Israeli Maor Sanbata came to the United States this past summer to be a counselor at Camp Be’chol Lashon. Born in Ethiopia, his personal experience opens a new perspective on what it means to be Jewish.
Tell us a little about your childhood.
I was born in a small village in Ethiopia called Amder close to the provincial capital city of Gondar. Even though I was young, I worked as a shepherd. My family lived as Jews, observing Shabbat, celebrating holidays, and reading Torah.
My grandfather was a Holy Man, a Kes. He had a special way of talking to God. He could make miracles. I saw them with my own eyes. In our village the houses are built one next to each other in a line. And there is a fire for cooking in each house. Once, a young wild girl started a fire in her hut. There was no fire department and if it had spread it would have burned down the whole row of houses. My grandfather bowed down to God and prayed the fire would not spread. And it did not. Not to any other building. So strong was his connection to God.
How did you come to Israel?
I specifically remember the longing to go to Israel. I will never forget the stories my mother would tell me of a Holy Land flowing with milk and honey, and praying to go to Jerusalem one day. In 1991, my mother and father and three of my sisters and three of my brothers walked for a full month from Gondar to Addis Ababa. From there, we came to Israel.
When I came to Israel, I did not know one word of Hebrew. I had never been to school. Never. I did not know how to read or write. They sent me to school and for three years I did not understand anything. Anything. But I’m smart and hard-working. I became a commander in the Israel Defense Forces. After my release from the army, I decided that only through education could I play a key role in Israeli society. I studied law and now advocate for Ethiopians in Israel.
Why did you come to Camp Be’chol Lashon?
Despite academic achievement and integration, I sometimes feel like a stranger in my country and some of the Israeli public doubts my Judaism. I work towards a time when not a single person will be judged because of his or her skin color or outlook on life and that all human beings are treated equally before God that created us all.
I identify with the ideology of the camp, to accept who you are and where you are from and no matter what kind of family you come from – black, white purple – be proud of who you are and your identity. I connect with this approach. This is my approach.
What surprised you about coming to the United States and Camp Be’chol Lashon?
Well it is my first time in America so everything is surprising. It is also surprising that there is an organization like this, that wants to create unity between people but not be embarrassed of who you are.
What do you think that the campers learned from you?
Israel is a country for Jews of all colors. They also learned about my story and successes and struggles. It is not always easy to be Black, Ethiopian, Jewish or Israeli. Also they learned that wherever you are there are the same issues of acceptance.
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It is an incredible responsibility to raise a child. In choosing foreign adoption, we have become parents to a beautiful daughter and added a new culture to our family life.
Our daughter, Eliyana Bracha Nuhamin, became legally ours on Nov 18th, 2013. As part of our adoption hearing we promised to bring her up with pride in her Ethiopian heritage. This was a joyful promise to make as we have fallen in love with the beauty of our daughter’s homeland. However, the reality of making it happen must go beyond clothing and food and reach the core of Ethiopian values and pride.
The first time we met our daughter at the Ethiopian orphanage the nanny told us what a good baby she was. She was polite. “Polite” is the highest praise for children in Ethiopian culture. It means they are not demanding. They are patient. They are accepting. Eliyana Nuhamin is a pretty happy and content baby. When she is not laughing, a quiet serenity emanates from her.
I have always prided myself on my Jewish inquisitiveness. Questioning is talmudic value. How will this mesh with the Ethiopian values of patience and quiet acceptance? We will have to keep our eyes open as we navigate these waters.
The depth of poverty in Ethiopia is truly shocking. In America, where we have so much: It is a blessing but it spoils us. If we are to be true to our daughter’s roots, to the values of her country of birth, we will have to guard our daughter’s precious Ethiopian politeness and learn from her .
Love in Ethiopia is given to children with cuddles and caresses and layers upon layers of clothing. (Bundling children in clothing is a sign of love.) A school child often receives new clothing as a reward for school work. There are few toy varieties. Storytelling, singing, and dancing are the main entertainment and for children they always hold lessons of cultural value. The Jewish parallel here warms my heart.
Family togetherness is highly valued. Farm village children are still excused from school to help the harvest. Women wear their babies wrapped on their backs so that they are always together.
The Ethiopians are a beautiful people, very polite, usually smiling. Haggling in the market is just as often done with smiles and giggles as it is with serious concentration. Traditional meals are communal: Injera bread, coverered with stew is placed in the center of the group for all to enjoy. Time is taken every day to meet with neighbors and family over coffee and popcorn in the traditional coffee ceremony. Hospitality is important. These too are Jewish values.
