Rabbi and rapper making a video to showcase the messages in traditional Ladino songs.
In Seattle’s Seward Park neighborhood, a retired Orthodox rabbi and a Mexican immigrant are collaborating on a rap video. There will be no scantily clad women.
The pair, Rabbi Simon Benzaquen and Alex Hernandez, call themselves Los Seranos, the watchmen, and they’re safeguarding messages locked in Ladino song lyrics generations ago by doing a little updating for a contemporary audience.
I saw them perform Sunday at the Seward Park Amphitheater as part of the SPARK: Jewish Music Festival, singing old lyrics and rapping new ones in Ladino.
Ladino is the language of Jews who were expelled from Spain in 1492. Those Sephardic Jews are spread around the world now, but Ladino is not the vibrant language it once was. Recently, Seattle Times reporter Nina Shapiro wrote about a University of Washington scholar who taught himself to read Ladino and is creating the first online Ladino library.
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Benzaquen’s ancestors were part of the exodus from Spain. He was born in Morroco and came from Venezuela in 1984 to lead Seattle’s Sephardic Bikur Holim for almost 30 years, so he’s long had an interest in Ladino. Most retired rabbis don’t rap, though, and Benzaquen told me that just a few years ago he thought of rap as disgusting, all about people spewing four-letter words and disrespecting women. But now he says rap can be beautiful when it returns to its roots and is about something of substance.
I visited with him and Hernandez the next day to hear more about that.
The change in Benzaquen’s view of rap and hip-hop came from another collaboration with a member of the congregation, the Seattle rapper Nissim (who used to be known as D. Black before his religious conversion).
“What Nissim did,” Benzaquen told me, “was to take rap music back to its origins.” Those origins, he said, were in African Americans’ desire “to tell the world how they felt everyday, what they went through every day,” he said. And he sees similarities in the forms they chose and in the way some parts of the Bible are written. He said the parts that you should remember by heart “are written like hip-hop in rhyme form, in the metric form.” He likes saying, “Rap has gotten a bad rap.”
Two years ago, Nissim’s single, “Sores,” featured Benzaquen singing the chorus. The song intertwined the sufferings of an enslaved African American with those of a Jew in a concentration camp.
“We wanted to express something about the African-American experience of intimidation, discrimination and slavery, and the Jewish experience of the same thing — intimidation, discrimination and the Holocaust,” Benzaquen said.
Benzaquen was hooked on the idea of using hip-hop to reach a wider audience, which led to his partnership with Hernandez, another member of the congregation and a rapper and guitarist.
Hernandez grew up in Chihuahua, Mexico. He told me his grandfather used to read to him from the Bible, and he was attracted to the stories of the Jewish kings. He said he was a Christian for 12 years, then “One day I was like, ‘who wrote the Bible?’ ” He wanted to get closer to the original, so he learned Hebrew, and that led to a closer study of Judaism. Six years ago, he and his wife, Netzah Hernandez, who helps with the music, moved to Seattle for the conversion process. Most people may come to pursue the American dream, making money and all that, but Hernandez said he and his wife came for the religion. “I’m here because I wanted the Jewish dream.”
The songs they are working with are often popular in Spanish-speaking countries, but Benzaquen said some have lost their meaning over time.
One song is about drinking raki, an alcoholic drink popular in Turkey and with the Jews who fled first to Turkey after being thrown out of Spain. Benzaquen said people sing it as if it were a happy drinking song, but really it is meant to be a lesson on what the love of drinking costs a person.
What is it that separates men from animals, he asks? It is the ability to say yes or no, to have control over your actions. Anything that takes control away is to be avoided, he said.
In another song, the singer says trees cry for rain, and mountains for air, so I cry for you. Benzaquen said the singer thought Spain meant everything and now is gone.
The singer says, “I turn and ask what will become of me? I will die in foreign lands.”
But Spain wasn’t really the core of the Jewish people there. They took their core with them into the diaspora, their faith, traditions, families. And in the songs they sang there are sustaining messages that Benzaquen has made it his mission to share.