Interview with Rita Ender: “A documentary chasing minority identity, language and the Last Words…”
Center for Policy and Research on Turkey (Research Turkey)
Interview with Rita Ender:
“A documentary chasing minority identity, language and the Last Words…”
As Research Turkey, we conducted an interview with the author Rita Ender. Rita Ender was born in Istanbul in 1984. She is a graduate of Istanbul St. Joseph High School and holds a bachelor degree of Law from Marmara University. She had her first experience as an author during her high school years for the newspaper Shalom (Şalom) and continued to write for the Journal of Contemporary Law during her university years. She completed her master studies in Public Law at Galatasaray University and in Sociology of Law and Legal Communication at Paris Assas University (Paris II) and studied on human rights. She returned from Paris in 2012 and wrote for Journal of Contemporary Law and Agos. Two of her long-running series published in Agos were turned into books. Kolay Gelsin: Meslekler ve Mekanlar (May It be Easy: Jobs and Places) was published by İletişim Publications in 2015 and was about jobs that are about to be forgotten and interviews with the last representatives of these jobs. Her book on the names of non-Muslim people in Turkey was published in August. Ender has been working as a lawyer especially on the rights of minorities since 2012.
We conducted an interview with Rita Ender following the projection of the documentary Las Ultimas Palavras at Salt Galata. Ender wrote the script for the documentary and also directed it. We discussed the concepts of identity and minority, how she experienced Judaism in Turkey and abroad, Ladino and the last documentary she shot. We present the extensive summary of the interview below and also the full text which we provide with no censor as a principle for our readers.
“Minority memory does not occur when someone tells you ‘sit, I got something to tell you.’ When you become exposed to certain things, you develop some sensibility. The interviews I conducted with people from different minority groups gave me the opportunity to confront and make comparisons.”
“When I was in the third year of my studies in university, I wrote the biography of a Jewish businessman who brought tires to Turkey. It was published by Gözlem Publications: “Miracles are Possible: The life of Rafael Torel”. That biography was very defining in my interest to this topic; because, it was about the life of a Jewish person from Istanbul who was born in 1915. While I was writing… I mean interviewing him, I wrote his whole life in the form of an interview. I was at the beginning of my twenties and he was at the end of his nineties. There was a significant age difference between us and I needed to reread Turkey’s history in order to understand his life.”
“I interviewed 45 people for Agos under the title Names & Stories. I realized Rums in Turkey do not use Turkish names, whereas Armenian, Jewish or Assyrian communities name their children in Turkish with a fear that their children may have certain “difficulties.” Is not this about the different reactions people with similar experiences have?”
“I asked journalists: ‘what kind of photos do you take and use when reporting about minorities.’ The answers were all similar. Everybody said they used photos with religious components such as a photo of a church or a synagogue. It is interesting that nobody thought of photos of a human. This means we are using symbols derived from sanctuaries for minorities in Turkey.”
“I think today we need to reconsider the narrative of multiculturalism. Non-Muslim minorities which constitute less than 1% of Turkey’s population are treated like a porcelain vase. “We used to celebrate their religious festivals”, “my aunt used to cook very delicious topic” and “the best yeast bread was cooked in our neighborhood.” Those who know minorities and can differentiate the “infidels” tell such stories in Turkey; however, we need to go beyond this.”
“Jewish people are not known for their contributions to architecture in this society and most likely they do not have significant contributions. There is a very common saying that we always encounter and at times it is anti-Semitic. There is a thesis that ‘Jews have always been interested in money and not the crafts.’ No, that is not true. There are craftsmen and artist Jews. While I was writing on Jobs & Places I came across them, for example a chandelier repairman in Tarlabaşı; Marko Usta.”
“In Turkey, each of the religious minorities needs to help each other. Because, the salaries of a rabbi or priest were not covered by Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet) for years. There were religious community foundations and they paid for their own electricity bills. This resulted in getting organized. Of course, not in a political sense, but getting organized for supporting each other. When they had to take care of themselves, they created social support networks.”
