Thirty musicians from five countries, working in three languages, gathered for the project “Monastir” (Bitola) of the American Jew woman of Bitola origin, Sarah Aroeste, in order to create a musical work that will respect the Jews of Bitola.
Created in the extinct medieval Jewish dialect of Ladino, the Monastir album traces the centuries-old journey of Sarah’s ancestors, from their expulsion from Spain by the Spanish Inquisition in the 15th century, when they settled in Bitola, then the Ottoman Empire, until their deportation. the Treblinka concentration camp in 1943, when the Jewish community in Bitola was almost completely destroyed.
Sarah Aroeste is one of the few who still speak the Jewish dialect Ladino and for the first time so far, she sang several Macedonian songs on it, including “Jovano Jovanke”, “Bitola moj roden kraj” and “Od Bitola pojdov”.
The album “Monastir” was officially released on June 25 this year, and on July 17 on Shirok Sokak in Bitola, Sarah performed a video flash mob which was joined by all who were present. Sarah used the time spent in Bitola to record videos for the songs from the Monastir album, after which she continued her trip to Israel.
Your first contact with Bitola (Monastir) was done early in your life through your grandfather’s life stories. He moved to the US during the Balkan wars and was saying that he came from Greece, was Turkish and spoke Spanish. Who are the Sephardic people and when did you realize what this mix meant for your family?
Sarah: The word “Sepharad” is the Hebrew word for Spain. So Sephardic people are the Jews who originally came from Spain before 1492, after which they were expelled and migrated across the world. Even though I was born in the USA, I grew up in a proud Sephardic family, with culinary and musical traditions that I was aware were from the Balkans.
Most importantly for me was the language of Ladino (or Judeo-Spanish) which is the language the Sephardic Jews developed as they traveled from Spain to the Ottoman empire. It incorporates 15th century Spanish with bits of languages across the Mediterranean and towards the East– French, Portuguese, Italian, Greek, Turkish, Arabic and Hebrew.
Ladino is what still connects many Sephardic Jews all over the globe today. The language itself is a mixture of many elements, much like the Sephardic people. Yes my grandfather was born in Monastir, but he also considered himself Turkish, Greek and Spanish all in one.
You graduated opera at Westminster Choir College and Yale University, but in 1997 during your stay in Tel Aviv you shifted your interests from opera towards your ancestors’ music. What does this fight for heritage preservation meant for you?
Sarah: I grew up as a musician studying Western classical music very seriously, but when I had the chance to sing in Tel Aviv, I had an opera coach who shared the same Sephardic background as I did. He started teaching me traditional Ladino songs in between our lessons, and soon after, I realized that I preferred that music over the opera!
I connected to the Ladino music so much more in my soul, as it was part of my DNA, and it showed when I sang it. I also knew that so few people were even aware of what Ladino was, and it was important to me to sing the music to keep it alive and allow more people to learn about it.
The language is an important part of world history – not just Jewish history – and it would be a tragedy to let it die out.
Your cousin Rachel is one of the few Jews from Bitola that survived the deportation to Treblinka in 1943 and she is still alive! Her life story is remarkable, it carries so much pain and sacrifice…tell us more about her early years in Bitola and why you see her as your everyday inspiration.
Sarah: Rachel Nahmias was my grandfather’s first cousin, and one of only 2% of the Jewish population from Bitola who survived the war. She managed to hide in the trunk of a car and was taken to Albania where a Muslim family took her in for the duration of the war. But the rest of her family was taken away to Treblinka and, like all the other Jews who were taken there, not one survived.
Rachel is still alive today—she will turn 104 years old this year!! She is such a light in this world – her humor, grace, love of life has been an inspiration me. I am in awe of how she turned such tragedy into a life filled with love and meaning.
There is a photo of your grandfather as a small child, all dressed up, waiting for the Pasha to pass through the streets in Bitola. This is one of the reasons you fight to keep your Ladino language and tradition and it was the inspiration for the song Mi Monastir, in which you celebrate the cultural mix of the city of Bitola. In 2017 you visited this city for the first time….what were the first impressions and what have you learnt about the Aroeste history?
