THE BOOK OF LIFE - It's Always a Party with a Sephardi
7:55PM Nov 20, 2022
[COLD OPEN] I always like to wish people paths of milk and honey which is our traditional Sephardic wish; it's often wished at weddings. But I think it's worth wishing it all the time. Kaminos de leche i miel.
[MUSIC, INTRO] This is The Book of Life, a show about Jewish kidlit, mostly, I'm Heidi Rabinowitz. Instead of our usual music from the Freilachmakers, what you're hearing is Buen Shabat, a track from Sarah Aroeste's English and Ladino bilingual album called Together/Endjuntos. Sarah Aroeste is a singer and songwriter of Ladino music, a leader of Sephardic travel tours, and an author of board books featuring Sephardic culture and Ladino vocabulary. She is just one of my guests today, along with Bridget Hodder, a Sephardic author who has collaborated with Muslim author Fawzia Gilani-Williams on middle grade books and picture books that encourage interfaith friendship. I met with Sarah and Bridget at the Highlights Foundation's Symposium for Jewish Creatives, where we had so much fun talking all about Sephardic culture and about their work.
Before we get started, I just want to let you know about a few treats for you on my website at BookOfLifePodcast.com First of all, please check out my response to writer Erika Dreifus's #JewishBookMonth Reading Challenge, posted on the Book of Life blog on November 20. And please watch for an upcoming guest Hanukkah post from author Maxine Rose Schur, whose 1999 Sydney Taylor Book Award winner, The Peddler's Gift, has just been republished. That will post on the blog on December 18.
Finally, I want to give a shout out to Dianne Siekmann, a new Patreon supporter of the podcast at the $5 monthly donation level. Dianne says, "I have been listening to the podcast for a long time and I love the author interviews. There is wisdom and passion in all of the podcasts. For my shout out I would like to honor the descendants of Holocaust survivors who are making sure that we never forget. I am not Jewish, but feel a strong tie to Jewish history and life affirming values." Dianne, that is beautiful. Thank you so much for being a listener and supporting the podcast at Patreon.com/bookoflife. Now on with the show.
Here we are at the wonderful Highlights Foundation. We're here for the Highlights Symposium for Jewish Creatives. I am here with Sarah Aroeste and Bridget Hodder. And we're actually in the Jane Yolen cabin, it's lovely, it has Jane Yolen themed decorations and a big bookcase full of her books. There's a little owl in the rafters like Owl Moon, so a fun location to get to record a podcast episode.
I asked you both to join me because I think you're kind of the top representatives of Sephardic representation in children's literature today.
That's lovely, thank you!
So what do you both want non Sephardic readers, whether they're Jewish or not, to know about Sephardic culture?
Well, I always like to say that we are more than rice and beans on Passover. That was really the extent of the Sephardic education that I received outside of my home when I was growing up. That was what our Hebrew school teacher taught the students in my class. Obviously growing up in a very proud Sephardic household, I knew that we were much more than rice and beans on Passover. And I think it's really a lesson for Jews and non Jews alike, that we are much more than our food. We're much more than even our language, our geography. We have a very, very rich history that encompasses many different countries and ages and textures and smells and foods and songs and you name it.
Indeed, and I will embroider because that's another thing Sephardic people do. We love a good story and we love to embroider it and spin it out. So Sarah's statement about how we are many different things: part of that difference is the fact that Sephardic people are a people who exist in diaspora. We are the descendants of those who were expelled by Ferdinand and Isabella from Spain and who were also in Portugal at the time. Back in 1492, we were told convert or die or leave. We left. My ancestors moved directly from Spain in Toledo, went to the Ottoman empire where the Ottoman emperor was very smart and said, Come on over. He knew quality folks, let's just say, and welcomed us with open arms. And my my family lived in Salonika for 500 years. So basically, that's a continuity that we have. And so our language, our customs, culture, quirks; quirks like kissing the bread before throwing it into the compost heap, for example. Many proverbs always with the proverbs, lots of song, we as Sephardic people are people of joy. And that joy comes from the many cultures that we have absorbed and been absorbed by during that diaspora. So there's Spain, there's Portugal, there's Turkey, there's Arabic in our language. There's Hebrew, of course. But mostly we're speaking the traditional language of our people, since being expelled is Ladino. Or Spagnol, which I know Sarah's grandfather called it. My grandmother called it that as well. And we learned mostly songs. Now Sarah is not just an author, but she's also an amazing performer, and she performs in Ladino, represents our culture worldwide. One of the things about Sephardic song that moves me to tears whenever I see Sarah perform, even when she's doing the joyful performance, is the fact that it's so central to our culture. Another thing that I want people to know is that Sephardim were part of the Holocaust, we were erased from many of the places that we used to live, including my mother's family, my mother is a survivor. It is something that is part of our culture, as well. So I remember when I was getting my master's, going to a program given on the Holocaust by a survivor of Auschwitz where my family died, and talking to this man after he gave his lecture, and I said, Did you ever meet anyone from Salonika? Any of the Sephardic people perhaps, you know, some of my family, I'm, I'm looking for that. I'm seeking that. And he said, you know, they kept us separate at the camp, but the thing I remember about the Sephardics was the singing. They sang at the camp, he said, Wherever they went, and they didn't stop them from singing.
