The rapper and the rabbi working to revitalize Judeo-Spanish

Los Serenos Sefarad group fuses contemporary music styles with elements of traditional Sephardic culture.

Yoni Kempinski,

Los Serenos Sefarad - Rabbi Benzaquen (r) and Alejandro Hernandez (l)
Los Serenos Sefarad - Rabbi Benzaquen (r) and Alejandro Hernandez (l)
Courtesy Los sorenos sefarad

A Seattle-based hip hop group is looking to change the way Jews view both rap, and traditional Jewish music.

Founded by a rabbi and a Mexican-American Jewish rapper, Los Serenos Sefarad is breathing new life into a language and culture many younger Jews today never even heard of.

Judeo-Spanish, sometimes called “Ladino”, combines elements of Old Spanish, Hebrew, Arabic, Aramaic, and other languages common in the Mediterranean.

Like its Ashkenazi equivalent, Yiddish, Judeo-Spanish was once widely-spoken amongst Sephardic Jews and was even used for portions of the Sabbath prayer services in some communities.

Also like Yiddish, Judeo-Spanish went into steep decline in the 20th century, with the number of speakers falling to some 150,000 by the early 21st century.

That decline has left an entire world of Sephardic Jewish culture beyond the reach of generations of young Jews, who at best are given a false impression of Ladino history, music, poetry, and values or worse yet, are completely cut off from it.

Rabbi Simon Benzaquen gives the example of Judeo-Spanish music, rich with nuances and religious motifs, and expressing the longing of hundreds of thousands of exiled Spanish Jews.

Often written off as “old romantic music”, many of the poems and songs composed in Judeo-Spanish capture the spirit of Jewish communities scattered across the Mediterranean – many of which no longer exist.

“It looks like – and is called – ‘romantic music’,” Rabbi Benzaquen told Arutz Sheva, “but according to my research, these are not romances – it’s the dialogue going on between the Jews who were expelled from Spain and Spain. That’s the romance [in the songs].”

Far from being simple love songs, much of the music written in Judeo-Spanish were lamentations on the plight of Sephardic Jews following the expulsion from Spain in 1492, expressing the bittersweet memory of their former home country. Feelings of longing amongst Sephardic Jews for a return to their former home mixed with anger at the country which banished them.

“They are criticisms of Spain. Many of the songs express that and they express it in such a way, as though it is a feud between a man and a woman.”

“The trees are crying for rain, the mountains for air – that is how I am crying for you, my beloved,” read the lyrics of one song. “That’s very romantic. But as a Talmudic scholar, I know that when you put everything in one portion, everything has to be related. It doesn’t make any sense [in context]…when it later says… ‘What is going to happen to me? I’m going to die in a foreign land.’”

Rabbi Benzaquen explains that the seemingly strange inclusion of the reference to dying in a foreign land in a song which appears to focus on lover’s quarrel is actually quite understandable, given the frequent use of the relationship between man and wife as a religious allegory.

“They [Sephardic Jews] were saying to Spain, ‘You know what you have done to me? It is terrible – you are sending me to [my] death’.”

But Rabbi Benzaquen’s interest in classic Sephardic culture did not initially inspire him to found the Los Serenos Sefarad group.

It was only after Rabbi Benzaquen oversaw the conversion process of rapper Nissim Black (born Damain Jamohl Black) that the rabbi became interested in using contemporary popular music to open up classic Judeo-Spanish music to young Jews.

After he oversaw the conversion of another rapper, Alejandro Hernandez, Rabbi Benzaquen decided to include hip hop in a new Judeo-Spanish project.

Collaborating with Hernandez, Rabbi Benzaquen produced a rap-inspired version of the classic Hanukkah song “Ocho Kandelikas” in 2013.

A year later, the two founded Los Serenos Sefarad (The Sefarad Watchmen), and in 2015 released their first music video.


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