Iris Aluf Medina was born and raised in Turkey and now lives in San Francisco. We met up with this Be’chol Lashon board member ahead of our annual retreat where she will be teaching traditional Turkish Jewish cooking.
Is it true that the Sultan once courted your grandmother?
(Laughs) Yes and no. It was my great grandmother, my mother’s mother. She was very striking, bright blond hair and blue eyes.
So you look like her?
That’s what they say.
Her family dealt in gold and was very wealthy. The family made sure she was educated. She spoke Ladino, Turkish, English and French, which was very unusual. She could also play the piano. Very educated, very refined.
The Sultan came to visit her school and wanted a child to read a poem. The Sultan spoke Ottoman, which was its own language, which no one spoke, but he also spoke French and English so they had to find a kid who spoke one of those languages. They chose my great grandmother because she was 16 blond and pretty, old enough to marry young enough to go to high school. Apparently the Sultan liked what he saw so he sent her a broach as an invitation to his harem. You could not say no to the Sultan.
So what did they do?
The only way out was if she was engaged. So her family got her engaged very quickly. They were wealthy so they made a good match.
At least it ended well.
Not really. Her father was transporting gold one day after the engagement when he was attacked. They took all his gold, beat him and put him in a pit. He was eventually found and rescued but he lost his mind and as a result his business. The engagement fell through. We suspect the Sultan had something to do with this but of course we could not prove it.
What did your great-grandmother do?
She did not marry until she was 26 which in those days was pretty old. She did not know how to cook or clean. She was educated in French and music but not in running a home. They found a French teacher for her to marry. It was the best match but it was a bad marriage.
We say it was the Sultan’s curse: she was never happy again.
Hanukkah is observed with joy and celebration in Jewish communities around the world. There are 8 nights of lights and blessings the world over but there are also many ways different communities make the holiday uniquely their own. Here are 8 customs and ideas to help you make your celebration just a little more global.
1) In Alsace, a region of France, double-decker Hanukkah menorahs were common with space for 16 lights. The two levels, each with spots for 8 lights, allowed fathers and sons to join together as they each lit their own lights in one single menorah.
2) There is a custom of placing your menorah in a place where people will be able to view the lights burning and appreciate the miracle of the holiday. In some Jerusalem neighborhoods, there are spaces cut into the sides of buildings so people can display them outside. Historically in countries like Morroco and Algeria, and even some communities in India, it was customary to hang a menorah on a hook on a wall near the doorway on the side of the door across from the mezuzah.
3) In Yemenite and North African Jewish communities, the seventh night of Hanukkah is set aside as a particular women’s holiday commemorating Hannah whose sacrificed seven sons rather than give in to the Greek pressure to abandon Jewish practice and in honor or Judith, whose seduction and assassination of Holofernes, the Assyrian emperor Nebuchadnezzar’s top general, led to Jewish military victory.
4) Gift giving at Hannukah time is primarily a North American custom, but it is easy to make it global by gifting Jewish items made around the world like hand made necklaces from Uganda, challah covers from Ghana or kippot from China.
5) In Santa Marta, Colombia, Chavurah Shirat Hayyam a new Jewish community, has started their own traditional Hanukkah recipe, instead of eating fried potato latkes, they eat Patacones, or fried plantains.
6) The Ethiopian and parts of Indian Jewish communities split off from the larger Jewish community in ancient time before Hanukkah was established as a Jewish holiday. They only began celebrating Hanukkah in modern times, when their communities were reunited with other Jewish communities.
7) In 1839, thousands of Jews fled Persia, where the Muslim authorities began forcibly converting them, and settled in Afghanistan. While some of them lived openly as Jews, others hid their Jewish identity. When Hanukkah time came around they would not light a special menorah, for fear it would attract the notice of Muslim neighbors. Instead they would fill little plates with oil and set them near each other. If neighbors stopped by, they could simply make the menorah disappear by spreading the plates around the house.
8) The rich culinary traditions of the Moroccan Jewish community know not of potato latkes or jelly doughnuts. Rather they favor the citrusy flavors of the Sfenj doughnut, which was made with the juice, and zest of an orange. Notably, from the early days of nation building in Israel, the orange came to be associated with the holiday of Hanukkah as the famed Jaffa oranges came into season in time for the holiday celebrations.
“Ensuenyo Te Vi”
Three words that normally don’t go together: Ladino, Pop, Pregnant. But in my world they make a perfect fit. Ensuenyo Te Vi is a music track off my latest Ladino (Judeo-Spanish) album, Gracia, named after the 16th century Sephardic heroine, Dona Gracia Naci. She is one of the great women of Jewish history, and yet her story is little told. Born into a family of conversos, Jews who converted to Christianity to save themselves from the Inquisition, Dona Gracia always understood the importance of preserving her Jewish identity. Widowed at 28 as a single mother, she amassed a great fortune and became the richest woman in Europe of the time. And what did she do with the money? She used it to secure safe passage for other Jews escaping the Inquisition and led them to safety in Tiberias, Israel. She saved multitudes through her immense courage, commitment to culture, and her feminine wisdom. And yet, she is but a footnote in most history books.
I wanted to pay tribute to her through many of the songs on my album. I wanted to say gracias to her for leading the way—for serving as a light and role model to me and to so many others.
The choice to include Ensuenyo to Vi, a contemporary Ladino song, not a traditional one from ages past, was a conscious one. Much of what people know about Ladino music comes from a standard repertoire that has been circulating for the last 500+ years. One thing I admire so much about Dona Gracia, is that she was seldom looking backwards; instead she was looking ahead. That is one of my primary goals for preserving Ladino culture as well. In order to keep the culture alive, we need to be writing and performing new works in the language. We need to be reimagining how Ladino culture, in its universality, can appeal to a wide audience today.
I am also indebted to my own family, who came from Macedonia and Greece, for working so hard to preserve our Ladino heritage through hundreds of years and many displacements and wars. As the culture continues to fade, I feel compelled to do what I can to highlight the most beautiful, uplifting message of Ladino. So this song has the simplest of themes, love: I dreamed of kissing you in my sleep, and when I woke up you were right there next to me. When thinking about how to present this song, I decided to literally breathe new life into the accompanying video. I purposely filmed it while 6+ months pregnant!
While very few video examples exist of other pop-style contemporary Ladino songs, I’m proud of the fact that Ensuenyo Te Vi is probably the only Ladino pop video featuring a pregnant singer. Ladino culture is full of life and I hope that my message comes out clear—this is not a dying culture. Far from it. Ladino is pregnant with possibilities to continue and thrive for a new audience and generation to come. I hope Dona Gracia would be proud.
Sarah Aroeste is an international singer of contemporary Ladino music She can be booked for appearances. Her third album, ‘Gracia,’ a mix of feminist, experimental and original Ladino songs, was released last year.