I recently had the very good fortune to see the Israeli singer Yasmin Levy in concert. Levy is a singer/songwriter of Ladino songs. Ladino, for those who don’t know, is the Yiddish of Sephardic Jewry. Like Yiddish, Ladino is heavily influenced by other languages, including Hebrew and Aramaic. Yiddish, spoken by the descendants of German-Jewish exiles who settled in Eastern Europe, is a variation of High Middle German heavily influenced by Slavic languages. Ladino, spoken by the descendants of the Spanish Jews who were expelled in 1492 and who settled to North Africa and the Ottoman Empire, is a variation of Old Spanish heavily influenced by various Mediterranean and Balkan languages.
Like Yiddish, the future of Ladino is precarious; the number of Ladino speakers may not even be 100,000, and they are old. The loss of Ladino is heartbreaking and tragic. There is a modern revival of sorts, although nothing on the scale of Yiddish. I have no definitive insight on to why so few seem to care about the future of Ladino, but I do have some theories. (1) The descendants of Ladino-speakers are more likely to live in Israel where the ultimate mother-tongue, Hebrew, has won out over all other Jewish languages. (2) In contrast, many Yiddish-speakers went to the United States and their descendants (like me) see Yiddish as the mother-tongue rather than Hebrew. Because there is not the same stigma associated with non-Hebrew Jewish languages in the United States (and in part because there was at one point such a vibrant Yiddish culture in the United States), younger Jews feel no stigma about studying Yiddish culture. This is great for Yiddish because most American Jews are of Ashkenazic descent, but not so great for Ladino, as Sephardic Jews in the United States are much fewer in number. (Sephardic Jews communities may be fewer, but they have also existed in the United States for far longer than Ashkenazic ones.) (3) Various ultra-Orthodox groups, both in and out of Israel, will only use Yiddish at home (even if they speak the local language when dealing with the outside world). This even goes for Hebrew, which they consider too holy for daily use. Sephardic Jews, even the fanatically religious Sephardim, have no qualms with speaking Hebrew as a daily language. (4) Although the Nazis did destroy Sephardic communities in the Balkans and Greece, the Holocaust predominantly affected Ashkenazic Jews and virtually annihilated an entire culture. For that reason, perhaps there is more of a sense of urgency to protect Yiddish. (5) The Yiddish world is much smaller than the Ladino world in terms of both physical and cultural distance. Yiddish speakers from say Hungary and Lithuania could communicate with one another far more easily than Ladino speakers from (for example) Algeria and Turkey. There is not one Ladino language to save per se but many different dialects that are near unintelligible.
The Ladino music tradition is quite beautiful. The folk songs are absolutely stunning. The language itself is also quite melodious, a far cry from the German-drenched guttural tonality of Yiddish (which, don’t get me wrong, I have deep affection for). Ladino songs are heart-wrenching and full of pathos. Or, at least they can be. The songs that Yasmin Levy sings certainly are.
Yasmin Levy is making a name for herself not just by singing Ladino songs, but also for trying to modernize Ladino, mostly by fusing it with Flamenco. Therefore, despite the sometimes overwhelming sadness of her music, there is also a Flamenco-like energy which also appears in her presentation. At time she sings like a Flamenco singer and hold herself the way they do. Nevertheless, that is not always the case. There are times when she stands so still she seems more like a fadista, as though she were standing on a mountain top singing headlong into the winds of fate. It’s a tremendous emotional effect. I speak no Ladino, yet there were times when I felt moved almost to the point of tears.
The closest I came to crying during her concert was when she sang the song “Una Pastora” (A Shepherdess). Here is a video of her singing the song the way she does on her album Sentir:
The translation to the song’s lyrics (found here on another version of the song) are as follows:
A shepherdess I loved
A beautiful child.
Still so young I adored her,
More than her I loved no other.
One day when we were
Sitting in the garden
I said to her: “For you, my flower
I will die of love”
In her arms she hugged me
Lovingly she kissed me
She answered me sweetly:
“You are too young for love”
I grew up and looked for her
She took another and I lost her
She has forgotten me,
But I shall always love.
Sad, right? But on this night, the lyrics and the melody were only a part of the sadness, and not the main part.
The male voice you heard in the video is a recording of Levy’s father Yitzhak Levy, a cantor and composer. Yitzhak Levy was also something of the Alan Lomax of the Ladino world. He recorded and wrote down as many Ladino folk songs as he could in an attempt to preserve the heritage. He died when his daughter Yasmin was only a year old, and she has no memory of him. Yasmin Levy had always wanted to do a duet with her father (a la Natalie Cole and Nat King Cole), and “Una Pastora” is the song she chose.
Although it seems odd to talk about stagecraft in a concert such as this, the way that she staged the song was designed to wring the maximum amount of pathos. The center of the stage was lit by the spotlight and she stepped back so that the illuminated area was empty. Alone on stage (her band, which had been with her all night, left), the recording of her father singing began and she remained motionless with her head down. Whenever she sang, she stepped into the spotlight, and when she finished, she stepped back out until the end when they sang together. There were tears in my eyes, and the man next broke down and cried.
Yasmin Levy is a true talent. She reminds me a bit of the late Ofra Haza, although her voice does not have the same timbre. Just as Ofra Haza brought Yemenite Jewish music into a spotlight that it didn’t have but so richly deserved. I hope that Yasmin Levy can do the same for Ladino music. Ladino is so beautiful; it would be devastating for it to just fade away.