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My Dear Monastir

A new album from Ladino singer Sarah Aroeste is a collaborative, loving homage to a once-vibrant Sephardic Jewish community in Macedonia

Matt Alexander Hanson
September 10, 2021
Aleksandar Georgiev
Sarah Aroeste outside Bitola’s “Zionist House”Aleksandar Georgiev
Aleksandar Georgiev
Sarah Aroeste outside Bitola’s “Zionist House”Aleksandar Georgiev

“One time I was a bachelor,” begins a traditional Macedonian song (“Edno Vreme Si Bev Ergen”). The singer plays a Slavic man, jobless and wandering around Bitola, his hometown in the southwest of North Macedonia, which is still nostalgically called Monastir after its legacy as a diverse, cosmopolitan, and very Jewish city in the formerly Ottoman Balkans.

The mountainous town was a pearl of modernist enlightenment, where the Manaki brothers made the first film in the Balkans in 1903 and the Congress of Monastir standardized the Albanian alphabet in 1908. Its Spanish-speaking urban Jewish community, including upwards of 11,000 people at the turn of the 20th century, was among the most prominent in both the East and the West. For Yad Vashem, the survivor Stella Testa remembered Jewish life in Monastir before World War II. As she described it, in those days the observance of religious rituals was like a holy art.

But the 20th century would take its toll on the city’s Jewish community, which slowly dwindled until World War II. On March 11, 1943, Monastir’s remaining 3,351 Jews were deported to Treblinka, on orders approved by the Bulgarian government. North Macedonia is now home to 225 remaining Jews, all of whom live in the country’s capital of Skopje.

In 1976, the all-male Macedonian nonet Ansambl Biljana released a version of “Edno Vreme Si Bev Ergen.” Its booming harmonies are styled to a lilting Grecian melody, carried by fusions of Eastern Europe and Middle Eastern instrumentation and directed to the city’s vanished, prewar Jewish community: “There I met a Jewish girl / With messy hair.”

With the release of Monastir, the latest album by Ladino singer Sarah Aroeste, this past June, the song comes full circle. Aroeste first released five albums of Sephardic music in the Spanish of her ancestors, including a children’s album of all-original Ladino songs and a “feminist Sephardic homage” named after Doña Gracia Mendes Nasi, a woman who saved Jews during the Spanish Inquisition. And now, in Monastir, she has consummated her love for the peculiarly pluralistic sociocultural mixture that emerged out of her grandfather’s beloved city. In collaboration with producer Shai Bachar, who programmed her prior three albums, and over 30 musicians from around the world, she is leading a revitalization of the sounds of Balkan Jewry.

Aroeste’s own grandfather left Monastir in 1912, before the Balkan powder keg imploded. Yet he never forgot his roots, which, to him, were in Greece. He thought of himself as a Turk. His dialect of Spanish only added to his multicultural identity, preserved by his increasingly American family in the heirloom of his crumbling red velvet fez, which they keep in a glass case.

In September of 2017, while touring in nearby Bulgaria, Aroeste visited Bitola for the first time. She had never felt so honored. People came from all directions. New acquaintances welcomed her as one of their own. Media kept circling. In North Macedonia, when a descendant of their lost Jewish communities returns, it is newsworthy.

As a singer of the endangered Ladino language, Aroeste was aware of the larger context of Jewish preservation efforts in Europe. Bitola is home to the oldest Jewish cemetery in the Balkans, with gravestones dating back to 1497. Her surname is engraved on many of the tombs. Just 15 minutes after entering the town, she visited her family’s graves at the behest of her hosts, who were not Jewish. “These citizens were preserving the Jewish cemetery. It is a completely volunteer-led mission of the town of Bitola to restore and keep this cemetery, which is a source of pride for the city,” said Aroeste. “Now, there’s a huge collaboration with Israel, digitizing the gravestones. It was so evident how personally non-Jewish citizens take the cemetery.”

During her first few days in Bitola, whenever she was shown a home that had once been inhabited by Jews, its current owners would invite her in for tea and cake. On many occasions, they then told her stories of how close their grandparents were to their Jewish neighbors. Aroeste was in awe as she gazed at the Hebrew lettering on the archways of the old houses.

Then she came to the home of her grandfather’s first cousin, Rachel Nahmias, which is famed, if tokenized, as the “Jewish house” for its visibility in Bitola’s modestly sized pedestrian center. The Stars of David in the grillwork are preserved, as is Nahmias’ memory. Though she no longer resides in the city, at 104 years old, she is a living testament to Monastir’s Jewish history.

