Welcome to our Exhibition!
The Ladino expression that inspired this exhibit carries with it layers of meaning and cannot be translated literally into English. Translated literally, de la fasha asta la mortaja calls to mind two garments that wrap around a person at the beginning and end of his or her life: the fasha, or swaddling cloth, greets a newborn as they arrive in this world; the mortaja, or burial shroud, envelopes them as they depart. Created at communal celebrations—the kortar fashadura and the kortar mortaja—these garments hold their wearers in the comfort of community, and render the beginning and end collective rather than solitary experiences.
Using materials from the Sephardic Studies Digital Collection, we have traced Sephardic life cycle customs from beginning to end. Through our research, we discovered that life cycle traditions among Sepharadim not only varied among communities but also experienced dramatic transformations, especially from the Ottoman Empire to here in the Pacific Northwest. Often we noticed discrepancies between what people today presume to be uniform, static Jewish “traditions” and the multiplicity of practices that developed and transformed over the generations.
As you move through our exhibit, you will notice four guiding themes:
In the New World, the Old World Transforms
Many customs associated with Sephardic life cycles were not only transformed, but also lost, when Sepharadim moved from the Ottoman Empire to the United States. Others remained largely unchanged. The perpetuation or adaptation of long-held practices and beliefs enabled Sephardic Jews to either bridge or defy the dichotomy between the “Old World” and the “New.”
The beliefs that Sepharadim abandoned in the United States were primarily those adopted and adapted from the Muslim society in which they were deeply embedded in the Ottoman Empire. In the eyes of many white Christian Americans, and to a certain extent, European Ashkenazi Jews, Sepharadim were Ottomans, Turks, or “Orientals” first, Jews second, and their customs were perceived as irredeemably “foreign” or “strange.” Their culture sometimes suffered because of these prejudices obstacles, or had to be abandoned altogether. Such was the very high price of the “American Dream.”
Unfortunately, the sources of these practices remain understudied. While the Bible, Talmud, rabbinic rulings, and even Kabbalah have been granted rigorous academic attention and are comfortably discussed in Jewish circles, these are not the only sources for the multitude of customs practiced by Sepharadim. Folk practices that are sometimes at odds with classical rabbinic thought, and influences from Christian Spain and the Muslim Ottoman Empire, all figure in to the tapestry of Sephardic customs. They offer valuable sociological insights into the communities in which they were practiced, and must be studied and discussed as openly as customs originating from more “typical” text-based sources.
The Centrality of Home
When we spoke about building an exhibit of Sephardic life cycle customs there was a clear consensus among our local community interlocutors and advisors who were first-generation Americans: we had to talk about the importance of home.
In the Ottoman Empire, home and synagogue were both sacred spaces. In the United States, the all encompassing Jewishness that pervaded every aspect of one's life became circumscribed. Synagogues were primary holy spaces, and the home was slowly relegated to the mundane. In turn, home became a haven: a protected, private place to practice traditions in an unfettered manner, to speak Ladino, to be among los muestros—other Sepharadim. As the space in which celebrations were held shifted, the customs associated with those spaces also changed.
Transmitting Tradition: The Oral and Written Record
When it comes to Sephardic life cycles, the oral tradition is especially valuable: many customs were maintained by women who exclusively transmitted tradition orally across the generations. Through the oral history records, we gain access into the inner lives of Sepharadim. In an effort to make our exhibit accessible, we have provided transcriptions for all recorded interviews.
For customs that fell more into the male domain, such as those that involved liturgy, the written record is vital. Sephardic prayer books, compendiums of Jewish law, and handwritten manuscripts all provide insight into the variations in practice of life cycles throughout the Ottoman Empire and allow us to track how those customs changed in the United States.
Together, the written and oral records also raise a compelling question about the Ladino language. Our research suggested a close relationship between the decline of Ladino (both as a spoken language and as a written language in its various scripts) and the disappearance of certain Sephardic life cycle customs—a correlation that shows the inextricable relationship between language and culture. Yet even as Ladino has nearly disappeared as a spoken language, some uniquely Sephardic customs have survived. We invite you to consider our question with us: Why may cultural customs outlive the languages from which they originated?
There is no denying that this exhibit is centered on Seattle. The artifacts in the Sephardic Studies Digital Collection come mainly from local community members who entrusted our program with their personal treasures, and we have used these materials to build the stories around which this exhibit revolves. While some practices elaborated upon here may be particular to Seattle, they emerged out of a shared Ottoman Jewish world that began to fragment more than a century ago. The elements preserved and transformed in Seattle serve as a microcosm of the Ottoman Jewish experience and its worldwide echoes into the twenty-first century.
We hope Sepharadim all over the world will be affirmed by our exhibit and use it as a platform for educating others about their own experiences with Sephardic life cycles. We also hope that for scholars, students, and the general public, our exhibit will broaden the scope of Jewish history; open conversations and encourage dialogue about the role of customs in other religions; and serve as an inspiration for how to preserve the stories of cultural communities around the world.
We hope you enjoy De la fasha asta la mortaja:
Exploring Sephardic Life Cycle Customs from the Cradle to the Grave