión del mundo [‘Judeo-Spanish Songs: Poetic Symbolism and Worldview’]. Silvia Hamui Sutton. With a prólogo by Vanessa Paloma. Santa Fe, NM: Gaon Books, 2008. 297 pp. ISBN 978-0-9820657-0-9 (hardcover) and 978-0-9820657-1-6 (softcover).  

Reviewed by Israel J. Katz

When I was invited to review this book, I was under the impression that it was written by an ethnomusicologist, given that it was advertised by its publisher under the categories Judaica, Ethnomusicology, and Spanish Traditions, and by a bookseller under Ethnomusicology, Sephardic songs, and Jewish music. To my surprise, I learned that its Mexican-born author obtained her university degrees in the fields of Latin-American Literature (Licenciatura from the Universidad Iberoamericana)[1] and Comparative Literature (earning both her masters degree and doctorate from the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México). Even the title of her masters thesis, “Los símbolos de la naturaleza en los cantos judeo-españoles: una visión de la lírica popular hispánica [‘The symbols of nature in Judeo-Spanish song; a view of the Hispanic popular lyric’],” completed in 2003, and that of her doctoral dissertation, “Simbología poética y visión del mundo en los cantos judeo-españoles [‘Poetic symbolism and worldview in Judeo-Spanish song’],” submitted in 2006, clearly indicate that both deal solely with the lyrical/ poetic content of the songs she examined.[2] And, whereas both furnished the material for the monograph under review, one can only surmise that the confusion caused by referring to the book under review as an ethnomusicological work arose from commencing its title with Cantos Judeo-españoles.

Nonetheless, Cantos judeo-españoles, as expounded in her rather lengthy introduction, is primarily a study of the songs associated with the varied stages of the Jewish life cycle whose lyrics have nurtured the spiritual life of the Sephardic Jews throughout their history. Taken as a whole, as Dr. Hamui Sutton believes, these time-honored lyrics reveal, even in their diversity, the ritualistic practices, symbols, ethical/ideological values, and beliefs which reflect their worldview. To understand the Hebraic and secular beliefs embedded in their lyrics, she examined their origins from 1) the laws and narratives obtained from their sacred books; 2) from the poetic traditions they absorbed during their Iberian coexistence among Christian and Moslems, prior to their Expulsion from Spain in 1492 (and from Portugal in 1497); and 3) and from what they absorbed from the cultures among whom they settled (throughout the Ottoman Empire and Morocco) after the Expulsion.

The rituals of Sephardic communities, the author claims, demonstrated social hierarchies (positions of power, gender roles, and recognition), illustrated life transitions (with their attendant responsibilities), and illuminated Judaic values. The symbols expressed in their lyrics represented messages of logical and coherent discourse that constitute a source of religious identity and cultural cohesion. By interpreting these lyrics, one could construct a rather unified worldview. To broaden her discussion concerning rituals and symbols, Dr. Hamui Sutton relied on anthropological concepts proposed by Arnold van Gennep and Mary Douglas. For her interpretation of the Jewish religious symbols, she turned to the researches of Manuel Alvar, Paloma Díaz-Mas, Michael Molho, Joshua Trachtenberg, Vicki L. Weber, and Susana Weich-Shahak. And, for explaining the varied structures of the Hispanic lyric and its Iberian antecedents (from both Arabic and Christian lyrical and epic sources), Margit Frenk’s prolific researches proved most useful.

Hamui Sutton posed eight questions to guide her study (17), none of which addressed music. Why she did not clarify her use of the terms canto and canción, nor their interchangeability, is questionable, even though the former appellative has for long been considered traditional. Only later, under the subheading “Oral tradition and the Judeo-Spanish lyric” (21-40), does she discuss the origin of the canto (22), followed by an  explanation of the popular lyric genre from both the diachronic and synchronic perspective (20-21), as well as her distinction between the revered cancionero and Romancero, i.e., corpora of Hispanic songs and ballads, respectively (22). Her sparse allusions to music are unclear, yet she touches on the problem of contrafaction, the suiting of traditional lyrics to foreign tunes, to which exiled Sephardic communities were exposed (25-26).[4] Inasmuch as the linguistic components of the Castilian-based Judeo-Spanish lyrics exhibited pre- and post-Expulsion borrowings from Arabic, Hebrew, and other languages spoken in the Ottoman Empire, Judeo-Spanish remained remarkably hermetic and well preserved. Hebraisms were injected mainly in romances and liturgical songs with religious content. Yet, what I found instructive was her discussion of Judeo-Spanish and its alternate appellatives Ladino, judezmo, and haketia (in Morocco), whose usages she distinguished from linguistic, geographical, and historical perspectives (34-40). From here she proceeded to the heart of her study (presented, surprisingly, in two chapters).

Chapter I ([41]-93) deals with the intertextual relationships in the Judeo-Spanish lyric and the ideological influences that the Spanish [Sephardic] Jews assimilated. Divided in two sections, the first ([41]-68) concerns Judaism, the official religion, and its popular interpretations; the second (68-93), daily practices for counteracting evil spirits. From the popular lyrics, extracted from their daily practices, she explains the discrepancies she encountered between the official and domestic practice of religion, and examines popular interpretations of certain Halachic laws (prescribed in the Mishna) that indicate rules of behavior, ideas, and attitudes supported by a Supreme Being.

