When William Faulkner wrote these words in Requiem for a Nun, I’m pretty certain he didn’t have a formerly opera-singing African-American performer of Yiddish in mind. Nonetheless, for me Faulkner’s words still manage to apply.
I spend most of my time dealing with one past or another. There’s my ethnic past and present as an African-American. There’s my acquired past as a convert to Judaism and a Jewish educator. And finally, there’s the past in my work as artist: previously as an opera singer and presently as a performer of Yiddish. In my professional life, I’ve impersonated everything from an 18th-century Spanish peasant to a Union soldier to a shtetl shames calling Jews to prayer. My future seems firmly rooted in the past, and I thoroughly enjoy it.
Singing in Yiddish really brought this stuff we all so dismissively call “the past” sharply into focus. I didn’t have to imagine the lives and customs of the Hasidic world my repertoire often describes. I just took a train one Shushan Purim to Brooklyn and experienced it for myself. I didn’t have to pull out a library card to find artists and critics who worked in Yiddish. I just had to stop by a bar to hear Sarah Gordon perform and wait for Rokhl Kafrissen to accept my Facebook friend request. (She totally did, by the way).
Last Slichos, I picked up an old book from a used book sale at a synagogue I was performing at in Irvine, CA. When I first cracked it open, it struck me as a little odd. First the book was in Yiddish. Then it was in English. And then Yiddish again.
The title page read in Yiddish and English, “Key to the Exercises of Ollendorff’s Method by Alexander Harkavy.” The Yiddish inscription differed from the English by stating that it was Ollendorff’s Method “tsulernen english”—”to learn English.” The English stated that it was published in New York by the Hebrew Publishing Company in 1908. In 2014 I took it home and started using it to improve my reading in Yiddish.
I used the book backwards (undoubtedly to the horror of Ollendorff and Harkavy), the English giving way to English words and phrases transliterated into Hebrew letters and then, eventually, instructions on the rudimentary elements of the English language written in Yiddish. It was in this last (first if you read in the other direction) section that the past popped up to declare itself, well…not past. A brown, very fragile scrap of paper was between pages 88 and 89. It had been there so long that the acid from the paper had left dark impressions on the pages. In a beautiful cursive hand, it read: “Mrs. Silberstern 1018 E. 163 St Bronx.”
I instantly went to Google Maps street view in order to look up the address and there it was: an old, pre-war-looking building with three people—a young black boy, a young black girl down the block and, perhaps, their mother, caught in a blur of movement—exiting the building. This was the place where Mrs. Silberstern lived.
Was the book hers? Or somebody who knew her? Was the owner of the book teaching another Yiddish-speaker English, perhaps Mrs. Silberstern? Or maybe Mrs. Silberstern was teaching herself English? And how in the world did the book get from the Bronx to Irvine, CA? How did Mrs. Silberstern get to the Bronx?
I’ll probably never find the answers to these questions. Between this scrap of paper, this book and Faulkner’s statement, I just find more questions.
Is the past ever really past?
There is a myth that Jewish music is “always in a minor key,” and often echoes themes of pieces like “Hava Nagila” and “Kol Nidrei.” So last spring when I met with Judi Lamble, the coordinator and Michael Olsen, the conductor of the Twin Cities Jewish Choral, we knew that a global Jewish music concert was the best way to debunk the myth!
Because Jews have settled in countries around the world throughout history and have adopted the sounds, tastes and customs of their host countries, our music has often taken on the styles of the countries we have lived in. So it is not unusual to have a Jewish folk song that sounds like a Yugoslavian dance, a “L’cha Dodi” that rocks to an African beat, or a love song written in Ladino, which grew out of Medieval Spanish.
