“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.
The ensemble consists of six members from Israel, Palestine, Argentina, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States.
“There’s a greater responsibility when we work with music that is so old and rich,” Mendilow said. “We must be careful to respect the tradition, even as we use a modern musical tool box to bring these songs to life in an artistic way that will capture the imaginations and hearts of listeners today.”
Balbuena connected with Mendilow when they met at Portland State University at a series of Sephardic lectures last year, where she found out he was having a West Coast tour called “Tales from the Forgotten Kingdom.” Together they organized additional public events that will bring Sephardic music and culture to the Eugene community.
“Sephardic music is very central to Sephardic identity — individual or communal,” she said. “Making music is a crucial part of Sephardic culture.”
The day after the ensemble’s performance at The Shedd, the group will perform during Balbuena’s class at noon in 30 Pacific Hall, 1585 E. 13th Ave. Members of the public are invited to attend and hear a class discussion with the musical group on the changing Sephardic culture.
That evening, there also will be a public lecture in Straub Hall on campus where members of the ensemble will perform and discuss the history of Sephardic music. Each event, Balbuena said, is a chance to broaden horizons and learn about an ancient culture that many know nothing about.
“I think it opens up a whole new world that might not be known to them,” she said. “Of different people, different ethnicities, different music — a certain worldliness.”