Paridura / Birth Part I: Celebrating New Life
As American mothers-to-be in the 1940s began to celebrate the first modern-day baby showers, igniting a trend that is widespread today, did Jewish women also participate? Perhaps not: Jewish blogs and online forums—even American rabbis—attest today that “Jews don’t have baby showers.” A baby shower, they say, may provoke the “evil eye” or in Hebrew, ayin ha-ra, (and in Ladino, ojo malo), which could bring harm to the mother and her unborn child.
But a custom popular among Sepharadim challenges this assumption and suggests that over the generations Jews did celebrate a baby shower of sorts. A gathering known as kortar fashadura (cutting the swaddling cloth) was common throughout the Ottoman Empire.
What is the kortar fashadura?
Much like baby showers today, the kortar fashadura was held in the home and usually only attended by women. It was one of many celebrations associated with childbirth among the diverse communities in the Ottoman Empire, such as the babinden, a festival in honor of midwives practiced by Bulgarian Orthodox Christians, and the aqiqah, a feast held seven days after a baby is born in Islamic communities.
The kortar fashadura was a festive environment: The primary activity at the celebration was to sew the newborn clothes, which eventually amounted to an elaborate layette. As women stitched and created together, they also sang—from memory—Ladino songs, or kantikas, about childbirth and love.
Kantika de la parida: A song for mothers-to-be
As political, cultural, and demographic transformations in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century began to erode traditional practices like the kortar fashadura, community leaders began to publish the lyrics of the oral songs so that they would continue to be used and preserved for posterity. One such booklet, published Istanbul in 1926 and which wound up in Seattle, collects 32 songs to be sung for brides and new mothers—a sign of the traditional expectations placed upon women.
While no musical notation in the western style accompanies the lyrics, the appropriate makam, a Middle Eastern musical mode popular in the Ottoman Empire—and among Jews, as well—is identified for each song. If you know the makam, you know how to sing the song. The musical style is a profound reminder of the ways in which Sephardic Jews were deeply embedded in their Ottoman context, even for intimate celebrations relating to childbearing and parenthood.
The most famous song included in El bukyeto de romansas is Avraham Avinu, a Ladino standard today that few realize describes the birth and circumcision of the biblical figure, Isaac—hence its inclusion in the collection.
Another evocative song in the collection, to be sung with the eviç makam—an older makam that is rarely found in published song books from the 20th century—is Kantika de la parida (“The Song of the Pregnant Woman”), also known as Och ke mueve mezes (“Oh, These Nine Months”). It carries a celebratory tone as evidenced by the lyrics. There is no mention of the evil eye, or any reference to anxieties surrounding pregnancy and childbirth.
The kantika’s refrain, which refers to the child ultimately being born, triumphantly declares: Ya es buen siman, este alegria, bendicho el ke mos ayego a ver este dia! “This is a good sign, this happiness, blessed be the one who brought us to see this day!” The refrain also carries an allusion to the end of the Ladino translation of the shehehiyanu blessing, which is said to welcome in new experiences: i nos ayego a el tiyempo el este (“Blessed is God that we arrived to this time”).