When I was in my first year of cantorial school in Jerusalem, Eli Schleiffer, the director of the cantorial program, took us to Shabbat evening services in different synagogues every few weeks. Afterwards, we would gather in someone’s home for Shabbat dinner, and Cantor Schleiffer would lead Kiddush in the musical style of the synagogue we’d just visited! I was astounded that the same text could be sung to so many different tunes, and thus was born my fascination with Jewish music from around the world. I loved that we had this treasure trove of wildly varied music that we could call ours.
This intrigue led me to write my senior cantorial thesis, accompanied by a recital of the same theme, about Sephardic wedding music. Under this one umbrella, I was able to write about and sing music from Greece, Morocco, Spain and Yugoslavia. I was even able to study directly with Flory Jagoda, a Bosnian Jewish living legend, who has perpetuated a centuries-old tradition by writing new Sephardic music including “Ocho Kandelikas,” a well-known Hanukkah song.
So when I had an opportunity to plan a concert with another choir, I mentioned the possibility of featuring Jewish music from around the world. The idea was met with great enthusiasm. Our children’s and teen choirs are deep into rehearsing a Yiddish song, a Sufi-tuned “Hinei Mah Tov,” a Ladino children’s song, and a psalm from Calcutta. I am proud to pass along the chain of Jewish tradition that has so many interesting links, and the kids love it. Our adult choir, along with the Twin Cities Jewish Chorale is learning a choral arrangement of “Ocho Kandelikas,” a Ugandan “Hinei Mah Tov,” and, of course, some Israeli music.
I look forward to presenting this concert in our sanctuary, designed by the German Jewish architect, Erich Mendelsohn for a then Classical Reform American synagogue that now features Jewish music from around the globe and throughout history. I know there will be much interest, many surprises and, hopefully, a lot of questions.
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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Ladino first cast its magic spell on me in childhood. It always struck me as a graceful, rolling language, one of emotion and longing, filled with desire. It was a secret language that my mother spoke with her mother, my grandmother, of blessed memory. My grandmother immigrated to Israel from Bulgaria, arriving as Ladino-speaking Tanya and eventually becoming Hebrew-speaking Shoshana. But when my mother and grandmother wanted to speak without us girls understanding, they spoke Ladino. And so Ladino took root for me as the language of women.
In 2004 I founded the Israeli Ethnic Ensemble, which appears around the world with a rich and fascinating program of Sephardic music. Sephardic musical culture has been preserved for hundreds of years. Ladino songs originated in the 9th-13th centuries, when Jewish life flourished in Spain. It continued to develop after the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492. And it is this music that inspires me and my ensemble.
As a professional, delving into magical musical materials preserved in Ladino, I discovered that the preservation of this tradition by women was not unique to my family. When the Jews were expelled from Spain and spread across Turkey, Greece, Bulgaria, Morocco, etc., it was the men who worked outside the home, mingling with the locals and the language of the place. By contrast women rarely left their homes, did not integrate into the local population and continued to exclusively or dominantly speak Ladino. Women continued to create songs and melodies in Ladino expressing their feelings, difficulties, joys and grief. The vast majority of Ladino songs are songs “feminine;” wedding songs, lullabies, love songs, etc. Through women, the language has been preserved as it was spoken centuries ago.
One of the historic Jewish centers in Spain was in Cordoba. Moses Maimonides, one of the most influential Jewish thinkers of all time, was born there circa 1135. But he left, as Muslim rule made Jewish life difficult. Later Christians ruled the city and in the 15th century the Jews of Cordoba were expelled or forced to convert along with their fellow co-religionists. So it was particularly meaningful when the Israeli Ethnic Ensemble was invited by the City of Cordoba to appear in the 13th International Sephardic Jewish Music Festival in Spain.
