By Sarah Aroeste
As a child, I remember thinking there was something different, or rather special, about my family. For many years I didn’t know why the foods we ate all had seemingly Greek names, and the songs we sang around the Shabbat table sounded mysteriously like Spanish. And yet here I was growing up in a small, not particularly diverse, town in America. I liked that I knew there was something exotic about my family, but I didn’t really understand what it was all about. And when I tried to ask questions, I never seemed to get the answers I was looking for…
This is as much as I knew: my family left the Ottoman Empire (in Greece and what is now Macedonia) at the beginning of the 1900’s when they knew the area would not be safe much longer. They found their way to America and quickly settled into a rhythm of life that offered them security and unlimited opportunity. It was the typical immigrant story—including the assimilation that quickly followed. They found success in America and soon began to loosen their grip on the customs they held dear for decades back in the “old country.” The tadlikus baking in the oven and the catchy tune of “Cuando el rey Nimrod” were all that were passed down. But that wasn’t good enough for me.
I always felt drawn to the mystery of my family’s past and felt somehow cheated that there weren’t enough resources available to me to learn more about it. The family who had once spoken Ladino (the Judeo-Spanish language of my Sephardic roots) had long passed away, and family recipes had become diluted and now included Ashkenazi fare such as gefilte fish. I knew that if I was to learn more about my heritage I would have to do it on my own. So I did.
I’ve now spent the last nine years of my life dedicating myself to researching my Sephardic roots and working to carry the message to my peers that our culture is far from extinct. But just as I can’t deny my Sephardic past, I also acknowledge that I have been greatly influenced by my American roots. So I wanted to find a way to meld the identities that have shaped me, and I decided to do so through music.
To honor my heritage I set out to learn as many traditional Ladino folksongs as I could. But I wanted to make the music meaningful to me and to a new generation for whom exposure to this culture was virtually non-existent. So I took the traditional music I knew and decided to update it in a way that my contemporaries could relate to on their own terms. Combining the original songs with contemporary influences such as rock, pop, funk and jazz, I started a Ladino “Rock” band. Not content keeping the treasures of Sephardic culture hidden away only for those who already have access to it, I wanted to take my proud heritage and bring it to the masses! My group has found a niche celebrating traditional Sephardic culture in a contemporary context and the audience reaction we’ve been getting to our music is testament to the fact that there is a thirst out there to experience this culture in a fresh, new way. We have been invited to travel the world sharing our modern interpretation of the culture, and we hope that through our songs, younger and new generations will understand the relevance of this beautiful heritage in a modern context.
I feel so lucky that I get to wake up each morning and know that I am doing my small part to preserve my Sephardic roots. I feel as if I have truly found my life’s work—I get to embrace my past while ensuring it will live on into the future. I know that our numbers are dwindling and that with each generation it gets more difficult to hold on to our culture, but that is why we need to find innovative ways to attract not just our own, but also a larger following. In this world of multiculturalism and globalization, I believe that Sephardic culture cannot survive if it is the monopoly of only one tradition and outlook. We can preserve the tradition by adapting to new influences and finding fresh ways to communicate to new audiences—both within and out of our communities. Just as the culture has survived hundreds of years in many different lands, we can survive going forwards if we adapt effectively to our circumstances today. I don’t want future generations to not get the answers they are looking for, as it happened to me, when they ask to learn about Sephardic culture. I want the answers to be easily available in whatever terms one can relate to. That is how I’ve learned to embrace my rich past, and how I hope the culture will continue to be preserved.
Sarah Aroeste performs and writes Ladino music with a modern soul. She also runs the Cuban Jewish Music Library Project. For more information, visit www.saraharoeste.com and www.myspace.com/saraharoeste.