Ashkenaz reaches out to Sephardic, Mizrachi communities for richer Jewish blend

TORONTO – The recent Ashkenaz Festival – which took place Aug. 31-Sept. 6 mainly at Harbourfront Centre, although a number of other venues were included – introduced this city to many of the best within the international Jewish arts scene.
Originally created 15 years ago to promote Yiddish and klezmer culture – hence the name ‘Ashkenaz’ – the event now includes a plethora of non-Ashkenazi Jewish entertainment as well. At a roundtable discussion on the future of Sephardic and Mizrachi culture hosted by local Moroccan-born media personality Ralph Benmergui, Israeli oud-player par excellence Yair Dalal, who lives near Tsfat, spoke of his and his peers’ shame of their Middle Eastern background in the Israel of the ’60s and ’70s, where European culture and even physical characteristics were revered, attributing it in part to the fact that Arabic was the language and culture of the enemy.

“My parents are from Iraq,” he explained. “We are not Sephardim, but Mizrachim. We were exiled from Jerusalem to Babylon and stayed there for 2,500 years.”

(Sephardim descend from Jews who were expelled during the Spanish Inquisition, although Jews of other non-Ashkenazi ancestry are often mistakenly referred to as Sephardim.)

“When my family came to Toronto, we were a minority within a minority,” Benmergui told the crowd. “People couldn’t understand why we didn’t speak Yiddish at home.”

Renowned Sarajevo-born singer Flory Jagoda, now in her mid-80s and living in the US, is world famous as one of the only authentic performers of Ladino (Spanish Hebraic) music. For the last six decades, Jagoda, who gave a number of beautiful performances over the weekend and joined the roundtable, has made it her personal mission to maintain the rich Ladino (Spanish-Hebraic) musical tradition of Bosnia’s Jews and thus became widely known as ‘Keeper of the Flame.’

Casablanca-born, New York-based vocalist/guitarist Gerard Edery hails from a mixed French, Spanish, Arabic and Argentine background. Describing his upbringing as the “quintessential Sephardic experience,” he opined that such a multicultural heritage is “really a springboard for a very inclusive quality, inviting other cultures into your world and taking a journey into theirs.”

Edery also led the presentation of The Spirit of Sepharad: From Casbah to Caliphate, a thrilling musical journey celebrating the history of Sephardic music from medieval Spain across North Africa and to the Middle East. Dalal, who was scholar-in-residence for Ashkenaz Festival 2010, also participated in this unique show that mesmerized the audience with its combination of stirring music and dance.

Singer Galeet Dardashti descends from a long line of Persian vocalists and has become the first female to continue her family’s practice in generations. Raised in Brooklyn, she would be mesmerized by stories told by her grandfather, who had been a famous cantor in Iran. Having belonged to an Ashkenazi congregation with her family while growing up, she later developed a passion for her family’s musical tradition.
(Tags: Jewish, Music, Diversity)


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