Ben Yosef, Benyamin Rafael (1870-1928)

"The man of the book"

Benyamin Rafael ben Yosef is born in 1870 in Adrianople (today Edirne), in Turkey. He comes, from his mother’s side, from a lineage of rabbis, among them Behmohar Rafael (1815-1878), great rabbi of Andrinople and then great rabbi ex officio of Philippopoli (Roumélie in Bulgaria).
In love with books and old manuscripts, he dedicates his life to djudezmo, this language more and more restrained to the family circle, which gathers many words of turkish, italian and french origins.

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Benyamin and Malkouna (his wife)

After his wedding, around 1895, he settles down in Balat, Jewish neighborhood of Constantinople (Istanbul) situated on the European shore of the Bosporus.
Considered to be the most important editor of Constantinople during the first three decades of the XXe century, it’s in 1898 with the publication of Sefer me-’Am Lo’ez Ester that starts his activity of printer-editor.
At that period, people feel the need to adapt and/or translate in Judeo-Spanish many books of all literary genres, among them novels - Paul et Virginie, Jardin des histoires, Le fils repenti, Les deux jumeaux, Don Miguel San Salvador, Le neveu maudit, Salvator et Paolina, Juan Lobo, La belle histoire de Robinson ou Le veau d’or - generally published first in newspapers as serials.

Apart from his known activity of editor, Benyamin Rafael ben Yosef is a collector of manuscripts and old books, a task that he develops during his travels, in particular in the Middle-East.

The field of religion and liturgical chants is one of Benyamin’s favorite themes.
In 1910, he publishes the Sefer jaim va-jesed (collection of laws and customs concerning the sick and the dead) in Constantinople ; it will be followed by the publication of the Sefer renanot u-bakashot, thirteen years later.

Passionate of Sefardi liturgical chants, in particular the piyutim and maftirim, Benyamin asks in 1926 to Isaac Eliyahu Navon, (poet, musician, homonym of the politician) native of the same town, the most complete inventory of known maftirim. The impressive publication of « Songs of Israel in Eastern land » (Shire Israel be-Eretz ha-Kedem or SHIBA) will receive a very posiive critic among the religious circles, the poets and musicians.

One of the title-page in Judeo-Spanish :

Diferentes Kantes Arekojidos de Manuskritos Vyejos

Ovra de Poetas kon Kantes de Shabbath
i Moadim del Anyo
i Alegrias de Mila i Bodas

El Editor, Vendedor de Livros Muevos i Viejos

Benyamin Rafael ben Yosef
Anyo 5686*

*« Several songs collected from old manuscripts. Works of poets with songs from Sabbath, moadim of the year, mila and weddings »

At the same period, under the control of the famous cantor Isaac ben Solomon Algazi, and musical director of the Italian synagogue of Istanbul in the neighborhood of Galata, Benyamin Rafael ben Yosef publishes a selection of Eastern Jewish chants, entitled « Excerpt of fassil Husseini » : these songs include the reference to the liturgical poet Yisrael Najara and the famous rabbi of Smyrne Abraham Ha-Cohen Ariyas.

Until his last years, Benyamin will continue to publish religious songs. Los piyutim de los dias temerosos, dated from 1927, will appear only after his death (Printing company La Konkerensia).
He will also publish collections of romansas, (songs and poems for brides, new-born and their mothers), published according to the customs of the Ottoman Empire.

In parallel of the publications and adaptations of "classical" literature, publications in religious fields, and publications of "traditional" songs in djudezmo, Benyamin will also translate in Judeo-Spanish books about social-politics, like for example Cinco anyos de mi vida, that talks of the Dreyfus affair. What a surprise to find in djudezmo the letter exchanges between Dreyfus and his wife Lucie. Indeed, after the impacts of the Dreyfus affair, many clients of Benyamin will ask him the "Judeo-Spanish version" of this story.

In a particular context of erasure of cultural identities, Benyamin Rafael ben Yosef, important contributor to the Sefardi culture and its diffusion, passes away abruptly in 1928.

Sources :
Biography written from :
- Elements given Lydia Béhar-Velay (Grand-daughter of Benyamin Rafael ben Yosef) and her husband, Philippe Velay
- The article "Le sauvetage familial d’une mémoire", published in Kaminando I Avalando n°7, rubrique Figures du Monde Sépharade, by Lydia Béhar-Velay and Philippe Velay

Listen to audio recordings of Turkish synagogal music (maftirim...)

Listen to the playlist dedicated to the music of the Jewish people from Turkey

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