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ArribaAbajoNote on Galdós' contacts with Hebrew

Clark M. Zlotchew

Gilbert Smith's useful, well-documented and perceptive article, «Galdós, Tristana, and Letters From Concha-Ruth Morell», (Anales Galdosianos, X [1975], 91-120), demonstrates that Galdós made use of his personal experience as the point of departure for the novel Tristana and provides insight into Galdós' personality as well. It does something more; dealing as it does with the letters to Galdós from a convert to Judaism who lived for a time among the Sephardic Jews of Bayonne, it brings to light some bits of information concerning the Spanish novelist's knowledge of Hebrew linguistic items and Sephardic customs.244 Nevertheless, some of these items are left unexplained and even unidentified as being Hebrew.

Professor Smith reports: «These letters for 1897-98 are addressed to Melej and Baruj, and signed Ruth and Ruthita» (92). He adds that there is another folder in the Casa-Museo Pérez Galdós which contains letters from María Artíguez de Roig and that some of these are postscripted by Concha Morell who signs herself as Ruth (Ibid.). Examples of letters in which Concha uses the signature Ruth and Ruthita can be seen on pp. 114-15. In one of those reproduced letters she refers to herself in the third person as Ruth eight times in as many lines (see p. 115). Another one of these letters is addressed to Melejito (Ibid.). Smith comments: «The 1897-98 letters -all signed 'Ruth' or 'Ruthita', the name that she took when she became a Jew- confirm Sitges' version of their [Concha and Galdós] relationship». (114).

The initial motivation for this brief note is simply to identify the derivation of the appelations melej, melejito and baruj used to address Galdós and to explain the reason for Concha's taking the name Ruth upon conversion to Judaism. This information is far from being esoteric but, in the absence of elucidation within professor Smith's article, should serve some purpose and in some small measure add to our knowledge of Galdós' sources for his Hebrew and Sephardic data.

Concha did not simply choose one Hebrew name at random out of many possibilities when she assumed the name Ruth. It is traditional and customary for female converts to Judaism to take that name. The reason is associated with the Book of Ruth in the Old Testament. A brief summary of the biblical narrative is in order: Due to a famine in Judea, the Israelite couple Elimelech245 and Naomi migrate into the land of Moab across the Jordan where their two sons take Moabite, and therefore pagan, women as wives. Elimelech and later the two sons die. Naomi prepares to return to her home village of Bethlehem and encourages her two daughters-in-law to remain in their native Moab and to find new husbands there. The two young women declare their intention to accompany Naomi. Once more Naomi insists that they should abandon   —134→   her for their own comfort. One of the girls obeys her and tearfully takes her leave but the other, Ruth, stubbornly persists in her intent to accompany her mother-in-law. Probably the best known words of the Book of Ruth are those which Ruth addresses to Naomi: «Entreat me not to leave thee, or to return from following after thee: for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God». (Ruth: I, 16). This act of devotion toward the mother of her late husband not only incorporates Ruth into the people of Israel but, through her subsequent marriage to Naomi's kinsman Boaz, results in her being the ancestress of King David and King Solomon. The biblical story is often thought of as a recommendation for the complete acceptance into the Jewish community of the outsider who converts; had it not been for Ruth's incorporation into Israel, that people would not have benefitted from the leadership of David and Solomon. Concha Morell was following an ancient custom, one which is observed to this day, by taking the name Ruth. Ruthita, of course, represents the Spanish diminutive added to the biblical name.

Concha-Ruth Morell's use of «Melej», «Melejito» and «Baruj» in addressing Galdós in the 1897-98 letters is more idiosyncratic. «Baruj» is Concha's transliteration, using the rules of Castilian orthography, of the Hebrew word /barúx/ meaning «blessed». «Melej», once more according to the Spanish spelling system, transliterates the Hebrew /mélex/ signifying «king». («Melejito» is interesting linguistically because of Concha's affectionate Spanish suffixation of a Hebrew word). The two words would be extremely familiar to Concha by the time of her conversion, as familiar as the Latin term (actually, Latin verb plus latinized Hebrew name) ave María would be to a convert to Catholicism; they are used repeatedly in so many of the most common Hebrew prayers which invariably begin: /barúx atá adonái elohénu mélex haolám/ («Blessed art Thou, O Lord, our God, King of the Universe...»). (My emphasis on the words in question). The frequency of occurrence of these two words would have assured Concha's familiarity with them.

