Women in Sephardic Proverbs and Anecdotes
In this study, I intend to examine the characters of mother, mother-in-law, daughter, and
daughter-in-law in different Judeo-Spanish proverbs and anecdotes from the perspective of the
theory of cultural dimensions of Hofstede (19841
, and 20043
). According to this theory, power
distance, uncertainty avoidance, individualism / collectivism, masculinity / femininity, and long-term
orientation / short-term orientation are dimensions differentiating between different cultures. This study
consists of the analyses of diverse cultural elements indicated in the Judeo-Spanish proverbs and
anecdotes belonging to different lands of the Ottoman Empire where Sephardim came after their
expulsion from Spain in 1492.
Aim and Scope of This Study
This study aims at showing the interaction and social stratification among the Sephardic
women in Turkey through the Judeo-Spanish proverbs and anecdotes within the framework of the
theory of cultural dimensions of Hofstede (1984, 2001, and 2004).
Geert Hofstede. Culture’s Consequences: International Differences in Work-Related Values. Sage Publications,
Beverly Hills, CA, 1984.
Geert Hofstede. Culture's Consequences, Comparing Values, Behaviors, Institutions, and Organizations across
Nations. Sage Publications, Thousand Oaks CA, 2001.
Geert Hofstede and Gert-Jan Hofstede. Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind, McGraw-Hill, New
The Judeo-Spanish data of proverbs were gathered from the dictionary of idioms and
proverbs entitled De Punta Pie a Kavesa: Trezoro Sefaradi [From the Tip of Foot to the Head:
Sephardic Treasure] compiled by Beki Bardavid and Fani Ender, and published by Gozlem in
Istanbul in 2006.
Additionally, the anecdotes were investigated from the following books:
1) Matilda Koen-Sarano (compiler). Djoha ke dize?: Kuentos populares Djudeo-Espanyoles,
Kana, Jerusalem 1991.
2) Elie Shaul. Folklor de los Judios de Turkiya, Isis, Istanbul 1994.
3) Matilda Koen-Sarano (compiler). Kuentos del bel para abasho, Gozlem, Istanbul 2004.
Hofstede’s Theory of Cultural Dimensions
The theory of cultural dimensions of Hofstede (1984, 2001, and 2004), suggests that five
major cultural dimensions exist in workplaces: a) power distance, b) uncertainty avoidance, c)
individualism versus collectivism, d) masculinity versus femininity, and e) long-term orientation
versus short-term orientation. Our study considers that a family is a workplace where the female
members build strong or weak ties. Regarding the concept of power distance, Loukianenko-
(2008), who analyzed the rhetorical patterns in Russian and American business letters,
says that it leads to a “difference in workplace power relationships…. For example, in cultures
with larger power distance, business people feel more comfortable when formal hierarchies are
actively supported and reinforced on all levels of interaction including written communication….
Maria Loukianenko-Wolfe. “Different cultures – Different discourses? Rhetorical patterns of business letters by
English and Russian speakers.” Eds. U. Connor, E. Nagelhout and W. V. Rozycki. Contrastive Rhetoric: Reaching
to Intercultural Rhetoric, John Benjamins Publishing Company, Amsterdam and Philadephia, pp. 87-121.
In low power distance cultures, superiors and subordinates are considered more as equals;
superiors have power and authority not by simply default of their hierarchical position but
because they have earned it and from now on they have to actively maintain this status.”
Regarding the dimension of power distance, the writers of American letters mention previous
contact more than the writers of Russian letters, the American writers always use letter-writing
conventions, and the Russian writers change the font of the salutation5
Besides, the explicit forms of command or request, the placement of a purpose statement,
and the forms of providing contact information lead to uncertainty avoidance, while the forms of
reference to self as an individual or as a group demonstrates that a culture is individualistic in the
former form of reference, or collectivist in the latter form of reference6
Consequenly, the American letters are more individualistic than those Russian ones, since
the American letter writers prefer to use more the first person singular personal pronouns than the
company names that are used to refer to a team work, as a result of a collectivist idea7
Loukianenko-Wolfe (2008) does not work on the masculinity / femininity and the long-term
orientation versus short-term orientation dimensions in the American and Russian business
correspondence, analyzing fifteen American and seventeen Russian letters.