We arrived in Cordoba late at night. Our group of passionate Israeli musicians includes Gilad Ephrat on double bass, Idan Toledano on guitar and oud, the violinist Chen Shenhar and myself singing the vocals. We woke in the morning and set out to discover this warm, sleepy town. We went to the Old City in search of the statue of Maimonides. We had heard about the blessing and good fortune that befalls those who touch the feet of the statue and pay tribute to the great scholar. A short tour of the alleys of Cordoba’s Old City taught us that the current vibrancy of the modern municipality is tied to the ancient culture and heritage left by our ancestors when they were expelled. It was amazing to see intense tourist activity in the Old City. The statue of Maimonides is a focal point of an attractive tourist center. The municipality of Cordoba has already embarked on an extensive public relations campaign and refurbishment of the Jewish synagogue to be completed in 2015 on the 700th anniversary of its founding.
The International Sephardic Festival which takes place every year in June is one of the city’s main music events. For the last 13 years, Spain has hosted musicians from around the world. This year, the beautiful botanical gardens were the site for six days of performances from Spain, Poland, Portugal and Israel. After visiting the Old City and the dark, horrifying museum of the Holy Inquisition, we headed towards the botanical gardens where the festival was to be held. There was a wine tasting workshop, followed by the opening act of the festival. The transition to the pastoral calm of the setting and the beautiful music was jarring, but we had come for a short visit to a city with a glorious but troubled past and it could not have been otherwise.
What makes a secular Israeli connect to his Jewish identity, roots and spirituality? What makes secular Jew from Jerusalem become a Jewish educator in San Francisco? The answers are music, spirituality and the relationship between the two.
If someone had told me ten years ago that I would become a Jewish educator, I would never have believed it. Moreover, if someone had told me that I would write Jewish music, I would most likely laugh in his or her face. The world of Judaism was never a motivation in my life until I left Israel and arrived in San Francisco.
My parents originally came from Greece and Iraq but I was born in Jerusalem. Raised as a secular Israeli, my Jewish identity was always a given fact. Meaning, I am Jewish because I was born to this nation and religion, because of my family’s history, because Hebrew is my language, etc. Aside from reading from the Torah at my Bar Mitzvah and celebrating Jewish holidays, Judaism was not something I practiced. Coming to the US, particularly to the Bay Area, and connecting with local Jewish communities and their definitions of being “Jewish,” I gained a new understanding of my Jewish identity and spirituality.
People relate to spirituality in different ways. It’s not something that’s just given to you. It’s not only something you practice or learn, but something you feel. Spirituality doesn’t exclude anyone. It includes Jewish ideals, but it does not stand exclusively on Jewish beliefs. Spirituality involves global ideals, thoughts and understandings. Most importantly for me, music is the medium, guide and driving force in my own spiritual path.
I emphasize the importance of music not only because it is my love, my passion, my profession and in many ways, the essence of my being, but because music is an incredible educational tool that builds bridges reaching people’s hearts and souls. In fact, it is the reason I became involved with the Jewish community in the US from the first place.
When I arrived in San Francisco ten years ago, I worked as a song leader at Congregation Sherith Israel. While taking these first steps in the world of American Judaism, I learned many songs commonly taught to Jewish children in the US. Many of these songs were outdated and not surprisingly, that my students didn’t relate to them. These songs don’t represent or resemble anything close to the music young American Jews are listening to in their secular lives. Moreover, I felt that most of these Folk/Rock genre Jewish-American songs didn’t represent the story of the whole Jewish diaspora. So I decided to write new Jewish music that speaks to the hearts of the Jewish youth, represents a variety of Jewish communities from around the globe and connects the souls of the listeners with their Jewish identity on a spiritual level.
In 2011, I formed Sol Tevél, a band that focuses on connecting Hebrew roots while engaging world cultures. A year later, we released our debut album, World Light, which aims provide a contemporary interpretation on traditional Jewish texts, ideals and mysticism.
How can we learn more about spirituality? The truth is that it’s not my intention to teach nor preach spirituality, but to share my personal journey into this realm. Teaching for the past 10 years showed me that my students were my best teachers and could (often unintentionally) answer many of the questions we struggle with. And as for “God” or “spirituality,” Austin Branner, one of my 3rd grade students expressed it best with the words that would become the title song for my album World Light:
See the wind flowing by
See the stars up high
See the sand on the ground
See the rocks all around
My God, your God, One God.
