While looking at the full moon in her garden some 10 years ago, Sarah Raz thought she saw the outline of her grandmother’s face in the lunar craters and arid seas. Grandmother Elis had been dead 30 years. It was at that moment her grandmother’s language, the cadences of remembered lullabies, came back to her. The family had been naming girls Luna going back generations, perhaps all the way back to Spain. Sarah’s mother is named Luna, as was Elis’s. “I had to tell her something about my life, and that is when I began to think and write in Ladino,” recalls Raz.
Raz embarked on a musical journey that took her back 500 years to the romantic ballads and haunting liturgical hymns in the language of the Jews exiled from Spain. But she took it a step forward. She wrote new songs, new words, in a dying language spoken today mainly by grandmothers in Sephardi old age homes.
“This is something that is not done today,” she says. “It’s difficult for people to accept new things. They prefer to hear the old songs, but how much can you hear the same songs over and over again? I thought maybe I can write songs that are current, with new words, to use the language for today, not just what took place was a long ago. It was a challenge.”
Raz, a painter, sculptor, author and gallery manager, recently released her third Ladino disc, “Colors of Love,” in an evening of song and dance in the Blue Bird Gallery in Petah Tikva, where she is chief curator.
“Sephardi culture is not just Ladino,” she says in an interview in her home in Petah Tikva that is filled with her artwork, inspired by Chinese and Japanese calligraphy. “It’s a way of life. When I go to visit my mother and she is cooking, she describes the process of cooking in Ladino. There is the special cuisine, the close-knit family, the customs, the expressions that cannot be translated, the singing of Passover songs in Ladino.” She says a few sentences in Ladino with an Israeli accent. “But when I sing, the accent disappears,” she says, with a smile that transcends all languages. Raz learned Ladino from her grandmother Elis, who lived in the Bulgarian enclave in Jaffa, where many of the 45,000 Bulgarian Jewish immigrants settled in 1948 and 1949. In those years, there were street signs in Bulgarian and a daily Bulgarian-language newspaper. Most of the second and third generations have moved away.
“Grandmother Elis was a storyteller. We were four granddaughters who came to stay with her for two weeks during the summer vacation. In the evening we would sit in our pajamas on the floor, and she, on a chair, would keep us enthralled with stories of operas, adventure, Jules Verne and many stories about the family, all in Ladino. I was her confidante.” Raz’s children know some songs and have grown up on the special Sephardi cuisine, a blending of Bulgarian, Turkish and Spanish, passed down through the generations, which graces Raz’s table every Friday, but they don’t speak Ladino.
“It’s very sad that the language is dying out,” says Dr. Itzik Levy, a historian who has been documenting Ladino language and culture for the past 40 years. “It is very painful that this beautiful language with its special expressions, clever sayings and plays on words like you might find in Yiddish, is disappearing. The Jews left Spain with one eye crying about the Spain that betrayed them after all their contributions, and one eye joyous for the spiritual and cultural treasures that they took with them to exile,” he says. He has catalogued thousands of songs in Ladino and finds it refreshing Raz is writing new ones. “There are two minds about new songs in Ladino,” he says. “People who are more conservative don’t like new songs, but I think we need to accept very gladly everything that is connected to Ladino.”
There are several singers who have revived songs in Ladino, among them singer/actor Yoram Gaon, Yasmin Levy and Suzy Akmen Rogovin.
Until recent times, Ladino, or Judeo-Espanol, was widely spoken throughout the Balkans, Turkey, the Middle East and North Africa and had developed a corpus of literature, both liturgical and secular. From the 17th to the 19th centuries, Judeo-Spanish was the predominant Jewish language spoken among Jews in Jerusalem and other cities in the Holy Land. As with Yiddish, Ladino is seeing a minor resurgence of academic interest in colleges in the US and Israel.
Raz can trace her Sephardi roots on her father’s side back to Hasdai Ibn Shaprut, (912-961) a Jewish scholar, physician, diplomat and patron of science, and the first Jewish dignitary to serve the Caliph in Cordoba. After the expulsion, her ancestors fled to Turkey where they were welcomed by the Sultan. On her mother’s side, Raz is descended from Sephardi Jews who settled in Bulgaria. When the Bulgarian grandmother met the Turkish grandmother for the first time they had no problem communicating. They spoke Ladino. On a recent trip to Bulgaria with her mother, the two women knocked on the door where her mother grew up before the family was deported by the Bulgarian authorities, along with other Jews, to a distant village in the countryside. “At first, they didn’t want to open the door, so my mother and I began walking away. Then someone ran after us. She hugged my mother, and said, ‘I am so-and-so. We used to play together when we were children.’ She invited us to come and took out a bunch of sepia photographs of our family. They were neighbors who had moved into our house when my family was deported. They had kept the photos. ‘I knew you would return one day,’” she said.
Since that mystical moonlit evening in the garden when she saw her grandmother’s face, Raz returned to her Sephardi roots and the language of her ancestors. She makes every attempt to pass it on.
“Ladino is not just a language. It’s a way of life. I have six grandchildren and the lullabies I sing to them are in Ladino.”