Yeah, there was a very famous chorus called the Koro Saloniki from Salonika in Auschwitz, and they were made famous by by the experience and actually revived some songs, one of which has really become an anthem for Sephardic Jews all over the world today called Arboles. It was a song that literally says, the chorus says, What will I do in foreign lands? I will surely die. And they took that song and they changed some of the words to describe their experience in Poland. In the end, though, the last verses, if you can think of it like a redemptive reimagining where it says Ven y veràs viaremos, come and you will see, together with our love, we will be united one day. So they were very cognizant of the fact that they were in foreign lands, and that they would not be returning home but that you know, as Sephardim, we are all united and that we will all come back one day. So I mean, it's like....
Sarah, I didn't know that! How so, how could my my family know that? Nobody came back from the camps. I didn't know that. Thank you. See what I mean, she moves me, she always brings tears to my eyes. Suffering is universal. Redemption, is also a universal goal. And within Judaism, it feeds into so many of our religious and our cultural touchstones. I think these moments are important to keep discussing, especially now.
And I think the whole Spain factor. I mean, if we talk about language for a minute, in so many ways, the Holocaust has sort of overshadowed a lot of historical events, you know, in many ways, you know, rightfully so. But also for Sephardim, we are still grappling with the after effects of the Inquisition. I mean, that is like, really to the core of who we are. Yes, we were very affected by the Holocaust. Most people don't necessarily think of let's say Greece or Macedonia in World War Two, but in fact, they were the hardest hit area in terms of of percentage of Jews killed, not in terms of number but where I'm from, which is present day North Macedonia, 98% of the Jewish population was exterminated. I mean, 98%, an entire society were wiped out. Yeah, yeah, that's, that narrative is completely missing from contemporary stories. But the Inquisition still is part of our DNA and our existence. And as a language, even though Ladino developed over hundreds of years, it is the thing that still connects Sephardim 500 years later, it's that Hispanic connection, it's that connection directly back to Spain that still unites us. And that's really powerful. People assume that Israel and Jerusalem is what Jews will always be attached to. But for a lot of us, it's this yearning for Spain of the golden age, of what was, that still binds us.
I'm so glad you brought that up. Because I often hear from people who don't understand. People have said to me, even fellow Jews who are not Sephardic, we are a tiny minority... they've said, well, the Inquisition was so long ago, how could that matter? How could that even be part of your culture now? I'm like, my answer to that is, how long ago was Sinai? You know, what defines us as Jews is thousands of years old. Over 500 years, that's a drop in that bucket of time. And it's so present. It's so shaped who we are today. You can be united by a loss. But it's not just a loss. We carry that with us. When you have to be yourselves in a strange place, you cling tighter to those traditions that help define you. And I think that is definitely a part of why we're still speaking this language so long after that happened, why we have these customs, why we have these proverbs, why we still you know, some of us are still belly dancing! It's like, hey, this is who we are, and we want to share it!
Well, I want to talk more about the language. Let's talk about the difference between Spanish and Ladino. And let's also talk about the difference between Sephardic versus Hispanic or Latinx.
Well, I'll start with the Spanish and Ladino. When Jews were expelled in 1492 they were completely cut off from how the language developed. So what they brought with them in exile was an ossified 15th century Castilian Spanish, and as they traveled primarily towards the Ottoman Empire, so towards the east, as they traversed the Mediterranean, they incorporated bits and pieces of languages from the countries that they encountered. So it is true that Ladino has Hebrew in it, but it is actually a lot more than that. It is Castilian Spanish at its core mixed in with bits of Portuguese, Italian, French, Greek, Turkish, Arabic and Hebrew. If you look at a map, you can see all the countries from Spain towards the Ottoman Empire that they passed through, and those are the bits of languages and rhythms and melodies that they picked up along the way.
Okay, and the difference between Sephardic versus Hispanic or Latinx, can you break that down?
Latinx, it comes from the Spanish word Latinoamericano, and refers to people with origins from Latin America who reside in the United States. There are some exceptions. So it doesn't include people from let's say, Belize and Guiana where English is spoken, or Suriname where Dutch is spoken. However, people from Brazil, where Portuguese is spoken, are considered Latinx. And this should not be confused with Hispanic, which really denotes people from Spanish speaking Latin America and Spain. This is where it gets a little bit confusing. So a Brazilian would be Latinx, but non Hispanic. And a Spaniard would be Hispanic but not Latinx. And an Argentine could be both.
And the things you just named, Hispanic and Latinx, could be Jewish, not Jewish, Ashkenazi, Sephardic, Mizrahi, whatever, because depends on...
Catholic, right, indigenous; it just depends on the ancestry, but you're talking about the countries and Ianguage...
I think that's also a really important thing to say. They relate to regions of origin or ancestry but not to race, and you can be more than one at a time but they are not interchangeable. Just because you are a Spanish speaking Jew, does not mean that you are Sephardic.
Right. Good. All right, thank you. Because that's complicated, and it's good to clear that up.
Since we're talking from a literature perspective, a kidlit perspective today, I would caution that if you're sort of in the publishing industry, be very careful when you get a manuscript, and it's a Jewish book that includes, let's say, Hispanic or Latinequis elements, be very, very careful to make sure before you promote that book as Sephardic, to get an actual Sephardic sensitivity reader, or as an author yourself, if, if this is not your lived identity and experience, make sure that you've done due diligence. I've seen books that are right now out there, that have these elements, and they are being misidentified, and promoted in Sephardic spaces, and taking up that space, where authors who are genuinely of that identity should be, so just just something to bear in mind.
