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the spanish yiddish

by Nani Vazana

You’ve probably heard of Hebrew and Yiddish, but did you know there’s another Jewish language out there? It’s called Ladino (or Judeo-Español) – a fun melange of Castilian Spanish and Hebrew, Arabic, Greek, Turkish and some French and other Balkan languages thrown in the mix.

If Yiddish is the language of Ashkenazi Jews, then Ladino is the language of Sephardic Jews – you could call it the Spanish Yiddish! When the Jews were expelled from the Iberian peninsula back in the time of Columbus, they brought the language of their region to new countries: the north of Africa and the Ottoman Empire were the most welcoming harbours of hope at the time.

Although it has no official language status in any country, Ladino has been acknowledged as a minority language in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Israel, France, and Turkey. In 2017, it was formally recognised by the Royal Spanish Academy. 

Ladino or Judeo-Español developed in outer regions over the centuries and surpassed boundaries, reaching the Balkans and even the Carribeans. The language was adapted into two main different dialects, “Oriental” Ladino and “Western” Ladino. 

Just as it is with Yiddish speakers in Eastern Europe, the majority of Ladino speakers perished during the 2nd world war. Survivors were drawn to Latin America because the language was so similar to Ladino, but many adopted Spanish as their primary language. 

Historically, the Rashi script and its cursive form Solitreo have been the main orthographies for writing Ladino, but today it’s mainly written in the Latin alphabet.

Today, the countries hosting the most Ladino speakers are Israel and Turkey, where approximately 150 families still converse. Istanbul and Ismir are prominent Ladino-speaking cities too, and have even been publishing a Ladino newspaper called El Amaneser (The Dawn) since 2005. 

Unfortunately, a gap exists between the older and newer generations, as for the most part, Ladino has not been passed on to the younger generation and is therefore at risk of extinction. Most native speakers are elderly, and the language is not passed to their children or grandchildren for various reasons. Thankfully, I’m happy to see it is experiencing a minor revival, especially through music.

My grandmother spoke Ladino but my father forbade us to speak Ladino to each other and my mom was also not allowed to speak Ladino to her mother and sister. I grew up in a purist Hebrew speaking household and therefore almost lost touch with a unique and beautiful part of my upbringing. 

Ladino is a matriarchal language – both in scripture and in literature you can find many mother – daughter dialogues and they are directly connected to Mediaeval Jewish culture. Back then men were focused on learning Hebrew and torah in the synagogue and since it was an isolated community, they didn’t make a lot of effort to converse with their surroundings. The women stayed at home and had to learn the local languages, to haggle with merchants, exchange recipes and gossip – because that’s how you got news back then.

For recreation, they wrote and composed all the fantastic Ladino songs we know today and also wrote intricate poetry and theatre plays. These artists are unknown to us by name, but I dare you to find 1 person who knows Ladino who doesn’t know the melody of the romance Morenika! It’s a timeless piece that surpasses our imagination and cultural references, making this culture unique and prolific at the same time. 

This is also why many Ladino songs are about mother-daughter relationships – they capture the intimacy and fondness that is only achieved within close family circuits. Other songs and poetry topics include freedom, or furthermore, the lack of freedom – as these women lamented the golden cages they were held in, which they genuinely wanted to escape. 

Morenika is a perfect example in this case: this song describes a doomsday call of a young bride, who goes down to the beach on the morning of her wedding day and looks out to the sea, in hopes to see her long lost sailor love, before she makes the sacrifice to commit to another man.

History is always written by the victors. But here we have a unique opportunity to tap into a sense of time and reference we don’t normally find in other history / anthropology. Ladino music and literature were written by often overlooked ordinary people, which explains why these melodies touch us even today – 500 years after being lost and almost forgotten.

I see this is a personal mission of mine to help the revival of this language and culture. This is why I recorded an album of traditional songs Andalusian Brew and a new album of original Ladino songs I wrote & composed myself Ke Haber. This album will be presented in the BIMHUIS Amsterdam on January 8th – launched together with a limited run vinyl of 250 prints. 

I play Ladino because I see the future when I look at the past

The Sephardic Jews define themselves as Orthodox but they also believe in magic. It’s an ancient language but it reflects modern cultural & moral values. I just love this contradiction.

In my work I try to capture the spirit of an endangered language / culture and connect it into the 21st century with socially pertinent lyrics, celebrating migration, gender and alternative belief systems.

I do this because I believe that ancient cultures often have a lot to teach us. In some ways they are even more advanced than us. I witnessed it many times in my research, when I stumbled across texts about alternative passing away ceremonies, rituals of protecting babies from the bad fairies of the underworld, infidelity, homoerotic poetry and even a text about a transgender transformation from the 13th century. In many ways we’re still on the same wavelength, or at least, we keep on asking the same questions in our lifetime.

This journey of mine is about connecting to an inner root that is calling to be discovered – and I hope to have you join the ride on the CD presentation at the BIMHUIS Amsterdam on January 8th.

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About Nani:

Nani Vazana is one of the few artists in the world that write & compose new songs in the endangered Ladino language. In her new album ‘Ke Haber’ (What’s New) she captures the spirit of the ancient, matriarchal language and culture and propels it into the 21st century with socially pertinent lyrics, celebrating migration, gender and female empowerment. The soundscape bridges over tradition and modern life, capturing the sounds and smells of the marketplace and fuses them with raw, flamenco like vocals and surprising instrumentations. Soft choral-like trombones embellish mariachi guitars & percussion with glimpses of piano & cello tracks, make this record a magical realistic mosaic. Nani unveils a piece of history we don’t easily find in other mythology & anthropology.

Nani ranked #11 on the World Chart and 13# on the European chart, represented the Netherlands at the EU Music Festival in Vietnam and performed at the Kennedy Center USA, BBC Radio 3, London Jazz Festival UK & Jodhpur RIFF festival India. NPO released a mini documentary about Nani’s music and she also composed music for BBC4 and NPO documentaries. Nani is a professor at the London Performing Academy of Music & the Jerusalem Music Academy.

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