Ladino Songs Shed Light on Endangered Language of Jews

As the candles of Hanukah connect Jews around the world, holiday songs in Ladino shine a light on a language UNESCO rates as “severely endangered.”  Ladino is a language that’s been traveling with the Sephardic Jews since they were expelled from Spain more than 500 years ago and music may be the spark that helps keep it alive.

The swirling rhythm of this Hanukah song in Ladino, recorded by Kat Parra of San Jose, California, can stir up an appetite for Judeo-Spanish music. That’s already happening for a growing number of musicians who are discovering a language in danger of dying, along with its elderly speakers.

Musicologist Francesco Spagnolo, curator of the Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life at the University of California Berkeley, says Judeo-Spanish songs are no longer just your grandmother’s Ladino.

“There are performers who are both Jews and non-Jews, who are both Sephardic Jews or Ashkenazi Jews, a lot of Israelis, but apparently also a lot of performers in Latin America nowadays who are performing Ladino songs, and in some cases, writing new ones. So, it’s essentially a part of the general soundscape of the Jewish musical revival and therefore, a part of what the music market likes to call world music.”

Its smooth fit into world music may be a lifesaver for Ladino. UNESCO’s 2010 Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger rates Ladino as “severely endangered” because it is not being passed down to younger generations. Ladino has been traveling with the Jews since they were expelled from Spain in 1492 and scattered in search of more welcoming territory. Ladino’s base of Castilian Spanish with a mix of Hebrew picked up words from many languages, including Turkish, Arabic and Greek.

“Three of my four grandparents come from a little town in Greece called Kastoria. And the fourth grandparent came from Istanbul, Turkey.”

That’s Michael Matza, an immigration reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer. During a journalism workshop at the University of California Berkeley, he mentioned a trip to Greece to explore his roots.

“I’m a Sephardic Jew. My parents spoke Ladino at home when I was a kid. I mean, they spoke English and they were born in the United States. But they learned Ladino from their parents. I heard it around the dinner table when my grandparents were talking to each other or to my parents. Sometimes my parents would use it as a secret code language when they were trying to say something my sister and I wouldn’t understand.”

Matza didn’t learn Ladino, but that wasn’t the case with Rivka Amado growing up in Israel. Hebrew was her main language, but Ladino was spoken in her home and she absorbed it.

“It was hidden inside of me for many, many years and I didn’t touch it because I was involved with my other stuff, my academic career.”

Her career as a professor of medical and government ethics at Bar IIan University in Israel took an unexpected turn when she married a law professor from the University of California Berkeley and moved to America. Uprooted, Amado found herself compelled to explore her Sephardic heritage. Her experience in a synagogue choir blossomed into a traveling Ladino performance.

One of her regular gigs is Reutlinger Community for Jewish Living in Danville, Calfornia. Amado says the song, Adio Kerida, which translates to Farewell My Beloved, shows how Ladino crosses borders.

“For example, in Adio Kerida, the song that you just recorded, aharva, it means to knock. This is a word from Turkish. Aharva. Aharva otras puertas. Puertas is a Spanish word. When you say aharva it means to knock on a door.

Amado passes out tambourines to residents of the Jewish home, most of them in their 80s and 90s. Accompanied by guitarist Joel Siegel, they have folks swaying and singing to the Ladino song, Las Ventanas Altas, or High Windows, about a bride and groom on their wedding night.

Amado says love is a common theme in Ladino melodies. A few songs tell about the candles and joys of Hanukah. But when the Hanukah candles go out, the growing interest in Ladino songs may be the spark that keeps an endangered language alive.

Rhonda Miller, Berkeley, California.
Broadcast history: Posted on Public Radio Exchange Nov. 28, 2011

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