Jews can be Hispanic without being Sephardic.
That is the takeaway?
That is the takeaway, I couldn't have said it much more briefly.
No no, that was good
She said it! I mean, that, that was it right there.
So you've both had Sephardic stories published. What are the barriers to getting Sephardic stories published by mainstream publishers or even by Jewish publishers?
Well, I think that we're all pretty clear eyed about the fact that at the Big Five or mainstream publishers, Jewish stories in general can be seen as niche. I'm sure there isn't an actual quota, at the acquisitions level. But there's probably a certain number of books of Jewish content that people think that they can sell in any given season of any given publishing year. If you're a minority within a minority, which Sephardim are, we're like about 1% of U.S. Jewry, then people will say, we don't think there's enough of an readership to acquire you. We would strongly disagree, because the stories we tell are universal stories, even if there's a Sephardic flavor. It's just another piece of the beautiful human variation that characterizes us all.
I think there's so much potential, especially with Sephardic stories, because we encompass so many different countries. And our language is so diverse. I mean, whether you speak a little bit of French, or Italian, or Spanish, or Greek, or Arabic, or Hebrew, I mean, there's something for everyone in this beautiful Ladino language. And it really is, I mean, as cliche as it sounds, it is a bridge building culture and language. And if only people knew about this incredible history, there is something that everybody can relate to. There's something so universal about the experience of exile and appropriation and language development and displacement. And I mean, wow, so many people can relate to our story that shouldn't be seen as niche, it's really a universal story.
My latest book, The Button Box, has that very strong grounding in Sephardic history and in Sephardic present modern day, you know, here's how we live, this is who we are. But when I read aloud, and speak some Ladino to the kids in the classrooms, the Hispanic kids, the kids who are from Mexico, or their family background is from Venezuela or whatever, they are all over it. They can understand what I'm saying. And they connect, they're excited. It's another thing that links us in the human family. A lot of times those kids are not seeing themselves reflected in books that are considered more mainstream. But there are how many millions of Spanish speaking kids in our schools and classrooms. You know, as Sarah said, this language evolved as a bridge builder as we moved across continents and countries. And it can continue to do so.
We've heard here at the Symposium and I hear this all the time, of Jewish people saying "I don't feel Jewish enough." Many of the authors here talk about how they were afraid they weren't Jewish enough to write a Jewish book and then some of them go on to win the Sydney Taylor and then they say, Oh, I feel so validated now because I wasn't sure I was Jewish enough. So as Sephardic Jews, do you find that Ashkenazi Jews give you the message that you're not Jewish enough? Because they don't recognize your version of Judaism?
I don't even think in many ways we're even given that... I want to say respect. I just think we're like off the radar. It's not that we're not Jewish enough for them. It's like they it doesn't even like occur to them that chicken soup isn't what everybody eats on Passover. I mean, every single Jewish book that's published that has a scene that revolves around a Seder will always feature matzah ball soup. And for a lot of Jews, that is actually not our experience, but it's just...
I never had matzah growing up.
Yeah, I mean it just like, doesn't even occur to a non Sephardic community. So honestly, I think we're just... they... you... I like to say you can't blame people for what they don't know. But I also think we're at a point where no like, like, let's, let's learn about each other! We exist, and the numbers are there to prove it. There are some really compelling recent studies out of the, let's say, 2% of the American population that is Jewish, of that, some recent studies show that anywhere between about 10 to 20% are non Ashkenazi. So that's a significant number. Related, about 15 to 20% of the Ashkenazi community does not consider themselves white, they consider themselves Jews of Color. One of the most compelling numbers for myself is that 23andMe and certain DNA tests, there have been studies of those DNA tests that predict that upwards of 25% of Latin America has Sephardic ancestry. Just think about that number, we're talking about millions and millions and millions of the world's population, 25% of Latin America is somehow related to Jewish culture, and they don't know it! I think we're going to be hearing a lot more about it. And this is our chance to make a really compelling case for the diversity of Jewish people, to invite people in, to say, oh my gosh, like, our culture rocks! Like, we are so diverse!
And you know, Hispanic culture can unite us and like, learn about us because we have so much to offer to make this world... I mean, again, sounds so cliche, but we really can serve as a bridge to a lot of communities.
Yeah, we're a living culture.
Yeah, I mean, that's one of our biggest pet peeves is when a people say that we're an ancient culture, I hate that word ancient because it's just, since when was 500 years ago ancient, and also that we're dead. And, you know, people look at me with dropped jaws, like Ladino is still spoken?? And it is a sad truth that since World War II, no one will be born speaking Ladino as a first language again, that is truth. But that doesn't mean it is not still spoken, it doesn't mean it's not a living, breathing language. And there are those of us, not only in the publishing world, but also in music and in academia, who are focusing on children and new generations. I write specifically for the littlest littles, my published books, right now, are board books, because I think it's really important for young families, whether you're Sephardic or not, or Jewish or not, if this is your first introduction to Jewish culture, I want you to be able to see that we're not all matzah ball soup, and we're not all white, that we speak Spanish and we speak Ladino, and we speak... I think, for me personally, because I have small kids, I believe board books are a really important entryway. And then obviously, as kids get older, we need more Sephardic representation. And I should say, you know, it's not just Sephardic representation. It's Jews of color. It's Mizrachi. We have so much diversity in our culture. I have a mantra that stems from a whole Ladino children's project I did several years ago called Ora de Despertar, which means Time to Wake Up. For kids, it's just a really sweet song about all the rituals you do to wake up in the morning. But for adults, it's a much wider message that we need to open our eyes. And, wow, there's just so much culture out there and so much about Judaism that we need to pass on to our kids. Over the years, the one thing that I've learned in my career is to present all of this with joy, because it's really easy when you're the minority to have a chip on your shoulder that y'know, Nobody understands me and nobody, you know, why don't they see that I eat spanakopita? Sort of that and I think I spent too much of my early early career feeling like that. And at some point I realized, wow, like that's not going to get people to learn about us. We have to present our culture with joy, like let people understand and see. Let's have bright colors. Let's not just you know, in in terms of illustration even, let's not present all of our books with these like dark muted Inquisition colors like, right? I mean, we are present day....
