“My grandfather used to say he was a Turk from Greece but spoke Spagnol,” Sarah says. “He was a proud Sephardic man.” Like so many across the United States, Sarah Aroeste grew up learning about her heritage from family members, like her grandfather—the history, traditions, the food, the music.
Sarah, her grandfather, her whole family are Sephardim or Sephardic Jews. It is believed that Jews lived in Spain all the way back to 930 BC. They did so until the 13th century when the Spanish Inquisition began. They were tortured and killed alongside Christians accused of heresy. In 1492, while Columbus landed in the New World, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella expelled all Jews from Spain. The Sephardim are descendants of the Jews who fled Spain. They traveled east, across the Mediterranean and Balkan regions, all parts of the Ottoman Empire at the time. The Sephardim picked up pieces of all these cultures on their travels, transforming their prayers, food, and dress.
“We are both traditional and liberal,” Sarah explains. “Traditional in that we hold onto Jewish laws and customs, but liberal in that we are a tapestry of society. We have proverbs and folktales that have a ribbed, self-deprecating sense of humor and make fun of social norms. We are sensual and a very female nurtured culture.”
And out of this new mish-mosh of culture, Ladino was born. The Spanish language they carried from their homeland blended with the rhythm and flow of their Arabic speaking neighbors. “Ladino is a completely unique language,” Sarah says, “that defines this group of Jews.” Sephardic Jews settled all over Europe and North Africa, but this language unites them. In modern times, it is mostly spoken in Turkey, Bulgaria, Israel, and Greece. It was in Greece where Sarah’s ancestors began new lives and where her grandfather grew up. Born in Monastir, known today as Bitola in North Macedonia, he also had close family and friends in Salonica, today within the borders of Greece. Salonica was the major center for the thriving Sephardic community in Greece. Until the Holocaust.
“Up until the holocaust, Ladino was the dominant Jewish language of the Mediterranean,” Sarah says, “But people today have never heard of it.” 81% of Jews in Greece were murdered during World War II. The once-thriving community in Greece was nearly wiped out of history permanently.
Since then, there has been a growing effort to preserve Ladino and the Sephardim’s culture. Scholars in several universities have established Ladino programs. Singers, composers, and playwrights around the world perform traditional Sephardic music in Ladino and create new songs to carry on the tradition. Sarah is one of them. After being introduced to the Ladino music scene by her mentor Nico Castel, she began by incorporating Ladino into her performance repertoire. “Audiences would say it was their favorite part,” she says. “I sang it more passionately because I felt it more passionately. Over a couple of years, I kept coming back to it, so I realized that I needed to do it full-time.”
To be continued in “Ladino: A Language Resurrected” on the MAE blog.