However, this study on Judeo-Spanish proverbs and anecdotes involves the analyses of
these in relation with all the five cultural dimensions of Hofstede (1984, 2001, and 2004).
This study tests the following hypotheses:
1) Mothers-in-law and mothers remain at the top of the hierarchy of female family members
creating a power distance from their children and daughters-in-law.
Ibid. pp. 97 – 98.
Ibid. p. 93.
Ibid. p. 100.
2) Mothers-in-law criticize their daughters-in-law via uncertainty avoidance.
3) In a Sephardic female family network, collectivism is present instead of individualism, as
women exhibit group behavior in most cases in the proverbs and anecdotes.
4) Daughters-in-law defend the powerful sides of their sons, whereas the mothers the powerful
sides of their daughters.
5) Negative emotions felt by mothers-in-law towards their daughters-in-law should be temporary
or long-lasting; however, the mothers‟ love towards their children is eternal.
In this section, proverbs and anecdotes where the mothers, mothers-in-law, daughters, and
daughters-in-law are mentioned are analyzed in relation with the theory of Hofstede (1984, 2001,
Proverbs with the Mother
The proverb in (1) implies that a mother and her daughter usually share most of their
secrets, problems, happiness, or sadness. Therefore, they cannot be separated from each other, as
they love one another so much to suffer as soon as they will have been separated.
(1) La madre i la ija, komo piedra en aniyo, la ija kon la madre komo unya en karne.
The mother and the daughter resemble the stone on a ring, the daughter and the mother the nails
in the flesh.
Therefore, the stone alludes to the fact that the daughter is attached to her mother just as
the stone of a ring, whose metaphorical use shows that the mother is more powerful than her
daughter that is attached to her mother‟s desires. However, they cannot be separated and cannot
behave individualistically, since they can suffer a lot, and the daughter cannot make the right
decision alone without consulting her mother, just like the nail in the flesh whose separation from
the flesh gives pain. The use of metaphorical expressions leads to uncertainty avoidance in the
assignment of qualities to mothers and daughters. The metaphor of the nail and flesh also shows
the long-lasting love and faith between the daughter and the mother, as the separation of these
two body parts do not hurt a human being, if and only if s/he is dead.
In (2) the daughter of a mother who does not take care of her own daughter, but is
dedicated to serve other poor children is described.
(2) La madre piadoza, kita a la ija mokoza / tinyoza.
The daughter of a charitable mother becomes snotty / bald.
In (2), no power distance exists between the mother and the daughter. Besides, uncertainty
avoidance is realized via the description of the qualities of the charitable mother and the ugly or
incapable daughter through the metaphor of being snotty or bald. In addition, the mother praises
the daughter regardless of her failures, as a result of the collectivistic behavior of praising a
relative despite the failures of this person.
Besides, the case in (3) is that of a mother who does not cook, do the housework, or go
(3) La madre haragana, kita la ija galana / nikochera.
A lazy mother produces a hardworking housewife.
In (3) the presence of collectivism in a Sephardic family prevails in the importance of the
housework that is an inevitable must for women; besides, the proverb leads to a power distance
between men and women, positioning mothers and daughters as potential housewives. If a
mother does not do the housework, the daughter assists her mother and does the cleaning, cooks,
irons, and goes shopping. Excessive workload is attributed to women here. Alongside this, the
proverb in (4) explains that the mother of a dumb person can understand what s/he tells through
her / his gestures. This implies that collaboration and empathy exist between a mother and her
daughter; the sharing of emotions is a part of collectivism. In individualistic societies children
may solve their problems without talking to their mothers or transmitting their emotions through
their attitudes, behavior, or glances.