Inquisition colors! That is like the new Benjamin Moore paint line!
But I mean if you look at books that take place, you know, historical picture books, like a lot of them paint this very drab palette.
Yeah, it's not it's not all doom and gloom, for sure.
Right. Like we are a living, breathing, vibrant culture.
And to circle around to your point about Ora de Desperatar, right? To your initial question, you know, were you ever made to feel like you were not Jewish enough? In my childhood, yes. Not knowingly. There was never a single Jew who maliciously said you're not Jewish enough. But I didn't know what gefilt-y fish was. And I didn't know what Bubbe meant. You know, people say my bubbe. And I'm like, is that like a teddy bear or something?
Or it's bubble gum or like...
Yeah, yeah. I mean, I just. Yeah, I don't know. I don't know what that is. And they didn't know what my stuff was. When you're little like, you want to belong, you don't want to stand out. And I kind of turned inward on myself and told myself, well, you're not Jewish enough. I was hesitant to even identify as a Jew, because I couldn't then participate in the conversations about the kinds of things my peers were doing. But fast forward: in my congregation, Beth El of the Sudbury River Valley in Massachusetts, I just gave a personal prayer at Kol Nidre, where I talked about being Sephardic. And the response from the congregation afterwards was, you know, I didn't know that, You've opened my eyes. Their arms were open to me. And it really was the Ora de Despertar, we need to wake up to what's within us. We need to wake up to what's without us, and make sure that we fill those spaces together.
So here at Highlights last night, Sarah, you gave not a concert, but an interactive performance. And I wrote down something you said because it was so interesting. "Sephardic culture is very grounded in the female body and the female perspective." Can you talk some more about that?
Sure. For me, so much of the tradition personally was passed down through the matriarchs in my family. My grandfather was the eldest of nine brothers and sisters and his three sisters, so my great aunts, some of my greatest memories growing up were you know, being in the kitchen with them as they prepared the taaralikus and the borekas and all the delicious foods that we eat and having them you know, pinch cheeks and sing songs. It's you know, and it's like, wow, like that I can, I can just even talking about it conjures up the smells and everything about it. So that's on a very personal level. But on the sort of larger cultural transmission level, the songs and the foods, if we're talking about cultural touchstones, were passed down by women. It was an oral tradition for the last couple hundred years. And it was the women who were the culture bearers. They were the ones in the kitchen cooking communally. And as they were doing it, singing the songs, therefore a lot of the songs are from the female point of view, there are a lot of young girl protagonists, you learn a lot about family dynamics. It's often centered around girls and then women. And one of the things that I personally love about Ladino repertoire, musically speaking, is the focus on the female perspective through sensuality, which is just not something we really think about when we talk about Judaism. And in fact, we're really sensual culture. I mean, think about where most of us lived in the hot Mediterranean!
Well, and part of the kind of melding of the poetic Muslim cultures, the dominant culture in Spain, in Hispania at that time during the Golden Age, when Muslims and Jews were living together and working together and doing good things together, they also made poetry and songs together and a lot of these were love songs and love poetry that you can still read. It's v ery hot Jewish love poetry.
Yeah, it will make you blush!
And the other piece, which to Sarah's point is that so much of this sensuality is grounded in this beautiful females amongst females sharing, like the sensual dances were not often done for men. They weren't performances for men, women would perform amongst each other as a group, and they would appreciate each other and each other's bodies and beauty, just a loving family of females, whether or not they were related. And that goes again to healing ritual, medicine; Sephardic women were very well known for the folk medicine. And there are incantations, and some of them derive from the Tanakh and some of them derive from folk tales about La Profeta Maryam, La Profeta, the Prophet Miriam. Elijah's really big, Prophet Elijah, like in these medical incantations, like you would hear Elijah doing things you never thought Elijah would do!
Oh, well, you know, like marching around in iron boots, botas de yerro, like, I think of seven league boots in fairy tales. Or waiting at the crossroads in order to take away danger. All of this stuff, it's there. Dominant culture wants to suppress it, because it's automatically threatening because it's female, and because it has to do with healing. But these are traditions that we sustained for many hundreds of years on, I hope that in some ways through our fiction, and through performances, like what Sarah does, we can actually revive some of this. I mean, I'm not content with just keeping it going. We want to revive. And that's why Sarah's creativity of actually composing her own Sephardic songs and of us making our own Sephardic stories... She's currently writing board books, she will write other genres, I'm sure. I'm currently doing middle grade. These are ways of keeping our culture alive, sharing it, and welcoming others into our very warm embrace.
