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Adar and Purim in Salonika (as Reflected in the Poetry of Bouena Sarfatty)

Women & Gender

This article is part of a forthcoming book, An Ode to Salonika: The Coplas of Bouena Sarfatty.

Bouena Sarfatty Garfinkle was born in Salonika, Greece in 1916 and survived the Holocaust by joining the Greek partisans. She spent most of the remainder of her life in Montreal, Canada, where in the 1960s she composed large collections of Ladino poems called komplas. One can learn a great deal from these poems about Jewish life in the “Jerusalem of the Balkans” in the first half of the twentieth century.

The month of Adar was the time for making marital arrangements and weddings. The Sabbath before Purim, generally called Shabbat Zachor (the Sabbath of Remembrance) was known in Salonika as the brides’ Sabbath. Sugar, lemon and food coloring flooded the market to enable the creation of sugar dolls. As of the Thursday prior to this Sabbath, there were outdoor displays on tables adjacent to stores that included figures of brides, grooms, the evil Haman, bracelets, scissors, the Eiffel tower, cars and more; the sugar artists were famous for their gallows made of sugar, symbolizing the hanging of Haman and his sons (See Moshe Attias, “Purim in Salonika” [Hebrew], Guinzach Saloniki, 1 (1961), pp. 56-57, for detailed descriptions of the Jewish market and its metamorphosis before Purim, and a discussion of the gallows on pp. 57-58. Purim traditions were carefully observed by all; see Ya’akov Handeli, A Greek Jew from Salonica Remembers (New York: Herzl Press, 1993), p. 20 for a similar description of the sugar figures and trays).

The traditional portions prepared were well received. As the poetess Bouena Sarfatty noted: “This is happiness when they are sent to relatives or to friends.” Brides sent their mothers and mothers-in-law a plate of kopita or halva. The brides received generous gifts in turn from the older women and other relatives as a gesture intended to help the newlyweds establish themselves; hence the name of this day is the bride’s Sabbath. Children delivered these trays full of cookies and sweets and sugar figures of grooms or brides; the brides might even receive a sewing machine or a different useful household item.

Bouena wrote that: “In Salonika, the mother-in-law gave Purim gifts to the brides: a string of pearls or a ring of value or a little pin that she bought in the old section of the market.” Bouena continued describing these customs, explaining how the bride and groom received special treatment from both sides of the family. “The bride’s mother gave the son-in-law a gold chain or a scroll of gold (or) silver or wood according to her financial situation.”

Apparently, at this time, young couples and families with children of marriageable age received gifts sent on trays made of sugar or copper. The children received gifts as well: “On Purim they distribute bride dolls, and they give the girls an embroidery ring; the boys (receive) a pen.” The bride doll was a later development that fit in well with this particular Sabbath. In addition, the Sephardim in Salonika seemed to have adopted the Ashkenazi custom of baking hamantaschen. One verse of poetry explains that after exerting themselves as they bake and prepare strenuously, “the women go to bed half-dead. All day they make hamantaschen and almond syrup.” In the end, Bouena declared that “Purim is a great holiday,” beginning with the fast of Esther on the day before Purim, the aforementioned baking of pastries, the Purim meal, the sending of portions or platicos to at least three (but usually more) individuals, the giving of charity to the needy and small sums of money to children.

Many coplas in Bouena’s collection deal with Purim, both from the religious as well as the social aspect. When referring to book ownership, she singles out the scroll of Esther as being owned by some members of the community “which they read to the congregation on Purim” in the evening and then again in the morning in the synagogue. It is an honor for a family to own its own Scroll of Esther and to read it, either publicly or privately or just by following along with the chosen public reader. Elsewhere, she described a classic Purim day: first the megilla scroll or Book of Esther is read while the children grasp wooden hammers in order “to hit Haman,” making noise each time the name of the evil archenemy of the Jewish people in Persia is read aloud in order to blot out his memory. Noisemakers take different shapes and forms such as groggers, hammers and the like. “We return home to eat sweets; we sing Purim songs happily.”

Partying was extensive on this holiday, although it seems that the congregation of descendants from Sicily or Syracosa (and not Saragossa,Spain) celebrated its own Purim on the 18th day of the month of Shevat. They organized balls and “distributed sweets among themselves.” The bride dolls are mentioned again along with baked goods that are part of the mishloah manot or aforementioned portions. In a later verse, Bouena remarked that these Jews “celebrate Purim apart from the other Jews.” She apparently was not aware of the root of this particular celebration, for it can be traced to a miracle story from the fifteenth century. According to this source, during the king’s annual procession in this Italian locale, in order to add to the regality of the event, the Jews were expected to join the procession and to march in public with their Torah scrolls which are stored for protection in special cases. One year, the Jews decided to march with empty cases rather than defile the Torah because the king was considered to be a non-believer; however, their scheme was revealed to the court before the procession. Needless to say, the demise of the community was en route as punishment for such treachery. However, the community was miraculously saved by means of a dream one of their members had the night before the procession foreseeing the events and thus they dutifully placed the scrolls in their cases, avoiding the severe decree that would have resulted. The end of the story is remarkably similar to that of Shushan Purim as is their celebration of this miracle marked by a day-long fast, reading from a scroll, partaking of meals and sending portions to others (See Salonique: Ville-Mere en Israel. [Hebrew], (Jerusalem-Tel Aviv: Centre de recherches sur le Judaïsme de Salonique, 1967), p. 167. A list of proofs can be found here explaining that this is an Italian tradition and not a Spanish one originating in the community of Saragossa located in Spanish Aragon. As can be seen, even Bouena confused the two, most likely because of the similar pronunciation of Syracosa and Saragossa).

As can be seen, this group’s celebration was very similar but not identical to that of all the other congregations in Salonika. In yet another verse describing Purim, Bouena returned to the description of the holiday with which she was best acquainted, describing the trays of treats containing “the flavor of all the colors.” She referred to an annual carnival and a costume ball that was celebrated at schools and at home. There were songs and operettas performed; as described by Bouena, it is indeed “a joyous holiday,” one that she definitely enjoyed and held dear.

Renée Levine Melammed, Associate Professor of Jewish History, is Dean of theSchechter Institute of Jewish Studies Graduate School.

Photo: Sarfatty Family Portrait, 1937 in Salonika before the War. Bouena Sarfatty, sitting second from left. courtesy of Dr. Ely Garfinkle

Renée Levine Melammed, originally from Long Island, New York, received her degrees from Smith College and Brandeis University. Her dissertation and early research dealt with the lives of crypto-Jewish women in Spain and the way in which conversos coped with the issue of their identity; her research now is focusing on women’s lives as reflected in the Cairo Geniza. She is a professor of Jewish history at Schechter, teaching courses in medieval Jewish history and gender studies as well as in Jews of Spain and Islamic lands.

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