Sarah: As a child in New Jersey in the USA, it was always confusing to me to see that photo of my grandfather in the hallway outside my bedroom door. I passed it dozens of times each day, and it was hard to imagine the childhood he had lived – so far away from my own in New Jersey. But for 20 years as I knew him, and other elders in my family, I collected stories and images of their childhoods in Bitola.
I conjured up many of those images to create my song, Mi Monastir on my new album. I mention the fez that I still have from my grandfather, along with other symbols, such as the mezuzah, the Jewish signpost on Jewish houses, that my cousin Rachel’s neighbor saved for Rachel when her family was taken away. The song is a combination of many memories and textures from Bitola that have been instilled in me since I was a child.
The idea for the Monastir project was born after your first visit of Bitola, during which you presented your music to the Macedonian audience. You gathered 30 musicians from 5 countries to sing in 3 languages, so you can put this album together. Was this an attempt to prove that we all have unique histories, but are at the same time interconnected?
Sarah: When I first visited in 2017, I was struck by how much respect the citizens of Bitola have for Jewish history. Even though there are no Jews left there! I was so overwhelmed by it, that I wanted to give something back to everyone who has worked to preserve my family’s history and that of the larger Monastir community who once lived there.
After another performance in Bitola in 2018, I saw a photograph afterwards of Macedonians and Israelis on the rooftop of Epinal hotel singing and dancing, and that was the spark for me to create the Monastir project.
There are 10 songs on the album that I very carefully curated in 3 languages- Macedonian, Ladino, and Hebrew. I also wanted a mix of voices – young, old, male and female. I truly wanted as many sounds, flavors and emotions as possible to be a “snapshot” of what life was like in Monastir before WWII, when different communities (Jews, Christians, Muslims and more) lived together there.
Indeed, by bringing such a variety of people together (over 30 musicians!) I hope that this album shows what beauty can be created together even through our unique individual stories.
The Monastir album was released on 25 June this year. Less than a month later, you went back to the city that inspired you. You did a video on Shirok Sokak, recorded video clips and met with locals. How was this visit different than the first one, 4 years earlier?
Sarah: In the last four years I have developed many deep, enduring friendships with people from Bitola. I was only a visitor in 2017, but now after many visits since, I really feel like people know me. I don’t only want to swoop in, take what I want, and leave. No, it’s important to me to create roots and relationships with the people there. That is why I have always tried to include as many locals as possible in the work- from the musicians I play with, to the recording studios, production companies and crew I hire.
I also meet with local institutions (museums and archives), government officials, cultural presenters and more. Now when I walk down the streets, some people recognize me which is such a great feeling. I love the city and want people to know how serious I am about my relationship with it.
You translated “Jovano Jovanke” in Hebrew for the first ever. Why this particular Macedonian song?
Sarah: There is a large group of Monastirlis who live in Israel, and I knew when I began my project that I wanted to record some of the elders who have amazing memories of songs from their childhoods.
I met someone who told me the story that Jovano, Jovanke was his mother’s favorite song when she lived in Monastir. In fact, she loved it so much that the words from the song were the last words she ever spoke aloud before she died. She sang the song on her deathbed! I was so struck by this, and the fact that it was a beloved song by everyone then, non-Jews and Jews.
But I also knew it had already been recorded hundreds of times! If I was going to include this story, it would have to be presented in a different way. So, we recorded the man telling us the story of his mother, in Hebrew , and intertwined with the Hebrew translation of the song. It is a heartbreakingly beautiful addition to the recording.
“In this time of globalization, we all tend to go back home to our roots” – internet was one of the reasons globalization was brought into life, and paradoxically, it is now our only tool for connecting, while learning and preserving our histories. Where do you feel the most “at home”?
Sarah: That is a hard question! For me, “home” is where my family is. I am married with my own children now and we live in the USA. But my roots are from Monastir and I feel it deeply every time I am in Bitola. As I walk through old the Jewish neighborhoods, I sense the history in my bones.
Singing the songs and keeping the stories alive are how I get closer to my ancestors. In doing so, I feel more rooted to my sense of “home” no matter where I physically live today.