Related to this concept, I remember earlier in a conversation you and I had, Bridget, you said something like that the Sephardim are the party arm of Judaism?
O ne of my favorite T shirts, by the way, I'll have to wear it for you next time, it says "With a Sephardi it's always a party."
Yes indeed! Oh yes!
Oh yeah, we love to have fun. We love to sing. We love to dance, we love to eat, everything is very communal. We like to make fun of ourselves. We don't take ourselves too seriously. I mean, we are really a fun culture.
There is an entire thing, at least in Salonika. Did they did this in Macedonia? The toast culture, glass after glass is lifted, and beautiful lyrical toasts can be toasted to the company, or some really hysterical. Probably as the evening goes on more and more hysterical, or perhaps even raunchy toasts. That's another cultural thing that supports the party arm theory.
Well, everything is an occasion to celebrate. That's one of the things that resonates with me. Every lifecycle event is a cause for communal celebration. One of my favorite songs, again, it's female based. It's about giving birth. But really, the point of the song at the end is how the community comes out to embrace the mother and the new child. And that's a celebration. Even on let's say, Hanukkah, it's a celebration when all of the kids go out and knock from door to door to collect all the materials to make the bimuelos, and then there's a big communal feast in the center of town. I mean, that's a thing too, like, every single thing whether it's cooking or giving birth, or a bris, or you know, you name it, there's just a reason to celebrate.
Yeah, and that's a good thing.
Absolutely. How could that possibly not be a good thing? Can you talk about the role of Arab culture within Sephardic culture? You've mentioned it, but let's actually focus on that.
Oh, wow, man, that's just a huge... there's so many ways, musically and linguistically. It's very clear how we incorporated Arab rhythms and melodies as Jews traversed the Mediterranean towards the Middle East. It's very clear in the songs that we sing and even bits of Arabic that have found their ways into Ladino. Some of our storytelling in particular, we have a sort of iconic character called Joha.
Joha is our trickster and is always getting into trouble and causing trouble and is just one of the most delightful sort of symbols of Sephardic culture, but in the Ottoman Empire Joha was also known by other names in different Muslim communities. And so that is a link to Arabic culture that we're really proud of.
I didn't realize until I was an adult that all those Joha stories my mother used to tell, my grandmother used tell, that they were Arabic in origin, I mean, and they're funny! So like the one about the dad and the son walking the donkey to market... Can I just like, encapsulate that one?
So this one was my mother's favorite. So there's a man and a son walking a donkey to market. They start out with the old man riding the donkey and somebody passes them and says, look at you old man, making your poor son walk. And so the son gets up on the donkey. The next passerby says oh, you disrespectful young man, how dare you let your father walk? So they both get up on the donkey. The next passerby comes and they're like, how horrible the both of you on this tiny donkey? What kind of animal haters are you? So they get off the donkey. They end up carrying the donkey! My mother at this point would be laughing at her own story! And she'd say, the moral of the story is, don't worry so much about what other people think! And I'm like still thinking about that donkey, man. That is an ancient tale. And I didn't know it was Arabic. And it's just like you can keep on finding these continual delights.
That's a great story.
Yeah, Muslim kings. It started with Abdul Rahman, who was fleeing from the fall of his own dynasty in Syria, who came to Spain and began what eventually became a caliphate there. But they were much, much better people to be in charge at that time in history for the Jews than the Catholics were, the Christians. The actual freedom that Jews had underneath Muslim rule, and it was specifically Muslim, that greater freedom led to collaborations. For my ancestors, I know specifically what they were doing. They were advisors to royalty. They were Jewish knights, Jewish war leaders, jousting, you know, like actual knights. The advances in surgery, medicine, astronomy, the synergy of those two cultures was incredible in that era, the Golden Age. Right? Because we look back then, and of course, we look through rose colored glasses, we look through Golden Age glasses. Everything wasn't perfect. But it is an ideal. And I know that right now, in Israel, they are doing collaborations with the Emirates, the UAE, that they're calling A Return to the Golden Age of Sepharad. And I attended a meeting that they had, and it was really quite beautiful, to hear Sephardic ideals coming back into the vernacular. You know, we do what we can, we'll always fall short. But it's nice to have these kind of golden colored ideals, but we can try our best and remember that we might be able to find a way.
I want to define Arab because I think a lot of people think Arab is the same thing as Muslim. But you could actually be a Jewish Arab, right?
Being Arab is not the same as being Muslim. It's really a geographic connotation. And also a linguistic one. It's people who live in lands that speak Arabic, and many Jews who lived in the Middle East where Arabic was spoken, they might not consider themselves Sephardic, they might consider themselves Mizrahi or even oriental Jews or Arab Jews. In all the countries where Arabic was the dominant language, it was for Jews as well. But Judeo Arabic is also a dialect it developed in its own way, like Ladino did. But certainly, it's a story that we definitely don't hear enough about. And many Arab Jews have been displaced, even in contemporary times. And it's a tragic story.
Which reminds me of a podcast I recently heard a few episodes of, that I would recommend, called The Forgotten Exodus. And each episode tells about the Jews leaving a particular country in Arab lands. So that's another way to learn more about that.
So we haven't really talked yet about your books. Let's do that! Sarah, you write board books.
I actually write more than that. But those are the two that are published.
Yeah, so Sarah, you have published two boards, or you've got one that's already out and one that's coming out soon. So tell us about those two books.
