The Language of Her Soul

Yasmin Levy

Yasmin Levy likens herself to a butterfly fluttering among flowers, pollinating them. The flowers are countries and people; the pollen, her songs in Ladino. “I disseminate these songs because they are the only thing that will survive from this language,” she said. “Within less than a generation, it will totally disappear.”

We are sitting in the lobby of a hotel in Zurich, Switzerland just a few hours after her concert before a crowd of 500. Soon, she will board a plane and head to the next stop on an exhaustive world tour that began in January and runs through May.

Levy, 34, from Jerusalem, has led a quiet revolution over the last decade. In collaboration with a group of internationally renowned musicians (including one from Dubai), she has headlined shows at an astounding 80 concert halls a year while attracting a following for a dying 500-year-old culture. She has performed to sold-out halls in New York, London, Paris and Sydney. Levy has also sung for crowds in smaller towns across Spain, Germany, Holland, Finland, Sweden, Turkey and Greece. In May, she is scheduled to give four concerts in Israel.

“I took traditional songs, changed the rhythms and adaptations, added a few instruments and made them sound younger and more interesting,” she said, while demonstrating how elements of jazz and flamenco fuse with Cuban beats to produce a pulsating Ladino number. “I understood that in order to reach a younger audience, I need to make these songs more accessible and evocative.”

Nonetheless, she would never change the lyrics or the melodies: “I don’t have the right to do such a thing,” she said. “They’re not my songs.”

Antique language

Ladino, also known as Spaniolit or Judeo-Spanish, evolved from the language spoken by the Jews of Spain before the Expulsion in 1492. They were expelled with their memories, their songs and their language, 15th-century Spanish. The geographical and cultural distance from the mother country meant the language of Sephardi Jews and their offspring did not evolve with modern Spanish. An encounter with a Ladino speaker of the 21st century is thus a unique experience, akin to meeting a speaker of biblical Hebrew.

The exiled Jews assimilated into communities throughout the Ottoman Empire, and within one century Ladino became the most widely spoken language among Jews in the Mediterranean basin. Most of these Jewish communities, including those in Thessaloniki, Rhodes, Serbia and Bosnia, were destroyed during the Holocaust. Most of the survivors immigrated to Israel, where they were pressured to speak Hebrew. Thus Ladino was gradually forgotten.

Nonetheless, the language has undergone a revival in recent years. “There is a renaissance-like wave sweeping the world, because people fear losing something very important to them – their culture,” says Ladino author Matilda Koen-Sarano, the Jerusalem writer who authored the first-ever Ladino-Hebrew/Hebrew-Ladino dictionary. She spent seven years on the 50,000-entry book.

“I was surprised to learn that there is a huge audience interested in the language, certainly bigger than I knew beforehand,” Koen-Sarano said. This includes “students who study it in universities, singers, artists and people with nostalgia.” Sarano is now at work on a cookbook of recipes from Ladino speakers.

The Ladino vocabulary contains hundreds of words that have since vanished from Spanish, as well as words from the languages of places where Ladino speakers settled, including Hebrew, Arabic, Turkish, Greek, French and Italian. Until the 20th century, Ladino was written either in Hebrew letters, much like Yiddish, or in Rashi script. Now it is written with Latin letters.

When Sarano is asked to name a few Ladino words that have seeped into Hebrew, she unleashes a verbal barrage that includes pustema (pejorative term meaning “dumb girl”), kalavasa (slang term meaning “red-head”), palavra (slang term meaning “talk meant to attract attention”), demiculu (slang for unsuccessful or bad), soliko (alone, by oneself), kombina (slang for “shady business deal”), sponga (slang for “mopping”) and borekas.

While Ladino has become the focus of a cultural and popular revival, there has also been renewed academic study.

“Ladino has no future as a spoken language, but rather as a language of research,” said Prof. Tamar Alexander, who heads the Moshe David Gaon Center for Ladino Culture at Ben-Gurion University. Nobody knows precisely how many speakers of the language are still alive today. Most estimates place the figure at approximately 100,000, the majority of them in Israel.

