June 23, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

Never Too Late for Ladino

Part II

One of the people working to spread and preserve Sephardic history and culture is Susana Behar. Born in Havana to Cuban-Turkish Sephardic parents, she honors her heritage and maternal great-grandmother by singing Ladino songs from Turkey, Bulgaria, Greece and Morocco. Her music-loving family, fleeing Castro’s Cuba, immigrated to Venezuela when she was 9. Less than a decade later, they relocated to Miami, where she now lives.

Behar performed “Ladino Meets Latino” at Charleston’s 2022 Piccolo Spoleto Festival, which is part of the larger Spoleto Festival. The College of Charleston’s Yaschik-Arnold’s Jewish Studies Department sponsors several Jewish events at the festival. These include concerts, a film festival and talks, designed to be both entering and enlightening and to also create unity through community. They take place in various venues throughout the historic port city, also known as The Holy City.

A concert of chamber music, led by Yurij Bekker, is one of the many program offerings of Piccolo Spoleto. Born in Belarus, Bekker immigrated to the United States with his parents in the post-Soviet emigration wave, after a 1987 Jewish-led “Let My People Go!” March on Washington. He studied at Indiana University, earning undergraduate and graduate degrees. The critically acclaimed violinist and conductor is now the concertmaster of the Charleston Symphony Orchestra and its principal pop conductor.

Bekker’s Jewish heritage is important to him, and he and his family are members of Synagogue Emanu-El. He performs Max Bruch’s hauntingly beautiful Kol Nidre each year prior to the Kol Nidre there annually. Last spring, he and several colleagues performed a benefit concert there, with Jewish compositions and Yiddish songs. More recently, at Piccolo he and his colleagues performed “Jewish Exiles in Hollywood.”

Many Jewish musicians and artists in the film industry fled the Nazis and found refuge in California. They worked in Hollywood as writers, directors, actors, musicians and composers, inspired by Max Steiner, the prodigious Austrian-born composer and conductor, who had immigrated there in 1914. Steiner, a child prodigy who worked on 300 films, was nominated for 24 Academy Awards and won three, wrote such classics as the “Tara’s Theme” for “Gone With the Wind.” His other famous scores include those for “King Kong” and “Casablanca.”

It’s quite miraculous that Behar and Bekker, two Jews from worlds far apart in terms of languages and cultures, performed their concerts in Charleston’s Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim. Established by Sephardic Jews long before Ashkenazi Jews arrived in the New World, it is known as the birthplace of American Reform Judaism. Few, if any, of its members are of Sephardic descent. Yet it remains the oldest continuously functioning synagogue in the United States, welcoming all Jews, as well as all who wish to come to learn about Judaism and its long and beautiful musical heritage.

However, you don’t have to leave your home to hear Ladino. Netflix’s “The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem” is a steamy soap opera from Israel. The forbidden love and war story is a window into the Ottoman and British occupations of Palestine prior to Israel’s statehood that centers around the relationships between the occupiers and the occupied, Jews and Arabs, and tensions between neighbors and within unhappy families. The story revolves around a forbidden love affair between a Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jew, as well as one between a British soldier and a Sephardic woman. The family tensions that surround them lead to tragic outcomes. This time, its star, Michael Aloni of “Shtisel” fame, speaks Ladino instead of Yiddish, and instead of a scheming, dictatorial father he has to cope with a scheming, dictatorial mother. It doesn’t shed a pretty light on most of the characters but it helps viewers understand the vast array of problems and prejudices the young, very diverse sovereign state-in-waiting Israel had, and would continue to have to try to overcome.

One can expect the internet (at least three of whose six principal co-inventors were Jews) to increase interest in Ladino. The language is easy for the more than 450 million native Spanish speakers to understand, and may provide a bridge to their past. Many Jewish exiles sought refuge in the New World. Thus, one may presume that the combination of the internet and genetic tracing through DNA will create more interest for people seeking to explore their ancestry.

We have already witnessed communities of South American descendants of conversos (Jews forced to convert) who have reclaimed their Jewish past and made aliyah. May we continue to be awed and amazed.

By Barbara Wind

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