These are a people of deep pride. Dinknesh, meaning “you are lovely,” is the Ethiopian name given to the 4 million year old remains of the first human. (The English world calls her Lucy.) Seeing her tiny skeleton surrounded by the tremendous pride of the Ethiopian people was very moving. This is the country from which emanated humanity.
Ethiopia, birthplace of coffee, is the only African country never to have been colonized. The Italians tried in 1935 but were ousted by 1940. The royal family traced it’s ancestry to King Solomon of Jerusalem and the Ethiopian church claims guardianship of the lost ark of the covenant. They are a people of deep pride and beauty. There are over 70 different Ethnic groups in the country each with their own distinct language. When I asked someone why the children of Ethiopia are so beautiful, he answered it was the blending of all that was best of these different groups.. then he smile and said, but mostly it is God.
Beauty and dignity are everywhere in Ethiopia. A church holiday gave us the treat of watching lines of Ethiopians in traditional white robes walking along the road to church carrying colorful umbrellas. The farm homes may have been quiet mud huts but the churches and mosques were elegant colorful buildings announcing their congregations joy. I loved the many groups of animals we passed in the countryside: cattle with desert humps on their back, spotted goats and sheep and donkeys driving carts of farm produce behind them. Often it was the children moving the animals from one place to another.
I know it pains the Ethiopian people to see their children adopted out of country. These children lose the blessings of belonging wholly to this beautiful country. But I also know that our longing for a child is matched equally by the orphan’s longing for parents. I pray that God’s holiness rest in this match: a mother from Toronto, a father from Brooklyn, a baby from Addis Ababa. May our cultures of Ethiopia, Judaism, and American blend in love and Torah.
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It is, after all, a question that does not (and probably should not) have a completely rational, logical answer. Religion is not like algebra; it’s not even some sort of complicated spiritual calculus. At the core of it, faith cannot be deduced from a set of rational principles; it requires a leap of the heart.
The problem was that I didn’t feel religious, not for a long time. I had spent years envying my friends who were confident in their Christian belief; I only had doubt to console me. And yet, I was also driven by some need, a quiet longing buried deep, like a song I could not quite hear, a desire for something greater than myself. I wanted to pray and feel like it mattered that I did.
Of course, I felt ridiculous for wanting these things; I felt that it was irrational to think I had any concern for God, or that God had any concern for me.
Once when I was small, I left a plastic purse behind in a restaurant. My grandma patiently took me back, and we found the purse still sitting on the floor where I had left it. Happy to have it back, I told her how lucky I was to have found it. She shook her head: “No, God was watching out for you.”
My grandma’s response sounded reasonable at the time. But as I grew in experience, I slowly came to the realization that God doesn’t rearrange his schedule around my convenience. God doesn’t even let me choose at which times these things will work out to my advantage. And so I prayed: O God, I wouldn’t mind losing now and then, if only I could choose when I win!
When I first started the process of conversion, I really didn’t think that I would ever become a Jew. It was inconceivable to me. As a friend of mine once exclaimed when I told her I was converting “you can’t become Jewish; that’s like saying ‘I want to be Italian” — you can’t just wake up one day and decide to become Italian.” But the truth is, I didn’ t just wake up one day and decide to become Jewish. It was a gradual process that took several years.
I would have to say the day I first considered converting to Judaism was the first time I saw a page of the Talmud. I was talking with my boyfriend (now my ex-husband) about my reason for disliking religion (it’s one of those conversations college students are bound to have) and I told him that I didn’t like the emphasis in religion on having faith in a certain set of beliefs. I felt that my church had not let me have room to doubt or to argue or to disagree. He said that Judaism did not insist on a set of beliefs; in fact, arguing was part of the tradition. I didn’t believe him, so he took me down to a bookstore, pulled out one of the volumes of the Talmud (the illustrated gift set, stored next to the presentation bibles). He was quite proud of himself: “See, this here in the middle is the text, and round the sides are the commentary. They’re arguing about the meaning of the text.” I was immediately intrigued. I could like a people who would write their arguments along the margins of the text.
That day, I started quietly reading about Judaism, hiding the books under my bed. Years later, my husband insisted that I buy just one Jewish book at a time. I was lucky, actually, because I was able to find what I was looking for: a warm religious community at Temple Beth El, and educational opportunities like an Introduction to Judaism, the Adult Bar/Bat Mitzvah class, and the weekly Torah study. Maybe my grandma was right after all: God was watching out for me.
