Stella Cohen / Sephardic writer
Alberto Rubio. 11/07/2017
Woman, African, writer, Sephardic. Stella Cohen tells her singular story -product of age-old traditions, cruel misfortunes, historic tragedies and a determination to preserve a culture with roots in the medieval Spain- mixing Spanish and Sephardic Spanish (in italics in the text) that she learned from her family. Her research into that distant and fascinating world is summarized in “Sephardic Table”, a book she presented last week at Centro Sefarad-Israel.
Do you feel ‘ambassador’ of a world, maybe, forgotten?
I have never seen myself as an ambassador, although now I go on Facebook and people tell me ‘Stella, you are our ambassador, feeding the voice and knowledge of Spain’s heritage’. The truth is that, since I was a child, I have been fascinated by the tradition of my grandparents, who spoke Ladino, their language, their heritage, las palabras, el mundo antiguo sefardí.
In the last years, I have been dedicated to business, philanthropy, raising my children, my grandchildren… But I have always felt the need to preserve a glorious past in Spain. And the only way to do so was to take some recipes, culture, dichos sefardíes in Ladino, and put it all in a book.
How long did it take you to finish it?
Ten years. I had to recover many traditions passed from mothers to daughters. I published it in South Africa and I thought it would have a limited circulation due to the limited projection of the Sephardic world. However, in a few months, the book was sold out in the entire world and we made a new edition. I won five international awards and it was then when my research started, which was not limited to Sephardic or Jewish aspects, but also to traditions maintained in the families.
I see that you keep a deep memory of that Spain.
Yes, too much. It is a spiritual and mystic experience, of mis abuelos, but it is something so strong, so vibrant, that we feel el dolor, el amor por España, la nostalgia of something we did not know. But I feel Spanish when I wake up and when I go to bed. I also feel a bit Turkish, because of my mother, or Greek, because of my father. It is a mixture, but I am all that. And none is less than the other. However, the strongest connection is that with Spain.
Is gastronomy a good tool for international relations?
Absolutely. The good table, with the diplomacy, overcomes the barriers that other ways of communication are not able to overcome. When I met Alicia Moral (Spanish Ambassador to Harare, present during the interview), we prepared a Sephardic cultural night. She invited 20 ambassadors from countries where there are Sephardim living, such as the US or Algeria, among others, and many of them, such as those of Turkey or Greece, told me at the end that they had the same traditions.
From Spain to Greece and then to Zimbabwe, your family has not only gone on a journey in time, but also around half the world.
Exactly. That emigration is a story about loss and redemption. The story about being in the exile since 1492, through the Ottoman Empire, the Nazi camps where my family was exterminated, and about the few that survived and continued in Central Africa. Now my children are in New York and I will join them someday. We keep moving.
Do your children speak Ladino?
They know a few words and their meaning. Especially términos cariñosos, como mi alma, querida, preciado, which we use every day. They would not be the same in English, they would not make sense.
Why did your family emigrated to Zimbabwe? It is on the other side of the world, seen from Rhodes.
It was, you are right. In 1936, my father left Rhodes due to the bad economic situation. They had heard that there was gold in Central Africa. It was worth the risk, they did not have anything to lose. They arrived in a place they did not know and whose language they did not speak, even though my father spoke nine languages. They really struggled. And little by little they created a community that amounted to 2,000 people. And all of them made the same marzipan that their ancestors made in Toledo.
Why was that community reduced?
For political and economic reasons, after the independence, things changed and many families looked for a safer life in South Africa, the United States, Australia…
You are still in Harare. Why?
Because I still have some responsibilities there, and because I love the place where I was born and where I have lived. It is hard to pull those roots off, it is very hard, but it is something that I will have to do someday.