Sarah Aroeste’s Monastir

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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:

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Ladino singer/songwriter, author and activist, Sarah Aroeste reconnects with the legacy of her Sephardic homeland on Monastir

When Sarah Aroeste’s ancestors were kicked out of Spain following the Alhambra Decree in 1492, they, like many other Spanish Jewish families (known as Sephardim), migrated east and  settled in Monastir, a Balkan city at the commercial crossroads between Turkey and Western Europe, in what is now North Macedonia. For centuries, the Jewish community of Monastir flourished alongside its neighbors and enjoyed a unique history, with its own customs, religious observances, linguistic patterns and more. 

But nothing could prevent WWII and the Nazi invasion from decimating Monastir and her neighboring Jewish communities. On March 11, 1943, 3,276 of Monastir’s Jewish men, women, and children were rounded up and transported to their deaths at Treblinka concentration camp. Monastir lost 98% of its Jewish population, and with that, an entire culture. Altogether, 7,215 Macedonian Jews perished. Today, there are approximately 200 people who make up a Jewish community in the capital of Skopje, and not a single Jew left in Monastir, since renamed as Bitola.  

But the legacy of Jewish Monastir lives on.

Connecting musicians primarily from Macedonia and Israel, international Ladino singer/songwriter, author and activist, Sarah Aroeste has selected 10 songs that give an inside look into the life of Jewish Monastir before WWII wiped it out on her album Monastir (to be released June 25, 2021). From kantikas (folk songs) to romances (narrative ballads often inspired by epic Medieval tales), and from centuries-old melodies to originals, each song in this album has a story for which it merited inclusion here.  

“This project is the culmination of years of research and collaboration with participants across the globe,” says Aroeste. “After performing in Monastir for the first time in 2017, I was astounded by the reception I received from citizens who were so eager to engage with me and my family history. I was touched beyond measure, especially since no Jews have lived in Monastir since WWII. I knew then that I had to use music, my best form of expression, to do my part in helping to preserve this important slice of history that is at the root of so much of my Sephardic identity.”

And so, The Monastir Project was born. 

Some of the songs are in Macedonian and reference Monastir by name, such as “Od Bitola pojdov (Track 2), which, along with Aroeste’s  Israeli producer, Shai Bachar, was recorded using a chorus made up of Macedonian and Israeli voices. Some songs specifically mention the Jewish quarter that once existed, such as in “Edno vreme si bev ergen (Track 5), where a non-Jewish man tries to convert a Jewish girl to become “Slavic,” a song that surely offers a window into pre-WWII culture of the city as populations lived side by side. This recording features Macedonian star, Sefedin Bajramov, who was born and grew up in a house once owned by Monastirli Jews before the Holocaust. 

“Jovano, Jovanke” (Track 4) is a beloved Macedonian song about two young lovers separated by disapproving parents and was popular among Macedonian Jews and non-Jews alike. The song is introduced on this album by Akiva Eskayo, an Israeli who recalls his Monastirli mother loving this song so much that she sang it on her deathbed as her final words. (A photo of a young Eskayo and his mother can be found on the track’s lyric page). The song appears here for the first time translated to Hebrew by Sarajevo-born Sephardic scholar Eliezer Papo, and is sung by Israelis Odelia Dahan Kehila, a prominent member of the Autoridad Nasionala del Ladino in Israel, along with Gilan Shahaf.

Another poignant recording is that of a kindergarten class in present-day Bitola singing Estreja Mara” (Track 6), their school anthem that celebrates the 21year-old Jewish resistance fighter who died heroically in battle against the Bulgarian army in 1944 (see a photo of Estreya Mara on the track’s lyric page). Non-Jewish children growing up today in Macedonia are singing their praise and thanks to this young Jewish woman born 100 years before them. The song also includes an introduction by Aroeste’s dear Monastirli cousin, Rachel Nahmias (one of the 2% who survived WWII and is still alive at 103 years old), reciting a popular Sephardic finger-game to one of Aroeste’s infant daughters.  