Dozens of students study Ladino at Ben-Gurion as well as other universities in Israel every year.

“For now they are speaking Ladino with their grandfather and grandmother, but in the future they will not have anyone to speak with,” said Alexander. “My son doesn’t know how to pronounce one word in Ladino, except for my nickname for him, ‘my eyes’ [mi ojos].”

Nonetheless, she refuses to regard the language as extinct. “Ladino is part of Israeli and Jewish culture,” she said. “Research, publishing, books, journals, symposia, and culture have seen an incredible boom in Ladino usage worldwide. More and more people are seeking a return to their roots. They are overcome with nostalgia and they pursue a knowledge of Ladino.”

Alexander and her team of scholars are also working to preserve another language, Haketia, an amalgamation of Ladino, Hebrew and Arabic that is still spoken by Jews in northern Morocco. “This is truly an extinct language,” she said. “It is breathing its final breaths, and our efforts in this field are geared toward rescuing it.”

Professor Shmuel Refael, the director of Center for Ladino Studies at Bar-Ilan University, says it is still too early to eulogize Ladino.

“Some claim that because Ladino is not heard in the street, it is most certainly a dead language,” he said. “But there is no scientific proof of that. Perhaps there are places where Ladino can be heard. Besides, who determines the minimal number of speakers a language must have in order to be considered ‘alive’ or ‘dead’?”

Refael proposes that the language be judged by a different criterion. “Ladino usage may be on the downswing, but it still claims a central place in the national identity of Sephardi Jews and in their niche in the Israeli cultural puzzle,” he said. “The territory of Ladino speakers is not defined and it was always fluid, but the language is a constant, strong element that helped them define their origin and ethnicity, a point of pride for them.”

‘From my mother’s kitchen’

Yasmin Levy first heard the call of Ladino at home. Her father, Isaac Levy, who died when she was 1, was a composer and cantor who dedicated his life to compiling and cataloging Ladino songs. “I brought these songs from my mother’s kitchen,” she said. “These are not songs that are meant for the stage. Rather, they are to be kept in the heart, in one’s soul.”

“Women sang these songs in the kitchen about loved ones who left, while men would sing liturgical poems in synagogue,” she said. “This was how the language was transmitted from one generation to the next, much like oral law.”

Levy’s family wanted her to pursue a profession and leave music as a hobby. She began studying reflexology, but realized her attraction to singing was much greater than anything else. Naturally, she began singing in the language of her childhood.

“I paid a heavy price,” she said. “I got into trouble with the Ladino-speaking community in Israel, which accused me of violating the holy of holies and defacing their songs.”

Very few people attended her first concerts. “One time I received a call from the Suzanne Dellal Center [in Tel Aviv], and they told me, ‘There are only 30 people coming to a concert in a hall with a capacity of 180. Invite everyone you know so that it won’t be an embarrassment.'” Before the show began, as Levy was wiping away tears in the restroom, she noticed an 80-year-old woman, one of the 30 attendees. “She combed her hair, splashed on perfume, and did everything just to look beautiful for my concert,” Levy said. “So I decided I was going to pour out my soul for her.”

That was eight years and four albums ago. Her latest work, “Sentir,” was recently named one of the Times of London’s 100 best albums of 2009.

Most of her songs are melancholy. “I can’t sing about the sun and the flowers, because it’s not who I am,” she said. “I sing about sadness, love and desperation. That is how I express myself, who I am.”

Following her Zurich concert, just before she collapses in bed, Levy summons the strength to sign albums for fans. “I don’t know where these people come from,” she said, clearly embarrassed by all the attention. “I don’t get it.” Her pile of CDs gets smaller and smaller, but the line of people refuses to end.

“If my father were to see this, he wouldn’t believe it,” she said. “He just would have laughed.”


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