Sephardic Music



The Spielberg Jewish Film Archive  "SEPHARAD"
Name: "Sepharad" (Music of Sephardic Jews)
Year: 1991
Duration: 00:27:53
Language: English

When we speak of Ladino Sephardic Music, we are essentially encompassing a fairly broad subject, and thousand of years of Jewish history, and heritage that
evolved away from the land of Israel and after two thousand of years in the Diaspora, back in the land of Israel.

In the Ladino (Sephardic) music, we have both liturgical and secular music that eventually evolved from it. Both types of music were part and parcel of the Jewish
life, while the liturgical music can be equated with the continuity of the religious life in the Diaspora, the daily life of the Sephardim in the land of Spain and the
countries they migrated after the 1492 expulsion, is equated with the Romanceros. Therefore we define the Judeo-Spanish Romanceros as songs,
which constitute a secular tradition of: romances, cantigas and other medieval types of songs.

The Judea-Spanish songs originated in medieval Spain and remained a part of a tradition of Sephardic Jewry from the time of their dispersion from Spain in the
fifteenth century until the present day. The Romanceros did not spring up immediately upon their arrival and settled in Spain after they fled ancient Israel. There are
some historians who trace a Jewish settlement in Spain or at least in Majorca, from the days of King Solomon. If this is the case, then we can conclude that the
Jews, who came after the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans, arrived to an already established community. The new arrivals carried with them a
religious culture, which later on flourished in Spain and became to be known or referred to as Sephardim.


The Hebrew word for Spain is Sefarad, thus the reference to the Jews whose ancestors came from Spain as Sephardim. It is without any doubts that the poetry of the Jews has its beginning in the literature of the Bible. This is true more than one sense. It is true chronologically; it is also true from the point of view of artistic and spiritual inspiration. The Bible was viewed as a book that expressed a philosophy, a code of law and moral exhortation. The idea of it being a piece of ‘Literature’ is comparatively a modern thought. Nonetheless, despite thefact that the Bible was not considered as literature, there is no doubt that in reality we find that the poetic books of the Bible made a deep impression, as poetry, upon the Jewish consciousness; so much so, that one can almost regard the products of the Spanish Hebrew Poets as extensions of the Hebrew Poetry of an earlier time. The song of the Hebrews at the crossing of the Red Sea, or the Sea of Reed (Exodus xv), and the song of Deborah (Judges v) are probably the earliest surviving Hebrew literary records, and more of a certainty, the earliest manifestations of the Hebrew Poetic genius-a genius which later produced the Psalms, the book of Job, the Song of Songs and the magnificent declamations of the Prophets.


Of all the poetry mentioned above, only The Song of Songs may be considered as secular in nature. It was saved only because the Rabbis gave this poem a strictly
religious mystic interpretation. One may be tempted to conjecture that there may have been other love poetry of this kind that was written by the Hebrews, but was
lost to us forever, because it was not regarded as Holy writing. After the close of the Biblical Canon, we find ourselves waiting for almost a thousand years before
Hebrew secular poetry appears again on the scene, as an important part of the renaissance of Hebrew poetry in Spain in the tenth century. What is the reason for
this lack of secular poetry one may ask? We can only conjecture now, that perhaps the lack of secular poetry is a result of this reluctance to embark upon an activity,
which might be construed to be contrary to the law and customs of the Jews.

From what has been said until now, one can deduce that the transition from religious poetry, to secular poetry and eventually to Romanceros, was a gradual one.
For example, post Biblical Poetry developed in the land of Judea, or Palestine, under late Roman and Byzantine rule, in the centuries preceding the Moslem
conquest (636). This is the period that witnessed the remarkable flowering of the Piyut, that is, liturgical poetry, which made Judea the center of the Hebrew letter
until the late eighth century. At the end of the ninth century Hebrew poetry made its first appearance on European soil, in southern Italy and from there to Spain. In
Spain Hebrew poetry or Piyut spans some five hundred years, which in turn span into two major periods. The Muslim Period (950-1150) and the Christian Period (1150-1492).


By the beginning of the eleventh century, the first of the giants of the Golden Age (1020-1150) poet was Samuel Hanagid. He was followed by three outstanding
figures: Solomon Ibn Gabirol, a passionate, introspective poet and philosopher Moses Ibn Ezra, and Judah Halevi who was referred as ‘The Sweet Singer of Zion’.
He was also considered as the finest poet of this school of poets.