In addition to the straightforward meaning of «baruj» («blessed»), there could well be a more specific and personalized motive for Concha-Ruth's utilization of this form of address in writing to Galdós. The first name of Pérez Galdós, Benito, derives from the same source as the Spanish word bendito (Latin benedictus) also signifying «blessed» and is cognate with the English name Benedict. Exactly in the same way that Spinoza's first name is alternately given, in many reference works, as Baruch246 (English, French and German transliteration of the Hebrew) and Benito (the Spanish version) -and Concha Morell might possibly have been aware of this- Concha was translating the given name of Benito Pérez Galdós into Hebrew.

Concha-Ruth Morell's knowledge of Hebrew, a knowledge only glimpsed in her letters to Galdós but which must be assumed to have been substantial enough to have permitted her to be accepted as a convert by the Jews of Bayonne, could have provided Galdós with at least some direct oral material on Hebrew and Sephardic customs. This information could have been combined with that studied by him in Jewish prayer books.247 These last statements might be construed as involving me in the polemic between Chamberlin and Lambert concerning whether Galdós obtained his source material on the Sephardim   —135→   predominantly from second-hand written sources or from oral models at first hand.248 I have no desire and even less competence to enter that discussion. Yet, there are several observations that should be made concerning the issue.

Much of the argument revolves around the sentence, «¡Hija de la baraniddah enconada!», an insult employed by one of the Sephardim of Galdós' Carlos VI, en la Rápita. Professor Lambert feels that the error in Galdós' transliteration as well as in having the offense directed at a woman is more likely to have been caused by misunderstood speech rather than from an innaccurate reading of the printed page.

He says that Chamberlin's argument does not take into account the possibility that Galdós personally might have known any Sephardic Jews.249 Professor Chamberlin points out that Galdós received this expression in a letter from Ricardo Ruiz Orsatti, a Spanish Catholic, who thought the term to be Arabic. (Actually, Ruiz Orsatti included it in a paragraph which he claimed contained «Palabras del castellano anticuado o de árabe españolizado de uso corriente entre los judíos de Tetuán»250 leaving it to Galdós to decide that the expressions which were not recognizable as Spanish would have to be of Arabic origin).

Ruiz spelled the expression baraniddah (i.e. without the hyphen inserted by Galdós, a fact which does not affect pronunciation) and applies it correctly to a man rather than to a woman («Hijo de»).251 Still, the Spanish words «Hijo de» placed in front of baraniddah are redundant since the first element of the term in question (bar) itself means «son of». The oath means «son of a menstruating woman» and is insulting because it is against Jewish religious law for a woman to have sexual relations during that period.252 Strictly speaking, if the oath were Hebrew it would have been transliterated ben niddah, while the form bar nidda would represent the equivalent in Aramaic (Aramaic bar is frequently used in Hebrew compounds). If the definite article were inserted into the Hebrew expression it would result in ben ha-niddah. Perhaps Ruiz Orsatti heard a mixed form with the Hebrew article ha inserted into the Aramaic phrase; this would give bar ha-nidda which would be much closer to the form with which he supplied Galdós.

In that same list of words which Ruiz Orsatti incorrectly assumed to be either Spanish or Arabic we find the word mazzal correctly interpreted as «suerte» along with an example of its use in the saying: «Daca un cuaxito de mazzal y tírame a las fondinas de la mar» (p. 112). Mazzal is, of course, purely Hebrew. Its original meaning was «constellation» but, under the influence of cultures which made use of astrology, later took on the meaning of «fate» and finally «luck». The use of mazzal for «luck» survives in the speech of Jews whether they speak Hebrew, Judeo-Spanish or Yiddish and is even used by them in English and other languages (cf. the use of mázel tov -literally, Hebrew for «good fortune»- by American Jews [via Yiddish] for «congratulations»).

It is known that Galdós received a great deal of his information relating to the Hebrew language and to Sephardic customs from books and letters. Nevertheless, he was also in very close contact with at least one person, Concha-Ruth Morell, who had first-hand knowledge of the same kind of   —136→   material. At this time it would be difficult to attempt to assign preponderance to one type of source at the expense of the other.

State University of New York. College at Fredonia

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