Thirteen years ago David Harris stood up in Judith Brin Ingber's living room and started to sing. And he didn't stop with just one song. He had ten tunes in his repertory, and he shared each one with Ingber. The songs those of Sephardic Jews, were ones Harris, a classically trained singer, had picked up in his studies of folk and world music. Ingber had recently returned home from several years spent in Israel performing in the Batsheva and Inbal dance companies and raising her small children with husband Jerome, and found herself "completely smitten."
Thus Voices of Sepharad was born. The duo was soon joined by percussionist Mick LaBriola, forming what is today a vibrant three-member collective of performers dedicated to exploring Sephardic traditions of music (performed on guitar, oud, saz, and violin), dance (in styles similar to flamenco), and storytelling. In Judaism, says Ingber, "thirteen is a good-luck number. [At that age] you become a responsible member of the community. You count." Hence the reasoning behind the troupe's 13th-anniversary celebration this weekend at the Southern Theater. "We should have a bar mitzvah," laughs Ingber, age 54, now also a teacher and writer. "We're getting vintage and mature, and we've stayed together."
The subject of Harris, Ingber, and LaBriola's passion, the Sephardic Jews, has a long and complex history--one that unfolded as the group began to study ancient texts, travel abroad, and encounter Sephardic people throughout their tours. This ethnic group first emerged in Spain and Portugal during the Eighth Century, although some accounts place them in the region as early as Roman times. They created a rich artistic and commercial culture that thrived along with the Moor occupation of the Iberian Peninsula.
During the 14th Century, however, Catholicism rose in Spain, and the Jews were the first to feel the new regime's intolerance. According to Harris, who has studied the Spanish Inquisition by reading its original edicts, "there were devastating riots in which whole Jewish quarters were burned down and people were murdered. As a result, many converted to Christianity to avoid the wrath of the public." These conversos were ultimately accused of practicing Judaism in private and thus became prime targets for the Spanish Inquisition's chief instrument of terror, the auto-da-fé.
By 1492, when Christopher Columbus sailed for America, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella had sharpened their attack on the Sephardic Jews; soon all were expelled from Spain. They scattered throughout southern Europe and North Africa, eventually settling their largest enclaves in Istanbul, the Balkans, Morocco, and Salonica in Greece. The Jews were also driven from Mexico into the southwestern United States as the Inquisition continued south of the border well into the mid-1800s. Today, one can still encounter secret Jewish communities in Arizona where candles are lit inside cupboards and the language of "Ladino" or "Judeo-Spanish," a Castilian dialect that has not changed much in 600 years, can be heard and spoken. (Ingber and Harris have both encountered such communities in the United States and abroad.)
Even the Twin Cities, says Harris, are home to Sephardic Jews, a small minority among the Ashkenazic (European) and Mizrahi (Near Eastern) Jews, who are themselves a minority in predominantly Christian America. This transnational personality and its attendant mix of cultural influences make the Sephardic heritage exotic and intriguing, observes Harris, a 45-year-old whose own array of interests includes singing and playwriting, supplemented by the occasional catering job. "The strength of this culture comes through its productive interaction with other cultures."
Voices of Sepharad's newest work These Things I Remember explores the connections between defining life events and faith, set against the vivid backdrop of Sephardic history. "The title comes from High Holiday prayers," explains Ingber, who has discovered that her family roots extend to Istanbul. "You say the prayer thinking about all the Jews killed under the Romans, the most famous being Jesus, but there were ten very important rabbis killed as well. We remember all those who suffered a terrible death because of their beliefs." She pauses to reflect on the Holocaust and the Inquisition, then adds: "But I don't want to remember only tragedy. I've always been fascinated with tracing Sephardic life in all its facets. Remembrance is a theme, a talisman, something I want to think about. How do we relate to our history today in the cacophony of multitasking?"
These Things I Remember weaves experiences gathered from personal stories with imagined events from the evolving Sephardic journey. Ingber portrays a Moroccan woman clearing her space of the evil eye through a water ritual; a bride in a Turkish wedding; a Bosnian wife deciding whether to pack a family cloak before fleeing the Nazis; and a contemporary woman mystified by unexplained religious artifacts in her life. Collaborating to shape this vision is Flory Jagoda, a Bosnian composer who lives in Falls Church, Virginia. "She escaped Bosnia during the Second World War, but 43 members of her family did not," Ingber says. "She's written many songs, and some are so well known [within Bosnian communities] that they are assumed to be anonymous. For this show I gave her a specific subject: exile. I knew that she had not gone back to Bosnia since the 1980s and I wanted to know her feelings on this expressed through music. Apparently she had been thinking about it for a long time but had been unable to find the words to express herself. She needed to write it, yet it was so large and intimate. Her songs are so beautiful and haunting.
"But we're not just singing pretty songs," Harris hastens to add, reflecting on the many persons of Sephardic ancestry who have thanked the group after concerts for reconnecting them with a lost past. In exchange, the performers have picked up hints of wily Sephardic proverbs like "He who burns himself on the soup blows on the yogurt," and offers of home dinners. "We play a role in someone's life. It puts us in contact with people we are apparently meant to meet. I always describe the group as today's page in a very long book. We're not trying to create a relic; we present the Sephardic culture as we see it through our own eyes."