A rubber blue ball bounced on the tiles of the temple courtyard, and into Yaffa’s outstretched hand. Yaffa counted the times the ball went up and down. “Uno, dos, tres, kuatro, sinko…” Yaffa hesitated, trying to remember how the next number sounded on her mother’s lips. What was it? Sash? Sheesh? The ball bounced once, twice, and finally she remembered. “Sesh, syete, ocho, mueve, dyez–”
“You speak Spanish?” It was Nathan Blau, the wiz of Yaffa’s Hebrew school class. While the rest of the boys in third grade had memorized the values of Pokémon cards, Nathan could read Hebrew from the Torah with impeccable pronunciation. He understood everything in Hebrew school that she couldn’t. His family was triple the size of Yaffa’s and hailed from the German countryside. During the High Holy Days, his family took up an entire row in the synagogue.
Yaffa replied, “No. I speak a little Ladino.”
“It’s the language spoken by Jews who were expelled from Spain and Portugal, and it sounds a lot like Spanish.”
“Speak more of it.”
She caught the ball and faced him. “Buenos diyas. Me yamo Yaffa. So de San Francisco. Enkantado.” Hello. My name is Yaffa. I’m from San Francisco. Pleased to meet you. Yaffa smiled with pride that she had said everything exactly the way her mother had taught her, as perfect as Nathan when he read Hebrew. The moment of victory didn’t last long.
“That’s Spanish!” Nathan announced and strode confidently across the courtyard to join his friends at the snack table.
Yaffa yelled after him, “It’s not Spanish. I told you, it’s Ladino!” Sensing she was being ignored, she lowered her voice to a whisper. “But not so many people know it anymore.”
When Yaffa Cohen was born, her mother Linda Navaro had wanted her naming ceremony to be at a Sephardic Jewish temple. During the late 1930s, Linda’s family had immigrated to the United States from Anatolia, in Turkey. Linda had explained that, soon after the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the government of Turkey pushed for minorities like Jews, Circassians, Armenians, Greeks, and Kurds to abandon their native languages for Turkish. For a time, Yaffa’s great-grandparents had complied, and gradually stopped speaking Ladino in their daily lives. Then news came about the systematic murder of Jews in several European countries. Out of fear for their family’s future, they boarded a ship to America, where yet again they struggled to fit in and learn the majority language. They had a daughter, Yaffa’s grandmother, who married an aspiring attorney from a Sephardic-Turkish background. Neither of them had engaged in their culture, focused solely on the success of themselves and their children as Americans. They only spoke about their family history when Linda had begged them to. Both died before Yaffa was born.
Yaffa’s father, Eric Cohen, had an entirely different story. Eric was a business lawyer who worked long hours during the week. When he was at home, he took great pleasure in educating Yaffa on the workings of the financial world. He neither embraced nor challenged Yaffa’s exploration of her Sephardic roots. Everyone in his family was Ashkenazi Jewish, predominantly from Russia and Poland. Eric’s grandparents had arrived in the United States in 1897. Everyone they knew spoke Yiddish, sang in Yiddish, read American Jewish literature written in Yiddish. They had no idea that the first Jews in America had been Sephardic Jews who had fled the Iberian Peninsula during the Inquisition.
Yaffa’s paternal grandparents believed that she should attend a synagogue consisting of mostly Ashkenazi Jews. Linda agreed, since there weren’t any Sephardic Jewish temples nearby.
Linda had devoted countless hours of her time as a librarian to reading about Sephardic Jews and treating Yaffa with what she learned. Often this came in the form of a special dish–keftes de prasa (leek meatballs), gaya kon avramila (fish with sour plum sauce), or pandispanya (Yaffa’s favorite, a sponge cake). At the time Yaffa was playing the counting game with her blue rubber ball, Linda was teaching her the basics of Ladino.
From the moment Yaffa started Hebrew school at the beginning of third grade, nothing Linda told her seemed relevant there. Hebrew was nothing like Ladino, and the songs sounded different than the kind Linda had sung to her. Even the history lessons contrasted; they began in ancient times and skipped all the way to the formation of Modern Israel in the twentieth century. When Yaffa told her mother about this, Linda sighed and said she wished that more could be said about different communities of Jews: Sephardim, Mizrahim, Beta Israel, Bene Israel, etc. “You know, Hebrew was a dead language until it was revived in the late nineteenth century. Now millions of people speak Hebrew, but only about twenty thousand people speak Ladino. There are other dying Jewish languages, like Judeo-Kashani and Judeo-Malayalam, with barely any speakers left. When a language dies, an entire identity and culture dies with it. Todos los dedos de la mano no son unos.” All the fingers of the hand are not the same.
Yaffa arrived at the first rehearsal for her Hebrew school’s new youth choir. She knew no more Ladino than she had that day Nathan interrupted her ball game four years ago. Since the birth of Yosef and Miriam, her younger twin siblings, her mother’s lessons had halted. The only hint of Linda’s attempts at reviving her family’s past was in the beans on Pesach.
The synagogue was dimly lit, the only light being the sun illuminating the windows in the dome. Every seat was unoccupied. Yaffa stood by the door, peering down the aisle. In front of the altar was a large piano, where a cantor was playing. And as he played, he sang:
El Dyo alto kon su grasia.
Mos mande muncha ganansia.
No veamos mal ni ansia.
A nos i a todo Yisrael.
Bendicho El Dyo abastado.
Ke mos dio dia onorado.
Kada Shabat mijorado a nos i a todo Yisrael.
Rogo al Dyo de kontino.
Ke este en nuestro tino.
No mos manke pan ni vino.
A nos i a todo Yisrael.
Yaffa’s eyes watered, as though filled with dust. She knew this song. It was her favorite Ladino song; one her mother had sung.
In her reverie, Yaffa had not noticed the cantor walking towards her. His slow steps betrayed the years he had spent there, learning how to match the stillness of an empty synagogue. His kippah was as white as the marble floor, and his suit was deep blue like the frayed covers of the siddurim.
“Shalom,” he said. “I’m Cantor Noah. Have you come for choir?”
Yaffa nodded. “Nice to meet you. I’m Yaffa.”
“Ah, yes! You must be Betty’s granddaughter. I’m glad you came.” Cantor Noah smiled amiably and started making his way back to the piano. “Since you’re early, it might be a couple minutes before the rest get here.”
Yaffa followed him. She sat in the front row as she and the cantor waited for more students to arrive. The music still hung in the air like oil.
Yaffa thought about what her mother had once said about the inclusion of the diverse range of Jewish populations and their cultures and languages in American culture. She now realized fully what this meant, how important it was to get other people to listen to this song. Through the words they would find a Jewish people on the verge of being forgotten, one of many.
“That song,” she said. “I know it. My mom’s family is from Turkey. They spoke Ladino.”
“Makes sense, then. My father was Sephardic, from Turkey as well. He never spoke Ladino, only Turkish and English. I only learned that song several years ago when I lived in Israel. ‘El Dyo Alto.’ A beautiful song.”
“Are we going to perform it?” Yaffa asked.
Cantor Noah rubbed his chin. “Perhaps we can. It would be a first. We’ve never sung in Ladino at services before. Would you like that?”
His tone was sincere, earnest even. Yaffa smiled. She repeated what her mother had told her, and then added her own spin.
“Todos los dedos de la mano no son unos. All the fingers of the hand are not the same. But together they can all be used to grasp a shared identity.”
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