Talking Ladino with Guy Mendilow

A sneak preview of Tales from the Forgotten Kingdom, to be performed by the Guy Mendilow Ensemble at the Skirball on March 27:

Guy Mendilow is not only an incredible musician, he is also quite a scholar of Sephardic culture. He and his ensemble’s concerts not only present the music of Sephardic tradition in a contemporary style, they also share the stories and culture of the Jews of both pre- and post-diasporic Spain. Their concerts become not just an opportunity to enjoy, but also to learn. I invite you to share in my conversation with Guy and then join us at the Skirball for what is certain to be a great evening.

So what is Ladino? How is it an “endangered” language?
First off, let’s quickly tackle the question of names. The term “Ladino” is arguable. Although it has become the most common name for the language, the spoken language itself is more correctly called Spaniolit, Yehuditze, Judeo, Judaismo, Hekatia (in Northern Africa), Saphardi, or, as was the case for older generations, simply Spanish. Today, the various dialects are often grouped under “Judeo-Spanish,” an umbrella term used mainly in academic study.

What the language is is a great story. The final expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492 and from Portugal in 1497 marked the start of large-scale migrations in which the Jews eventually settled in communities spanning the vast Ottoman Empire, from Northern Africa and the Mediterranean to the Balkans, and beyond. In each adopted home, the language, food, customs, stories, songs, and musicality that the Jews brought with them mingled with local variants—and cultural and linguistic offshoots eventually evolved. To some extent, each Jewish community adopted words and expressions from the local languages, including Greek, Slavic languages, Arabic, Turkish, and Hebrew. The language of Ladino is a beautiful illustration of these broader patterns. Another reason that the language is fascinating is that it keeps alive some of the grammar, words, and even pronunciation from the 1500s. It’s like a time capsule.

Judeo-Spanish is still spoken by pockets of Jews, today primarily in Israel. But the culture has succumbed to many of the same forces of modernity and assimilation to which other cultures have also succumbed. Children stopped learning the language, focusing instead on the dominant languages of the new home, like Hebrew or English. When grandparents passed away, the language went with them.

This is the case of Judeo-Spanish today, though thankfully there are a handful of universities—like Tufts, the University of Washington in Seattle, and the University of Pennsylvania—that are teaching the language.


Why do you think preserving Ladino through song is important?
Songs—and other arts—can tell us much about a culture. They are a glimpse into a constellation of values and perspectives, occasions, life cycles, and celebrations. Songs are also an opportunity to hear the language, especially when there are fewer and fewer opportunities to do so, for most of us at any rate. And, of course, songs have a way of speaking to the heart—that is the magic of music.


Photo by Craig Harris.

Photo by Craig Harris.

At the Skirball, you’ll be performing Tales from the Forgotten Kingdom. Can you describe one of the stories you tell during the show?
Las Quejas De Ximena (Ximena’s Grievances) is a song I learned from a beautiful recording of singer Alicia Bendayan, from Tetuán, made by Susana Weich-Shahak. It tells of several figures who actually existed. One of them is Ximena. In the story we tell, she approaches the king of León to demand justice for her slain father, who was murdered at the hands of El Cid, a very powerful lord. Her father’s murderer continues to torment her, playing cruel tricks on her to drive her pain deeper. She implores the king, but he makes all kinds of excuses as to why he cannot help her. Ximena tells the king off mightily, telling him that he is not worthy of having a kingdom, of lying with the queen, even of eating bread if he will not do what is right and what is just. You should hear her go off!

Now, I don’t want to give away endings. Both the original romanza as well as our excerpt of it reach an unexpected conclusion, especially from today’s vantage point.

These are stories of vagabond queens, pauper poets, and lovers lost to the sea. I see each story play out like a mini-movie. Bringing it to life through music is an adventure.


If you could teach people to say one thing in Ladino, what would it be?
Well, since I am in bed with the flu, how about “Nochada Buena.” (Good night.) The response (in Salonica at least): “Amen!”

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