I always knew my grandfather could speak this odd sounding language, an ancient Spanish dialect that sounded like a mix of Spanish and Hebrew, both of which I was familiar with growing up Jewish in Southern Arizona. I knew that this was his first language, but I did not know much more than that about his heritage–my own heritage–until I became a part of the Michigan Library Scholars. These past few months have allowed me to learn more about my roots than I had ever imagined I would know.
I am Sephardic, meaning I am a Jew of Spanish descent. And while for most kids the year 1492 was when Christopher Columbus “sailed the ocean blue”, that year held a very different significance for my family. 1492 was the year when the Jewish community was expelled from the Iberian Peninsula by a decree issued by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. They were forced to either convert to Catholicism, flee the Iberian Peninsula, or suffer torture and be killed. Unlike many Jews on the Iberian Peninsula, my ancestors were fortunate enough to escape to Turkey where they remained for the next 450 years until the early 20th century when my great grandparents immigrated to the US and my grandfather was born, thus leading to me.
That funny language that my grandfather grew up speaking was Ladino, the language of the Jews from the Iberian Peninsula. The Ladino language itself is derived from Old Spanish mixed with Hebrew and sprinkled with the languages of the places where Jews settled after the expulsion. I never got the chance to meet my great-grandparents or my grandparents' siblings, so my only connection to my Sephardic roots has been through my Grandpa. He made sure that my sister and I were exposed to this language, as he is the last member of our family who speaks it. Today, there are an estimated 60,000 Ladino speakers worldwide. On family trips to Princeton, New Jersey to visit him and my grandmother, he would play Ladino music, introducing me and my sister to Jewish music we had never even heard in Hebrew school.
During my daily google searches of potential internships this past semester, I came across the Michigan Library Scholars page and found a list of their projects for this summer. I was stunned when I saw the project title Improving the Visibility of U-M Library's Holdings in Judeo-Spanish. I didn’t know that there was a collection of Ladino works, let alone anyone in the library who knew about this niche language.
While I was excited to be a part of this project from the start, my enthusiasm grew exponentially when my mentor Gabriel Mordoch told me that I could decide how exactly I wanted to bring attention to the Ladino collection in the library. I knew immediately that I wanted to bring attention to the Ladino music within the collection. Gabriel helped me understand that an Omeka presentation would be the best way to tackle this task. The MLS program set up workshops for me and the other interns, teaching us everything we would need to know for our projects, from accessibility to conducting proper interviews to navigating different platforms the libraries offered. Gabriel Mordoch and Gabriel Duque helped fill in the gaps during our weekly meetings, teaching me how to navigate the incredible research guides in the library. These workshops and my weekly meetings with Gabriel Mordoch and Gabriel Duque allowed me to develop research skills that helped me with my project as well as any future academic pursuits that will require me to delve through the resources in the libraries.
With the help of Gabriel Mordoch, I decided that my final project would be a visual, audio, and written presentation called Ladino Music Today as a Tool of Storytelling and Preservation. The exhibit is titled Ladino Music Today as a Tool of Storytelling and Preservation. This specific angle was most important for me to bring attention to because Ladino music has always been the way that my grandfather has shared his heritage with me. As I researched influential Ladino musicians and composers, I noticed that they all used music as a way to communicate the history and stories of the Sephardic people, turning it from an oral tradition that had been passed down since before the expulsion in 1492 to a written and recorded story that could be kept forever. While I have not been able to record the stories of my own ancestors like several of the artists I cover in my project have, this project is a way for me to bring my heritage to The University of Michigan community and share with them what my grandfather shared with me.