“My foreign experience; living abroad as a foreigner was important for me in that sense. I faced with the significance of my Jewishness often in Paris. I am not very religious; however, I have dinner with my family on Fridays and I care about Sabbath. I do not follow Sabbath rules during Saturdays; however, on Fridays we have family dinners and that is really important for me. When I was living alone in Paris, I had no place to go to on Friday evenings and also had many places to go. The idea of going to a movie theatre on Friday was not appealing then and I started to go a synagogue on Friday evenings.”
“Jewish Spanish is the Spanish spoken during times of Don Quixote. Over the course of time, like any other language, it also reaches to other languages, mixes up with them. Here, it is mixed up with Turkish obviously and there are words from French as well.”
“In the documentary Las Ultimas Palavras, we chased the last known words of Jewish Spanish. There are 19 people in the documentary; 10 females and 9 males. While choosing them, I wanted to balance male-female and also reach to people with different perspectives. There was a rabbi representing a religious and traditional point of view in the documentary, but also a liberal friend working at Şişli organization of HDP.”
“A couple of friends claimed in the film that ‘This language is not a uniting force for Jews, but Hebrew is”. There is already another language bonding Jews all around the world today. Holocaust created that kind of a bond. Pain bonds people more due to many things. Fear brings people together better than anything else…”
“The first projection of the documentary was in Paris. During the projections, the audience cried. The fact that they cried and their reactions made me experience feelings that are hard to express. I had hesitations about my projection abroad: There are subtitles; will the emotions be reflected well enough? Will it be understood? Will the background be enough and so on? In the audience, there were people coming from many places; from Morocco and Israel as well. The documentary was understood! One of the comments – critics was ‘How did you manage to be that nationalist?’”
Full Text of the Interview
“Minority memory does not occur when someone tells you ‘sit, I got something to tell you.’ When you become exposed to certain things, you develop some sensibility. The interviews I conducted with people from different minority groups gave me the opportunity to face and make comparisons”
Hello Rita hanım, thank you very much for accepting our interview request. We wish you best of luck on your upcoming book. First of all, I would like to start with your field of interest. What is the source of your interest in minority issues?
Perhaps, people start from themselves in life. One way or another, we relate the things we do to ourselves. I am someone who was born into this issue of minorities. What this means is often not understood and therefore we want to explain it. For example, recently somebody asked me to introduce myself and in a weird way tried to make me say that I was coming from “minority memory” insistently. Yet, that is not exactly how I experience it. This is not how “minority memory” works. Nobody told me “sit, now I will tell you a story my dear daughter” and whispered me the secrets of the universe. However, when you become exposed to certain things, you develop some sensibilities. That is the first reason. The second reason for me is a biography I wrote at the age of 23. When I was in the third year of my studies in university, I wrote the biography of a Jewish businessman who brought tires to Turkey. It was published by Gözlem Publications: “Miracles are Possible: The life of Rafael Torel”. That biography was very defining in my interest to this topic; because, it was about the life of a Jewish person from Istanbul who was born in 1915. While I was writing… I mean interviewing him, I wrote his whole life in the form of an interview. I was at the beginning of my twenties and he was at the end of his nineties. There was a significant age difference between us and I needed to reread Turkey’s history in order to understand his life. What was happening in his life and what was happening in Turkey when he was 15 years old, what kind of a life Jewish community in Istanbul had? I wanted to cover all of these. Thus, I had the opportunity of reading Turkish history from the perspective of history of minorities. While doing so, I realized: what I read and what Rafael bey was telling me were not really in compliance. More precisely, I noticed he was hiding certain things. Sometimes, I pushed him into telling me more and he preferred not to share. There were things he hid on purpose, things he abstained from emphasizing. These things were actually about the problems regarding minority issues of Turkey and it was very moving for me. As I stated, he was ninety years old and said if he had to leave Turkey one day he would do this and that. That is so sad, he is in his late nineties and he still takes precautions due to such fear. I mean, exile may be one of the worst punishments in life. In this country, people had to leave their birth places, their loved ones behind for nothing. Still many have to leave…
The text you mentioned is a biographic work. I guess somehow it has to be that way. At least in order to read this history at such a young age and to observe the differences and discover the underlying reasons.
