Updated: Sep 30, 2021
Guest blog by Susan R. Eisenstein
I love learning new languages. I love both Jewish and Israeli history. And I love music too! So it is no surprise that I fell in love with all things Ladino, the language of Judeo-Spanish descent.
What is the history of the Ladino language?
In 1492, during the Spanish Inquisition, Spanish King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella expelled all the Jews from their kingdom. Those who stayed were forcibly converted to Catholicism. Most Jews sought refuge in the Ottoman Empire. Other Jews sought refuge elsewhere in Europe. Genetic testing has shown that about 20 percent of Spain's population is descended from the Jews who were forcibly converted.
The first Jews who came to America were actually the Sephardic Jews. After fleeing the Inquisition they found refuge in Amsterdam, and were among the founders of New Amsterdam, which eventually became New York!
From the time of the Spanish Inquisition until World War II, Ladino was the primary language spoken by thousands and thousands of Jews throughout the Mediterranean.
Ladino is also called Judeo-Spanish, Judesmo, or Sephardi. Although no longer spoken today as a first language and is nearly extinct, it is spoken by some Sephardic Jews living mostly in Israel, the Balkans, North Africa, Greece, Turkey, and the Americas. Ladino is a very old form of Castilian Spanish mixed with bits of Hebrew, as well as Aramaic, Arabic, Turkish, Greek, French, Bulgarian, and Italian. Wow!
Just as Yiddish is spoken by Ashkenazi Jews, Ladino is the Spanish-Jewish dialect spoken by Sephardic Jews. Although Spanish and Ladino are similar, there are subtle differences- like the name for God! In Spanish, this is Dios, with an "s" at the end, implying multiple gods. In Ladino, however, G-d is called El Dio, or The G-d. One G-d!
Ladino culture and music
Sephardic music has its roots in the musical traditions of the Jewish communities in medieval Spain and medieval Portugal. So cool! Along the way, it has picked up touches of Moroccan, Greek, and Bulgarian cultures, as these were some of the places Jews settled after being expelled from Spain and Portugal. Much of the lyrics to this music have been preserved, however, the melodies vary a lot. Many original melodies have been lost, and therefore much of the music has been adapted to the melodies and rhythms of the countries in which Sephardic Jews settled. Today, much of Israeli music infuses Ladino culture.
Most Ladino songs written even 300 years ago are about the same topics so many contemporary songs sing about! The human experience lasts the test of time, and themes like love, heartbreak, and family are popular. Most songs are actually written from the female perspective, giving us a snapshot of the time through a woman’s eyes!
Ready to taste some Ladino music?
Sarah Aroeste is a singer and songwriter, dedicated to preserving the Ladino culture. With Sephardic roots in Greece and Macedonia, Sarah has brought her contemporary spin on Ladino music to audiences around the world. Sarah’s music speaks to collective memory, female-power, family, marriage, loss, and hope.
Sarah succeeds in honoring her cultural heritage while adding her own personal and creative spin on things.
Check out one of Sarah’s songs here!
Also be sure to check out the Israeli-Portuguese band Al’Fado, an ensemble with rich Ladino music inspired by the cultures of Medieval Hebrew communities. The members incorporate the passion and inspiration of Ladino folk and traditional music of the Iberian Peninsula into their Israeli music.
Lead vocalist Gal Tamir speaks to what Ladino music means to him in his correspondence with me!
Ladino is the source of our inspiration for our music. It helps us to reach higher peaks of creativity through incorporating culture, heritage, tradition, and art!
Check out their debut album Nasimiento (meaning "Birth" in Ladino).
Now it is your turn to fall in love all with things Ladino! So many of Israel's most popular songs come from Ladino origin!