The Jews of Spain where influenced by their Arabic Masters, which they followed in much of their poetic subject matter. However, they often transmuted it into
specifically Jewish material. An example of that transmutation is that whereas the Arabs wrote poems in praise of the cities of Spain. The Jews, using the same
poetic phraseology as the Arabs, reserved their poems for the glories of Israel and Jerusalem. They also wrote love-songs to individuals of both sexes. Their
poems describe wine-feasts that were held in the beautiful gardens of Spain, with girls in attendance, singing to stringed instruments. We find in their poetry
extravagant praises of fellow-poets and of wealthy patrons. But among their poetry we also find writing of sarcastic criticism. We also share with them their sorrow at
the departure of friends for distant lands, and at the death of their loved ones. In their works we also travel with them on their journeys, some enforced through
persecution and banishment, others undertaken out of love for the land of Israel. We often encounter their awareness of the passing of time, of the futility of life, of
the precious quality of the immortal soul. Above all, we experience with them their search for the knowledge of G’d, their sense of dependence on Him as the creator
of the world, their consciousness of the relationship between G’d and the Jewish People, their desire to serve Him with all their being, their remorse at their own
iniquity, their torment and their bewilderment at the sufferings of their people.

Yet despite the similarity in content, each of the major poets was able to strike a personal note. In Yehudah Halevi, we recognize his yearning for the land of Israel,
Gabirol’s communion with his own soul, Moses Ibn Ezra’s grief in his exile, and the extra ordinary martial character of Samuel Hanagid. It is indeed this personal
element, which distinguishes the content of Spanish Hebrew poetry from that of the Hebrew Poetry of medieval France and Germany.


As we can see the Romanceros is the result of a gradual evolvement during the centuries, and thus became a part of the Jewish life during their stay in Spain, as
the Bible became part of their life when they lived in the land of Israel. It is no wander then that the Jews of Spain carried that culture with them to the lands they
wandered after their expulsion, from the land they so much loved. It was more than nostalgia; it was their culture and their heritage, the same as the Bible, which
they carried throughout the Diaspora. It is no wander that upon the return of the Jews to the Land of Israel in the 19th and 20th century, there were those who left it
was imperative to revive the Sephardic culture, as one of the many cultures developed by the Jews in the Diaspora in many lands.


We Sephardim remember with nostalgia those days, whether it was in Sarajevo, Italy, Greece, Turkey, Rhodes, or in Israel, our life at home. Those memories and
images are still fresh with some of us still alive, when the family gathered, sitting tightly by each other, during the long winter nights, around the fire and listening
tensely to the stories of the old man and woman in the group. These images are followed by other ones such us a mother who relates the Pearls of Sayings she
learned from her mother and grandmother. Sayings passed on from the generations gone, but full of wisdom and insight. However, most of all who does not remember the beautiful Romanceros that brought tears on the faces of many of the elders?


I personally remember those Romanceros from the days I was growing up in Israel. As I was walking home in the center of Tel Aviv, from school, I could hear
distance away the singing of my mother, while she was cooking in the kitchen for a family of nine. Her voice still rings in my ears, the songs she learned from her
mother “Si la mar era de leche, Yo me aria peshkador, Pesharia mis Dolores, Kon palvarikas d’amor”. Since these days my heart was drawn to these
Romanceros. It was only later in life that I understood what these Romanceros meant to us as Sephardim. We have preserved our origin with as much loyalty as to
our faith. We preserved for centuries our language, our customs, cultures and most of all the songs that accompanied our people to wherever they migrated after
their expulsion in 1492.


The question is in place to ask, what are we doing now to continue and preserve this culture for generations to come? It is clear and understood that in Israel, there
are a number of individuals who are dedicating themselves to keep this heritage alive. To name a few: Yitzhak Navon, the former President of Israel, Yitzhak Levy,
who gathered all the liturgical songs of all the Holidays, Moshe Atias, who wrote and gathered many Romanceros into a book, Yoram Gaon, who revived the
Romanceros songs on the lips of many, Matilda Cohen-Serano, who wrote and gathered many Romanceros as well gathered many of these stories of Jocha in
several books, Moshe Shaul, who publishes Aki Yerushalayim and many others. However, what have we done and what are our accomplish-ments here in the
USA? There is indeed, a fairly large Sephardic community, in a number of the big cities. The answer is, very little. It is hoped that with this presentation of “nostalgia
Sepharadi”, a Sephardic musical it would rekindle a spark among our Sephardim that will grow into a flame of love to our heritage, not by words alone, but by
creative deeds. This will be the proper response to our forefathers, telling them: “we did not let you down. We are carrying the torch of our culture in our generation that you carried for centuries, and we will make sure that it will continue for generations to come”.


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