Flora’s friend Yedidja grew up as an eighth-generation Jerusalemite in a Sephardic family that spoke Ladino at home. His family had frequent get-togethers which lasted long into the night, and the children were allowed to stay up as late as they wanted. Yedidja remembered falling asleep on cushions in a corner of the room while the adults told stories and sang one Ladino romance after another. These romances were the beautiful ballads of the Jews who were exiled from Spain; songs of both earthly and spiritual love and longing.
When Yedidja’s mother was young, she was known to have the most beautiful singing voice of any girl in Palestine. Once, her parents came home to find her sitting on the stairs and singing romances for a large crowd of young men who had gathered worshipfully around her. Later on, when Yedidja was a boy, he witnessed his mother charming a snake. The Torah tells us, Yedidja said, that Aaron’s rod, cast down before Pharaoh, turned into a serpent and ate the rods-turned-into serpents of the Egyptian sorcerers. Perhaps modern people were a bit skeptical about all this. “But even my own mother,” Yedidja told Flora, “had the skill of charming a very large snake.
“It happened in the old days in Jerusalem, when I was a boy. In those days everyone lived in a quarter, where the houses were built around a courtyard in the center. One day, a woman of our quarter was hanging clothing to dry outside in the courtyard. Suddenly, this woman saw a large snake with the design of a Palestinian viper, which is very poisonous. This snake was lying near her in the courtyard, and it frightened the woman so badly that she was standing like a stone. Then all the other women and children, and I and my brothers and sisters, were looking out of our windows at the woman and the snake. Everybody was greatly alarmed.
“But my mother was very brave. She went out into the courtyard where that snake was, and she sang to it the romances of the Spanish Jews. These sad and beautiful songs about love she sang one after another to that snake. And he stayed curled up where he was and did not harm anyone! The other woman got back inside, but my mother stayed there singing all afternoon, until the men came home. Then they killed the snake.”
Copyright © Leora Freedman 2015
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