The question is sometimes also asked: Could I have found what I was looking for if I had stayed a Christian? The answer probably would have been yes. But it’s a moot point now. To paraphrase Robert Frost: I have taken the road less traveled, and for me that has made all the difference. Even so, I recognize that conversion is not the answer for everyone. It is a process a person goes through for their own reasons in their own time. It is, after all, a private choice, probably the most private choice of all. No one can make that decision for you.
So, to answer the question, why did I convert: I converted to Judaism because it provided me a way to answer the longing that I felt. Or to put it more poetically: I changed my name to Israel because I was wrestling with God.
If you’re exploring conversion or know people who are, we recommend Anita Diamant’s Choosing a Jewish Life: A Handbook for People Converting to Judaism and for the Family and Friends.
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I became Bar Mitzvah on April 20th, 2002, the 130th anniversary of Hitler’s birth. My dad’s side of the family wore West African dashikis. The only other time my temple had held that many Black people was Bingo night. We did not have the money to rent a hotel or hire a live band like many of my Jewish classmates, but the small venue where we hosted my after party happened to be directly across the street from Brown University’s spring weekend concert. I became a man in my Jewish community while my family wore dashikis on Hitler’s birthday and inhaled second-hand weed smoke while watching The Roots (arguably the best hip hop band of all time) play a concert 100 feet away.
Sixty years prior, the world watched as my mother’s ancestors were shuffled into train cars and transported to their deaths. My father’s great-grandmother was born a slave and died a free woman. My truth is that for as much of history as I know, people have been inventing ways to enslave, manipulate, and exterminate my family. And yet I am privileged to have lived a life of Bar Mitzvahs and rap concerts. I exist because of a series of improbable survivals and I believe that, as part of a legacy of both Black writers and Jewish writers, I am compelled to tell my story.
I am a poet. I am a story teller. I am part of a legacy of survivors. As a writer, I believe I am at its best when I am telling the truth. I think this is because when I express my own lived experience, it is so ridiculous and so specific that it reads as an untruth, a history so unfathomable it must be a lie. I think that is what it means to be Jewish; I think that is what it means to be black—to know the truth so well, even when the rest of the world denies its existence. And yet, we still find time to celebrate. We find time to dance, and drink, and love, even when we are surrounded by a vortex of impossible.
For me the processes of writing and identity exploration are inseparable, just as my journey to understand Blackness will always be inextricably tied to my journey to understand my Jewishness. Writing poetry is what helps me tell my story, to dive into the tangle of truth and untruth and suffering and magic and ridiculous improbability that is the bricolage of my history.
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At 6’2”, 210-pound Avi Rosenblum has tattoos that reflect his religious faith and cultural heritage. He stands out. Some might be astounded that this typical African American football player is the adopted son of a Caucasian, Jewish couple that keep a kosher home and who have never allowed their son to slip through the cracks.
Avi is a new breed of Jew, and I am proud of the path he’s walked. He has been my friend for more than a dozen years. We have been on the field together and in the pews. It’s hard to say farewell, so instead I’ll say “Welcome Home.”
Avi just recently moved from his home in Albany, California and headed off to Jerusalem, Israel to play wide-receiver and defensive back for the Tel Aviv Sabres, a team within the Israeli Football League. I’ve watched Avi since his early childhood grow into the strong and charismatic young man he is today. Be’chol Lashon introduced to the two of us to one another in a space where we were looking for others with common identities. Hannukah Bazaars, where else would one find an East Bay Area, African-American, Jewish football player?
I’ve played with fellow Jews (Ben Liepman, I see you big guy!), coached them (yeah Jake Schnur, I’m talking about you!), but Avi is the first I’ve mentored and worked with within the confines of coaching, taking him under my wing as an assistant coach at El Cerito High. To see him teach, connect, and lead a group of young men the way he did was inspiring, and to the naked eye was a typical sketch in our football community.
A big shout-out, mazel-tov, and good luck goes out to my man Avi Rosenblum, a local kid pursuing his dream of playing professional football.
If you could only cook three dishes for Shabbat dinner what would they be?
This was the question we posed to culinary historian Michael “Kosher Soul” Twitty, author of the Afroculinaria blog and a Jewish educator. Twitty, who was most recently featured on Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s The African Americans on PBS will be the chef-in-residence at Be’chol Lashon’s upcoming retreat.
The Shabbes table is reminiscent of the way my grandmother would frame occasional Sunday dinners and holiday meals, white tablecloths and candles. So that Jewish esthetic makes sense to me. It engenders respect and sacredness. I would polish candlesticks and set out tablecloths. I’m not great at setting the table but how the food looked was important to my mother and my grandmother. Julius Lester says, “the Shabbes Table is a banquet for God.” The table becomes a crossroads between the divine and earth, a sacred circle. In both the African and Jewish Diasporas, the sacred circle, where multiple parts of ourselves meet, is an important theme. That is what helps make the table be a mizbeach, a holy alter. I find myself cooking for Shabbes with a great spirit of urgency and putting as much kedusha [holiness] as possible. People sometimes forget this ;— kedusha is the greatest spice.