(4) La madre del mudo, entiende al mudo.
The mother of the dumb understands the dumb.
In (5) we encounter the figure of a mother who shares secrets with her daughter.
Therefore, she is the best friend of an individual without the existence of a power distance, but
via collective understanding (5).
(5) No ay en el mundo, amiga komo la madre.
In the whole world, there is no friend like a mother.
On the other hand, in (6) a bad person is criticized by wishing that nobody like this person
will be born.
(6) No ayege tripa de madre a tal parir!
Let no mother‟s womb give birth to such a child!
As the Turkish Sephardic culture is collectivist, we see that a child is associated with the
characteristics of her / his mother in (6) where no power distance is mentioned between a child
and her / his mother, which would indicate that the child‟s formation and personality are products
of the education with which the mother provided her / him. However, in (6) the child is depicted
as a natural product of the mother, since she gave birth to the child, but not a student to be
educated, thus nurtured by her mother.
Regarding the friendship between a mother and her daughter, we can narrate the
following Sephardic anecdote in which the daughter shares her secrets with her mother, being
parts of a collectivistic society, and the mothers appear as teachers, whereas the daughters as
students creating a power distance between the experienced old mothers and novice daughters in
Furtuni asks her mother:
- Mommy, my husband said that he wanted to make platonic love; which one is this?
- The mother: a love based on gibberish.8
Furtuni is so naïve that she asks her mother a meaningless question. Besides, such a question
shows that men are superior to women and they can cheat them easily, emphasizing the superior
power distance between men and women.
Proverbs with the Mother-in-law
Concerning the Judeo-Spanish proverbs where the mothers-in-law are depicted, in (7) we
see how the extreme hate between the daughter-in-law and the mother-in-law is explained.
(7) Amistad entre esfuegra i ermuera no ay.
There is no love between the mother-in-law and the daughter-in-law.
From (7) we understand that the mother-in-law and the daughter-in-law hate each other,
and make individualistic decisions. Moreover, in (8) we encounter a fight scene:
(8) Amor de esfuegra kon ermuera, de los dientes para afuera.
The love between the mother and the daughter-in-law, from the teeth to the outside.
Depicting the negative emotion of hate between a mother-in-law and her daughter-in-law,
we feel the superiority of sons to daughters-in-law. The scene of fight where two women
disputing with harsh words are depicted is a clue for individualism and uncertainty avoidance due
to the description of the event.
Elie Shaul. Folklor de los Judios de Turkiya, Isis, Istanbul 1994, p. 74.
Another metaphorical description of the extreme hate between the mother-in-law and the
daughter is in (9):
(9) De la tizna a la karvonera, es esfuegra i ermuera.
What the ember is to the coal, the mother-in-law is to the daughter.
In (9) we encounter a referral to uncertainty avoidance and individualism, as two different
people who hate each other is described with ardent object metaphors. There is no power
distance between the mother-in-law and the daughter-in-law, as both are as evil as to fight.
Besides, in (10) the mother-in-law expresses her hate for her daughter-in-law by saying
that she found the dinner organization great at first; however, she changes her opinion and says
that the dinner organization is insufficient later: this is evidence to the superiority of the power of
(10) Para ken es esta paparrona? Para eya sinyora esfuegra! – Para mi esta paparrika?!
For whom is this big dinner? – For you esteemed mother-in-law! – For me this small dinner?!
Below a Sephardic anecdote depicting the relationship between a mother-in-law and her
daughter-in-law is given:
Words of love
Once upon a time Djoha told his mother that he wanted to get married, and his mother found him
a nice bride. When Djoha went where she was, the bride did not talk to him.
The mother told him: “Look, when you go to see your bride, tell her sweet words!”
