What do you know about Ladino? When was the last time you heard a Ladino song? Do you know that Tom Hanks played in a movie, Every Time We Say Goodbye, in which a character spoke Ladino?
Don’t worry if you feel you know little about a language that according to UNESCO is only spoken by 150,000 people in the world. But it is time to listen, especially now that there is a resurgence of Ladino music.
I have to admit I have a sweet spot for Ladino songs. When I hear “Abram Avinu” (Cuando el Rey Nimrod) I smile. There is something magical about that song. Something that connects me to an Old World, the world of Judaeo-Spanish, related to Medieval Spanish. After all I was born in Argentina and I speak Spanish, but I’m Ashkenazi, as my ancestors came from Kiev and Bessarabia. Some people get confused as they assume I’m Sephardic because I speak Spanish. Ladino is spoken by Sephardic families originally from the Iberian Peninsula.
You can hear a great version of Cuando el Rey Nimrod by the Musica Ficta Ensemble Fontegara:
What is Ladino?
“Five hundred and ten years after the expulsion of the Jews from Spain by the Catholic Monarchs in a decree dated March 31, 1492, some 150,000 people around the world still speak the Judaeo-Spanish language. In Morocco it is called Haketiya, in the Oran region of Algeria Titauni and in the Middle East Judesmo or Espanyoliko. Some call it Ladino, though strictly speaking this is the name for an older, non-oral language used by rabbis translating holy Hebrew works. Whatever name is used, it is a living relic of the Spanish spoken at the end of the 15th century, enriched with words borrowed from Greek, Hebrew, Turkish or Arabic.
As the centuries passed, the tongue that Sephardic Jews took with them from the Iberian Peninsula to other cities in the Mediterranean, Palestine and the Ottoman Empire was spoken only within families. Then in the 19th century, regular publications using it began appearing, and by 1865, there were more than 300 of them, mostly in Salonika, Istanbul, Smyrna (Izmir) and Sofia.
The Shoah dealt a heavy blow to the communities that had so carefully kept the language alive. On the Greek island of Rhodes, for example, only 161 Sephardic Jews were left of the 1,800 or so who lived there before World War Two. Today, because speakers of the language are widely scattered, because of its proximity to Spanish and also the failure to pass it on to new generations, Judaeo-Spanish is in serious danger of dying out, according to the Portal of UNESCO.
That is why I’m very interested in the work of Sarah Aroeste, a leading Ladino singer based in USA. I heard Sarah for the first time at a concert she gave at a conference of Be’Chol Lashon about Jewish diversity that I attended some years ago. While many singers concentrate on the traditional Ladino repertoire, I really found fascinating that Sarah doesn’t only sing traditional songs, but also she composes her own songs in Ladino.
“I’m deeply connected with my family and I have an interest in keeping this culture alive for future generations,” says Sarah, who recently presented Ora de Despertar, a children’s album in Ladino. “I want my daughters to know that Ladino is still alive.”
Sara’s last three records are original compositions. Although she comes from a Sephardic family with Macedonian roots on her grandfather’s side, she learnt Ladino mostly taking lessons at the Spanish Portuguese synagogue in New York City, reading books, watching movies and listening to as much music as possible.
Twenty years later she is enjoying a career as a Ladino singer, author and speaker.
Sarah recognizes the work of musicians who opened their own paths. Like Flory Jagoda, an icon in the Ladino music world who wrote “Ocho Candelikas.” You can hear her singing iconic song: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BeS46weU4ZI
From my research I was surprised to find many different versions of Ladino songs on You Tube. When I listened to some of the songs I discovered some Portuguese roots, too.
There are communities of Ladino speakers in Brooklyn, Seattle and Indianapolis in the United States.
You can see some of Sara Aroeste’s videos on You Tube. Here are some that I recommend. Enjoy!
Gracia is an original Ladino song written by Sarah inspired by the 16th century Sephardic heroine, Dona Gracia Naci. A thank you anthem to all the women out there doing amazing work in the world. This is the title track off her album.
A rock interpretation of a traditional Ladino song. There are many stars in the sky, in them is our destiny…
An original Ladino song about the “morena”– the gypsy girl wandering the world in search of returning home.
(Mealtimes) is the 2nd track off Aroeste’s all-original Ladino children’s album, Ora de Despertar (2016). It is a song to teach about different meals and times of the day.
Until next time!