If I could only cook three dishes it would have to be all the parts of who I am.
Number one would be Kasha Varnishkes. I make a mean kasha varnishkes in its pure form with onions browned and a little bit of garlic. Really earthy. I’m not a groats and seed feeder but there is something is very satisfying about a plate of kasha varnishkes. It is brothy, I use 3-4 kinds of onions. The whole garden goes in the broth. So simple and so pleasing.
In Jewish cooking you have foods dictated by text, food that the Torah talks about. Then you have foods that speak to the land of Israel and what grows there. Then you have foods that come from the places we have been, from our diaspora. And then there is identity cooking. The foods that are tied up with your sense of self and the place you are in, where you are and how you are connected to that place.
When I make kasha varnishkes, that is straight up s’htep food. When you can master traditions like that it is a way of saying I’m here. I’ve arrived here and I’m not going anywhere.
My second food would be barbecue beef ribs. Because you can’t get Blacker than barbecue. That is our unique contribution to American cuisine above the rest. It is not a food you make just because you feel like it. You make it for a special occasion. It makes your clothes smell a certain way. Your hands smell a certain way. You plan for it, work for it. And I don’t mean making it in the oven. You marinate it. You rub it. Out comes the hickory. It cooks for three to four hours and then you cut them up and there they go.
Barbecue connects me with my father and my grandfather. Very male food in terms of who made it. A patrilineal dish. We get it passed down to from our fathers, and from their fathers. I make two recipes, one more traditional; marinate forever, rub forever and smoke forever. And the other I call Yiddishe Ribbenes which takes all the flavors from all the parts of the Jewish Diaspora and makes the same flavor profile I grew up with. I like to do both.
For the third dish, I have to say Kosher Soul Rolls. Kosher soul rolls are Black Jewish egg rolls. Instead of cabbage, collard greens. Instead of ham or pork, I use pastrami. One thing Blacks and Jews have in common is loving Chinese food. Deep-fry them, of course.
Can I add a bread? My favorite challah recipe is the Beigel Family Challah from Joan Nathan’s The Foods of Israel Today. It is best challah I’ve ever made or tasted so that’s the one I make. And every time I make the challah the story comes with it. This was a family that survived the Shoah and made their way to Israel. Tribute challah.
Iris Aluf Medina was born and raised in Turkey and now lives in San Francisco. We met up with this Be’chol Lashon board member ahead of our annual retreat where she will be teaching traditional Turkish Jewish cooking.
Is it true that the Sultan once courted your grandmother?
(Laughs) Yes and no. It was my great grandmother, my mother’s mother. She was very striking, bright blond hair and blue eyes.
So you look like her?
That’s what they say.
Her family dealt in gold and was very wealthy. The family made sure she was educated. She spoke Ladino, Turkish, English and French, which was very unusual. She could also play the piano. Very educated, very refined.
The Sultan came to visit her school and wanted a child to read a poem. The Sultan spoke Ottoman, which was its own language, which no one spoke, but he also spoke French and English so they had to find a kid who spoke one of those languages. They chose my great grandmother because she was 16 blond and pretty, old enough to marry young enough to go to high school. Apparently the Sultan liked what he saw so he sent her a broach as an invitation to his harem. You could not say no to the Sultan.
So what did they do?
The only way out was if she was engaged. So her family got her engaged very quickly. They were wealthy so they made a good match.
At least it ended well.
Not really. Her father was transporting gold one day after the engagement when he was attacked. They took all his gold, beat him and put him in a pit. He was eventually found and rescued but he lost his mind and as a result his business. The engagement fell through. We suspect the Sultan had something to do with this but of course we could not prove it.
What did your great-grandmother do?
She did not marry until she was 26 which in those days was pretty old. She did not know how to cook or clean. She was educated in French and music but not in running a home. They found a French teacher for her to marry. It was the best match but it was a bad marriage.
We say it was the Sultan’s curse: she was never happy again.
Hanukkah is observed with joy and celebration in Jewish communities around the world. There are 8 nights of lights and blessings the world over but there are also many ways different communities make the holiday uniquely their own. Here are 8 customs and ideas to help you make your celebration just a little more global.