That bibliography created awareness for me. For example; I did not really question the Property Tax paid by my grandfather. There are two reasons for that. The first one is that I have very different bonds with my grandfather; he is someone whose stories and memories I listen to like no one else’s. The second one is about the difference between how the Property Tax affected middle class and upper class. Rafael Torel who was bringing tires to Turkey was a serious businessman. Therefore, the reflections of the tax on his life were different from its reflection on my grandfather as someone coming from middle class. This is not only about being a minority; all the other processes in Turkey, for instance the ban on bringing money into the country, ban on taking foreign money out of the country all influenced Rafael Torel’s life. Therefore, as I stated it was very important for me; it was a real confrontation, a state of understanding for me. Later on, I also conducted interviews for Journal of Contemporary Law and wrote for Agos. Following my return from France, I worked as a legal consultant for some time in Laki Vingas that represent community foundations. The duty of Vingas was to represent religious community foundations at General Directorate of Foundations. As a result of my work there, I had the opportunity of seeing the differences between minority groups. Of course, I am not able to make big generalizations, however I could make small comparisons. There are important differences in naming among minorities. I interviewed 45 people for Agos under the title Names & Stories. I realized Rums in Turkey do not use Turkish names, whereas Armenian, Jewish or Assyrian communities name their children in Turkish with a fear that their children may have certain “difficulties.” Is not this about the different reactions people with similar experiences have?
“There was a workshop. I asked journalists ‘what kind of photos do you take and use when reporting about minorities.’ The answers were all similar. Everybody said they use photos with religious components such as a photo of a church or a synagogue. It is interesting that nobody thought of photos of a human. This means we are using symbols derived from sanctuaries for minorities in Turkey.”
We will discuss the issue of names later on, but at this point I would like to talk about the concept of minority and various minority groups living in Turkey. When your work until know is considered, what should I basically understand about this minority identity? What comes to your mind?
Everyone loads the concept of identity with different meanings. Therefore, I am sure everyone’s definition of identity differs. I think, in our time it is impossible for anyone to define identity with a single component. We are not only Jewish and in the same way we are not only Turkish, no matter how much people insist on it. Identity consists of different components and some of these components become more prominent at certain times. Some are emphasized by you and some are emphasized with the impositions of others. At this point there is an issue of freedom and violation of freedom. You should be able to choose the identity you want to live with or the component of identity that you like freely. If something is being imposed on you, then there arises a need to stop and think. We are able to see this by observing which languages we speak and which languages we have lost for instance.
Ok. What comes to your mind when I say minority culture? How is this concept shaped?
I asked this to journalists. We were involved in a European Union Project. There was a workshop with journalists who report on minorities. I asked journalists ‘what kind of photos do you take and use when reporting about minorities.’ The answers were all similar. Everybody said they use photos with religious components such as a photo of a church or a synagogue. It is interesting that nobody thought of photos of a human. This means we are using symbols derived from sanctuaries for minorities in Turkey. I am sure this issue has many philosophical and sociological explanations. Maybe because of its magnificence, a church becomes more emphasized visually. Maybe they use non-Muslim components since the term “minority” is understood as “non-Muslim minorities” in Turkey due to Treaty of Lausanne. I do not know, there can be various reasons.
Are there really religious minorities just as stated on papers? Do they have cultural components?
No, I mean the religious minorities are not like how they are stated on paper. For example, if you have a Rum mother and a Jewish father, what is your identity? Or if you live in an apartment in Istanbul, Kurtuluş, what are the components of the residents, I mean your neighbors. When the topic is about neighboring, multiculturalism of Turkey is always discussed. I think today we need to reconsider the narrative of multiculturalism. Non-Muslim minorities which constitute less than 1% of Turkey’s population are treated like a porcelain vase. “We used to celebrate their religious festivals”, “my aunt used to cook very delicious topic” and “the best yeast bread was cooked in our neighborhood.” Those who know minorities and can differentiate the “infidels” tell such stories in Turkey; however, we need to go beyond this. In order to do so, we need to know about the studies these communities conduct and their products. For example, we need to look at Aras Publications: what kind of a contribution do Armenians from Turkey have in literature? Were they able to write novels in their language? Is there an “Armenian literature” in Turkey, how is it or why is not there any? What is the heritage of Armenian or Greek architects?
