Preserving Ladino

Singer ‘Lolik’ Levy has recorded hundreds of songs in the endangered Judeo-Spanish language and, at 78, is still playing to sell-out crowds.

Singer ‘Lolik’ Levy (photo credit: Courtesy)
Singer ‘Lolik’ Levy
(photo credit: Courtesy)
AT 78, with his tall, angular body, black outfit and iconic hard-brimmed black hat, “Lolik” Levy retains a commanding presence.
Whether performing his songs or weaving stories from his rich career, the entertainer immediately fixes your attention.
Despite a near-fatal accident some years ago that stopped him from singing for a long spell, and an operation for throat cancer that weakened his smooth voice, Levy has remained active and sprightly.
The singer, born in Jerusalem in 1938 as Abraham Haim Levy, is known for his songs in Ladino, a hybrid language sometimes called Judeo-Spanish or Spaniolit, which more than 500 years ago became the official Hispanic language of the Jews of Spanish origin. With the expulsion of the Jews from Spain and Portugal in 1492, it spread throughout the Mediterranean basin as far as Greece, Turkey, Morocco and Libya.
“I first heard Ladino from my mother,” recalls Levy. “I asked her to explain what each word meant. She knew five languages, and I suppose I inherited this love of languages from her. I have to know the meaning of a song before I sing it.”
Although his most famous album is La Rosa Enflorece (The Rose Blossoms), a collection of Ladino songs, Lolik (a sobriquet he picked up while still young) has developed a wide range of music apart from Ladino.
“At six, I learned piano,” he recalls, “but I was attracted to the Spanish guitar. I never had lessons, but I picked it up on my own.”
Similarly, his mother arranged voice-training lessons from a Russian lady. But he soon decided “It was not for me. I wanted to sing, so I sang.”
Ladino is Levy’s mother tongue in more ways than one. “When my father was angry with me, he would come at me with his belt.
But my mother would say in Ladino, ‘Don’t beat the child.’ I connected my mother’s kindness with her language and adopted Ladino.”
But to make a career out of this endangered language ‒ according to UNESCO there are only some 200,000 Ladino speakers worldwide, and, indeed, much of Ladino culture was destroyed during the Holocaust ‒ was far from easy. So Levy sang whatever drew an audience, and only slowly found that he could include Ladino songs in his repertoire.
For many years he toured, both inside Israel and beyond. In 1960, the Israeli hippy, Rafi Nelson, turned a shack into a small bar called “The End of the World,” in the seaside resort of Eilat, with Levy as the entertainment.
“We had four types of drink – cognac, vermouth, wine and arak,” Levy says.
Even there, however, he could not survive on the pay he received.
“At night I was a singer, but during the day I was a fisherman. That is until the other fishermen complained that the fish swam away when I began to sing to them!” Having studied in the US to be a chef, Levy opened a hotel ‒ “my other profession” he says with a smile. The hotel, in Eilat, still exists although under different management.
In the 1960s, he traveled to Europe and America, often in the company of some of Israel’s leading singers, among them Yaffa Yarkoni, Arik Einstein, Josie Katz, the Dudaim and Esther and Avi Ofarim. Together, they appeared in some notable venues on the scene.
“In Paris, where I stayed for a year, we appeared at the Olympia. In the US, we appeared on the Ray Charles TV show. In South America, I was billed as ‘The Israeli singer with 100 songs in Hebrew and Spanish.’” Levy takes his Ladino repertoire very seriously, researching each song to discover its provenance.
“The well-known song ‘Avraham Avinu’ [Our Father Abraham], for example, is normally played on the radio as a cheerful melody that lasts three minutes. But when I checked its history, I discovered that it was far longer. In fact, it is 18 verses long! It’s about a king, Nimrod, who wants to kill the Jews but they are saved by Abraham, ‘the light of Israel.’” Much of his repertoire is composed of songs that are secular, concerned with everyday passions. One talks of love that “begins with the eyes, then the heart and finally the kidneys, from which you cannot free yourself.”
