The rabbi and the rapper: what they see in old Ladino love songs

The musical duo 'Los Serenos Sefarad' sing and rap in Ladino, an old Spanish dialect. The centuries-old love songs in their repertoire, they say, tell more about Jews' painful expulsion from Spain than they do about romantic love.

Dina Kraft
Rabbi Simon Benzaquen (l.), who grew up in a rabbinical family in Spanish Morocco, and Alex Hernandez, a Mexican-born rapper and convert to Judaism, in Jerusalem. Together they are the musical duo Los Seranos, and they sing and rap in an old Spanish dialect, Ladino.

The Orthodox rabbi from Seattle and the rapper from Mexico believe they have stumbled upon a secret.

Romansas, songs of love and other subjects the Jews from Spain and Portugal carried with them and continued to sing for five centuries after their expulsion from Iberia, are not stories of human romance, but are metaphors for the tragedy of forced exile.

“A whole people who suffered so much after an expulsion, and you are telling me they don’t want to vent a little bit?” fumes Rabbi Simon Benzaquen. “Where did they do that? They put it in the songs.”

“If you read these romansas, they read like a fight between man and woman who fight like cat and dog, ‘Why did you trick me and make me suffer so much?’

“This is not romance between a man and a woman,” says the rabbi, a man of music and a lover of its messages and history. “This is a struggle between the Jews of Spain and Spain – that is what is expressed in those romansas, written in code.”

There’s no historical evidence to back up this theory, and academics previously have not heard of it, but say it’s one possible way to interpret the repertoire of songs that traditionally were sung by women in Ladino, an old Spanish dialect, including as lullabies to their children, at weddings, and at family gatherings.

Rabbi Benzaquen, older and loquacious (he won’t reveal his age) grew up in a storied rabbinical family in Spanish Morocco and presents as a study in silver: silver beard, silver tie, silver framed glasses. Alex Hernandez, in his 40s, is a towering 6-foot-2 convert to Judaism with a gentle presence.

The two make an unlikely pair of historical sleuths, let alone musical partners. But together they are “Los Serenos Sefarad,” The Sefarad Watchmen, and sing traditional and popular songs in Ladino, also known as Judeo-Spanish. The dialect was spoken at the time of the 1492 Expulsion and passed down through the generations of Jews who resettled in North Africa, Turkey, Greece, and parts of Europe.

But they add a twist: Mr. Hernandez raps in Ladino as accompaniment to Benzaquen’s singing of traditional melodies.

“It’s been an adventure rapping in Ladino, pure Ladino,” says Hernandez, who grew up Catholic in northern Mexico and has been rapping since he was 12. “Rappers are very proud of what they do, so no rapper will rap someone else’s lyrics, but this is different. We are saving a language, trying to preserve it.”

Hernandez had made rapping his career before immigrating to the United States to carry out his Orthodox conversion with his wife, who like him also grew up Catholic. Now the couple have moved to Jerusalem.

“I wanted to be a priest, she wanted to be a nun,” says Hernandez. “I went to seminary at 15, but was not accepted.”

Baruch Ha’Shem” (“Praised be God”), says his wife, Netzah Hernandez, who is a co-producer of the two albums the pair have made.

A painful history

“We have to sing so people understand the beautiful music,” Benzaquen says in an interview in Jerusalem, where they performed before a clapping and cheering audience, many of whom came up to them after the show to hear more about their work. “We want to explain and disseminate what we are finding out.”

They believe the romansas excoriate Spain for the forced conversions of Spanish Jews who did not heed the expulsion order, and for the subsequent torture and Inquisition of those who converted to Catholicism but continued to secretly practice their religion. Once the expulsion order was decreed, the Jews, most of whom were deeply rooted in society and were among the country’s most noted doctors, poets, and merchants, were given a mere six months to leave.

Benzaquen, who fears the dramatic story of the expulsion has been somewhat lost through the centuries, decided rap was the ideal medium to get that story across in the 21st century: “Young people understand rap music.”

Ladino music itself has become increasingly popular in recent years with festivals, choirs that sing in Ladino, and a fan base that stretches from Spain to Japan. And Ladino music’s Ashkenazic cousin, known as “Klezmer,” is no stranger to fusion. There’s Cuban-Klezmer and Gypsy Jazz-Klezmer. But Benzaquen may be the first to introduce Ladino to rap.

He confesses he used to think rap, specifically its lyrics, were “filthy.” But then he got to know Nissim Baruch Black, an African-American rapper who he converted to Orthodox Judaism in Seattle. Mr. Black, who used to perform under the name D. Black, taught him about rap, its history, and its reach.

“And when African-Americans disseminated their story, it went like a fire,” he says, opening his arms wide. “It can sound pleasant, but also melancholy, and gets at the idea: how do you express what you went through.”

Ladino’s roots

Ladino is thought to be a form of medieval Castilian. Around the Diaspora, Jews called it Judezmo, which means “Jewish.” (Similarly, Yiddish, the very different language of Central and Eastern Europe’s Ashkenazic Jews, also means “Jewish.”) According to Ladino music expert Edwin Seroussi, a professor of musicology and director of the Jewish Music Research Centre at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, some communities practically forgot it was a form of Spanish until the 1900s, when their communities were “discovered” by Spanish researchers.

He is intrigued by both the innovation and Ladino rap and by Benzaquen and Hernandez’s theory of what the romansas might hold.

Professor Seroussi says there is a parallel to their interpretation in the view of the Song of Songs in the Bible as everything from “erotic love poems of antiquity to the most spiritual and metaphorical love between God and the People of Israel.”

Their theory also resonates with the Muslim Sufi tradition, he says.

There are examples of both Sufi and Hebrew poetry, he says, “some mystical, some allegorical, also written in this vein, that are about intense religious relationships and not human relations.”

Seroussi, who has written about North African and Eastern Mediterranean Jewish music, says that some of the Ladino songs that have been passed down do indeed come from the Middle Ages, but notes that many of the melodies are Turkish, Greek, and Moroccan, which suggest that they were picked up in more recent times.

Sephardic Jews, as Jews of Spanish descent are known, went on in more recent times to other locations, mostly to Israel, France, Canada (Montreal), and Argentina. It is from these places that research has mostly been conducted on the music.

Benzaquen is busy writing more lyrics for the rap portions of the songs and often writes late into the night, he says, inspired by breathing new life into the past with the songs he and Hernandez produce. He hopes the rap lyrics will help transmit the feeling of exile and displacement felt by his ancestors.

“I wanted to create something that would tell the story of what I felt was missing,” he muses.

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