Djoha went to see the bride and said, “Halva!”… “Baklava!”... “Tishpishti!”9
..., words of this
kind. Neither did the bride say anything, nor did she move. Djoha returned to her mother, and
These are three Sephardic deserts; the first two entered the Sephardic cuisine from the Ottoman one.
said, “Mommy, I told her everything you told me, but… nothing! She did not utter neither „a‟,
„bu‟, nor a „kukurikuku!‟”
Later his mother told him: “Look, Djoha, when you go to visit her next time, tell her
strong words… thus, words that can touch her heart! You are going to say her strong words!”
Djoha went to see the bride, and told her strong words. The bride got so frightened about
these words that she covered her head with a scarf and escaped.
When he returned, the mother asked him, “What, my son? What happened, Djoha?”
Djoha answered, “What can I tell you, mommy? I told her strong words, but she… she escaped
“And which ones did you tell her?” asked his mother.
Djoha answered her: “Nails!... Forks!... Knives!...”
The mother said, “Hey! Of course, she escapes!!”
Therefore, Djoha remained without a bride.
Narrated by Valentina Tsoref – 198710
The mother of Djoha finds the bride. She wants him to say her nice words; he says wrong
words. Djoha lacks “flexibility and the ability to adapt to conditions,” as Djoha conceives
Besides, this anecdote demonstrates the superior power of the mother-in-law
to her son and to her daughter-in-law in making suggestions. However, the daughter-in-law
appears as an individual who can make decisions without consulting anybody and escape in case
it is necessary.
Matilda Koen-Sarano (compiler). Djoha ke dize?: Kuentos populares Djudeo-Espanyoles, Kana, Jerusalem 1991,
Tamar Alexander-Frizer, The heart is a mirror: the Sephardic folktale, Wayne State University Press, Detroit,
2008, p. 433.
Proverbs with the Daughter
When we examine the Judeo-Spanish proverbs referring to the particularities of
daughters, we witness a strong tie between the daughters and the mothers as in (11).
(11) Siempre kon la ija, de la fasha asta la mortaja.
Always with the daughter, from the cradle to the shroud (the mother and the daughter never stay
The mother and the daughter share many secrets, and help each other; therefore, they cannot be
separated. Their love is eternal and they behave together in most cases, after sharing their secrets and
Besides, a daughter can carry the characteristics of her mother either for nurture or nature,
emphasizing the existence of a long-term interaction and eternal genetic ties between a daughter
and her mother who may behave as a team.
(12) Tala madre, tala ija.
So is the mother, so is the daughter.
(13) indicates that every girl marries the man that lives close to her. The use of the word
„luck‟ („mazal‟) shows the mothers‟ individual wishes for seeing their daughters as brides.
Uncertainty avoidance is realized by suggesting that girls marry men living very close to them.
(13) Las ijas tienen el mazal detras de la oreja.
The girls have their marriage opportunities behind their ears.
However, in (14) the men‟s superiority is implied by depicting the unhappiness of a
mother who gave birth to a daughter instead of a son and who does not organize any feasts or
parties for this reason.
(14) La mujer ke es parida de ija, no echa kortinas i no aze rijos.
The woman who gives birth to a girl does not make any preparations.
Besides, the Sephardic culture appreciates the girls that make money by working and look
after their parents, as depicted in (15):
(15) Mas vale ija kon maniya, ke ijo por la marina.
Better to have a daughter with a bracelet than a son at the sea.
In (15) a woman is described as a more powerful figure than men, in case she works and
looks after her family from a collectivist point of view.
Additionally, although a girl is ugly, her mother may still regard her as beautiful:
(16) Ken alava su ija la tinyoza? Su madre la mokoza.
Who praises her bald daughter? Her snotty mother.
On the one hand, the collectivistic idea of the eternal beauty of a daughter is present in
(16). On the other hand, the Anecdote 3 shows the power distance between a son and a daughter:
The Small Difference
There was an unfortunate man about his wife. She was giving birth to girls, girls, and girls…
Once again she was pregnant, and again she gave birth to a girl.
How would this other girl be received? She had already seven… benot het, as one says.
