Growing up in Princeton, Sarah Aroeste always thought her family was a little different. But she didn’t quite have a handle on why or how. She had always thought of herself as being of Jewish heritage. So why, thought young Sarah, did members of her family speak a lot of Spanish with each other?
“Here I was, part of this nice Jewish family living in Princeton, and my family was speaking Spanish. It was very interesting sitting in our car playing with the radio and noticing that a lot of the presets were set to Spanish-language stations.” And it was also strange, she says, noticing that many of the foods her family ate during traditional Jewish holidays such as Passover, Yom Kippur, and Rosh Hashanah had Greek names — tzatziki, spanakopita, avgolemono.
As she got older and delved into her heritage, says Aroeste, things ceased to be so strange. She learned that her family was Sephardic — descendants of a group of Jews who were expelled from Spain during the beginnings of the Inquisition in 1492. When you combine that event with Columbus and the expulsion of the Muslims from Granada, that year was quite an eventful one in Spanish history.
The story of the Sephardic people is fascinating, full of both sadness and triumph. After being expelled from Spain, they moved eastward, largely to Istanbul and North Africa, but also to Salonika, Greece. There they prospered but they also felt rootless in their new land. They spoke Greek like most people of Salonika but in their homes they continued to speak the Spanish of the 15th century, which is now known as Ladino. They also continued to uphold the Sephardic religious rites and, more than anything, they looked to Spain as their home, even more than 500 years after leaving the Iberian peninsula.
“Sadly, most people don’t know of this legacy of Spanish Jews, a minority within a minority,” says Aroeste. Now a 30-year-old musician, composer, and vocalist, Aroeste continues to uphold the tradition by leading a band that combines the ages-old secular music of the Sephardic people with contemporary pop and rock. The Sarah Aroeste Band performs at the Jewish Center of Princeton Saturday, February 3, at 7 p.m.
If you expect Aroeste’s music to sound like Latin music, well, it will. She sings in Ladino, which, Aroeste explains, is an old dialect of Spanish that has a relationship to today’s Latin American Spanish that is similar to that between American English and Shakespearean English. The language, as a result of its isolation from Spain, also has vocabulary and other elements from other languages across the Mediterranean.
Aroeste grew up in Princeton, the daughter of Ira Silverman, former president of a Reconstructionalist rabbinical college, and Jane Aroeste Silverman, a management consultant. Ira Silverman, who was of Ashkenazic (Eastern European Jewish) background, died when Sarah was a small child, and she was raised chiefly in the Sephardic culture of her mother. It was this culture, and this music, that greatly influenced what Aroeste does today. But when she was growing up, says Aroeste, her family did not explicitly live or teach her about the culture.
“I didn’t really feel isolated but I didn’t feel I had any peers who really embraced the Sephardic culture,” she says. Her maternal grandparents had left Greece before World War II and settled in New Jersey. As they adjusted to new lives in America, they kept their traditions but they also wanted their descendants to be American first. “It was a typical immigrant story,” says Aroeste. “They were escaping a terror-filled existence, and they didn’t really want us to know much about their past.
“I knew we were Sephardic, because of the foods we ate, the holidays we celebrated, and the songs we sang, but it was not something I readily identified with. As I grew older, I became more and more enthralled with my culture.”
As a student at Princeton Day School, Aroeste began taking violin and piano lessons, and she added vocal music at Westminster Choir College during her high school years. She had aspirations of becoming an opera singer. She had even traveled to Israel, hoping to make it in opera, after graduating from Yale with degrees in religious studies and political science in 1998.
But she didn’t stay in opera. “I was not happy with the business of it,” Aroeste says. It was after she worked for a nonprofit Jewish arts organization for two years that she figured that she could make a living singing and teaching about Sephardic music. She started her group in 2001.
“At first, people were very skeptical when I told them I wanted to do Ladino rock,” she says. “It was an uphill battle, because nobody has done this before.”
Aroeste’s music reminds the listener of many different Latin/Iberian styles of music, but many of the modes (keys or harmonic structures) of Sephardic music are also shared with Greek, Persian and Arabic genres. This, combined with the sensual, seductive moves Aroeste often employs on the bandstand, often results in her being compared to Shakira, the irresistible Colombian pop force of Lebanese descent who often incorporates Arabic and Middle Eastern motifs into her Latin music.
“I don’t like that at all,” Aroeste says, her characteristic sweetness tempered with firmness. “The reason I don’t is that label has been ascribed to me. When I came onto the scene, there were not that many female Jewish musicians. I understand that it is an easy label — there was never much thought of Jewish music being sexy. What I tell people is that I am not purposely trying to make this music appear or sound sensual. It’s just that my culture is from the heart of the Mediterranean, and people there never have shied away from incorporating sensuality into the music.”
Another, more apt comparison, perhaps, was Ofra Haza, the Yemenite-Israeli singer, who was one of the first performers to incorporate Jewish secular music into pop. Before she died in 2000, she had become famous throughout the Jewish and Arab worlds, as well as in Europe and America.
Aroeste spends most of her time studying Sephardic culture and history and, in addition to running the band, teaching and lecturing about her culture. The music strikes chords with Jewish, Hispanic, and general audiences.
“If you walked into one of my shows and didn’t know what we were about, you might think you had walked into a Spanish rock show,” she says. “We reach out to the Hispanic community and other communities. In many ways we are more of a world-music group than a Jewish group.”
Aroeste’s knowledge of culture also led a stint as a consultant on “Law and Order” a couple of years ago. “There was an episode where they found an elderly woman near a crime scene. She was speaking what they thought was Spanish to them, but nobody could understand what she was saying. I supplied them with the correct words to say so that the understanding would be there.”
The Sephardic people still remain connected to Spain. “What is interesting is that in modern times, Jews think of Israel as their homeland,” says Aroeste. “We still think of Spain as our motherland. As the Jews left Spain, they continued to look westward. Even my name — Aroeste — means ‘of the West.’ There is deep longing for our motherland that still remains.”
The Sephardic people, Aroeste says, have not given up on their dreams of returning. “It’s been over 500 years, but many families still have the keys to the homes they left in Spain.”
Sarah Aroeste Band, Saturday, February 3, 7 p.m., Jewish Center of Princeton, 435 Nassau Street. Ladino (Judeo-Spanish) music blended with contemporary rock, funk, blues, and jazz. Dessert reception. Register. $25. 609-921-0100.