Sarah Aroeste’s Hanuká!

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Ladino singer/songwriter, author and activist, Sarah Aroeste presents the world’s first all-Ladino Hanuka album

Hanuka, the festival of lights, is a celebration beloved by Jews across the globe. It commemorates the victory of the Jewish Maccabees against the Syrian-Greek Army, who had desecrated the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. Refusing to worship Greek gods, the Maccabees heroically led a revolt and won! Following their victory, the Maccabees rededicated the Temple using oil that should have lasted only one day, but miraculously lasted for eight. 

Many traditions have been adopted over the centuries to mark this holiday, from lighting different styles of hanukiyot (or menorahs), to eating specialty foods, playing games, and more.

One of my favorites is singing Hanuka tunes!

Delightful Hanuka songs abound, particularly in English and in Hebrew, but fewer are celebrated in my ancestral language of Ladino (or Judeo-Spanish). Since 1492, Ladino has been the tie that binds many Sephardic Jews together around the world, even withstanding its post-WWII decline as a spoken first language. Although a handful of well-known Ladino Hanuka songs exists, there are just as many unknown treasures. So, I wanted to create a festive holiday album entirely in Ladino to showcase the rich musical expression that Sephardic music has to offer in celebrating the joy of Hanuka. 

This recording includes some traditional melodies and texts, but except for two songs (Azeremos una Merenda and Dak il Tas), the rest of this album celebrates either music or lyrics that were written within the last fifty years. As I like to do on many of my recordings, I include several works of my teachers and mentors; for example, I feature an original song by Gloria Joyce Ascher (Ya Viene Hanuká!), one of the first university professors of Ladino in the United States and a great influence on me and many other Ladino students and activists. Hanuka is a song composed by the beautiful late Ladino singer, Judy Frankel, to whom I owe an enormous debt for her rich body of music. Las Kandelikas de la Fiesta is a song by contemporary Israeli Ladino poet, Medi Koen-Malki, who also translated Ma’oz Tzur from Hebrew into Ladino. Regarding Ma’oz Tzur, I am including the Venetian melody composed in the 1720’s by Benedetto Giacomo Marcello, which is often mistaken to be a Sephardic one. It is not. However, by recording it in Ladino here, I hope I have made it worthy to include in this album. Note that the song lyrics included herein contain the texts as denoted by each author or translator; I have kept them in their original form for each track.

I have also contributed two original compositions of my own, one based on the Ladino blessings recited over the Hanuka candles (Fiesta de Hanuka), and another from the Biblical text read on the Shabat of Hanuka (Vayehi Mikets). Using research from renowned Sephardic ethnomusicologist Yitschak Levy in his Antología Liturgia Judeo-Española, Vol.4, as well as 20th-century Salonikan scholar David Benvenisti, I discovered this parody of the text where Joseph interprets the dream of Pharaoh, but the dream in this song is jokingly of the Sephardic Hanuka treat, burmuelos.

And of course, no Ladino Hanuka album could be complete without including music of the incomparable Flory Jagoda. Her Ocho Kandelikas has become the standard for Hanuka songs the world over. With her family’s blessing, I have given my own take of her song, featuring Israeli flamenco singer, Yehuda “Shuky” Shveiky. Perhaps my favorite of Flory’s Hanuka songs, however, is her lesser known, Hanuka, Hanuka, which I’ve always loved singing with my children. In fact, my two daughters lend their voices here. 

Family is precisely what I think about when I think of celebrating Hanuka. It is a time to be together to sing and revel in the light that each of us brings to the world. I hope that the songs on this album will help enhance the celebration of my listeners, and that the songs themselves will serve as a light in the vast musical universe. Ultimately, my wish is that this holiday recording will stand out as a long-lasting testament to the power of joyous Sephardic music and the language of Ladino. 

Just as the oil was a miracle for lasting eight days, Ladino, too, is a miracle for having lasted centuries up through today. This album is for everyone who believes in miracles… and beautiful, celebratory music in any language. 

So as the opening track announces, we’re having a party.

Determined to help bring Ladino culture to a new generation, Sarah Aroeste, an international Ladino singer/songwriter, author and activist, draws upon her Sephardic family roots from Macedonia and Greece to present traditional and original Ladino songs with her unique blend of Balkan sounds, pop, and jazz. Since 2001, Aroeste has toured the globe and recorded six albums, A la Una: In the Beginning (2003), Puertas (2007), Gracia (2012), Ora de Despertar (2016), the first-ever all-original Ladino children’s album, Together/Endjuntos (2017), the first bilingual Ladino/English holiday album, and the newly-released, Monastir (2021). In 2014 Aroeste won the Sephardic prize at the International Jewish Music Festival in Amsterdam, and in 2015 she represented the USA in the International Sephardic Music Festival in Cordoba, Spain. Aroeste is currently directing The Monastir Project, an international music initiative to pay tribute to a once thriving Balkan Jewish community. In addition to composing songs, Aroeste has published numerous articles and essays about Sephardic cultural preservation, and pens Sephardic-themed books for children. Her most recent book, Buen Shabat, Shabbat Shalom (Kar-Ben and PJ Library), was published March 2020. Bringing Ladino words and music to young and old, Aroeste has garnered wide critical acclaim for her efforts to introduce Sephardic culture to wider audiences. For more: www.saraharoeste.com

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