|Directed by:||Bonnie Burt||Rating:||TV-G|
|Release Date:||1989||Running Time:||33 mins.|
|Language:||English and Ladino (subtitles)||Genre:||Documentary|
|More Info:||Sephardic Songs on YouTube||Category:||World Jewry|
Less than 25,000 Jews still live in Turkey and, unlike their ancestors, they consider themselves more Turkish than Jewish. Trees Cry for Rain: A Sephardic Journey uses one woman’s childhood memories to reconstruct what life was like for Sephardic Jews in Turkey before modern assimilation took effect.
“I am the smart one for getting this treasure from Spain,” the Ottoman Sultan is supposed to have said when he opened his doors to Spain’s expelled Jews in 1492, boasting of his generosity.
Jews were executed or forced to convert under Christian rule in Spain before being forced out of the country. Many fled to nearby Turkey, where, for centuries, they were able to maintain their traditions, passing them down through the generations. Trees Cry for Rain shares an intimate interview with Rachael Amado Bortnick, a native of Turkey who left as a young adult, complemented by detailed paintings and illustrations of Turkey, to bring the once-rich culture of Turkey’s Sephardic Jewry to life. Their unique foods, songs, and traditions are explored, and the importance of keeping their unique Judeo-Spanish language alive is impressed upon the viewer.
Jewish life in Turkey was quite different from in America, and Rachael met with a painful culture shock when she moved to St. Louis, Missouri to attend university. She had assumed that all Jews spoke Ladino (Judeo-Spanish) and practiced the traditions with which she was familiar, but her first Hanukkah with American Jews was full of surprises. The American Ashkenazi Jews she was involved with spoke Yiddish, had never heard of Ladino, and were shocked that Rachael had never seen a dreidel or eaten latkes. It was only after she left her Sephardic community that Rachael realized its uniqueness, even within the Jewish culture, which made her long for home even more.
Through colorful anecdotes and memories, Rachael describes the Sephardim who populated Turkey as a closely-knit, slightly superstitious, and hopeful community with a strong focus on family and a vibrant social life that revolved around the home. Instead of waiting to be invited, women would invite themselves over to each other’s houses. A group of women — mothers and daughters — from one home would dress up in fine clothing to make the highly ritualistic visits, which usually involved a small meal and ended in coffee. When the coffee had all been drunk, the women would turn their cups upside down on the saucers, and someone in the group would volunteer to read fortunes from the patterns left by the coffee grinds.
Rachael left Turkey as a young adult, so her memories of her original home are focused around the pleasures of a child. She recalls grownups who made funny chicken noises and waiting impatiently to be served a tray of sweets. But to her colorful descriptions of the past she brings an adult’s ability to analyze and critique. She realizes now that the sweets she longed for were symbolic — only during happy times were sugary foods served.
Sephardic culture continues to be threatened by assimilation, and the Ladino language is in danger of being lost forever. “My generation was the last to speak the language fluently,” Rachael explains. But, thankfully, the culture’s beautiful music has brought about a renewed interest in the unique tongue. One woman practices her pronunciations with Rachael, while she sings, “Trees cry for rain and the mountains for wind.” Strumming her guitar, she continues, “So my eyes weep for you, my dear sweetheart.”
Rachael listens intently. She confesses that the song’s refrain reminds her of her own situation. “I turn and I say what will become of me? I will die in a strange land.”
Despite Rachael’s several decades in the U.S., Turkey will always be home.