What will the friends and the brothers do about this? When they required circumcising the
baby (organize a Brit-Mila for the baby), they covered her and made her pass through the street.
They called the circumciser, and the father was shocked for joy. “Hey hey! Listen! I have
When they discovered the girl in front of the circumciser, the ones who look, said,
“Goodbye! There is nothing to remove here! There is something to put here!”
Narrated by: Pinhas Tokatli - 198912
In the Turkish Sephardic culture, it is a shame to have too many daughters instead of a
unique son, as in anecdote 3. A man let his daughter wear clothes for boys, and celebrated her
Brit-Mila. However, people discovered that she was not a boy. From this anecdote, we
understand that some Sephardim have the following conceptualization in their mind: it is better to
have a son than a daughter, since they are superior to women at work and only a son leads to the
continuation of the use of the family surname.
Proverbs with the Daughter-in-law
In general, the daughters-in-law are disliked by their mothers-in-law who defend the
superiority of their sons in the Sephardic proverbs, as in (17):
(17) Bueno mi ermuera giza, kon la alkuza yena.
My daughter-in-law cooks well, if the bottle of oil is full (if she spends too much money).
The proverb in (17) shows that the mother-in-law rarely appreciates her daughter-in-law,
accusing her of being incapable and extravagant. This dislike leads to the superiority of a
mother-in-law in the society who can despise her daughter-in-law, as she wastes her money,
being careless. These negative qualities of a daughter-in-law involve uncertainty avoidance for
they are reasons for the hate of the mother-in-law towards her daughter-in-law that may
terminate, in case the daughter-in-law becomes thrifty.
In (18) we encounter a strong dislike for a daughter-in-law whose goodness and
helpfulness are not accepted by her mother-in-law:
(18) Ermuera, ni de asukar, ni de barro es buena.
Even if made of sugar / of clay a daughter-in-law is not good.
Matilda Koen-Sarano (compiler). Kuentos del bel para abasho, Gozlem, Istanbul 2004, p. 179.
A daughter-in-law can criticize her mother-in-law, as she defends the superiority of her
son and her sweetness and kindness can be temporary. Also, the proverb in (19) alludes to the
daily disputes between a mother-in-law and her daughter-in-law:
(19) Esfuegra i ermuera en una kaza, komo diez gatos en un sako.
The mother-in-law and the daughter-in-law in a house are like ten cats in the same sack.
As the daughter-in-law and the mother-in-law do not collaborate, but fight, they behave in
accordance to their personal ideas, thus individualistically. Furthermore, their quarrels are
evidences for the long-lasting hate between them.
Besides, the qualities of a rattlesnake are mapped onto those of a daughter-in-law. Both
are thought to cause harm in (20):
(20) Ermuera, kulevra kon kemenche.
The daughter-in-law, a rattlesnake.
In (20) the harsh words of a mother-in-law are criticized as being as poisonous as the bite of a
rattlesnake: a certainty of the long-term badness of mothers-in-law is emphasized via a metaphor
of a poisonous animal that creates a sound of endless hissing that is a metaphor related to the
reason for which a daughter-in-law may hate her garrulous mother-in-law with extreme certainty.
This study showed that mothers-in-law and mothers remain at the top of the hierarchy of
female family members creating a power distance from their children and daughters-in-law; in
the Sephardic culture mothers-in-law criticize their daughters-in-law via uncertainty avoidance.
Moreover, in a Sephardic female family network, collectivism is widely-present instead of
individualism, as women exhibit group behavior in most cases in the proverbs and anecdotes.
Daughters-in-law defend the powerful aspects of the masculinity of their sons, whereas the
mothers those of the femininity of their daughters. Additionally, negative emotions felt by
mothers-in-law towards their daughters-in-law should be temporary, but they are long-lasting, as
the metaphors chosen to depict their emotions for their daughters-in-law demonstrate.
Meanwhile the mothers‟ love towards their children is perpetual. Therefore, all of the hypotheses