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Latinos and Jews Celebrate Seder and Old Language

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While Pitchfork tries to revive music video on the web, a nearly extinct language over five centuries old is making a comeback, of sorts. The Fifth Annual Sephardic Model Seder takes place tonight in Chicago. It's hosted by a group of people celebrating the connections between Latinos and JewsEight Forty-Eight Contributor Catalina Maria Johnson has the story.


That's Cantor Alberto Mizrahi from Anshe Emet Synagogue singing Noches Noches. Mizrahi leads Songs and Prayers during a Seder modeled in the Sephardic tradition.


In 1492, the Catholic Kings of Spain expelled as many as 400,000 Jews that lived in the Iberian Peninsula. These Jews took with them their poetry and literature and developed songs in Ladino such as what you're hearing now. Ladino is considered a Romance language with influence of Hebrew as well as the lands the Iberian Jews emigrated to such as Turkey, France and Greece. In the twentieth century, the number of speakers declined radically: entire communities were eradicated in the Holocaust, while many of the remaining speakers migrated to Israel and adopted Hebrew.

Today Ladino is a dying language spoken by less than 200,000 mostly Sephardic Jews. But in Chicago, Ladino is helping Latinos and Jews find common ground. The Sephardic Model Seder, a special Passover celebration, is held every year by the Alliance for Jews and Latinos, a group that aims to return to the common denominator of their distant pasts, says Bonnie Rubinow, member of the Alliance Board:

RUBINOW: I think people are very surprised to find that this is a point in history where the two communities, their fates really crossed. We all have roots in that time in history,  those of us in the Latino community, the Jewish community, it is a point of commonality where our histories really did cross.

MIZRAHI: one of the things I like to do, is when we recount, there's a word in Hebrew it´s called dayenu, in Sephardic or Ladino, its called Abastaba a nos, it would have been enough for us, it would have sufficed us. Look at all the great things at the end it says had He taken us out of Egypt, it would have sufficed us…but if we had received the Torah…it would still have sufficed us, it gets greater and greater, all the things Gods did for us to take us out of Egypt….

Latinos who attend the Seder appreciate the telling of the freedom story of the Jewish people in a language that appears to be a distant cousin of the Spanish language, and it also reminds them of other freedom stories, says Olga Rojas:

ROJAS: For me, I'm Catholic, not Jewish, I'm Latina. It was a learning experience to learn about the traditions of the Seder, especially the Sephardic one, it brought to light, I did not know that the Jews had been forced out of the Iberian peninsula, I know my mother left for political freedom, she left Cuba, many of my clients are doing that and others for economic reasons, they are being driven out, so it shows the commonality of things from the Jewish past to our recent history. The Ladino, I could understand some of it when we read the prayers. It´s a form of Spanish, a mixed language.

Contemporary musicians like Bay-area Latin Jazz singer Kat Parra are also part of the effort to revive and preserve Ladino. In town to promote her latest CD “Azucar de Amor” Parra says she included two Sephardic songs in Ladino because they are a reminder of an era when the major religions of the world coexisted in harmony.

PARRA: I just want to develop more of these beautiful melodies and keep Judeo Spanish alive… I am fascinated by the Sephardic music is because how the Muslims and the Jews and the Christians were able to coexist and trade information, and influence each other so strongly in the Golden Era of Spain and that to me is the message –- how can we bring the world back together.

Cantor Mizrahi agrees that music might be a key to preserving Ladino but says that in and of itself it plays an important role in uniting people…

MIZRAHI: Music brings people together…Hopefully in the next years I have left…whatever years God gives me, he will allow me to preach peace just by singing…

MIZRAHI: This Latino Jewish Alliance it's the same thing…it's not that we have the wars between us, thank God. But this brings about an understanding…this has brought us together…you know what it's shown? That we're alike, that everybody really is like everybody else.

It's several generations too early to say if Ladino will survive as a spoken language. What seems certain to say is that this language that holds the 500-year old memory of a people torn from their land by religious intolerance, today helps Jews and Latinos find their common ground in Chicago.

For Chicago Public Radio, this is Catalina Maria Johnson.

The Fifth Annual Sephardic Model Seder hosted by the Alliance of Latinos and Jews takes place tonight.

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