Ok. What comes to your mind when we say Jewish culture in Turkey? When Armenian culture is mentioned, you discussed some components such as architecture, literature and also the food. What are the components of Jewish culture?
The ones we mentioned also apply to Jewish culture except for architecture. Jewish people are not known for their contributions to architecture in this society and most likely they do not have significant contributions. There is a very common saying that we always encounter and at times it is anti-Semitic. There is a thesis that ‘Jews have always been interested in money and not the crafts.’ No, that is not true. There are craftsmen and artist Jews. While I was writing on Jobs & Places I came across them, for example a chandelier repairman in Tarlabaşı; Marko Usta. Sephardic cuisine is also somewhat known in Turkey. There are very few Ashkenazi, Karai and Romaniote Jews in Turkey and maybe that is why. Since Sephardic Jews are the majority within the minority, Sephardic cuisine is more visible.
Can you explain what Sephardic means?
That is the name of Jewish people who were exiled from Iberian Peninsula during the era of Kind Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. What they brought with themselves from Spain and their habits from the places they used to live in blended together. Meals, the cuisine are included in that blend. One of the best examples might be “lakerda” for Turkey. There are many different stories online about it but in all of them it is stated that the root comes from the word “la kerida”. Kerida means “desired” in Jewish Spanish, I mean in Sephardic language. It is also used as my lover. I guess tarama (mashed roe) is also a taste introduced by Sephardic Jews. There are familiar melodies in music. Los Bilbilicos, Adio, Kerida… Yasmin Levy’s is widely known here maybe because her father is from Turkey. There are Janet-Jak Esim and band. There is Ottoman-Turkish Sephardic Culture Research Center and its director Karen Şarhon studies in this field. A few people are struggling to prevent the language from dying away by making monthly publications called El Amaneser. Today who is able to read this or other publications in this language? Are there people writing poems in this language? I think these questions are important; because, the fact that people are doing things in their native languages or are able to do so is important in terms of democracy in this country.
“Living abroad as a foreigner rendered my Jewishness distinguishable for me. In Paris, I realized there is something about Jewishness that lives with me. Something I find within myself wherever I go in the world, something I do not abstain from owning up to.”
How has your experience been so far? How many of these components were present in your family? How much of it did you experience? For example, we discussed the cuisine, music. Were they present in your house? For example, do you have Sephardic meals or do you listen to Sephardic music in your house?
We listen to Sephardic music, because my aunt and her husband; Janet and Jak Esim sing in Jewish Spanish. They rehearse at home for concerts. We often listen to recordings at achieve as well. Thus, despite being very untalented about music myself, I have this kind of a connection with the music coming from my family. My aunt’s husband has an important archive. He recorded old people for years, made them sing and recorded the songs the way singing people remembered and uttered them. He made people talk about these song “what this song says”, “what you think about it.” Later on he collected them. He has a band which includes Bülent Ortaçgil and Erkan Oğur as well and also an album. There is also attachment to culture in terms of cuisine. Sephardic meals are cooked at home; all the women in my family are trained in this field. Especially in Sabbath evenings we eat these meals. This is handed down to upcoming generations. In addition to sharing certain cultural components, being minority is also a state of socialization. Of course among ourselves! Synagogues, youth associations, the islands that are visited during summers are all places for socialization. People are getting socialized through these and charity work becomes possible as a result of that within the community. This is important; because, in Turkey, each of the religious minorities needs to help each other. Yes, I say they need to; because, the salaries of a rabbi or priest were not covered by Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet) for years. There were religious community foundations and they paid for their own electricity bills. This then, resulted in getting organized. Of course, not in a political sense, but getting organized for supporting each other. When they had to take care of themselves, they created social support networks. This also applies to Assyrian Catholic Church Foundation, to Balıklı Rum Hospital Foundation or to other community foundations. I do not know about their administration, I cannot know good and bad sides of their operators and administrators. At least we see that there is such a system. There was a Jewish Community Foundation for Supporting the Elderly and my dad worked there. He was the director for some time as well. Therefore, I also have this kind of a connection. When I was a child, he would bring me there whenever he needed to go. There were old people there and they were speaking in Jewish Spanish rather than Turkish.
We discussed monoculturalism and multiculturalism. There is also mono-identity and multi-identity. We said people have more than one identity, these identities rise under different circumstances; some are intentional while some are not and some are based on personal choice and demand. Where does Jewish identity stand in your life?
If we only define Jewishness through religion, then it does not occupy a central place. I am not a religious person. However, I also deal with “anti-Semitism” which can be an issue for any Jewish person irrespective of religiosity level. Last year, I wrote the anti-Semitism section of Hrant Dink Foundation’s report. Since I study, read and write on anti-Semitism, “being “Jewish” comes to the forefront as a right. Secondly, my foreign experiences; living abroad as a foreigner was important for me in that sense. I faced with the significance of my Jewishness often in Paris. I am not very religious; however, I have dinner with my family on Fridays and I care about Sabbath. I do not follow Sabbath rules during Saturdays; however, on Fridays we have family dinners and that is really important for me. When I was living alone in Paris, I had no place to go to on Friday evenings and also had many places to go. The idea of going to a movie theatre on Friday was not appealing then and I started to go a synagogue on Friday evenings. Then, I realized there is something about this that lives within me. Something I find within myself wherever I go in the world, something I do not abstain from owning up to.
These Sabbath meals can be considered a tradition. You mentioned they are handed down to next generations. What other traditions do you have in Jewish culture?
There are religious festivals or important days.
What kind of festivals are there?
There is new year, Rosh Hashanah, then these are followed by the big day for apology; Yom Kippur. These two are about starting a new year in a purified form and apologizing, I like them. There are Hanukkah, Purim and Pesach. There are some more…
How important are these festivals for you? Sabbath is important as far as I understand; even abroad you had special feelings about absence of Sabbath meals and had different experiences about it. How about the others?
They are also important. This is actually about the family and luckily I love my family. At the same time, it is historical. It is something that has been shared for 5000 years and reached today; thus, it is nothing to ignore.
So, the other festivals are also important for you and your family.
Yes, I mean celebrating them together is important. For example, if I was living alone in Finland, I do not know how important all these festivals would be for me. Sabbath is important, because it is repeated every Friday. However, as I stated if I was to live in Finland away from my family, would I be aware of Purim I am not sure.
“Jewish Spanish is the Spanish of Cervantes era, the language of Don Quixote. People who are exiled from Iberian Peninsula migrate and by the time as a result of migrations their language change. Like any other language, it also reaches other languages, mixes up with them. Here, it is mixed up with Turkish obviously and there are words from French, Romaic as well…”
Meanwhile I wonder if Ladino is spoken in your house, in your meetings or during these festivals or is it an important factor that Ladino exists?
Not anymore, because we, my generation, siblings and cousins do not understand the language. We did not speak this language with our mothers. However, my grand grandmother lived a long life. I do not remember when exactly she died, but when she was alive, Ladino was more influential in our lives; because she was speaking it.
Is there an organic connection between this language and traditions?
At some points, there is also a religious connection. During Pesach Festival, Seder – a kind of table – is set and prayers are told in Aga. The religious books in my grandfather’s house were bilingual; the pages were in Hebrew on one side and Ladino on the other. That is something I saw there as well.
Ladino is not a religious language, is it?
Ladino is a language with religion. We do not use the language with an awareness about the difference but in face “Ladino” and “Jewish Spanish” used to be different concepts.
What is it exactly? We will discuss the documentary soon. I want to know a little about Ladino. Can you tell me about it?
It is called Judeo-Spanish and translated as Jewish Spanish to Turkish. It is the Spanish spoken during Cervantes era, the language of Don Quixote. People who are exiled from Iberian Peninsula migrate and as a result of this their language change over the course of time. Like any other language, it also reaches to other languages, mixes up with them. Here, it is mixed up with Turkish obviously and there are words from French, Romaic as well. This is what Jewish Spanish is like… “Ladino” is not the name of the spoken language. It is kind of a translation language. It emerged as a result of word-to-word translation of religious texts from Hebrew and Arami languages to Spanish by rabbis.
For instance, the language of Israel is Hebrew. Is Ladino also spoken there?
The Sephardics who went there speak this language; however, the struggle of the language is also discussed there.
Do you speak any Ladino?
Very, very little and with difficulty. I speak French and the verbs are similar. However, I am not able to set up a well-structured sentence with proper grammar.
I would also like to talk about your documentary a bit. First of all, what is the name of it?
Las Ultimas Palavras.
What does that mean?
It means last words. Palavra is a word in Turkish that is coming from Spanish language… I learned that it is coming from Jewish Spanish. Last words; because currently last words of this language are being spoken. My generation, people around 25-35 years old are not able to set up sentences and only know a few words like I do. If words are what are left to us from the sentences, then there will be nothing left from these words for the next generation. Therefore, the words we know now are the last words coming from sentences; I thought there are the last known words of Jewish Spanish here. Starting from this point, I tried to reveal which words the Jews around those ages know and therefore, what the last words are. I wanted to include people from out of Istanbul as well. We meet people in Izmir and Bursa. Of course it would be too much to claim interviewing 19 people reveals it all but I hope it can provide some insights.
How did you decide to shoot the documentary? How did the process leading to shooting and your decisions regarding the documentary take place?
A friend of mine whose thesis was about minority rights interviewed me. While talking to her, I said like “I do not speak Spanish, but I know some words.” The words I know are all related to song lyrics because of my aunt and her husband. These songs are mainly sad songs; the story of migration, separation and longing… Therefore, I know melancholic words. While I cannot set up a sentence to say “Turn right after passing the hospital” I can say “The agony of love is more painful than that of death.” I thought that was weird. While thinking about it, the question “What are the last words of Jewish Spanish?” popped into my mind. This really got me excited. At the first stage, I decided to do the research through interviews. I have experience in interviewing since I do it regularly for fifteen years, but shooting part was another problem. For that I asked for the support of an old friend Yorgo Demir. I told him about my idea and he said he would be more than glad to help. He was a professional and I had to cover the costs. I started to look around. It took a long while. Not everyone says “such a nice documentary and you are the right person to do such a work.” I applied to Ministry of Culture and also Jewish community…They all said no. Finally, I managed to get funding from European Union; EU Sivil Düşün (Think Civil). It was a small budget, but enabled us to do our work. This was really thanks to Yorgo’s support. With that fond, we were able to go to Izmir and Bursa. The translation was conducted by my close friend Damla Kellecioğlu for a small amount of money. It was translated into French and English and subtitles were arranged. Following the funding, we worked really fast and completed the documentary in several months. I have been conducting interviews for a long time, but making someone speak with the intention of writing it is really different from making them speak for the camera. It is harder to make someone talk to the camera, as it creates extra stress on people. The interference on people should also be a lot less so that your voice would not be heard on the camera. This is not the case for writing. Since the voice would not be reflected as it is, you can make certain changes for newspaper or journal. That was a problem for me in the beginning. We managed. After completing all the interviews, we realized we talked to 19 people. We thought maybe 20 would be better but then decided to maintain higher number of women in the group; 10 women and 9 men as the issue is about mother tongue. I think it was a good distribution. Both for the balance between men and women and I always wanted to reach people with different perspectives. That was achieved. There were different ideas. There was a rabbi representing a religious and traditional point of view in the documentary, but also a liberal friend working at Şişli organization of HDP… After completion of the interviews, I transcribed them. Then I wrote the script. Then we did a set up with Yorgo. And the work was done.
