Profile: Viva Ladino!

Singer Betty Klein may be a native New York Ashkenazi, but of the 20 languages she sings in, her deepest connection is to Ladino.

betty klein 248.88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
betty klein 248.88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
'Music is a link to cultures for me," says international folk singer Betty Klein. For a woman who sings in 20 languages, speaks six, plays nine instruments and has performed in many parts of the world, that link is very strong indeed. Within that multicultural melange, the Jerusalem resident's most resonant connection is to Ladino. Deeply entrenched in the Sephardi community, Klein not only sings in Ladino but also composes songs in the medieval Judeo-Spanish language. "Now that I am a composer, I can help revive the language," says the native New York Ashkenazi. "I derive a great sense of satisfaction from that." In fact, the title track of her newly released fourth CD, Souvenir, she composed from a poem written by Moshe David Gaon, the father of singer Yehoram Gaon. The elder Gaon, who was born in Sarajevo, had compiled a book of the poetry he had written in Ladino as a young man. When she read the poems, Klein says she was so affected by them that she set some of them to music. On the local scene, Klein plays the harp with the Israel Andalusian Orchestra and sings on Israel Radio's Reshet Haladino. In addition to performing on her own locally and in festivals and competitions abroad, the prize-winning Klein is the accompanist of singer Shuly Nathan, backing her up at her concerts on several instruments from her arsenal of guitar, piano, harp, flute, accordion, recorder, oud, bouzouki and darbuka. A registered music therapist by trade, Klein applies her multifaceted musical skills to help the elderly at Melabev and the Frankforter Center. She also performs at private functions, as well as nursing homes, retirement residences and sheltered housing. SO HOW did the girl from Yonkers with American-born parents tap into the very roots of Sephardi music and culture? "My family was always interested in languages," says Klein. Her father was a lawyer from Yonkers and her mother was born in Long Island, but her paternal grandfather came from Slovakia. He was in the travel business. He ran a line of passenger ships, so he had access to many different countries and ethnicities, she says. A religious man, he established the Ohev Zedek Synagogue in Yonkers. Klein grew up surrounded by music. Her grandfather played the violin, and her mother had a good voice and played the piano. Her father was a child prodigy at the piano but because his father didn't want him to perform on Shabbat, he did not pursue a concert career. Klein attended Boston University, where she received a BS degree, and graduated from Columbia University with an MS. In New York she worked for several years as an occupational therapist. But her goal was to be a music therapist, so in the evenings she took courses to become a music therapist. "That's how I recognized that I could sing," she says. To hone her talent, she began to take voice lessons. But to be a music therapist you also need to know how to play instruments, she explains, so she learned to play the piano, flute, harp and guitar. She learned to play the harp through friends and books, she says. "I love Irish and Scottish music. I worked in an Irish nursing home in New York and became so involved with the music that they used to call me Betty O'Klein," she laughs. One of Klein's prominent musical mentors was Martha Shlamme, a well-known singer who sang in German and Yiddish and performed the songs of Kurt Weil. "She would interpret a song and make it a whole drama," says Klein. "That was an important part of my development as a performer." Another pivotal point took place on the West Side, where Klein was studying. "I attended an event where Shlomo Carlebach was singing," she recounts. When he saw Klein with her guitar, he beckoned to her and said, "Come up and join us!" He didn't have to ask twice. Klein's first encounter with Ladino took place at the Spanish and Portuguese synagogue She'erit Israel on 68th and Central Park West. "Abraham Lopes Cardozo was the cantor," recalls Klein. "At the synagogue there was a Sephardi group, a sort of club, where they sang and danced and did singalongs, so I started to sing with them," she says. That is where she learned about Yitzhak Levy, who had compiled a collection of Ladino songs into a book. In 1986 Klein came to Israel to do an internship in music therapy at the Eitanim Hospital outside Jerusalem, where she worked with children and the elderly. She soon made friends within the Sephardi community and became a member of Moreshet Hamusika (The Musical Heritage of Israel). "They organized concerts and began a revival of Ladino," she says. "I learned different songs and became the resident singer of Moreshet Hamusika." They also started developing a way of teaching Ladino, she adds. "Matilda Cohen Sarano put together a book and started teaching Ladino, and I started learning." Klein worked with her and began performing around the country, transmitting the songs and the stories of the Sephardim. In fact, says Klein, there was a group of some 20 older women who got together and told stories in Ladino. She and Cohen Sarano wrote music and lyrics based on the stories and performed them in Israel, bringing to life the tales the women were telling. "These included songs and stories from Jerusalem that other Sephardim had never even heard," she says. One of the events that Klein is very proud to be part of is the Festiladino, a song competition that takes place annually at the Jerusalem Theater. "Older groups from 20 years ago compete and come to perform, and it is a privilege to be among them," she says. In addition to Ladino, Klein sings in English, French, Hebrew, Spanish, Greek, Welsh, Yiddish, Dutch, Italian, Armenian, Russian, Hungarian, Slovakian, Romanian, Polish, Portuguese, Arabic, Serbian and Japanese. Another feather in Klein's musical cap is when she performed at the Vatican in 1999. "The Israeli Embassy wanted Israel to perform at the Vatican in Ladino," she says. "I was chosen to sing. It was a great honor - and very exciting." On a more poignant note, in 1991 the Greek consulate brought over a group of Righteous Gentiles from Thessalonica to honor them at Yad Vashem, and Klein sang for them in Greek and several other languages. When she went to the Ladino festival there in 1992, those Righteous Gentiles took her in hand and served as her guides. "I met the Jewish community of Thessalonica," she says, "and the Righteous Gentiles introduced me to the people they had saved. It was very moving." One of the reasons that Klein is so enamored of this music is that it spans time and cultures. For example, every two years there is a Sephardi congress in Dubrovnik, where they sing Ladino songs from the area. "Even the non-Jews are touched by it because they remember hearing those songs from their neighbors," she explains. Not surprisingly, Klein lives in the Greek Colony in Jerusalem. Sometimes the versatile singer performs at the Greek Club on Rehov Yehoshua Bin-Nun, which hosts folk dancing evenings on Tuesday nights. On Tuesday evening June 30, the Tzlilei Ladino choir of men and women will be performing some of Klein's songs, as well as those of Chaim Tzur and Emanuel Wahl. The concert will take place at the Eshkol Payis Hall in Gilo at 12 Rehov Vardinon. Klein will perform as a soloist as well. For information, call 641-4519 or 0526-146-443.