(click here to read part one and part two of this 3-part series) Sarah Aroeste is a pioneer and leader in Sephardic Jewish culture and education. This three-part series about her twenty-year career speaks to a broader transformation that she has helped create in American Jewish life. Her newest recording, Hanuká, an album of all-Ladino holiday songs, will be released on November 19th.
After spending a decade interpreting traditional Ladino repertoire, I realized that I had stories I wanted to tell. In 2012, I decided it was time for my first major career shift. I would not only be a singer of Ladino music, but I’d also be a songwriter. I was about to get married, and I had a lot of big thoughts in my head about what that meant for my identity. Could I still hold on to my feminist notions? Could I still have a Sephardic home if my husband was Ashkenazi? I poured out these thoughts in Ladino song.
For my album Gracia, and its title track, I composed a feminist homage to the great Dona Gracia Nasi – a 16th-century woman who I’d always admired for committing her life to perpetuating Sephardic culture. I wrote an autobiographical song, Chika Morena, about a girl kicked out of Spain who has wandered the Earth ever since, listening to the voices of her ancestors to find her way “home.” I wrote a song inspired by the 11th– century Judeo-Spanish poet, Samuel Ha-Nagid, who poeticized that even a wounded lion still knows how to roar, a message analogous to how I felt about Ladino. I wrote a song to my father who died when I was a child- because even though he was Ashkenazi I could best express myself in Ladino song. Writing my own music opened myself to a myriad of new possibilities, musically and personally. I felt like I was just then starting my “real” career.
And then I got pregnant. Friends began sending me lovely children’s CDs with both lullabies and energetic, catchy tunes. There were songs in Hebrew, Spanish and English. I searched (and searched) for kid’s music in Ladino to supplement it all. The great Flory Jagoda z”l had delightful Ladino songs that kids could sing along to, and there was a children’s choir in Turkey who specialized in singing traditional Ladino songs. But where were the Ladino songs written for kids? I knew I’d have to write them myself.
With Ora de Despertar in 2016, my second major career pivot would define much of my work to come. The all-original children’s album was a novelty. It won me a coveted Parents’ Choice award and opened avenues for me to perform in many new venues and markets. Suddenly, parents who had not been taught Ladino as children were thanking me for making it possible for them to bring it to their kids. They were looking to me as the one who could help sustain the Sephardic future for their own children. While I knew I was creating something lasting for my own children, I understood for the first time how my work was making an impression on others. It was important in the world.
Ora de Despertar turned into an animated cartoon music series, which then launched children’s books (including Buen Shabat, Shabbat Shalom, the first-ever children’s board book with Ladino words published by a mainstream publisher), a bilingual family holiday album (Together/Endjuntos), online “Cook-and-Sings” combining Sephardic foods with music, and more. What started as a rock band was transforming into sharing a more holistic expression of what it means to live as a proud contemporary Sephardic person today.
Perhaps there is no better embodiment of this than in my most recent project, Monastir. In 2017, I was invited to perform in my family’s ancestral hometown. The city, devoid of a Jewish community since WWII, welcomed me with open arms. A group of non-Jewish citizens planned my entire trip, organized a standing-room-only show, led me on walking tours of the Jewish neighborhoods and cemetery, and regaled me with stories passed down by their parents and grandparents about Jewish neighbors they used to know. They were thirsty to embrace and connect with me – a Jewish daughter of the city.
Their love of my family history ignited something in me that I couldn’t see on my own. I was responsible not only for passing down my traditions to my own children and the larger Jewish community but to the non-Jewish community as well. Everyone should have access and be able to celebrate the vitality that was the Sephardic world of the Balkans and beyond. I’ve always said that you can’t understand world culture without knowing something about Sephardic culture. But it was learning from Monastir’s present-day citizens that this became more than just a truism for me – the stories of Monastir’s history are universal ones that everyone deserves to hear. For the first time in my two-decade career, I produced an album in which I do not sing most of the songs. I enlisted over thirty musicians from five countries, the majority being from Macedonia and Israel. I have young voices, elder voices, Jewish, Christian, and Muslim voices – all mixed together in this album to show the variety of people and experiences who lived together in sadness and in joy. My name is on the final product of the album, not as the artist, but rather as the convener of a wider community. And this is what I hope will be my greatest legacy.
Twenty years ago, I was warming up my metaphoric voice. Over the years, I worked tirelessly towards shifting goals and learned about myself along the way. Now, as I am about to be recognized by the umbrella group, The Sephardic Brotherhood of America, for my contributions to Sephardic culture, I believe my voice has carried me to new heights. I am no longer a lone singer struggling to find community. I have cultivated a community through my work, and I am engaging them in vital artistic and political conversations. My vision now is not of my own success, but of continuing to build out this community. Sephardic culture is world culture. I have a responsibility now, through the name I have built with my music, books and more, to bring more people around the world into this community. And I can’t wait to see where the next twenty years will take us.