The film begins with an announcement of death in Büyükada. That is how deaths are announced in Büyükada; live for everyone to hear.
That was one of the things that excited me so much. We went to Büyükada a couple of times for this with Yorgo. I always thought of this as the first scene. Because that is how deaths are always announced in the island. That is something that unites people. I always wanted to start with this scene. It expresses the death of a language successfully and also the unity within the island. It is nostalgic. It is also about the agony of death. No matter what, the language is still alive in Büyükada. It is harder to hear this language in Istanbul… When you wonder around in Büyükada in summer, you still hear this language. While having meals on the balcony, together with the sound of the forks, you still hear this language. Therefore, I wanted to hand it to the island in that sense. However, how could we do it? We wanted the announcement text to be full and correct. If someone else were to read the announcement, it would be fake and so on. One day we went to the municipality. Yorgo did not believe we could do it. He said “Nonsense, how can you make them do it when nobody is dead?” I insisted and asked them for it. They said “Ok.” There was a friend there and told us not to shoot him because we did not have permission and so on… We were looking for a death announcement of a Jew in compliance with the original announcements. They said no death ceremony had been taking place in synagogue for years now. Somehow we found an older person to help us. The person who reads the death announcements in the municipality today read it for us and we shot it meanwhile. It was very pleasant for me to be able to do it. How can I say?.. Whether it fit well or not is up to the audience; however, I wanted to put it there.
I think it really fits well; however, it is really a sad beginning when we look at it from that perspective. One has really died…
There are still people alive who are speaking this language. If there is one person who can tell stories in a language, I can not call it death. However, if this language is not taught or if people do not dream in this language, it is also difficult to claim that the language has a future. It is in the middle; it is in agony. In this situation, several esteemed people and institutions are still conducting important studies on this language. For example; Fani Ender and Beki Bardavid… Two women who compile Jewish proverbs. The proverbs are also in the documentary.
Does Jewish Spanish hold an important place for Jewish community in Turkey? Does it function like a cement bonding people together? Do they attach an important meaning to it?
No they do not. If they were, then it would not be like this. There are many uniting factor in Judaism other than this language. A couple of friends claimed in the film that ‘this language is not a uniting force for Jews, but Hebrew is”. There is already another language bonding Jews all around the world today. Holocaust created that kind of a bond. Pain bonds people more due to many things. Fear brings people together better than anything else… I mean, the issue of Jewish Spanish is not paid a lot of attention. Maybe the studies in this area are seen as a hobby.
In a sense, it is important to you though. You shot a documentary about it.
For me, it has an emotional side. Many people in the documentary were already my friends. I knew their stories, their families. It is also about my family, because it came into my life with my aunt and her husband… Wherever I go in the world, it will come with me. This is a personal bond… Everyone in the documentary had such personal bonds and they discussed it. Jewish Spanish is about that “very warm” relation between grandmother, grandfather and their grandchildren. No matter what, this warm relation is expressed with the words of this language as it is the language of that generation. Even if the person does not speak that language, there is a strong bond to that language.
People you interviewed also had similar answers. I actually took some notes. When you ask what the words they know in Spanish are, they said the first one is a word for warning when something unpleasant or unwanted happens. The second one is the equivalent of greeting.
The first ones are the words for hiding. For example, when they need to hide something from the kid “he needs to sleep, let’s put him into bed.” They say this in Spanish or whenever they want to hide something from third people… These people lived in places where they did not want others to know that they are Jewish. As a result, words that are related to expressions such as “do not get involved”, “stay away”, “be quiet” are known and words like “kayadez” are used.
Then, a language of warning emerged. I guess majorly a language of grandmother and grandfathers and it seems like the emotional bond is also about the fact that it is a language of warning.
It connotes affection for me. It is maybe about the relation I have with my grandparents. They are talking with the components of affection. Therefore, one knows and remembers the words that are related to her in a language she does not actually speak.
So is it a worry about the loss of a personal and emotional bond rather than a cultural and social reason that pushed you into shooting such a documentary?
