The Forgotten Kingdom of the Jews

The Register Guard (Eugene, OR), October 2, 2016 | Go to article overview

The Forgotten Kingdom of the Jews


Byline: Francesca Fontana The Register-Guard

"Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free ... "

The words of "The New Colossus" are emblazoned on a plaque at the Statue of Liberty in New York City, written by poet Emma Lazarus - a Sephardic Jew.

Many think of Jews as people hailing from countries such as Germany and Romania, not Sephardic Jews like Lazarus whose ancestors come from countries such as Spain and Portugal in southwest Europe.

Countless other Sephardic Jews have left their mark on American culture and society, University of Oregon professor Monique Balbuena says: from actors Peter Sellers and Neve Campbell to former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Benjamin Cardozo. And Balbuena wants more people to understand the history and culture of Sephardic Jews.

Sephardic Jews originated in the Iberian Peninsula, which is principally occupied by Portugal and Spain, and were dispersed after their expulsion from Spain in 1492 to places such as the Middle East, the Mediterranean and the Americas.

"(There are) Jews who come from Arab lands, Jews who speak Ladino (a Judeo-Spanish language)," she continued. "So to see all kinds of Jews is important for people to understand or to question their assumptions (about Jewish people)."

Balbuena studies Sephardic literature and works with Ladino language, a language of the eastern Sephardic Jews. This year, she published the book "Homeless Tongues: Poetry & Languages of the Sephardic Diaspora." And now, in an effort to make Sephardic culture more widely known, Balbuena is teaching a class in UO's Clark Honors College called "Sephardic Cultures: The History, Literature and Music of Iberian Jews," where students will focus on Sephardic history, music and literature.

"I, and other people here, have been interested in increasing the Sephardic presence in academia, in Jewish studies, but also in Jewish life," she said.

That's why Balbuena partnered with the Guy Mendilow Ensemble, based in Boston, to host three events to give people a taste of Sephardic music on Oct. 9 and 10, including a concert at The Shedd Institute for the Arts.

The ensemble, formed in 2004, performs Sephardic music from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, folk music that shifted and evolved as Sephardic Jews settled in new communities. …

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