Sure. The first one is called Buen Shabat Shabbat Shalom and that was actually a song first. It was later adapted into this sweet little book that's bilingual and mostly in English, but it has Ladino words that are are very clearly identified in context, what they would mean in English. So it shows a contemporary Sephardic family celebrating Shabbat together and you will learn on every page a couple of Ladino words as they pertain to Shabbat. So candles, we call them kandelas, challah we say halá. So you'll get a little taste of not only Ladino, but the Sephardic experience through Shabbat.
And I would highly recommend your music video. It's adorable and those are your kids in the video, right?
They are. My kids are featured in a lot of what I do. In fact, my little one is quite the ham and we have a weekly web series called Cute Kids Speaking Ladino, so if you want to watch it with your, with your kids and learn a little nugget every week, that's really fun. But yes, they are featured in a lot of my children's work. I have an entire children's album with an animated cartoon series. Buen Shabat the song is actually from a bilingual holiday album that traces all of the Jewish holidays in the Hebrew calendar. And each song also has a fun family video attached to it. My second book, Mazal Bueno, which is coming out in April 2023, kind of goes the opposite direction. I purposely wanted to avoid holidays, just to show a normal family experience. I want to normalize what it means to be Sephardic today. So it doesn't need to be overtly Jewish, except for the fact that for really beautiful milestones in a baby's life or in anybody's life, we say Mazel Bueno. So we don't only say Mazel Tov, or Mazel Tov, whether you want to do it the Hebrew way or the Yiddish way, the this way, the that way, but you know what? We actually say Mazal Bueno. And I wanted to show you know, whether it's the baby's first smile, or a baby's first bite of food, or a baby's first steps or baby's first word, like those are all occasions to have joy, and to express it in a uniquely Sephardic way is to say Mazel Bueno.
There's more to come, but...
Good. Yeah, good. So Bridget, The Button Box, you co authored that?
Tell us about that.
So I started writing The Button Box by myself. It's a time slip book. So it's about two kids. They're cousins. There's a girl who's Sephardic Jewish. There's a boy who's Muslim. His mother is widowed, and she's raised him in her religion and culture. They both share this amazing grandmother, Granny Buena, who's based on my own grandmother, and Granny Buena is a little bit magical. And her cat Sheba is also just a little bit magical. The kids have been experiencing harassment at school from a girl who just doesn't like the fact that one of them's Muslim, and one of them's Jewish. And since they hang out together, that makes it an excellent double target for nasty talk and meanery. So when they get home one day, they've had an almost-fight with this girl and in the course of that fight, a button has become detached from my female protagonist Ava's sleeve. Granny sees this as an occasion to take out the family button box, which is this magical vessel of crystal that contains the buttons from each generation of the Sephardic family, going back to the days when the Golden Age of Spain was just beginning. What the kids discover is that if they sew on a button from this button box, it will take them back to the time and place of their ancestor who wore it. And then that way they end up thrust back in time into medieval Morocco where the prince Abdel Rahman the First who is about to go found Golden Age Spain is on the run from his enemies. This is all real, I did the research, it happened. He ends up on the very tip of North Africa, he needs to cross the Mediterranean to get away from the guys who are chasing after him with gigantic swords and scimitars and want his life. My book picks it up where he gets help from the Jews who are living there at the time. And the Jews he gets help from are the ancestors of my protagonists in The Button Box book and the adventures that happen after that, and the things that the kids learn in the past help them to deal with their problems in the present. And I'm busy writing the sequel. However, back to the fact that I started this alone, I actually came to the first Highlights Jewish Kidlit Symposium with that as a draft in hand, and realized through the course of the symposium that as a Sephardic person, I was being represented here, but the Muslim voice of my other protagonists Nadeem, could never be right unless I had a Muslim co author. And I was like, Well, I have plenty of Muslim author friends, but they all have their own projects and I didn't feel comfortable approaching them. And I talked to Joni Sussman, who happens to be the head of Kar-Ben, Lerner Books' Jewish imprint, and she recommended a person called Fawzia Gilani-Williams, the author of the Sydney Taylor silver winner Yaffa and Fatima Shalom Salaam. And Joanie said, this woman is a dream to work with. She's fantastic, I'll put you in touch. I learned so much from her. She learned from me. She made the book what it is now, like from the bones of a book, it became a real living story where we unabashedly included you know, here's the Jewish prayer, here's a Muslim blessing, everybody is who they are. And I will tell you the number of letters we've gotten from young people who are just so happy to see themselves not just represented, but also people casually practicing their religion without a second thought. That has been really gratifying, very joy making for the two of us and we never looked back. We actually have a picture book that we co authored coming out next year called The Promise. And once again, this is based in true history. And this time, Fawzia wrote the first draft, about a Muslim man whose best friend was Jewish when they were kids, has to leave because of bad stuff happening to Jews in Europe. They left and went to what was at that time Palestine. In our story, the boy originally promised to take care of the graves of the Jewish family. And he is still doing so in perpetuity, though they never came back. So Fawzia wrote that story. And she's like, I don't know, people don't seem that interested in this as a picture book. I'm like, how about we make it about a garden instead of graves? I think that might go over a little better. And that clicked. So it's about the boy who promised his best friend who was a Jew, who left with his family, I will care for the garden. A garden is a prayer and a promise. And at the end, he's old, he comes back with his own children, and finds the garden still verdant and still cared for and loved by the friend he left behind. We're so excited about this. We just got the illustrations. It's fantastic. I get chills. I'm so looking forward to sharing it with the world.