Nahmias survived the Holocaust after being smuggled to a family in Albania who hid her under a Muslim name. She returned home after the war. But only 2 percent of Jews from Bitola survived. The loss was unbearable. She resettled in Brookline, Massachusetts, where she has lived since the 1950s. One piece of memorabilia that Aroeste treasures is a letter, written in Ladino by Nahmias’ first cousin (Aroeste’s grandfather), whom she had not yet met. He was welcoming her to the United States and imploring her to learn English.

On the album, Nahmias recited a Sephardic children’s finger game to Aroeste’s infant daughter. Her delicate voice can be heard introducing “Estreja Mara,” which is sung by a kindergarten class choir in Bitola. It is a homage to a children’s song, dedicated to a girl, who, at 21, died a heroine with her fellow partisans fighting the Bulgarian army in 1944.

The night after her visit to Nahmias’ house, television cameras caught Aroeste contemplating her cousin’s life on the terrace of her historic home. She sang an all-Ladino set for a standing-only audience, accompanied by an interpreter who explained the lyrics as she projected her family photographs from Bitola. “They just ate it all up. Afterward, it was more flowers, stuffed animals for my kids. Hand-embroidered pictures of flowers,” Aroeste recounted. “I remember thinking other people need to experience this explosion of love. I can’t be the only one.”

Monastir opens with a didgeridoo buzzing to the piercing blow of a shofar, accompanied by a nine-beat rhythm. The Ladino song “Oy Qui Muevi Mezis” (“Oh, What Nine Months”) has been in the Balkan Sephardi repertoire since the Jewish expulsion from Spain in the 15th century. Its form is a “kantikas de parida,” with lyrics readapted specially by Monastir locals. It is traditionally sung to celebrate newborns, an auspicious opening as Monastir Jewry enjoys a musical rebirth.

The album is full of intercultural collaborations. Aroeste wrote original music for the track “Espinelo,” drawing from the fieldwork of Jewish ethnomusicologist Max A. Luria, who, in 1927, transcribed the song’s “romanso” lyrics while in Monastir. Luria, a professor emeritus of modern languages at Brooklyn College, traced the song’s oral tradition to a Ladino publication in 1562 of “Flor de enamoradas” in Barcelona. In turn, Aroeste transformed “Espinelo” with Israeli flamenco singer Yehuda “Shuki” Shveiky. The result is an Andalusian Jewish fusion, appropriate because its lyrics are a folktale about a twin thrown into the sea (Ottoman Jews believed twins were a bad omen), only to resurface at the Sublime Porte in the care of the sultan—an allegory for Sephardic migration to the Ottoman Empire.

Monastir also contains the first Hebrew translation of the popular Macedonian song “Jovano, Jovanke” by Sephardic scholar Eliezer Papo. The song is performed by Israeli singers Odelia Dahan Kehila, member of the Autoridad National del Ladino, and Gilan Shahaf. It opens with an elderly man in Israel, Akiva Eskayo, remembering his mother from Monastir singing it as her last words.

As she talked with her growing circle of friends from Bitola, Aroeste learned to sing in Macedonian and the local Ladino vernacular. During these meetings, which occurred virtually under lockdown, she gleaned two of the Ladino songs on the album from a songbook, dated to 1985, that a friend of a friend in Bitola had collected.

Those songs, “En Frente de Mi Te Tengo” and “Jo la Keria,” were arranged by Moritz Romano, the son of Rabbi Avraham ben Moshe Romano, the last rabbi of Monastir. On the album, “Jo la keria” is sung by Israeli Ladino artist Yehoram Gaon, who rose to fame during Israel’s first decades of independence. “En Frente de Mi Te Tengo” was performed by 18-year-old opera singer Helena Susha, one of the 225 remaining Jews in the country’s capital.

“It was an absolute pleasure singing in Ladino as my great grandmother used to speak it!” Susha emailed. “This song in particular has a special place in my heart because my mother used to play it for me as a child.”

“Preserving the Jewish tradition is of great importance everywhere in the world but especially in places like Macedonia, where the Jewish community is very small,” she continued. “But even though it is small, it is very active! I think that, with what Sarah is doing, a bright future awaits us!”

In 2018, Aroeste organized a Jewish Macedonian heritage tour and invited 20 Americans. She was assisted by local history enthusiast Zoran Gjorgiev, who was born in Bitola to an Orthodox Macedonian family and began working in the field of Jewish historical preservation about 10 years ago.

