This article, originally written for the AVI CHAI Bookshelf, where birthright israel alumni can order free books and periodicals, tracks the multinational influence on Jewish music, creating unique sounds reflecting the diversity of the Jewish people.
Spend an hour turning the radio dial in Israel, or attend a Jewish music festival anywhere in the world, and you’ll quickly realize that all the moving around the Jewish people have done over the past few thousand years has definitely seeped into the music. Performers freely mix languages and traditions, just as they mix Biblical references with snippets from their love lives. A blend of Greek, Polish, and Italian is par for the course, as is a medieval poem written by a rabbi, accompanied by electric guitar and drums. Jewish music, like the Jewish people, spans the globe and the centuries, and sometimes all that wandering is packed into one song.
What is Jewish Music?
But what is “Jewish” music, anyway? Generally, it’s divided into three categories: Ashkenazic, or European music like Klezmer; Sephardic, which means Mediterranean music from Spain, Portugal, North Africa, Greece, and Turkey; and Mizrachi, which is the music of Jews who lived in Arab countries for thousands of years. What’s exciting about today’s Jewish music is how much those three categories blur, especially if you’re listening to Israeli pop or musicians who draw from their fascinating personal backgrounds. They include the descendants of Marranos or conversos (those who converted rather than be exiled from Spain), the children of Sephardic-Ashkenazic marriages, and rockers who returned to their Jewish roots once they hit 50.
Sample the Tunes
Click to listen to samples of the following songs from the CD “A Jewish Odyssey“:
By Chava Alberstein
By Ofra Haza
Jewish literature in Europe can be divided into two broad categories: literature written in traditional Jewish languages, such as Yiddish, Hebrew, and Ladino, and literature written in the language of the country the writer happened to live in. Because many Jewish writers wrote in German, Russian, French, and other European languages, what we call “European Jewish literature” overlaps with European literature as a whole. Thomas Mann, Franz Kafka, and Isaac Babel can be counted as “Jewish writers” and also, of course, “major European writers.”
Since Jewish writers write in so many languages, any attempts to construct a “modern Jewish canon”–such as the landmark effort in 2001 by leading scholars including Harvard’s Ruth Wisse and Hebrew University’s Gershon Shaked to draw up a list of 100 Great Jewish Books–tend to be incredibly multilingual lists. The Great Books list, released by the National Yiddish Book Center, and Wisse’s book The Modern Jewish Canon discuss works in languages ranging from Yiddish, Hebrew, and English, to Russian, French, Dutch, Polish, and Czech.
The number of translations available into English is increasing. For an understanding of shtetl (small village) life, the Yiddish short-story writers are an excellent place to begin. Sholom Aleichem, I.L. Peretz, and Mendele Mocher Seforim preserved a world of mostly poverty-stricken Jews struggling to survive and believe in whatever they could. These stories include hapless characters like the beggars of Kasrilivke and the fools of Chelm. The humor and the fantastical touches of these writers can be seen in Poland-born Isaac Bashevis Singer, who won the Nobel Prize and whose work has been widely translated into English. Singer writes of golems (human-created beings who become animate), imaginary spirits, and old-world characters.
Those Yiddish stories–with their magical touch–found their way into the American Jewish writer Bernard Malamud’s work. More recently, younger American Jewish writers like Nathan Englander, author of the story collection For the Relief of Unbearable Urges, have absorbed the Yiddish tradition.
Judeo-Spanish, the language of Jews of Spanish origin has produced a wealth of literature–both religious and secular. This article provides a glimpse into this rich literary tradition of Sephardic Jewry.
After the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, the Ladino language–a rich blend of Hebrew and Spanish–moved to new countries, like Greece and Turkey, where Jewish refugees found new homes. As Ladino moved, a literature of its own came into being, reflecting the Diaspora experience of living as a Jew in a foreign land, and using words and stories to preserve a heritage that was not always appreciated by the wider world.
Varieties of Ladino Literature
There are three major categories of Ladino literature: translations of sacred texts, such as the Hebrew Bible, the High Holiday prayerbook and the Passover Haggadah; rabbinic literature, including commentaries on Jewish texts and Jewish law; and folk tales, fables, proverbs, poems, and short stories, which are attracting more and more attention from collectors and scholars, and which are increasingly available in English.
Scholar Ilan Stavans, writing in The Forward newspaper, observes that because the Jews of the Iberian Peninsula were expelled, fiction took a backseat to other kinds of writing. “For this and other reasons, Sephardic literature for years focused on the liturgical and philosophical. The poetry of Shmuel HaNagid, Shlomo ibn Gabirol, and Yehuda Halevi are highlights, as are the treatises by Halevi, Moses Maimonides, and Hasdai Crescas.”
The best-known example of rabbinic literature in Ladino is Me’am Loez, the 18th- and 19th-century commentary on the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible). The period of Me’am Loez was the first major flowering of Ladino, and a second productive period occurred in the early 20th century, when journalism and pamphleteering gave many writers a chance to be published. Unfortunately, the Holocaust ended this flowering, and the number of Ladino speakers was far smaller in 1945, making Ladino a language in danger of extinction.
Walk through the Carmel open-air market in Tel Aviv and you’ll hear Russian, Arabic, Yiddish, Amharic, German, Spanish, and of course, Hebrew. You’ll smell foods from Libya, Russia, and Venezuela, and your eyes will notice mounds of yellow and red spices from the Middle East displayed in large wooden barrels. If you talk to a fruit-seller, he’ll gruffly tell you he stocks three kinds of bright-orange persimmons–soft for the Russians, hard for the Israelis, and medium for Americans.
