Kaleidoscope of Identities

06/01/2022
Get To Know Leah Davcheva, partipant of Qesher's events and writer of Kaleidoscope of Identities. In her book she tells stories of Sephardic Jews in Bulgaria, and how the Ladino language impacted their lives.

Leah Davcheva

Bulgarian and / or Jewish

Ten years ago, I was in England, walking the Lake District with a colleague of mine - а linguist and an educator, like me. All of a sudden, he asked me about my Sephardic identity, noting that it had never appeared in our conversations. Although we had known each other for quite some time, we had never touched upon this topic. Nothing deliberate, just that this one of my identities had rarely been on my mind.

I grew up in Bulgaria, I played with Bulgarian friends (as well as with Turkish, Armenian, and Roma kids) in our neighborhood. I went to a Bulgarian school and later on, taught in one. I did not know many Jewish people then and even less who spoke Ladino. So, when asked, I would always say that I am Bulgarian, it did not even occur to me to add that I am also Jewish.

Family roots

I am, however, aware of our family roots thanks to my father. He was interested in the history of our family and was using every opportunity to find out something new, unknown, and curious. He would reach out to other people, across the globe, bearing the same family name, i.e. Rosanis. Most of the people he got in touch with would write to him in English and I was the one to translate their letters into Bulgarian for him. And then, I would translate his responses into English and, by and by, I became quite an insider to our family history.

First steps into the research journey

There and then, on that mountain path in the Lake District, the idea of a narrative study sprang into existence. My colleague and I agreed to focus on Ladino, the heritage language for many Sephardic Jews in Bulgaria (and beyond). Ladino is often discussed in terms of language endangerment and of cultural loss for the Sephardic community and for humanity more widely. However, for us, intercultural communication specialists with a linguistic focus, the Ladino experiences of Sephardic Jews provide rich insights regarding the linguistic complexities of identity. Through the Ladino-framed narratives of (often elderly) members of this community, we were hoping to learn how they drew, and continue to draw, upon their diverse linguistic and cultural resources to define themselves, to articulate their various identities, and to communicate within and beyond Bulgarian society.

Reni Lidgi - Interviewee in Leah's book

On the ground

I somehow discovered that there was a Ladino club in Sofia called Shalom. Before long, I became a member and started taking part in their gatherings. At first, I was offered a rather cool welcome. I was younger than most of them and to make things worse, I did not speak Ladino. They did! However, I persisted and finally, most of the other members made space for me to present my research project.

There was this dear lady, Reni Lidgi, who was the first to volunteer to tell me her Ladino story. We arranged to meet in a couple of days, at Shalom. Her story was truly brilliant. She told me about the way she learned Ladino from her grandmother, how, at some stage in her life, she refused to speak it because she thought it was not sophisticated enough. And then, she met a Spanish teacher from Spain and Ladino became their means of communication. A sound friendship developed, supported by their mutual search of the common roots between Ladino and modern Spanish.

I was very grateful to Reni, because, following her example, more and more people came to me offering their stories. I met some of my storytellers in cafés, some came to our house, others - I visited their homes. These narrative-generating encounters were managed through, and in, Bulgarian. I was the story-prompter and immediate audience. My prompts were based on a desire to learn more about what they did with Ladino in their lifetime, how they did it, with whom, where, and when.

The fact that I could not speak Ladino actually worked in favor of the research process because the storytellers grew confident in their competence and were willing to share all they knew and could remember. I mostly just listened, trying to say as little as possible. Memories from my childhood kept coming back. Words that my parents used to say, events, experiences, things seemingly forgotten. The stories I was hearing triggered previous experiences, and it all became a very passionate process.

The next stage

I then transcribed each story into Bulgarian which I shared with the storytellers (to ensure that it captured what they had said and wanted to say). Then, following the narrative inquiry tradition, I used these transcripts to create Bulgarian-medium, restoried prose versions of the narratives. For various reasons - for my researcher friend's benefit, to enable our English-medium researcher collaborative discussion, and for dissemination/ representation purposes - I translated these restoryings into English.

In a thematic analysis process we developed a five-zoned conceptual framework for capturing the insights we took from the stories about the Ladino-foregrounded interculturality of our storytellers

Sofi Dannon - Interviewee in Leah's book

Five zones of interculturality

The storytellers can be understood to be performing their identity in terms of five, to some extent overlapping, zones, namely:

(1) the (intra-)personal, that is a zone of internal dialogue;

(2) the domestic, that is a zone for the family;

(3) the local, that is a zone for the Sephardic community in Bulgaria;

(4) the diasporic, that is a zone for the wider Sephardic Jewish community; and

(5) the international, that is the international community of Spanish-speakers.

My book: Kaleidoscope of Identities

Having brought the research process to a kind of completion, I started to warm up to the idea of writing a whole book on the identity play of the Sephardic Jews in Bulgaria and their performance in the Ladino language. My main stimulus was the desire for the stories of the research participants to find a wider audience. I wanted them heard, far and wide. Secondly, I wanted to honor the memory of my parents and my wider family. So, I decided I would write a book in Bulgarian, more for the general public rather than for an academic audience.

The RIVA publishers responded enthusiastically and the book has been already published. People are buying it and we have presented it in several cities and, naturally, also in Shalom. My teacher of Spanish has already translated it into Spanish, and my publisher in Bulgaria negotiated a joint publication with the Spanish publisher Lacre. The Spanish book will be published before the end of 2021.

In between the research and the publishing of the book, I feel I have come full circle with regard to my Jewish identity. A sense of something new emerged, a new card which I feel confident to play.

Itsko Finzi - Interviewee in Leah's book