In June I spent a week visiting a summer camp for the elderly that took place in Bankya, a village on the outskirts of Sofia. For over a decade the JDC and the Organization of Jews in Bulgaria (OJB) organizes a week long summer camp for Bulgaria’s seasoned and most enthusiastic Jewish patrons. This past week, 200 people, 65 +, schlepped from near and far to attend Bulgaria’s annual, one week Jewish summer camp.
Hanging out without the elderly, aged, matured, wise, or however you would like to phrase it, can be a blessing and/or a punishment. At the beginning of the week, I wasn’t sure what to except as I wondered how I would communicate with people since I do not speak proper Bulgarian. I quickly learned that a significant number of the participants spoke Ladino and Hebrew. Although there were varying levels of Ladino proficiency, almost everyone had been raised in a Ladino speaking home. Many Bulgarian Jews trace their roots back to Spain and therefore have carried on the Ladino language and culture for centuries, since the expulsion from Spain in 1492. To my amazement, many people also spoke Hebrew. Back in the day, before communism drowned society of any and all beliefs, it was common for Jews to study at Jewish schools and to learn Hebrew. Also, Hashomer Hatzair, a socialist Zionist youth movement, was popular among this generation and continues to be active in Bulgaria today. Hashomer Hatzair was a place to learn about Israel, speak Hebrew, and experience Jewish culture in a community setting.
To my amazement it was almost impossible to find a moment to rest. As grandmas and grandpas tend to be, news travels fast and without hesitation. It did not take more than a day for word to spread that the American girl present, spoke Hebrew and could converse in Ladino. At some point I started to feel like a bit of a celebrity. People were constantly approaching me and would begin to speak before even introducing themselves.
Prior to the week, I imagined I would chit chat a lot and maybe learn to play Mahjong. I couldn’t have been more wrong! The whole week I was deep in conversations with person after couple after person after siblings and old friends, and loving it! The stories were unimaginable and breathtaking. From love in the first grade, to ‘selling’ pharmaceuticals in Cuba in the 70s, to being a communist and locked up, and more, the stories were outlandish and I couldn’t get enough of it! Check out the people I met below and hear their stories.
Brother & Sister
A man of man trades, who is most well-known for his superior cantorial skills. Nissem explained that he comes from a long heritage of vocal talent, which I learned as he told me about his father who was also a Hazan. As a young man, Nissem studied and sang at the Bulgarian National Opera.
Niseem said to me, “Quando la pessoa canta, essa internacional.” In English, “When a person sings it is international.”
What he meant was that the language of music transcends all boundaries and knows no limits. Nissem sang for me songs in Hebrew, French, & Ladino. His favorite song is “Mi Amor” a beloved among the Sofia Ladino singer.
Nissem has been married 58 years, to a woman he loves dearly and who is a Ladino writer in the Jewish community of Sofia. Nissem is currently and active member of the Sofia Jewish community Ladino Choir.
a woman of many wonders! She works as a journalist and writes for the Sofia Jewish community newsletter. She lives at the Beit Avot (the Jewish Parent’s home in Sofia) and is a connoisseur of Ladino culture and literature. The book she is holding is called La boss de curacao, a collection of ladino poems written in the Bulgarian language, which she gave to me as a memory from this past week at the camp.
Yosef aka Professor Sudoku
Yosef gave me a Sudoku sheet to try but he beat me to the finish!
Born and raised in Bulgaria and spent much of his professional career working abroad in Cuba and Argentina. Yosef spoke with a firm voice and years of philosophy under his belt.
Yosef told me about life in Bulgaria during WW2. During the war, Yosef was a teenager but today, he still remembers the anti-Semitism he endured for being Jewish. In our conversation he recalled how he could not leave his home from six in the evening until eight in the morning the next day. He described how back then this kind of rule was unfortunately accepted without resistance. He also remembers going to the city center and seeing signs above shops, which read Jews are forbidden. As we spoke, Yosef explained that it took two to three years after the war for life to return to normal in Bulgaria.
Today Yosef is a great grandfather and his kids and grandchildren live in Spain and Canada.
Sarina, known by many as Bebe
Bebe is a woman of strength and great respect in the Bulgarian Jewish community. Bebe ran the synagogue in Plovidiv for many years and recently her daughter, Emma, is now in charge of the synagogue.
Polly from Plovdiv!
Polly was the life of the party and the yenta that new best! Polly is a great -great grandmother and lives adjacent to the synagogue yard in Plovdiv. From her second floor window she is well-known for easily poking her head out and joining conversation from the yard!
She told me several times, “Los Bulgaritos no e buenos!”
Rivka & Schmuel Ben Nun, from Plovdiv
One of the cutesiest most jovial couples I’ve ever met!
Rivka and Schmuel, 92 years old, met in Kita Aleph (the first grade) and according to Schmuel that was when it all began. After 86 years it seems like they fell in love just yesterday.
Both Rivka and Schmuel speak excellent Hebrew and ladino. Like many others, they learned Hebrew at school growing up and spoke ladino in the home. Rivka has a brother, Haim, who lives in Israel. Schmuel is currently the Hazan (cantor) for the Jewish community in Plovdiv.
Nora (left) & Sophie (right) from Plovdiv, Bulgaria
Sophie was the first person I met this week. She grabbed me from the crowd and said in an urgent voice, “Do you speak Hebrew!?” I replied, “Yes,” and that was how it all began.
Both Nora and Sophie spoke excellent Hebrew, which they had learned growing up in school and while participating in Hashomer Hatzair.
Nora and Sophie are both 92 years old, retired doctors and share an entwined past. The two met when Nora was in prison during World War 2 because of her communist affiliations and engagements. As Nora put it, she wasn’t the silent type. Sophie informed me the she was also a communist but was not as hard-core as Nora. During the war Sophie met Nora while delivering food and ‘other things’ to her fellow comrades in prison, whom Nora was among. After the war both women enrolled in medical school and met again and that is where their lifelong friendship began.
Josef and Christina
After 57 years together, they are still all giggles!
Josef and Christina spent eight years living in Israel from 1994 to 2002 and today most of their family, kids and grandchildren, resides in Israel.
Since 2002 Josef and Christina have been coming to camp (continual); it is 6 days a year that they would not miss for anything else!
Today they split their time between Bulgaria and Israel, spending about 8 months in Israel and 3 to 4 months in Bulgaria each year.
Leon Mordechi Madjar
From Sofia, born and raised, and learned to speak ladino growing up within his family. Leon spent much of our conversations trying to convince me to call his bachelor son who currently lives in Sofia. Leon was quick to give me a biography and spared no details. Despite my efforts to explain to him that dating today is a bit different from way back in his day, he still insisted!
Dora is from Plovdiv and spoke solid Ladino. She is 82 years old and has 2 children, who have given her 4 grandchildren and 4 great grandchildren. She has family in Eilat, Tel Aviv, and Los Angeles. About a year ago Nora’s husband passed away.
Two brothers from Sofia, full of Ladino jokes!