Text and photo by Daniel Santacruz
It was 1966 when Yitshak Levy, microphone in hand, set out to interview Ladino-speaking residents of the storied Jerusalem neighborhood of Yemin Moshe for the first time. He no longer visits the neighborhood as there are no Ladino speakers left there. Instead, he travels to other cities in Israel, as well as Greece, Turkey and parts of the former Yugoslavia, in search of them. And his technique has also changed: he now uses a video camera to record the interviews, a laptop to view them and edit them, and YouTube to upload them and share them with the world. The sixty-something Levy, who has a degree in Engineering from Hebrew University and doctorates in Sociology and History, the latter with specialization in Israel’s Sephardic elite, receives me in the offices of Aki Yesushalayim, on King George Street, in Jerusalem. Speaking sometimes in Ladino and sometimes in English, with some Hebrew thrown in, he shows me some 15 of the almost 1400 interviews he has videotaped, which feature people either singing Ladino romanzas (ballads)—some in public halls, others in their homes—, telling konsejas (stories) or talking about Sefardic culture. He knows every romanza that the singers sing and follows them along. His late mother, Malka Levy, who was born in Yemin Moshe, appears in one of the videos singing at an auditorium before some 500 people. He has posted more than 230 of them on YouTube, each about six minutes long. The interviews he conducted before he started using a videocamera are stored on hundreds of cassettes.
His own money
A resident of Ramat Shkol, a Jerusalem neighborhood, Levy says that he has financed the project with his own money, adding that he is “too shy” to ask the Jerusalem-based National Authority of Ladino for financial assistance. The laptop he uses to edit and view the interviews is a present from Moshe Shaul, editor of Aki Yerushalayim’s editor, a journal of Sefardic culture written entirely in Ladino, who had no more use for it. Some of the interviewees on the videos are the biggest stars in the Ladino world: Yasmin Levy, daughter of the late Yitzhak Levy, composer and compiler of Ladino romanzas; Matilde Koen Serrano, storyteller and compiler of folk stories, also known as “la reyna de los kuentos” (the queen of short stories); Yitzhak Navon, fifth president of Israel, and former president of the National Commission to Preserve Ladino; and Shaul. “I received this gift [Ladino] from my parents and I want to pass it to other people so they can appreciate it and see what I learned at home,” he says. “I’m obsessed with this project and feel I have to do these interviews because people [who speak Ladino] are dying and young people are not interested in the language.” Levy’s interviewees are a reflection of the Ladino-speaking community both in Israel and all over the world: none is under 50 and very few are passing it to their children as the latter prefer to communicate in the dominant language of the society they live in, be it Hebrew, French, Spanish or English, and considerate it a useless and dying language, the product of a society that is foreign to them. It’s believed that there are some 200,000 Ladino speakers in Israel but speaking it is now limited mostly to the home and cultural events and scholarly gatherings. “You can’t speak it in the market today,” Levy says. According to Levy, his mother’s family came directly from Spain to Jerusalem in 1517, 25 years after the Jews were expelled from that country. His father, who was born in Turkey and moved with his family to Israel as a child, traces his ancestry to Soria, a city in northern Spain.
Between two languages
Born in Jerusalem, Levy recalls being angry at his mother as a child because she spoke to him and his siblings in Ladino at a time—early 50s—, when teachers, and even David Ben Gurion, the first prime minister of Israel, encouraged new immigrants to the country to embrace Hebrew and drop the languages they had brought with them.
“Teachers used to tell the students to tell their parents to adapt themselves to Hebrew,” Levy recalls.
Levy’s four siblings are fluent in Ladino, but his three children and seven grand children, all born and living in Israel, don’t speak it. “They know many Ladino songs and like my project,” he says.
Some sectors of the Ashekenazi and Sefardic rabbinate in Israel have forbade secular music, which has had an effect on Sefardic culture as more religious Sefardic Jews now prefer religious music over romanzas, whose central theme is love between a man and a woman.
But on one occasion a man proved to be the exception. As Levy tells it, one day he was in Ohel Moshe, another Jerusalem neighborhood that had a large presence of Ladino-speaking Jews, filming a documentary about Yitzhak Levy (no relation), a composer that had a strong influence on Sefardic culture, when a religious man asked what he was doing.
When Levy told him, the man said that the late Levy was his friend. So, Levy asked him to sing one of the composer’s songs in his honor, to which the man initially refused arguing that it was forbidden. But upon Levy’s insistence, the man complied, saying: “For him, I’ll do it.”
To view Levy’s interviews, go to YouTube and type yitshak45.
© Daniel Santacruz November 2009