No. Just to demonstrate my findings. That is the level I left it. This was not like a farewell for me. At the end of the film, my grandmother’s voice is heard. Right before her voice, we see a girl on the screen. The girl who wrote things in Jewish Spanish and made the world turn gave me the feeling of “hope.” While looking at that beautiful girl and thinking a relation to this language will be present somewhere in the world in a way, voice of an old person is heard: because of an accent coming from this language, she sings in a different language. The person who sings is my grandmother. She used to speak in Jewish Spanish, but sing in Turkish. We had a random recording at home while she was singing. She was singing the song “Ağlama Değmez Hayat” in Turkish with an accent. As the song says, life is not worth crying…
Following the projection of the documentary in Salt Galata, there was a conversation. It was about the self. It was implied that the self is actually very much related to the one and protecting especially such films on minorities would function as a cultural cement; a bonding force. What is the meaning you attach to this film, a bilingual research?
This was an important projection for me. Prof. Sami Gülgöz attended to the projection in Salt Galata. By discussing his own studies, he covered the relation between Jewish Spanish and the memory. It was interesting. I experienced different encounters with the audience as well. Sometimes people cry, and sometimes get mad. The first projection of the movie was in Paris. A university in France aim to make an academic study on Jewish Spanish for two years with an organization called University d’ete. Linguists, singers of Jewish Spanish language, academicians conducting comparative studies, people publishing newspapers and volunteers all join together from all around the world. A French friend of mine who knew about the documentary invited us by saying “if you can complete the documentary by July when the event will take place, come and join us.” We did anything to finish the work by then and we managed. I went there to project the documentary. First time, the audience cried and it made me experience feelings that are hard to express. I had hesitations about my projection abroad: There are subtitles; will the emotions be reflected well enough? Will it be understood? Will the background be enough and so on? In the audience, there were people coming from many places; from Morocco and Israel as well. The documentary was understood and interpreted! One of the comments was ‘How did you manage to be that nationalist?’
What was meant by nationalism?
They meant Turkish nationalism. They asked: “How can a Jew identify as Turkish?” “How can she be that insensible towards this language?” “The cost of talking Turkish with a bad accent was losing the language. Was it worthy of it” and so on… If these were asked during an interview, I am sure one would say ‘no’ more harshly in order to be fair. However, there is a reality in life and that reality required the hiding of Jewish identity under certain conditions, sometimes in order to survive. Therefore, all these should be taken into account and nobody should be blamed… In this sense, I also think it is pointless to blame a person who is scared of her Jewish identity. However, yes, when we project the film somewhere abroad, that is what people tell us.
Why is the first projection of the film in Büyükada in Turkey?
With the feeling I had at the beginning of the film, I wanted the second projection and the first projection in Turkey to be in Büyükada and asked for support from the municipality. They provided support and Lale Cinema sponsored the projection. Therefore, the documentary was projected with the announcement of Adalar Municipality (Princes Islands). The first projection of the documentary for the public was not a community activity! Everyone was there. More than thinking about the subject or content of the film, some were interested in those who were in the movie. They asked “Is she the granddaughter of him?” “Did she get married? When?” There was an argument during the projection. That was also very interesting for me. One of the previous Jewish community leaders who has a harsh tone said something like “All the minority communities in Turkey underwent similar processes. Rums are speaking in Romaic, because there is a place called Greece. It is normal that Jewish Spanish is not spoken, it is impossible that this language will be spoken”. However, this is not enough; because the Jews here do not speak Hebrew either. It means there was a choice and obviously it was Turkish language. It is important for me to understand these people who made the choice and not to judge them. This is an issue that needs to be discussed in that sense as well.
Thank you for sparing your time for us.
It was my pleasure. Thank you.
Please cite this interview as follows:
Research Turkey (October, 2016), “Interview with Rita Ender: “A documentary chasing minority identity, language and the Last Words…””, Vol. V, Issue 10, pp.6 – 24, Centre for Policy and Research on Turkey (ResearchTurkey), London, Research Turkey. (http://researchturkey.org/?p=12906)