In the second chapter ([95]-274), Hamui Sutton delves into the customs, ceremonies, and rituals of the life cycle, interpreting their respective phases through the lyrics that best convey them. Thus, the chapter’s subsections are devoted to 1) La parida ([95]-126), songs relating to birth; 2) Circuncisión [Heb. Brit Milah] (126-65), the ritual performed on the male child on the eighth day after his birth, signifying man’s covenant with God; 3) Bar mitzvah (165-73), the religious ceremony representing the transition from childhood to adulthood, performed as closely as possible to the male child’s thirteenth birthday, according to the Hebrew calendar; 4) La boda (173-204), the ritual of the wedding, beginning with the engagement, and followed by the varied social and preparatory stages leading up to and including the nuptial ceremony; 5) Baño ritual (204-33), the ceremony of the ritual bath, in which the bride is immersed in water on the day or days prior the wedding (the water symbolizes the purification of the body and soul. Here the prime focus centers on the young bride’s transition to womanhood, expressed in an emphatically erotic manner); and 6) Cantos de muerte o endechas (233-74), being the lamentations or dirges addressed to the bereaved as expressions of sadness and condolence. The customs and rituals centering around death, the cleansing and preparation of the corpse for burial, the guarding of body to ward off unwanted spirits, and mourning practices are particularly interesting from the standpoint of Jewish law.

In her conclusion, Dr. Hamui Sutton summarizes her discourse, emphasizing what she considered to be the most relevant aspects of her presentation.

The cantos, then, which she failed to delineate in her study, constitute all the genres (canciones, coplas, endechas, romances, etc., including lyrical and liturgical songs), whose lyrics/verses served as illustrations for the topics under consideration. All who are familiar with this tradition know that each of these genres was sung, for the most part strophically (mainly as distichs and quatrains; some with refrains), to tunes that were transmitted orally for countless generations, but whose geographical provenience and temporal exactitude have proven difficult to ascertain. Had Dr. Hamui Sutton provided an index or concordance citing (in alphabetical order) the incipits (first lines) of the lyrics/ texts she included throughout her study, indicating as well their respective genres, such an addition would have served as an invaluable tool for seeking further tune variants and versions in other compilations and studies bearing notated Judeo-Spanish tunes and lyrics. It should also be mentioned that, depending on extravagance, additional musical entertainment (instrumental and dance) could have embellished any of ceremonies and rituals discussed.

The bibliography, comprising 118 works (mainly in Spanish, with only eighteen in English), indicates 2004 [i.e., Tractenberg’s reedition of his 1939 study] as the latest reference she examined, which suggests that nothing more was read between her thesis and dissertation (including the publication under review). Among the Hispanists whom she drew upon for material concerning traditional Hispanic poetry were Asensio, Díaz Roig, Piñero Ramírez, and especially Frenk. For Judeo-Spanish traditional poetry, she relied on Alvar and Bénichou for the Moroccan; Anahory Librowicz, Benmayor, and Molho, for the Eastern; and Armistead and Silverman, Díaz-Mas, and Weich-Shahak for both traditions.[3] It would be inappropriate to append a list of items she should have consulted; still, she would have profited greatly from reading chapters II and III entitled “Judaic women: their family ceremonies (22-41) and “Judaic women: their family ceremonies (42-72) in the second volume of Lucy M.J. Garnett’s classic study, The Women of Turkey and Their Folklore (London: David Nutt, 1891); the introduction in Moshe Attias’s Cancionero Judeo-Español: Canciones populares en Judeo-Español    (Jerusalem: Centro de Estudios sobre el judaismo de Salónica, Tel Aviv, 1972), and  Eli Shaul, Folklor de los judios de Turkiya (Istanbul: Isis, 1994).

Although much has been written on this subject, Dr. Hamui Sutton’s views and interpretations are worth pursuing.

[1] For her Licenciatura (1992-1997), she produced a thesis on “[Horacio] Quiroga, [Alejo] Carpentier, [Juan] Rulfo y [Jorge Luis] Borges. Un acercamiento a cuatro cuentos latinoamericanos.”

[2] Surely material from this study was included in “Cantos judeo-españoles en los rituales del nacimiento [‘Judeo-Spanish Songs in the rituals of birth’],” the paper she read before the 14th British Conference on Judeo-Spanish Studies (University of London, June 2006).

[3] See particularly Weich-Shahak’s “Las canciones sefardíes y el ciclo de la vida (Repertorio judeo-español de Oriente y Occidente),” Revista de Dialectología y Tradiciones Populares, XLIV (1989), 139-60.

[4] The most complete bibliography concerning the technique of contrafaction can be found in Edwin Seroussi’s Incipitario sefardí: El cancionero judeoespannol en fuentes hebreas (siglos XV-XIX) (Madrid: CSIC, 2009).

Israel J. Katz, University of California, Davis