“My brothers do I seek” (Genesis 37:16).
About a month ago, I walked into my local grocery store in Bayit Vegan, Jerusalem, and I heard one of the owners, a Sephardic Jewish man, talking with another Sephardic Jewish man about the differences between Ashkenazim and Sephardim. The owner joked, “The Ashkenazim just study and eat, while Sephardim study, eat, and sing!” I decided to challenge his playful stereotype in a light way. I said to the owner, “Ashkenazim also sing.” I then began to sing a lively Sephardic song from the Moroccan Jewish community, titled, A’shorare shirah l’chvod ha-Torah – “I will sing a song in honor of the Torah.” The owner and his friend were very surprised that I, an Ashkenazic Jew, knew this particular song. His friend began to sing with me, and the customers in the store, both Ashkenazim and Sephardim, enjoyed our duet.
Although I heard this Moroccan Jewish song when I lived in the States, I did not know how to sing all the parts properly. About a year and half ago, Moshe Blanco, a Sephardic student from the States who was studying Torah in Jerusalem, taught me how to sing all parts of this song with the special Sephardic harmony. It was thanks to Moshe’s training that I made a good impression when I sang this song in the grocery store. Since then, whenever I enter the grocery store, the owner, also named Moshe, greets me like a brother, and he talks about how amazed and joyful he felt when I sang this Sephardic song. Moshe told me that his Sephardic friend had the same reaction. When I asked Moshe which Sephardic community he is from, he replied, “Morroco!”
After moving to Jerusalem, I discovered something special about the way the Sephardim pray during the communal services of Shabbat and the Festivals, for they chant together aloud each word of most of the prayers. Their prayer service is therefore an ongoing chorus! The communal chanting of the prayers is done with a joyful spirit, and when, on special occasions, I pray with them, I feel uplifted by their chanting.
As I discussed in a previous letter, before I moved to the Land of Israel, I served as the director of the Martin Steinberg Center of the American Jewish Congress – a center for Jewish artists in the performing, visual, and literary arts which was located in New York City. In the early stage of the center’s history, someone told me about Joe Elias, a Sephardic Jew who was recording the Ladino songs sung by older Sephardic Jews in his family and community. (Ladino, also known as “Judeo-Spanish,” is a form of Old Spanish which also has Hebrew words.) I was told that Joe was working alone on this project without any support. I decided to reach out to this brother, and I called him to arrange a meeting. He invited me to meet with him and his wife at their home in Brooklyn.
At the meeting, Joe told me that he was amazed that I, an Ashkenazic Jew, would be interested in Sephardic music. He was even more amazed when I invited him to the Martin Steinberg Center to share his work with a wider audience. When I found out that he was both a singer and a musician, I encouraged him to give public performances of Sephardic music. Joe became a prominent member of our center, and he served as a loyal friend and advisor. He began to teach Ladino music, and he formed a group – Romencero Judeo Espanol – which began to perform around New York. He later became internationally known.
Yes, I feel a bond of love with the Sephardim, and through their music and traditions, I discover another beautiful dimension of Torah – the soul of Zion. I therefore look forward to the continued ingathering of all our “tribes” in Zion, so that the full beauty of our collective soul will be revealed to the world.
Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen
P.S. The article about my work at the Martin Steinberg Center – titled, “The Spiritual Searching of Jewish Artists” – appears in the archive of our series. The following is a direct link: