When I think of home, I imagine the physical space I return to at night, the one with the white-washed façade, the apple trees in the backyard, and of course my daughter’s contagious toothy grin waiting for me inside. But I also feel home, that indescribable sense of peace, safety and grounding.
I suspect that I am not the only one who has felt a little ungrounded lately. In a world that has been marked recently by so much violence and insecurity, and one in which so many people have been physically displaced, it is no wonder that many of us are feeling that lack of “home.”
The times in my life when I have most often struggled to retain that feeling of being grounded, I have turned to music. It is not coincidence that the first song I ever wrote is about a young girl trying to find her way home. The song, “Chika Morena” is about the iconic Sephardic girl who has been kicked out from her homeland, and has been searching the world over to return home. Along the way, she simply longs to be guided by her ancestors to return to the comfort of her roots.
Working in Ladino (Judeo-Spanish), a language and discipline that is, sadly, disappearing, I have extra inspiration to grapple with my feelings of connectedness. I believe that in this globalized world today, in the end we are all just searching for our identities and to understand from where we come. “Chika Morena” is, for me, a way to express this deep desire to connect with the Sephardic heritage of my past.
I recently visited with my last remaining Ladino-speaking relative, and I discovered that she was in possession of the mezuzah to my family’s ancestral home in Macedonia. On the eve of WWII when my family had to make a quick escape, a friendly neighbor held on to the mezuzah (pictured here), and returned it to my cousin following the war. I never knew about it until now. I Google-mapped the address of the house, and what I saw was a modern café that lacked all traces of my family’s former life. It looked so foreign to me. But in the end, I know that home is not the physical space. It is the comfort attached to it.
In “Chika Morena,” the protagonist, with the help of memories and family mementos, does find her way back home. May we all as well.
I am the dark beauty
The one with the long hair
And the strong eyes
But with a happy heart.
I have lived more than 1000 years
I have crossed seas and borders
One day I will return to my land
Where the warmth of my mother awaits me.
They call me the dark beauty
But I was born quite fair
I have lost my color
I am the dark beauty
Who has abided by many kings
Climbed ladders of gold
Married into the world and lived.
I have kissed the feet of my children
And the hands of my brothers
I am following the voices of my ancestors
To return to the garden of my mother.
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Mom. Mommy. Ima. Madre. Mother. No matter how many ways I say it, the concept still catches me by surprise sometimes. I am a mother now. Up until 7 months ago when someone would ask me a defining attribute of myself, I would have said I’m a Ladino singer. That’s what I do; that’s what I am.
Being a Ladino singer has always been more than an occupation for me—it’s the fabric of my identity. Its roots run deeply through me—it’s a responsibility I have to my Sephardic ancestors to keep their traditions and stories alive and to make sure they get passed on to future generations. And now I am responsible for a member of that future generation. I am a Ladino singer, and a mother.
As I look at my beautiful daughter now, I have been asking myself how I want to transmit my family tradition to her. What part of my Sephardic heritage do I want to pass down? Do I try to speak to her in Ladino, aware that she will have few people to speak it with as she grows older? Do I sing her Ladino songs each night so they get planted into her subconscious?
There is no doubt being a mother has already changed my performance repertoire. Although I pride myself on writing original music in Ladino, I have recently added a song into my sets that hails from the traditional canon. “Durme, Durme” is a song about how your heart actually aches when you watch over a loved one as (s)he sleep, because all you want now is to protect him/her from ever feeling sorrow.
Sleep, sleep beautiful one
Sleep without worry or sorrow.
Here is your slave whose only desire is
To watch over your sleep with the greatest of love
As time goes by my heart aches
With the love I have for you
Listen, listen my love
Listen to the song of my heartache.
“Durme, Durme” has quickly become one of my favorite, and defining, songs for me. Performing this beloved Sephardic song connects me firmly to my tradition, and now that I picture my baby girl as I sing it, also lets me think about my future. I want my daughter to sleep without worry or sorrow that she will feel disconnected to her past. I want her always to know the beauty of her heritage. And of course, I want her to know that I, her mother, will always be there for her with love and song.
“Ensuenyo Te Vi”
Three words that normally don’t go together: Ladino, Pop, Pregnant. But in my world they make a perfect fit. Ensuenyo Te Vi is a music track off my latest Ladino (Judeo-Spanish) album, Gracia, named after the 16th century Sephardic heroine, Dona Gracia Naci. She is one of the great women of Jewish history, and yet her story is little told. Born into a family of conversos, Jews who converted to Christianity to save themselves from the Inquisition, Dona Gracia always understood the importance of preserving her Jewish identity. Widowed at 28 as a single mother, she amassed a great fortune and became the richest woman in Europe of the time. And what did she do with the money? She used it to secure safe passage for other Jews escaping the Inquisition and led them to safety in Tiberias, Israel. She saved multitudes through her immense courage, commitment to culture, and her feminine wisdom. And yet, she is but a footnote in most history books.
I wanted to pay tribute to her through many of the songs on my album. I wanted to say gracias to her for leading the way—for serving as a light and role model to me and to so many others.
The choice to include Ensuenyo to Vi, a contemporary Ladino song, not a traditional one from ages past, was a conscious one. Much of what people know about Ladino music comes from a standard repertoire that has been circulating for the last 500+ years. One thing I admire so much about Dona Gracia, is that she was seldom looking backwards; instead she was looking ahead. That is one of my primary goals for preserving Ladino culture as well. In order to keep the culture alive, we need to be writing and performing new works in the language. We need to be reimagining how Ladino culture, in its universality, can appeal to a wide audience today.
I am also indebted to my own family, who came from Macedonia and Greece, for working so hard to preserve our Ladino heritage through hundreds of years and many displacements and wars. As the culture continues to fade, I feel compelled to do what I can to highlight the most beautiful, uplifting message of Ladino. So this song has the simplest of themes, love: I dreamed of kissing you in my sleep, and when I woke up you were right there next to me. When thinking about how to present this song, I decided to literally breathe new life into the accompanying video. I purposely filmed it while 6+ months pregnant!
While very few video examples exist of other pop-style contemporary Ladino songs, I’m proud of the fact that Ensuenyo Te Vi is probably the only Ladino pop video featuring a pregnant singer. Ladino culture is full of life and I hope that my message comes out clear—this is not a dying culture. Far from it. Ladino is pregnant with possibilities to continue and thrive for a new audience and generation to come. I hope Dona Gracia would be proud.
Sarah Aroeste is an international singer of contemporary Ladino music She can be booked for appearances. Her third album, ‘Gracia,’ a mix of feminist, experimental and original Ladino songs, was released last year.