Why is May 2019 different from all other months? It’s Jewish American Heritage Month for one, a period that feels especially important to mark given the rising insecurity coursing through Jewish American life. Because visibility is more important than ever before, Refinery29 brings you our celebration of Jewish American culture. L’chaim!
Chances are, if you know anything about American Jews, you know a Yiddish word or two. Such is the dominance of Ashkenazi Jews, who brought Yiddish with them from Eastern and Central Europe, and infused their culture with America’s (more or less). The same cannot be said for Ladino — a Judeo-Spanish language that also brings with it a history and just as many uniquely specific words you didn’t know you needed until you heard them.
Sarah Aroeste, a Ladino musician who’s doing her part to keep the language alive, describes it as “15th century Castilian Spanish mixed in with bits and pieces of French, Italian, Portuguese, Greek, Turkish, Arabic, and yes, Hebrew.” Ladino is spoken among the world’s Sephardic Jews, a group that was expelled from Spain in 1492, and settled across the Ottoman Empire (today the Mediterranean and Middle East).
Today, there are pockets of Sephardic communities in the United States — people who fled their home countries for better opportunity — and Ladino phrases and sayings pepper their American English much in the way that Yiddish does. Some common terms, according to the Sephardic Folk Dictionary are bavajadas (foolishness), fregar (take advantage), debaldes (no charge), bendicho manos (blessed hands), and pinti (moody). “For hundreds of years, Ladino was the primary language spoken by Jews throughout the Mediterranean,” says Aroeste, who is from Princeton, NJ. “And yet today, nobody's even heard of it.”
That’s why Aroeste, whose family hails from North Macedonia and Greece, is doing her part to revive the language. Based in New York, she sings traditional Ladino songs, and writes new ones, often touching on themes of feminism and love, as she did in her 2012 album Gracia. A mother of two, she also focusing on the next generation through children’s literature, an animated series (that appears on YouTube), and a 2016 album called Ora de Despertar. Here, she talks to Refinery29 about the language that was nearly lost, the universality of Ladino music, and how she blends Sephardic Judaism and feminism.
Refinery29: What is your background? Did you grow up speaking Ladino?
“My family came from what is today North Macedonia and Greece. My grandfather was born in Monastir (now known as Bitola in North Macedonia), but I also had extended family from Kastoria and Salonika, Greece. At the time, these borders weren’t the same (there was no North Macedonia then!) as it was all part of the Turkish Empire. My grandfather would always say he came from Greece, but that he was a Turk, and that he spoke Spanish. It’s a bit confusing. My grandfather’s family came to America during the Balkan Wars in 1913.
"We didn’t speak Ladino growing up in suburban New Jersey, but in my hallway were these old pictures of distant relatives from the old country. Mine looked really odd with these funny hats. Now I know that it's called a fez, but growing up, I'm like, what is this? In our family we would eat different foods, like tadliko, spanakopita, burekas, and little mezze dishes of vegetables. I realized that we did things differently than my Ashkenazi friends. As a kid, you don't really know how to articulate that.
“Because my grandfather was escaping war and they wanted to assimilate quickly into American culture, Ladino was left behind, although Sephardic traditions were upheld through food and a few Ladino folk songs that were passed down. The lack of hearing the language spoken as a child is precisely one of the reasons why I felt so passionate about learning it as I got older — I felt I was missing something!
“I probably heard Ladino music at some sort of family function, but at my bat mitzvah was when I first decided that I was going to really embrace it and perform a Ladino version of the song ‘Ein Keloheinu’, and I was proud. That was a defining moment for me.”
Without fail, for every concert, audience members would come up to me and tell me that the Ladino portion was their favorite part.
Why did you decide to dedicate your career to Ladino music?
“I thought I was going to be an opera singer, and I was really hardcore for awhile. My opera coach was [the late opera singer] Nico Castel. He just happened to share my Sephardic background, which was totally coincidental and serendipitous. So in between our opera coachings, he started teaching me traditional classical Ladino repertoire. And we decided to start incorporating some of those songs in my recitals at the Israel Vocal Arts Institute in Tel Aviv. Without fail, at every concert, audience members would come up to me and tell me that the Ladino portion was their favorite part. And I agreed with them. I sang differently or with more passion because that's really where my heart was. I could relate to that music in a way that I couldn't to, you know, dead white men, classical opera.There was something exotic and mystical about the songs themselves.”
Do you find there’s a universal quality to Ladino music?
“Some of these songs were written 100, 200, 300 years ago, and it's the same stuff songs are being written about today — unrequited love and first crushes. I loved that so many of the songs were written from the female's perspective. Oral traditions are most often passed down by the women in the family, because they're the ones in the kitchen cooking and singing the songs while they're going about their daily business. Many of the folk songs feel like snapshots of the time through a woman's eyes. I was just so struck by how much the songs embrace the female perspective, which is not something you think about ethnic music — or in Jewish music in particular. Sensual songs that really embraced the female body and female lust.”
How do you express the experience of being a Jewish woman through your work?
“I'm probably not the norm in that embracing my Jewish femalehood is part of my job. When I first started my band, it was 2001, 2002, and some purists actually criticized me for being too sensual onstage. I was like, Wait a second, are you kidding? I didn't write this music. At the time I was only performing traditional songs. Look at the lyrics; the sensuality is right there.I just highlighted it and brought it out. The feminist experience in Jewish music and Sephardic music is what it's all about.
When did you start writing your own music?
“The transition for me from traditional music to writing my own music came in 2012, with my album Gracia, which is this feminist rock homage to the great Dona Gracia Mendes, who should be highlighted in every history book, Jewish or not. She was bad ass. She was like Harriet Tubman of 15th century Europe.
“She was the richest person —not richest woman — in all of Europe for a time. She amassed this enormous wealth from her husband, who died when Gracia was quite young. She was widowed at age 28 as a single mom, and she had this enormous wealth. She was so rich that kings and popes would come to her house asking for money. She was called a Converso (a Jew who falsely converted or who converted to Catholicism to avoid the Inquisition) but maintained her Jewish identity a secret.
“She was the major European money lender. And in return, she secured safe passage for Jews escaping the Iberian Peninsula through this whole intricate escape network to end up safe in the Ottoman Empire, then onto Tiberius in Israel. When I really started studying about her, that was a major turning point in my own sense of like female Jewish identity and what's possible and what it means to be a woman to pass on traditions.”
“I have two small kids. When my older daughter was born, a lot of people sent me children's CDs that were adorable and lovely. I love listening to them, but at some point I was like, wait, why aren't there any Ladino kids’ music albums? So I wrote a whole children's album, all original kids songs for kids. Over time it expanded, and I ended up doing an entire animated cartoon series and children's book and song book, because I wanted to make it as easy as possible for families who have never even heard of Ladino, and for schools and synagogues to have access to these materials. Because truly the only way that this culture is going to continue is if we expose kids younger and younger to it.”
Why is the preservation of Ladino so important to you?
“I think that Ladino has a lot more universal appeal. Although my Yiddish friends will strike me down for this, I think it actually has a lot more popular appeal than Yiddish in that a lot of our country speaks Spanish. So for those who aren't Jewish, who do speak Spanish, it's such a hybrid of languages. There are like 10 languages mixed in, and it's so fun to be able to listen and pick out words that you know.
My ultimate dream is that Ladino, like Yiddish and Hebrew, is considered and remembered as another major Jewish language and gets incorporated into more mainstream cultural compilations. Even if you're not Jewish, almost everyone, at least in America, has heard of Yiddish, and Jews themselves have never even heard of Ladino. So it's tragic.
Interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.