Levy was very close to Yitzhak Navon, who became Israel’s president in 1978.
“When Navon was culture minister, I said to him, ‘Yitzhak, I am bored listening again and again to ‘Avraham Avinu’ and all the rest of the usual Ladino songs. Surely, we have other songs.’ He asked me where and I told him there were thousands in the Israel Broadcasting Authority’s archives.
As culture minister, he could demand that they bring them out and play them.
“So, every day, I went to Jerusalem to the IBA and sat for four hours at a time listening to these songs. I found at least 80 songs (plus 150 that I had already collected) of which I was unaware ‒ prayers, secular songs, songs for festivals and Shabbat, songs by famous poets and the rabbis Yehuda Alharizi, Solomon Ibn Gabirol, and so on. There were also those that combined the holy and the secular.
“A researcher from Germany came to Israel who was writing about Ladino songs.
She sat with me for six months and I sang her all these songs. I did something similar for Beit Hatfutsot [The Museum of the Jewish People in Tel Aviv]. So, at least these are preserved.
“Once, when I was invited to Haifa to perform, they asked me what I was going to sing. When I told them Ladino, they were somewhat surprised. ‘This is our language and we are not preserving it,’ I explained.
The generation that knew these songs has gone, so it is up to us to preserve them. It is part of our heritage as Jews.”
What further upsets Levy is that the texts are often bowdlerized.
“I was once with a group of students and they asked me to sing ‘Morenika,’ which had become well-known in Israel in its Hebrew version, ‘Sheharhoret.’ I had to explain to the students that the song is about a prostitute, which is definitely not what they understood. I explained to them that the words say, ‘If the king calls for me, I go to him.’ There is no other explanation for this song. Why don’t we open our mouths and tell the truth about these songs? It came from actual experience.”
Now, at an age when most singers are past their prime, Levy is busy singing to soldout concerts up and down Israel ‒ catch him where you can.
Levy dedicated his Ladino CD, “La Rosa Enflorece,” released in 1992, to Yitzhak Levy, the musicologist and singer (no relation), who single-handedly catalogued and preserved Ladino songs in a series of 10 books.
Although he died in 1977, Yitzhak Levy’s widow, Kohava, still performs many of these songs throughout Israel. A petite septuagenarian, she has just released another CD ‒ “Kohava Levy: Kanta Ladino” – “all rather sad songs,” she confesses. “But I prefer them to the more raucous ones.”
Unlike her late husband – from whom she learned Ladino – Kohava has a spontaneous feel for a song.
“I don’t examine where it comes from or when it first appeared. If a song speaks to me, then I want to sing it. It’s something that’s in the soul.”
These days Kohava sometimes accompanies her daughter, Yasmin Levy, who has become a well-known figure on the world music scene singing Ladino.
“I never thought of leaving Israel,” says Kohava, “and here I am appearing with Yasmin in Sweden, Turkey and Greece.”
She says this as someone who was not allowed to sing in public while her husband ‒ older than her by some 27 years ‒ was still alive.
“He didn’t want to marry a ‘singer,’” she says by way of explanation or apology. “The idea of a woman singer was not acceptable to his generation. I understood it and accepted it because I loved and admired him.”
Kohava marveled at the work her husband put into collecting material for his books.
“He would literally go into the street and ask people what Ladino songs they remembered. He would record them and then transcribe them for his books. He was encouraged by friends, such as Yitzhak Navon, who was a major force in trying to preserve the Ladino language and its folklore. Apart from Navon, many singers came to Yitzhak as a source of authentic Ladino, and Lolik was one of them.
“They never dared to sing in front of Yitzhak, who himself had a wonderful voice. Maybe because they were aware that any mistake they made would be severely reprimanded. Yitzhak was very pedantic.”
To a large extent, Yitzhak Levy’s work has been a success, as can be seen and heard in the work of his family, of Lolik Levy and many others in Israel and abroad.
As one of Kohava’s songs begins, “Komo le roza en la guerta” ‒ The rose in the garden has blossomed.