That sounds beautiful.
As you mentioned, Sarah, your book Buen Shabat Shabbat Shalom is based on a song. And I also talked about the fact that you sang for us and with us here at Highlights. Can you talk a little bit about the importance of music within Sephardic culture?
Oh, it's everything! I mean, because it was an oral tradition, so much of the tradition was passed down, you know, through words and through song. I sometimes liken it to a big old game of telephone, you know, it started one way and then was passed on to someone else, and then it was passed on to someone else. And along the way, it changed. And I think just as the songs have morphed and changed over the years, I mean, it's so representative of our culture and in general, it's it's been adapting for 500 years. And it's not something that's static. I can say that with one side of my mouth, like that's so beautiful about the culture that you can actually hear from the songs themselves how things have evolved. On the other hand, the things that have stayed the same I think are also what makes it so remarkable. So I shared a song, for example, it was about a shepherd. There aren't that many modern day Jewish shepherds. Especially where where you're from, Heidi, in Florida!
Maybe in Vermont!
Right, but the whole point is that you don't need to be a shepherd to understand the core point of the song, which...
Some things are universal.
Some things are just totally universal. I mean, it's a beautiful song about unrequited love. And the same topics that songs were being written about and have been passed down over generations that were relevant 100 years ago are still so relevant today. So, you know, on the one hand, we're evolving, and on the other hand, it has maintained certain structures and themes that just are timeless. For me, I really became attached to my Sephardic culture through the music, it is very personal, because I tell people that my bat mitzvah was my first performance. I was so proud of the fact that in order to make my bat mitzvah my own and to have agency over this service, I demanded to sing Ein Keloheinu in Ladino. So, um, yeah, Non Como Muestro Dio is our version of Ein Kelohainu.
I so hope you have this posted on your website! Did they record it?
No, I don't think so. But, um, so that was just like a shining moment for me where I really felt, you know, some claiming of my culture. And then as I got older, it was really through the music that I identified with my Sephardic background. I mean, I always knew that I was Sephardic, but it was something that my family did. It was just part of my family fabric, but it wasn't something that I had taken ownership of. And it wasn't until I was in Israel singing. I was a very, very serious western classical musician. I thought I was going to be an opera singer. And I studied very, very seriously, went to music school, all of that. And I found myself in Israel singing for a summer program of the Tel Aviv Opera called the Israel Vocal Arts Institute. And absolutely, like, out of serendipity, I was paired with the late great Nico Castel as my opera coach. So Nico Castel, besides being an incredible singer in his own right, he was a coach at the Metropolitan Opera. I mean, he had an amazing music career. He was also one of the world's sort of leading experts of Ladino and Ladino song and, and one of the first commercially published Ladino song books, and in between our opera coachings, Mozart on one end, and then when we discovered that we shared this common Sephardic heritage, he started teaching me the traditional Ladino repertoire. And that's not something that I grew up with at all. You know, I had a couple of folk songs here and there, I had my Ein Keloheinu, a couple Passover songs. But the real classical Ladino romances were not something that I grew up with. So we sort of sneakily, we started studying these songs together, and I just totally fell in love with them to the point that I came back to America and I gave a series of opera recitals. And in between sections, I incorporated two or three songs of classical Ladino music, and without fail after every performance, audience members would come up to me and tell me that the Ladino songs were their favorites. There was a reason for that, like, I must have been singing that music differently, because it must have reached my soul in a different way, than, you know, no offense, Mozart, but but I clearly identified with that music more deeply. I just felt compelled to really dive in and study this music full time. And I actually have to thank my Ashkenazi counterparts because my first job out of college was working for the now defunct National Foundation for Jewish Culture. And one of my jobs there was to put together a symposium like like we're doing here at Highlights, but it was on the music side, we were pairing up producers and performing arts booking agents, with really cutting edge Jewish musicians of the time, and this was like 1999, or 2000. It was called New, The New Jewish Musics, plural, Symposium. And it was so fun to be able to reach out to all of these progressive, innovative Jewish musicians. And it was like the height of the klezmer explosion. It was like klezmer jazz, klezmer funk, klezmer rap, klezmer punk, like everything klezmer klezmer klezmer , and then you know, to find the counterpart in Sephardic music... I mean, not for lack of trying. There wasn't any. So on the one hand, I was so inspired by what was happening in the Ashkenazi community. They were rocking it and it was an incredibly inspirational and I was also like, very depressed that there just wasn't anybody else doing it on the Sephardic side. So I'm not exaggerating, within two months I'd given notice. And it was to start my own Ladino music band, and 20 years later I'm still here.
That's amazing! So I think the most well known Sephardic song, or Ladino song, is Ocho Kandelikas by Flory Jagoda.
And I think people have a sense that it's an ancient, quote unquote, song. But I think it was actually composed in like the 80s. Right?
So is there some other Ladino Hanukkah song that we should know about? So that we have alternatives?
Well, I have written an entire Ladino Hanukkah album. It came out last year. Yeah. It's the first all Ladino Hanukkah album and there are a bunch of originals of my own. And Flory actually has Ocho Kandelikas on there, but also another one. There are at least two other contemporary songs, and then a few sort of traditional goodies in there. So it's one of my favorite albums. It's so full of joy. It was actually born out of the pandemic, in that on Zoom, I found myself doing all of these Hanukkah concerts and everyone was just yearning for something uplifting. And I actually found Hanukkah the last two years really joyful, like in a way that I hadn't experienced in years past because I felt like there was this sort of coming together. We're all in this together. That's all create light in this world. And I was really inspired by Hanukkah celebrations across the world in the last few years, and I wanted to bottle that and so I took that energy and I created this album.