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.
Passover is a time for storytelling. One of the main purposes of the holiday is to allow one generation to tell the next generation the story of how we came out of Egypt and journeyed from slavery to freedom. There are many children’s books that engage young minds by going beyond the telling found in the traditional Passover haggadah. In choosing among the possible additions the Seder, we have focused on books that celebrate the diversity of Jewish families and those that introduce the themes of Passover in new or particularly engaging ways:
A relatively newcomer to the Passover scene is the colorfully appealing Afikomen Mambo, by Joe Black and illustrated by Linda Prater. Sold together with the book is a CD with performance by Black, who is well known for his music. Geared to the 3–7 set, this playful combination of illustration and song, do exactly what the Afikomen is meant to do — pique the interest and engagement of the younger set so they stay awake until the end of the Seder. Somewhat puzzling is the plethora of children and the paucity of adults seated around the table. From the looks of it, one set of parents has invited a whole brood of young ones to join in the Passover fun. But at least everyone looks happy doing the Afiokmen Mambo.
The theme of grandparents passing on traditions to grandchildren is a familiar part of Passover; less familiar is the twist it takes in Abuelita’s Secret Matzahs, by Sandy Eisenberg Sasso and illustrated by Diana Bryer. Jacob loves to prepare for Easter with his grandmother, but one day she tells him a secret. Like many others whose Jewish ancestors who were forced to convert to Catholicism in Spain in the 14th and 15th centuries, this family of anusim continued to practice Judaism their Judaism in secret. For the 4–8 set, this is a wonderful introduction to an element of Jewish history that still plays out today. We love that this story brings attention to the stories of individuals who are now, after hundreds of years, finding their way back to their Jewish heritage.
Mindy Avra Portnoy’s A Tale of Two Seders, also offers a different take on the classic family themes of the holiday. The story follows a little girl who after her parents divorce spends one Seder at her mother’s and one at her fathers. Over the years the Seders vary and as Valeria Cis’s illustrations highlight how the people attending the two Seders are themselves varied. Adding to our sense of possibilities are the four recipes for charoset that are included. This book acknowledges the difficulties that the young protagonist faces, without presenting her situation as a tragedy.
The diversity of Passover observances around the world take center stage in two different celebrations of global Jewish life. From the National Geographic Holidays Around the World series comes Celebrate Passover and from Tami Lehman-Wilzig, Passover Around the World. As one expects from National Geographic, there are bold, beautiful photos depicting Jews from Africa to China, from Budapest to Ohio. Lehman-Wilzig’s book moves from place to place as it goes through the Seder, beginning in America and ending in Morroco; the journey is depicted in softly colored illustrations by Elizabeth Wolf.
Elements of the Exodus story can be frightening for children ages 4–8, but in this telling of a traditional tale, facing fears pays off. Nachson, Who Was Afraid to Swim: A Passover Story, by Deborah Bodin Cohen and illustrated by Jago, is a retelling of the rabbinic story of Nachshon ben Aminadav, who had to wade into the Red Sea until the water was up to his neck, in order to make the waters part and let the Israelites to escape the Egyptians on dry land. In the gentle illustrations, the characters’ features and skin tones blend and shift with the background, giving the book warmth and no clear racial focus.
Children ages 9–12 who are reading on their own may enjoy Private Joel and the Swell Mountain Seder, by Bryna J. Fireside and illustrated by Shawn Costello. Set in the Civil War, it tells the story of how Union soldiers improvise to make their Seder happen, even in the midst of a war. While not raising the possibility that there are Jews with dark skin and of African decent, the story does highlight the parallels between the African American experience of slavery and the ancient Israelite experience. The book shines a light on the possibility of sharing stories and traditions.
“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.