When I was in Israel this fall, I ended up going to a Sephardic synagogue one Shabbat morning, and served as the impromptu teacher for the rest of my group who very clearly had never been to a non-Ashkenazic synagogue and were unfamiliar with the unique and different customs, tunes, and liturgical readings that came along with the shul. The following Shabbat, I found myself in a traditional Ashkenazi shul, like any you would find here in the US, and was fully able to participate in the davening (prayer). I was able to successfully pass in both communities.
In reflecting on my experiences, I was reminded of a line that I heard from time to time growing up, “so your dad is Greek and your mom’s Jewish,” an assumption that was wholly incorrect. I am the product of an intermarriage of sorts, but not the kind you’re probably thinking of. My mother’s family hails from various parts of Eastern Europe, and my dad’s family comes from Greece, and all sides of my family are historically Jewish. When I explain this, I usually get the line, “so then that makes you Sephardic right?” Not exactly. The Greek Jews that I descend from are called Romaniote, with a history in Greece dating back to Roman times. According to the legend, when the Romans were sending slave ships back to Rome after the destruction of the Second Temple (so around 70-80 CE), one of the ships hit some sort of rock and was sinking. The captain of the ship let the slaves free, saying if they could swim to shore, they were free to go. They ended up coming ashore on the coast of Greece, and thus followed thousands of years of history, unique liturgy, tunes, and foods.
As I have set out on my own, apart from my parents, I have come to realize that I have a foot in both worlds, but at the same time, in neither. During Barak Obama’s first presidential campaign, I remember seeing a news talk show talking about how he was too Black for white people and too white for Black people, and feeling a sense of “that’s how I feel too,” everywhere and nowhere at the same time.
Don’t get me wrong, I have an amazing family and wouldn’t change them for the world, but each time someone says “so you’re half Jewish,” or in the Greek world jokes that I’m not “fully or really” Greek, it feels like a punch to the gut.
I grew up on matzah ball soup, but also on prassa keftedes, a Greek food made of leeks, onions, scallions, and spices all shredded, mixed together, and fried in small patties (think potato latkes, but sub leeks for potatoes). I am reminded of a story I heard countless times growing up. My mom and her parents were invited by her fiancé (my dad) to his family’s seder, replete with Greek tunes and customs. Out came the meal, and my maternal grandmother was shocked and confused to see what looked like mini hamburgers that looked extra well done. Little did she realize that these were leek patties, something that she would enjoy for years to come. Fast forward about 25 years to the first year I was married and we had all the sides of our family over for an all-encompassing seder, replete with all the trimmings, both Greek and Ashkenaz. Sure enough, when we went to serve the soup course of matzah ball soup, members of my Greek family looked puzzled and asked what it was, since it was a food that they were unfamiliar with.
Unlike the questions from strangers that felt intrusive, the questions posed by my grandparents felt welcome. They came from a place of love and relationship not random curiosity. My personal Jewish story is unique, like so many American Jewish stories. I don’t want to be treated like an exhibition in a museum and have people prey and prod. Rather I welcome opportunities to share my story and my unique Jewish knowledge, like I did in Jerusalem. It is my hope that we can change the conversation from one of “how you are Jewish?” to one of “I’d love to hear about your Jewish experience.”
Praso Keftethes -Leek Patties
4 bunches of leeks
3 medium onions
1 tablespoon parsley (dry)
1 tablespoon dill (dry)
¼ cup matzo meal
½ pound ground meat Optional
Oil for frying
Salt and pepper to taste
Cut off the heads and ends of leeks leaving only about an inch of the green.
Slice each leek length wise and then into three pieces.
Rinse well in cold water to ensure that all the sand is removed.
Boil until very soft.
Remove from water but leave water boiling for other onions.
Drain well in colander and squeeze until as much excess liquid is possible is removed.
Finely chop with meat cleaver or food processor until all are finely chopped and a little wet.
Put leeks in mixing bowl.
Chop onions and put into pot to boil until soft and translucent.
Drain onions in colander.
Add parsley, dill, egg, matzo meal, salt and pepper. Optional ground meat can be added at this point as well.
Mix well then form into 2-inch patties.
Heat about ½ inch of oil in a pan.
Fry patties until crusty and very dark brown almost burnt.
“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.