Drawing of father and son looking for bread with a candle before Passover.

Illustration of a father and son preparing to search for hamets from a Ladino hagada. (ST01235, courtesy Ike Baruch via Ty Alhadeff)

By Makena Mezistrano

Using artifacts from the Sephardic Studies Digital Collection, ‘From the Collection’ introduces the people, places, customs, and ideas that shaped the experiences of Ladino-speaking Sephardic Jews in the Ottoman Empire, the United States, and beyond. Keep up with ‘From the Collection’ by subscribing to the Sephardic Studies Program newsletter.

Ad for Albert Levy, editor of La Vara, residing in Brooklyn, 1930

1930s ad for Albert Levy as editor of La Vara. (ST00691, courtesy Isaac Azose)

Salonican-born Albert Levy is perhaps best known as the editor of La Vara (1922-1948), New York’s longest running Ladino newspaper. His most impactful articles focused on the challenges facing Ladino-speaking Sephardic Jews across the world. But for many in Seattle, Levy is also remembered as a talented Jewish educator: there are still some Sepharadim today who recall classes at the Seattle Sephardic Talmud Torah taught by Levy in the 1930s. 

The Jewish holidays were an opportunity for Levy to showcase his pedagogical creativity beyond the classroom on the pages of his paper; throughout the year he crafted special editions of La Vara to get readers in the spirit for upcoming Jewish festivals. These themed issues were capacious in content and style: pieces ran the gamut from scholarly to satirical, literary to poetic, and Levy penned most of the issue himself. Among the most extensive of these festive editions were those for Pesah — the spring holiday of Passover commemorating the Israelites’ Exodus from Egypt. 

Levy’s articles in La Vara, and in the many other Ladino periodicals to which he contributed, indicate that he had high hopes for his readers. His writings served to cultivate a Sephardic community that was current with international affairs, educated in Jewish tradition, and composed of upstanding individuals. The holiday editions of his paper were the ideal platform for Levy to deliver all of these educational goals in a digest fit for his contemporary Sephardic audience.

Albert Levy's Ladino poem about bedikat hamets (checking for leaven before Passover).

Levy’s Ladino poem from the April 12, 1935 issue of La Vara. (ST01113, courtesy Richard Adatto)

In the April 12, 1935 issue of La Vara — the first of a double feature that year that ran Pesah content — Levy published a poem that exemplifies the ingenuity with which he conveyed Jewish traditions to his readers. Titled “Bedikat Hamets” (literally meaning “checking for leaven”), the ten-verse poem describes the ritual of cleaning one’s home on the night before Passover begins. The poem is also a clear example of Levy’s language ideology: His Ladino is highly Castilianized and devoid of any Turkish- or Greek-origin words — strategies that he deployed in his attempt to “purify” Ladino. 

Not only does Jewish law prohibit eating hamets during the week-long Passover holiday, but owning hamets is traditionally forbidden as well. It is thus customary for Jewish people to purge their homes of all leavened products in preparation for Passover.

By the time bedikat hamets takes place, usually within twenty-four hours of the onset of the holiday, homes have already been thoroughly inspected. Families will therefore “plant” hamets throughout the house in order to fulfill the commandment of bedikat hamets. The search is prefaced by a blessing and conducted by candlelight — a scene that Levy portrays in his poem. The ritual culminates the following morning when all the hamets is burned — a process known as bi’ur hamets (literally meaning “burning leaven”) — symbolizing the ultimate elimination of leaven before the holiday.

The majority of Levy’s poem focuses on the symbolic aspect of bedikat hamets. Rabbinic literature equates hamets to the evil inclination (known in Hebrew as the yetser ha-ra) and other harmful character traits, such as haughtiness. Jewish people are not only supposed to be searching their home for leavened products but are also taking a sort of spiritual inventory in order to identify and banish (burn) any undesirable qualities. 

Levy’s poem is undoubtedly inspired by this rabbinic teaching: he calls on readers to “destroy prejudice” and “burn hypocrisy,” connecting the physical “spring cleaning” with the spiritual. Though the poem is framed within a Jewish ritual, the message is universal, and Levy employs terminology easily understood by a wide audience. While readers familiar with rabbinic literature would have certainly appreciated Levy’s poem, it was accessible to all. This perfectly illustrates Levy’s ingenuity: “Bedikat Hamets” is just one example of how Levy’s Ladino writings imbued ancient Jewish rituals with contemporary relevance for his Sephardic readers. 

Transliteration:

Antes de tomar la fiesta djudia
PESAH, paskua de alegria;
Los djudios en jeneral,
Tenemos un uzo tradisional:

De tomar la kandela en mano,
Mirar por hametsot de temprano,
Egzaminar, todo los kantones,
Todos los borakos i arinkones.

Despues de akumplir esto,
Devemos kemar bien presto;
Todo el hametsot enkontrado,
Sigun nos es enkomendado.

Alado de este uzo relijiozo,
Ay otro mas menesterozo,
Se trata de egzaminar bien,
Nuestros korasones tambien.

Devemos miramos por guzano,
Si nuestro korazon esta sano,
Kitar toda la malkerensia,
Kon una limpia konsensia.

Devemos kitar el selo,
Ke es maldision del sielo,
Todo esprito de animozidad,
Daniozo a la umanidad.

Devemos destruyir al prejudisio,
Ke es un terivle suplisio;
Devemos kitar kon pasion,
Kualunke esprito de superstision.

La ipokrizea devemos kemar,
El kapricho devemos atemar,
Limpiar ansi nuestro korason,
Para inchir la vera mision.

Todos tenemos nesesidad,
De aktar kon mas sinseridad;
De ser primero, mas umanos,
Kon nuestros ermanos.

Limpiamos nuestra konsensia,
Aktemos kon mas prudensia,
Los korasones egzaminemos,
Los defetos eksterminemos.

A”L

Translation:

Before having the Jewish festival
Passover, Passover of happiness;
We Jews in general,
Have a traditional practice:

To take a candle in hand,
To look for leavened foods early,
To examine, all the nooks,
All the holes and corners.

After completing this,
We must very quickly burn;
All the leavened foods that were found,
As it is commanded of us.

Alongside this religious practice,
There is another more important [thing],
Related to thoroughly examining,
Our hearts as well.

We must carefully inspect,
If our heart is to be healthy,
To remove all hostility,
With a clean conscience.

We must remove jealousy,
Which is a curse upon the heavens,
All spirit of animosity,
Dangerous to humanity.

We must destroy prejudice
Which is a terrible torture;
We must remove with passion,
Anything infused with superstition.

We must burn hypocrisy,
We must get rid of capriciousness,
To thus cleanse our heart,
In order to fulfill the true mission.

All of us have the need,
To act with greater sincerity;
To first of all treat more humanely,
Our brothers.

[May] we cleanse our conscience,
[May] we act with greater prudence,
[May] we examine our hearts,
[May] we banish our imperfections.

Albert Levy

 

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Note: The opinions expressed by faculty and students in our publications reflect the views of the individual writer only and not those of the Stroum Center for Jewish Studies.