“I felt a great emptiness. We have been missing the Jewish community for 70-plus years in Bitola,” Gjorgiev texted. “Since I was born here, I had one of the most emotional walks through Bitola’s Jewish neighborhoods with Sarah. We visited sites where synagogues no longer exist. Around the city, I find items that were part of the Jewish cemetery and return them. I do this alone, without institutional support. I just want to contribute to my city.”

He has since designed a smartphone app to help visitors find the same historical sites he visited with Aroeste. In July, Dan Oryan, ambassador of the State of Israel in R.N. Macedonia, presented Gjorgiev with a certificate of appreciation.

Courtesy Dog Ranch Music

“These non-Jews in Bitola are absolute philo-Semites. They love Israel, and they love all things Hebrew and Jewish and Ladino and Sephardic,” Aroeste said.

When Aroeste returned to North Macedonia in 2018, the municipality threw a culture festival with support from the Israeli foreign ministry and organized for her to perform more formally in the Bitola Museum. That was the first time she sang in Macedonian. She chose, “Edno Vreme Si Bev Ergen.” The ideas that would sprout into her album began taking root.

“It just struck me, because it was about a Slavic man wandering the streets of Bitola in the Jewish neighborhoods and finding a lovely Jewish girl he wanted to convince to become Slavic. To me it’s very humorous and shows the interplay of cultures that existed prior to World War II,” Sarah said. “I don’t know what happens, whether she intermarries and goes with him or not, but it is a fascinating window into these people who lived side by side.” She invited Bitola clarinetist Vevki Amedov, who later recorded on two songs from Monastir, to join her. The audience loved it, clapping enthusiastically to the song’s 7/8 rhythm.

“The entire room erupted with smiles. I was so joyful singing it with them. It was right after that concert when the Israel Foreign Ministry hosted a party at the rooftop of a famous hotel,” said Sarah. “We were dancing, singing, people brought out their instruments, Macedonians, Israelis, Jews, Christians, Muslims. That’s when I had my a-ha moment.”

Aroeste next proposed the idea of recording to Amedov and Sefedin Bajramov, a local singer, after the impromptu rooftop shindig. She asked her new friends in Bitola more about the city’s Jewish history and received floods of research material. For the next year, she designed a track list of Ladino, Macedonian, and Hebrew songs, drawing Israeli and Macedonian choruses to collaborate on the traditional tune “Od Bitola Pojdov” (“I Left Bitola”).

The refrain of “Od Bitola Pojdov” goes, “Bitola, my beloved Bitola / My dear Monastir,” acknowledging the city’s innate linguistic, cultural pluralism. Her producer, Bachar, programmed the piece with a powerful, electronic backbeat, refreshing the classic rhythms for 21st-century listeners.

“From the start, it was a very comfortable musical situation where I had the artistic liberty to take every song that was recorded and interpreted probably tens of thousands of times the same way. We took it and made it our own,” Bachar said. “When we started this project in March of 2020, I really felt the effect of the pandemic. This was my only project that I decided to keep nourishing. It was a lifesaver artistically. I produced it with my sound signature while respecting the essence of those songs and texts, without trying to copy it. I used every piece of technology available from modern sounds. I did not try to re-create a mockup.”

“I did my best to give (“Od Bitola Bojdov”) a new life. It’s a song about love that knows no boundaries,” Bajramov told me over text. “Our best family friends were Jewish—Dr. Haim Abravanel and his family. I am so happy to revive those glorious, beautiful times. I did it for friendship. I did it for history and for my hometown. I did it because I believe Sarah did something called world heritage.”

The album ends with the song “Bitola, Moj Roden Kraj.” The song is more contemporary, written by Macedonian composer Ajri Demirovski in the 1950s. “It is the only one that doesn’t overtly mention Jewish life or the word Monastir, but it’s a love song to Bitola,” said Aroeste. “The lyrics say, ‘Who doesn’t cry when they leave this beloved city?’ I wanted to end the album with that because that’s how I feel.

“The name changed, and even though Jews still call the city Monastir, from WWI onwards many did start calling it Bitola, its official name. But for me, Bitola and Monastir are interchangeable. I wanted to end with a love song to the city.”

In July, Aroeste went back to Bitola to hand out the album to friends and to perform in the streets. She plans to premiere the album’s music with the musicians she collaborated with in Bitola next March 11, to memorialize the 1943 deportation of the city’s Jews. She is showing history that her community might have lost loved ones and moved on but that they are not lost, and they will always continue singing.

Matt Alexander Hanson is an arts and culture journalist based in Istanbul.