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Sephardic oral traditions in the Mediterranean Basin​

Women in the Mediterranean basin transmit knowledge and moral lessons through song and poetry. For generations, certain narratives continue to be passed down from mothers to daughters. It is through these narratives that core communal imperatives are engrained into the fabric of society’s beliefs. These sung poems functioned as the primary place of information transmission for thousands of years, while these Mediterranean societies were still primarily based on oral transmission. With the advent of literacy, writing, the enlightenment and modernity, many of these oral traditions have declined in use. However, the remaining traces of what was once a rich tradition, point to the kernels of belief that continue to be relevant even to this day.

This presentation will focus on the feminine songs of one pan-Mediterranean group: The Sephardim, or the Jews exiled from Spain and Portugal in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The Jews expelled from the Iberian peninsula in 1492 sing both songs that form part of the pan-Hispanic Romancero as well as newly composed songs highlighting specific communal experiences and history. They sing secular and religious songs as well as celebratory songs during the week-long wedding celebration. Using this group, I will show how in the Mediterranean, oral traditions have been used to transmit society’s most intimate and core imperatives.

Vanessa is an expert on Judeo-Spanish women's songs and their connections to women's spiritual expression.

Vanessa Paloma, Senior Fulbright Scholar and Artist to Morocco has been uncovering the metaphoric meaning of these ancient texts that are embedded in the collective memory of the Jewish community of Northern Morocco. These Jews, a blend of Jewish, Spanish and Moroccan carry complex identities of being Jews in a Muslim country as well as the direct descendants of the Spanish Jews who left Al-Andalus at the time of the expulsion and later inquisition. Their songs have veiled themes that drive the importance of continuity and preservation of Jewish identity by maintaining close ties to religion, family, tradition and sexual purity.

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