I recommend it, I attended remotely some of Sarah's performances during the pandemic, and there's a certain poignancy, there's a certain longing in a lot of Sephardic music. It speaks again to our origins and what's kept us together as a people and to be apart from our touchstones yet to be able through our music and through performance, Sarah's sharing performances I, I almost don't like the word performance because it puts a distance there...
I call them experiences.
Okay, so her, her autogenerated musical experiences, in which we can all share. But they were beautiful, I recommend it, it will never be quite the same as it was when we were all suffering together as a world, and healing can come from that kind of music and sharing and again, I think Ladino and Sephardic song and Jewish song in general, let's just let's broaden that, is particularly equipped to get at that feeling.
[MUSIC FROM SARAH AROESTE'S HANUKA ALBUM] Bendicho tu Adonay nuestro Dio, rey del mundo, fiesta de Hanuka. Fiesta de Hanuka, Hanuka, Hanuka. Fiesta de Hanuka, Hanukah, Hanuka. Fiesta de Hanuka, Hanukah, Hanuka. Fiesta de Hanuka, Hanukah, Hanuka.
It's Tikkun Olam Time. So this is your opportunity for a little bit of activism. What action would you like to call listeners to take to help heal the world?
There's so much attention given to hatred. And I think Sarah and I both, in representing the Sephardim, we want to bring attention to love and to joy, and to what we can offer each other from our differences, instead of taking our differences and making them walls.
So a call to joy. Yes, that's beautiful. And that is something that we talk about in the kidlit space, is that we need Jewish joy. You know, all of the groups who have suffered talk about you know, we need representations of joy. Black people don't want to read about slavery all the time. We need Black joy. Jewish people don't want to hear about the Holocaust all the time. We need Jewish joy. So absolutely.
I love that.
We're here for the joy, and we need to focus on that, especially now. And that's why I always like to wish people paths of milk and honey which is our traditional Sephardic wish, it's often wished at weddings, but I think it's worth wishing it all the time. Kaminos de leche i miel.
I'll piggyback on that with a Ladino proverb which I think is very relevant to what we've been talking about. But you know, my call to action is to... notice us! And that can come in a lot of different, a lot of different areas. You know if you're a writer certainly, to consider perhaps a secondary character who's non Ashkenazi, make sure you have sensitivity readers, seek out somebody different from you to be a critique partner. There are many ways that you can recognize the value that our perspective adds to the world and especially to kidlit. But this is one of my favorite Ladino proverbs, todos los dedos de la mano no son unos. All the fingers of the hand are not the same. I just think it's so beautiful, because we're all part of this same hand. And I always point out to my audiences, that Sephardic culture is Jewish culture. You can't separate us, we're not The Other, like, we are all part of this thing called Judaism. And I think too often, we are separated. No, like we are part of the same hand, that makes us all part of this, this beautiful Jewish culture.
So let's all work together. Oye!
That is so excellent. Is there anything else either of you would like to talk about that I haven't thought to ask you, or any questions you would like to ask each other?
I think we've covered a lot.
We have, I want to thank you. Being seen, being heard. You have been an immense encouragement and help to us, and not just as individuals but as a group. So on behalf of the Sephardim, I would like to say thank you.
Thank you, Heidi, and all the Mavens and podcasts and Highlights. Thank you, thank you, thank you for recognizing us and including us and making sure that our voice is at the table.
My pleasure! Sarah Aroeste, Bridget Hodder, thank you so much for coming on the show and for meeting with me here.
Thank you for having us.
[MUSIC, DEDICATION] This is Sasha Lamb, author of When the Angels Left the Old Country. I'll be joining you soon on The Book of Life podcast. I'd like to dedicate my episode to Lamb Chop the dog who was just three years old, and a couple of weeks ago she was hit by a truck. She did not make it to the vet. She was such an amazing dog, full of personality and a joy to be around and so cute and sweet. Lamb Chop was very loved. May her memory be a blessing.
[MUSIC, OUTRO] Say hi to Heidi at 561-206-2473 or firstname.lastname@example.org Check out our Book of Life podcast Facebook page, or our Facebook discussion group Jewish Kidlit Mavens. We are occasionally on Twitter too @bookoflifepod. Want to read the books featured on the show? Buy them through Bookshop.org/shop/bookoflife to support the podcast and independent bookstores at the same time. You can also help us out by becoming a monthly supporter through Patreon. Additional support comes from the Association of Jewish Libraries, which also sponsors our sister podcast, Nice Jewish Books, a show about Jewish fiction for adults. You'll find links for all of that and more at BookofLifepodcast.com Our background music is provided by the Freilachmakers Klezmer String Band. Thanks for listening and happy reading!
[MUSIC, PROMO] This month, I am thrilled to tap into the latest movement to rediscover lesser known Yiddish authors, especially women authors. I had the opportunity to speak with Jordan Finkin and Allison Schachter, translators of Yiddish author and poet Fradl Shtok collected in their book From the Jewish Provinces. Fradl Shtok is an intriguing woman with a unique modern voice and style. Join me at www.JewishLibraries.org/NiceJewishBooks.