1) In Alsace, a region of France, double-decker Hanukkah menorahs were common with space for 16 lights. The two levels, each with spots for 8 lights, allowed fathers and sons to join together as they each lit their own lights in one single menorah.
2) There is a custom of placing your menorah in a place where people will be able to view the lights burning and appreciate the miracle of the holiday. In some Jerusalem neighborhoods, there are spaces cut into the sides of buildings so people can display them outside. Historically in countries like Morroco and Algeria, and even some communities in India, it was customary to hang a menorah on a hook on a wall near the doorway on the side of the door across from the mezuzah.
3) In Yemenite and North African Jewish communities, the seventh night of Hanukkah is set aside as a particular women’s holiday commemorating Hannah whose sacrificed seven sons rather than give in to the Greek pressure to abandon Jewish practice and in honor or Judith, whose seduction and assassination of Holofernes, the Assyrian emperor Nebuchadnezzar’s top general, led to Jewish military victory.
4) Gift giving at Hannukah time is primarily a North American custom, but it is easy to make it global by gifting Jewish items made around the world like hand made necklaces from Uganda, challah covers from Ghana or kippot from China.
5) In Santa Marta, Colombia, Chavurah Shirat Hayyam a new Jewish community, has started their own traditional Hanukkah recipe, instead of eating fried potato latkes, they eat Patacones, or fried plantains.
6) The Ethiopian and parts of Indian Jewish communities split off from the larger Jewish community in ancient time before Hanukkah was established as a Jewish holiday. They only began celebrating Hanukkah in modern times, when their communities were reunited with other Jewish communities.
7) In 1839, thousands of Jews fled Persia, where the Muslim authorities began forcibly converting them, and settled in Afghanistan. While some of them lived openly as Jews, others hid their Jewish identity. When Hanukkah time came around they would not light a special menorah, for fear it would attract the notice of Muslim neighbors. Instead they would fill little plates with oil and set them near each other. If neighbors stopped by, they could simply make the menorah disappear by spreading the plates around the house.
8) The rich culinary traditions of the Moroccan Jewish community know not of potato latkes or jelly doughnuts. Rather they favor the citrusy flavors of the Sfenj doughnut, which was made with the juice, and zest of an orange. Notably, from the early days of nation building in Israel, the orange came to be associated with the holiday of Hanukkah as the famed Jaffa oranges came into season in time for the holiday celebrations.
Oklahoma City, where I live, has an amazing Jewish community. And, unfortunately, this amazing Jewish community is an expert in dealing with disaster. From the Oklahoma City bombing to the relentless wave of deadly tornadoes that have hit the area, Okie Jews (as we proudly call ourselves) respond with generosity, gumption, and optimism. So when this week our rabbi told us that two relatives of members of the community were in the affected area of Typhoon Haiyan, the community sprung into action. Donations were requested, support for the concerned families was arranged and we decided to help with our prayers by reciting the entire book of Psalms in the coming month (5 Psalms a day covers it all).
In Jewish tradition, whenever disaster strikes it is customary to accompany our physical response together with a spiritual response: prayer, action, and tzedakah (charitable deeds) are the Jewish response to tragedy. Traditionally, prayer come from the book of Psalms with its evocative language of raw humanity and hope has been a preferred tool to raise our awareness of the suffering of those affected but also to inspire us to compassion and proactivity.
As part of my work with Be’chol Lashon, I teach Torah online to Spanish speaking Jews and Spanish speakers interested in Judaism. Inspired by the Okie response, that night I invited my Spanish language learning community on Facebook to join us in the recitation of Psalms for the victims.
“Why are you doing this?” some wanted to know. The answers came from the students themselves. A student from Honduras recalled the help they had received when Hurricane Mitch hit this country. A student from Colombia emphasized the responsibility he felt as a human being with any kind of human suffering. A Mexican student quoted the words of Hillel ”If I am only for myself, what am I?” The support was overwhelming. Scores of people volunteered to connect with my brick and mortar community in Oklahoma to reach out in prayer and action for a community halfway across the world.
These feelings of altruism and generosity are not new but what is surprising is the way in which living in a wired world has expanded the breadth of the planet´s capacity for empathy. In this world where no longer are we separated by six degrees (latest studies calculate it at four and plummeting) of separation. A synagogue in Oklahoma might be the vehicle for scores of Latin-Americans to connect with a tragedy halfway around the world and to do so in unmistakably Jewish ways. Tehilim are being said, and donations are being gathered by total strangers for total strangers. For all of its downsides, our global village has allowed the highest forms of tzedakah (in which both the donor and the recipient do so anonymously) to break the barriers of the pushke and the local synagogue and go global.
“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.