While you try to process how country of origin affects fruit-firmness preferences, and how any businessman can ever keep track, a woman will swish by in a crinkled cotton scarf with gold coins attached to the end, in traditional Yemenite style. Next, an old woman in perfectly pressed linen will bump into you, giving you a perfect snapshot of what was in style in Berlin in 1932. For anyone who thinks a Jewish country means everyone looks the same, sounds the same, or eats the same food, a few days in Israel can be a shocking education.
As you shop, the radio might blare songs with beats ranging from belly-dancing swivels to a slow ballad that feels like it could have been written on the Volga River. No wonder–these songs are written by people whose parents came from every imaginable country, and some singers have one Libyan parent and another Brazilian parent. The market stands hawk a dizzying array of prepared foods–Argentinian beef, Hungarian pastries, and a slew of Iraqi options. You can eat gefilte fish on one corner, shish-kebab on the next. Stuffed grape leaves and black olives abound, and if you tire of that, you can go eat some Ethiopian food with your bare hands. You can hear prayers in dozens of accents and intonations. In fact, some say it’s only possible to understand the magnitude and reach of the Diaspora in modern-day Israel.
A Little History
Persecution, wandering, economic interests, and adventure sent Jews around the world, and Israel has seen immigrants from Shanghai, India, Moscow, and South Africa, to name a few. The modern Zionist movement coincided with rising anti-Semitism in Europe, where pogroms, compulsory army service, and constant discrimination made the dream of a Jewish state a very attractive and somewhat crazy-sounding idea. What began as a pragmatic response to European anti-Semitism has become a living dream–the worldwide return to the Jewish homeland.
Like Yiddish, Ladino is viewed as a personal language of the Jewish people. It’s sometimes called “el espanol muestro“–“our Spanish”–and everything about it is tied to the ideas of home and identity. When Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492, they carried “their” Spanish with them, and so the Judeo-Spanish language moved throughout the Ottoman Empire, binding Sephardic Jews to their heritage and their original home in Spain.
In time, Judeo-Spanish sponged up some of the vocabulary of the new home countries of Spanish Jews, with Turkish, Greek, and Hebrew making their way into the language. That’s why today, there are many different dialects within Ladino, with each area of the world putting its own stamp on the language.
As the language changed addresses, what it was called changed, too. In Turkey and the Balkans, Judeo-Spanish was called “Ladino,” derived from the word Latin, so no one would confuse it with Turkish. In Morocco it was called “Haquitiya,” and sometimes spoken Ladino is called “Djudesmo.”
Ladino has always been the language of the multilingual. “Ladino,” or latinus in Latin, refers to a person who could speak a few languages in addition to his mother tongue, which was the case for most Ladino speakers. Ladino has its roots in the Latin spoken by the Romans who occupied the Iberian Peninsula from 200 B.C.E. to 425 B.C.E., but today’s Ladino is closer to modern Spanish plus a mix of whatever other languages Ladino speakers knew.
Just as Yiddish became the cultural underpinning of the entire European-Jewish, or Ashkenazi world, with its own folklore, music, and literature, so Ladino has a rich tradition of literature, theater, folk tales and music. Ladino stories even have their own recurring character, Jocha, or Ejoha, who is alternately a fool, a wise fool, and a wily trickster, just as the Yiddish stories have the recurring foolish men of Chelm and the hapless Herschel.
The Ladino World
How many people speak Ladino? That’s a controversial issue, because the definition of “Ladino speaker” varies depending on whom you ask. Most estimates say that between 160,000 and 300,000 Sephardim (Jews of Middle Eastern or Spanish origin) worldwide have some knowledge of Ladino. In Israel, many estimate that 50,000 to 80,000 people are somewhat familiar with Ladino. A few scholars are working on surveys of Ladino speakers and other efforts to get a solid number. If a recent flurry of conferences, study centers, book-collection efforts and teacher-training programs are any indication, Ladino may be in for a revival.
Reprinted with permission from The Avi Chai Bookshelf, where Birthright Israel alumni can order free books and magazines.
History is full of bizarre twists and turns, and the fate of a language can be as unpredictable as the fate of a people. In 1945, the future of Yiddish looked bleak. Millions of its speakers had been murdered, and the audience for Yiddish literature was practically wiped out. Many survivors focused on learning Hebrew or English–the languages they needed to build new lives. Meanwhile, Yiddish fell by the wayside, becoming the language parents and grandparents spoke when they wanted to hide things from their children.
Klezmer is Suddenly Cool
But nearly 60 years later, klezmer music is suddenly cool. The melodies our grandparents laughed and cried to are played in places where twenty-somethings gather, from New Orleans jazz clubs to Montreal cafés. Meanwhile, recent American Jewish literature–like Nathan Englander’s For the Relief of Unbearable Urges–pays constant homage to Yiddish fiction masters like Sholom Aleichem, Y.L. Peretz, and I.B. Singer. For young writers like Englander, Yiddish humor amid tragedy is an inspiration. Many of these Yiddish stories, like Sholom Aleichem’s Tevye the Dairyman, are readily available in English, and sometimes, North American readers decide they want to check out the fiction in its original language.
The majority of current Yiddish speakers, of course, are from Hasidic and Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) families who raise their children with Yiddish as their mother tongue. These large families have led some scholars to believe there may be a million Yiddish speakers again. But the more surprising story is the slow but seemingly steady increase in Yiddish lovers in the non-Hasidic world.
“In the Jewish ‘mainstream’, interest in Yiddish may be growing,” says Neil Zagorin, bibliographer at The National Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Mass. “It will probably not again be the vernacular or cultural language of the Jewish ‘masses’ the way it was before the Holocaust. Most ‘mainstream’ Jews will not be fluent or literate in Yiddish.”