This duo has hosted a radio show on Sephardic Jewish culture for 35 years


MADRID (JTA) – Matilde Gini from Barnatán and her daughter Viviana Rajel Barnatán did not intend to make Jewish history in Spain.

In the 1960s and 1970s, Matilde, now 85, settled in Argentina as a researcher, teacher and specialist in the history of Sephardic culture and the Spanish Inquisition in Ibero-America. Her vast expertise and recognition in Argentine intellectual circles helped her become a close friend of the famous writer Jorge Luis Borges.

Viviana Rajel, now 55, studied theater in Buenos Aires.

But in April 1986, as Israel established diplomatic relations with Spain, the Spanish government along with its Jewish ancestors followed suit. Through its state-owned public radio, the country set out to develop a cultural project in the form of a radio show to reintroduce Ladino – or Judeo-Spanish, an endangered Romance language spoken by the local people. past generations of the Sephardic Jewish diaspora – as an essential piece of Spanish heritage.

It was “a gesture of friendship between Spain, Israel and Sephardic communities around the world,” according to Viviana Rajel.

Due to the lack of native Ladino speakers in Spain at the time, there was hardly anyone to take over the business. Through academic networks of Sephardic scholars that linked Spain to Argentina, Matilde was found and invited to relocate and star in the project – which its developers touted as a way to right the historic wrong of the Spanish Inquisition, the expulsion of the Jews in the 15th century. from the country.

Viviana Rajel followed her mother because she wanted the show to portray the matriarchal essence behind the oral tradition of Ladino, which is traditionally passed down from generation to generation through the women in the family.

Thus was born “Emisión Sefarad” (or “Sepharad Broadcast”), a weekly radio program available online and on shortwave in Judeo-Spanish which is broadcast every Sunday on the overseas service of the Spanish national radio. April marked the 35th anniversary of the program, which has been broadcast continuously since its launch.

“It is in this context that the 35th anniversary of the show must be understood, as the effort of Spanish public radio to promote mutual knowledge between Jews and Spaniards and also to encourage integration and intercultural dialogue”, Luis Manuel Fernández, director of foreign languages ​​at the Spanish National Radio, wrote in an email to the Jewish Telegraph Agency. “It’s about adding value to what binds the two groups of people together through the culture they share.”

From a folklore point of view, the program is a vibrant showcase of the rich and diverse repertoire of Jewish liturgical melodies. He usually plays a mixture of “romanceros” (narrative ballad poems), “kantikas” (poetic chants) and “dichas” (proverbs) that the Sephardim carried and held orally through the lands that sheltered them after the Spanish expulsion – mainly the Ottoman Empire and North African countries like Morocco and Algeria.

Although Judeo-Spanish was primarily a medieval language, for centuries it became more of a linguistic melting pot, absorbing phrases and words from the towns and local dialects where Sephardic Jews settled. Although no reliable figures are available, it is estimated that at least 300,000 people currently speak Judeo-Spanish.

“It is a fusion language, with many variations because different linguistic sources have nourished it. It not only has archaisms, but also influences from Hebrew, North African Arabic, Turkish, Bulgarian, Serbo-Croatian, Portuguese and French, ”said Matilde.

But Matilde and Viviana Rajel, the producers and directors of the series, do not rely solely on the content of yesteryear. Along with the historical perspective, each episode contains contemporary content, including interviews with prominent figures from the Jewish world, current affairs information, and new contemporary perspectives on Sephardic music, food, and literature. Listeners get both a new and an old mix.

The June 13 broadcast opened with a series of current events on Spain and Israel, highlighting the efforts of the Spanish government to reactivate its tourism industry in the wake of the pandemic and providing an update on Israeli news about his new government and following the recent violence with Gaza.

There was an interview with Rodica Radian-Gordon, who became Israel’s first female ambassador to Spain in 2019. Viviana Rajel closed the show with a unique contemporary musical piece titled “Las Yaves de Sefarad” (“The Keys of Sepharad “).

“Ladino is not just what the past ‘was’ and has stayed there. It’s a really living language, ”said Viviana Rajel. “In addition to the historical and cultural heritage, we are responsible for showing the contemporary side of everything that is happening in the Ladino world.

“It may seem that there are very few activities and new things around the language, but there is a lot. There are so many people who compose music, write books, and organize hundreds of events every year. We present it all.

The Barnatans, originally from the vibrant and historically Jewish neighborhood of Villa Crespo in Buenos Aires, have a personal interest in the project. Their history is diasporic: their predecessors, like thousands of Jewish families of the time, were expelled from the Spanish territories belonging to the Crown of Aragon and the Crown of Castile following the decree of the Alhambra in 1492. In the 1920s, Matilde’s grandmother sought refuge in South America, first in Uruguay and then in Argentina, from the Greek island of Rhodes.

Almost since their beginnings, the couple unwittingly became the beacons of Judeo-Spanish not only in Spain but in the Jewish world. Over the years, they have participated in dozens of lectures, lectures and symposia, and their work has also led to the publication of several books, most notably the CD-book of contemporary Sephardic poetry “La Ija y la Madre Komo la Unya y la Karne ”, which is accompanied by musical accompaniment on the piano.

Antonio Buitrago Molina, director of the overseas service of the Spanish National Radio, says that it is thanks to Matilde and Viviana Rajel that the language has remained alive among their audiences.

“Radio is a very useful form of communication for speakers to continue to use Judeo-Spanish and for the survival of their own cultural heritage,” he said.

Since 2015, when Spain opened the door to descendants of Sephardic Jews deported in the 15th century to acquire Spanish citizenship under the Law of Return – and received over 130,000 applications – there has been growing interest in Judeo-Spanish among the youngest. generations.

“Today there is a resurgence in the study of Ladino lessons by students interested in all things Spanish. An interest that does not come only from nostalgia, and not exclusively from Sephardic descendants either, ”said Ora Schwarzwald, professor emeritus of Hebrew and Semitic languages ​​at Bar-Ilan University in Israel.

“The opportunity to gain Spanish citizenship and honor their culture is just one of the many reasons people come to Ladino classes. We see it in many universities, not only in Israel but in Turkey, the United States and Europe. ”

The success of this long-standing show also lies in its constant reinvention, adapting with new perspectives to new audiences. Viviana Rajel is the creative and innovative side – composing her own music and mixing the format, bringing the material of gastronomy and current affairs – while Matilde is the soul and the historical part.

As for the future, mother and daughter firmly believe that the language will not go away as long as it is used. Matilde is particularly optimistic for the years to come.

“The fate of a language, as the culmination of a culture, is unpredictable. But I hope that conservation and expansion will continue by speaking and writing it, and showing its great wealth in literature, television, radio, etc. She said. “May the learning process continue for children and adults and for all those who wish to learn this precious language, which is a great legacy for all of us.

“Many of us speak it, and we spread it and preserve it with love,” said Viviana Rajel. “It’s a treasure we have to take care of. The key to Sepharad is the language.


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