The other selections on the album are songs in Ladino, the Judeo-Spanish language that Jews spoke after the expulsion from Spain scattered them across the Eastern Mediterranean. Ladino was the mother tongue of Jews from Monastir, and the song selections on this album contain unique Monastirli dialect. Where Aroeste has used text or translations from older sources, she has retained the exact spelling and accents from those sources. One such song, Espinelo” (Track 8), was a romance transcribed by ethnomusicologist Max A. Luria in his fieldwork in Monastir in 1927, without melody. Aroeste used Luria’s song text which he traced back to 1562 (Flor de enamorados, Barcelona), but while it was preserved orally in Monastir for hundreds of years, there is no known melody from the Eastern Sephardic tradition to accompany it. And so, she has set it to music here. Aroeste’s version features Israeli flamenco star Yehuda (Shuki) Shveiky and tells the epic tale of Espinelo, whose mother threw him into the ocean to avoid the scandal of having had twins (superstition held that a mother who birthed twins was an adulteress, having slept with two men). Fishermen rescued him and presented him to the child-less King who took him in and raised him to the highest ranks. In his new royal station, Espinelo was fawned over by the ladies of Turkey, an allegory for the Jews who were kicked out of Spain and found their salvation in the Turkish Empire. Much like Aroeste’s own family. 

Some songs in this album were popular throughout the Balkans, but the specific versions here are unique – either lyrically or melodically – to the Jews of Monastir. In both En frente de mi te tengo (Track 7) and Jo la keria” (Track 3), Aroeste has based her arrangements on those of Moritz Romano, the son of the last Rabbi of Monastir, Rabbi Avraham Ben Moshe Romano. As the younger stated in a pamphlet of Ladino music that he arranged in 1985, “For practical reasons, the text of the songs is phonetic, i.e. as it is pronounced.” Aroeste has not changed Romano’s text. The first song, “En frente de mi te tengo,” speaks of a passionate love between two people and is sung here by Skopje-born, young Jewish Macedonia opera star, Helena Susha, one of the few remaining Jews in Macedonia. Contrast that with “Jo la keria,” also about a lost love, but sung here by Sephardic Israeli superstar, Yehoram Gaon. One cannot help but think of the Jewish community of Monastir while reminiscing about love and loss in this stunning song. 

Two songs of particular meaning for Aroeste are “Oy qui muevi mezis (Track 1) and Mi Monastir” (Track 9). The first is a joyous song about giving birth, based on similar songs throughout the region (kantikas de parida), but here with unique Monastirli lyrics. When a new Jewish child is born, it becomes a communal affair as the village comes out to greet and celebrate the new baby. As the mother of two small children while recording this project, Aroeste wants to acknowledge the importance of cultural transmission through the propagation of new generations. It felt right to start this record with a song heralding in new life (shofar blasts, included). Likewise, “Mi Monastir is an original song that Aroeste wrote based on memories of her grandfather and her cousin Rachel (mentioned above). She has taken many stories of their generation and tried to convey them in this song filled with honor for them and the city they held so dear. Among many symbolic images Aroeste alludes to in the Monastirli lyrics, the mezuzah is one that stands out. As Rachel’s family was taken away on March 11th, 1943, their non-Jewish neighbor took their mezuzah, the signpost on Jewish doors, planning to return it to the family one day. Indeed, years later, the mezuzah was given back to Rachel, an image of which can be found on the song’s lyric page.

In fact, in the wonderfully illustrated and well researched pages and text translations that accompany Monastir, you will see art from old postcards of Monastir, alongside photographs of Aroeste’s own family members from that city. Some include her grandfather (“Mi Monastir”) and her papoo, her grandfather’s grandfather (“Espinelo”); the others are of family members, young and old, who stayed in Monastir and who ultimately perished during WWII.  

This musical homage is for all of them and the many others who made up this once vibrant community. 

Finally, it must be noted how many people have had their hands in this special project. Over 30 musicians, volunteers, storytellers and contributors (across Jewish, Christian and Muslim faiths, and countries from Macedonia, Israel, USA, Germany and Spain) helped make this album a reality. While Aroeste conceptualized and produced each song with her Israeli counterpart, Shai Bachar, she does not sing on every track. This project is bigger than just Aroeste herself.

Monastir is revered by so many. As the lyrics say in the final song, Bitola, moj roden kraj” (Track 10), written by Macedonian composer Ajri Demirovski in the early 1950’s, “Bitola, the city I was born in, I love you, I sing for you/Many cities and villages I have passed, but as dear as you I could not find/ Is there anyone, my city, who says good-bye to you and doesn’t cry?” 

As you listen, may you cry tears for this lost community, but also those of joy that its memories and music live on through the many people inside this album and those who are listening to it now. 

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