Languages convey the flavors of culture and tell us so much about history. As words fill songs and poetry, letters, plays, and children’s tales, they give shape, color, and contour to a society. Some languages thrive, morph, and even overtake other dialects in a region. Others, like Ladino, peter out and over time, become like embers holding onto just a few small sparks of life.
Ladino is a Judeo Spanish language that traveled on the tongues of the Jews who were expelled from Spain in 1492 and then settled in the many countries that made up the Ottoman Empire. While today very few people speak the language, there are many who still use Ladino phrases, have Ladino names, retell Ladino stories, and sing Ladino songs.
On Sunday, February 10th at The Center for Jewish History in Manhattan, The American Sephardi Federation in conjunction with The American Jewish Historical Society, The Sephardic Jewish Brotherhood of America, and Binghamton University Judaic Studies Department held an event to celebrate and fan the flames of the rich Judeo Spanyol tradition. Over three hundred people filled the auditorium and spilled out to extra hallway seating, as they watched and listened to linguists, storytellers, and musicians share their talents.
The proceedings opened with a performance by the person responsible for bringing Ladino Day to Manhattan and who created the program: Dr. Jane Mushabac. Dr. Mushabac is a novelist and professor of English. With Danny Elias on the clarinet and Marco Brehm on double bass, she performed excerpts from her brief memoir, “Seven Songs” in which she humorously conveyed her father’s passion for teaching her the Ladino songs he had learned from his mother. Dr. Mushabac’s family on both sides are Sephardic Jews from Turkey. She describes her youth growing up with her immigrant family in NYC as being filled with a “linguistic, religious, emotional and cultural richness.” She said, “My life was shaped and colored with Ladino stories, songs, expressions, proverbs, and recipes.”
When Dr. Mushabec heard that Ladino Day festivals were taking place in Jerusalem, Istanbul, Madrid, Seattle, and Boston after a woman named Zelda Ovadia, on an internet chat room called Ladinokomunita, suggested a worldwide Ladino celebration in 2013, she immediately approached ASF and AJHS to make a program in New York City, home to the largest number of Sephardic Jews in the US.
“Last year’s program was our first and a huge success at that. As the performers were winding down, Shirly Bahar of American Jewish Historical Society immediately ran over to me and exclaimed, ‘We’re doing this again next year!’”
Second to grace the audience was one of the organizers and presenters, Dr. Bryan Kirschen, a linguist and professor at Binghamton University. He spoke about his experience traveling around America in search of Ladino speakers. He discussed the challenges in determining what it means to be a speaker of Ladino in the 21st century. While some remain fluent, others retain more of a passive knowledge. This was the case for Shelly Morrison, an actress known for her work in the TV series Will and Grace, who recounted the Sephardic names of family members, from Tanti Roza to Madam Dudú.
Dr. Kirschen said, “I’m an Ashkenazi Jew fascinated with Sephardic culture and language. Overall, my research and encounters have enriched my experience of what it means to be Jewish.”
One of the moments Dr. Kirschen enjoyed most during the day was seeing about 30 hands go up when he asked how many in the audience speak Ladino. It is a question he plans to repeat at the next Ladino Day on Sunday, May 5, 2019 at The Sephardic Jewish Center in Forest Hills.
The following portion of the show featured Avi Amon, lifelong musician and composer who collaborates with artists around the world. Amon, of Turkish origin, played the piano and sang his borrowed and original lyrics in His Musical Fantasy, Salonika.
Rabbi Nissim Elnecave’, the Executive Director of the newly re-invigorated Sephardic Jewish Brotherhood of America and one of the day’s organizers was next to present. Rabbi Elnecave’ grew up in Mexico in a Jewish Turkish family within a Ladino-speaking Sephardic community. Rabbi Elnecave’ told the crowd that his youth was animated by the stories his elders told in order to transmit history and morals. He said that this was always done with a lot of humor, which, he noted, is a very characteristically Sephardic way to do things. He proceeded to share some of these stories and tales referred to as “kuentos i konsejas.”
After recounting a charming anecdote in both Ladino and English about King Solomon and the three tailors and another about Eliyahu Hanavi and a blind man, Rabbi Elnecave’ said amidst the laughter in the room that he distinctly remembers his father and uncles using allegories such as these to provoke thought and questioning. The crowd was so delighted with Rabbi Elnecave’’s presentation, that they pulled him back on stage for one more story.
The program finished with a generous presentation by the Alhambra Sephardic Music Ensemble. The five-person group, wearing black jackets decorated with gold brocade, donned at different moments, about a dozen instruments–including the Middle Eastern guitar-like instrument called the Oud. The leader of the band, Isabelle Ganz introduced each Ladino song with its love-inspired story and then proceeded to join the others swaying and singing, tambourines and flutes in hand. The music filled the room as the spectators sat back and enjoyed the ending of a very festive day.
As a few of the helpers cleaned up, wrapping the paper tablecloths around the remnants of a hearty snack table, Rabbi Nissim remarked, “This was just wonderful- so much fantastic energy. It warms my heart to see a gathering of our people coming together united by their love for our traditions and culture. It’s so exciting to see the resurgence of our community. El Dio mos de vidas para ver maravias (May G-d give us long life to see marvelous things.)”
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Renée Beyda is a wife, mother, freelance writer, artist, and active community member.