Sephardic Jewish folk literature gets preserved for the ages in digital archives

Listen to Rashel Nahol sing. Her voice cracks, splintered in her old age, but the song is far more ancient than her 75 years — it’s at least 600 years old.

Nahol’s song, “Ahi Estebas Yerushalaim,” or “There you were in Jerusalem,” now resides in the University library’s new multimedia archive of Judeo-Spanish oral literature. The new database is intended to represent a unique window to the ancient oral traditions of Spanish, or “Sephardic” Jews.

The collection, which encompasses just under 1,500 ballads, took more than four decades to develop. Professor emeritus Samuel Armistead at the University of California-Davis and his former colleagues Joseph Silverman and Israel J. Katz began the project in 1959 interviewing Sephardic Jews who had immigrated to the United States.

Armistead, the custodian of the collection, also worked with Bruce Rosenstock, associate professor of religion at the University. Together, they digitalized, transcribed and created the database, which holds nearly 2,500 fully edited transcriptions with associated audio files. The project was funded by a multiyear, half-million dollar grant from the National Science Foundation Digital Library Initiative, according to a press release.

Armistead said he and his colleagues realized that the language and songs that had defined Spanish Jewry for centuries would soon disappear as Sephardic Jews emigrated from communities shattered by World War II and the Holocaust.

“There’s an awareness that we’re saving a marvelous poetic, linguistic heritage. This was our motivation from the beginning,” Armistead said. “We knew that when this generation passed on, their language would be lost.”

Rosenstock said the story of Sephardic Jews is one that began in peace and ended in crushing tragedy. In the age known as La Convivencia, or “common life together,” Jews generally lived peaceably in the Christian and Muslim countries within Spain until they were expelled in 1492 at the height of the Spanish Inquisition, he said.

“They (the Jews) loved Spain, and it was a tremendous upheaval for them to leave,” Rosenstock said. “They held on to the things that they loved about this thousand-year life they had in Spain, which was the songs that connected them to this land.”

However, while the Spanish language continued to evolve, the Jews retained the medieval form of Spanish. They carried it with them to North Africa and the Middle East, where Judeo-Spanish became infused with Arabic, and to the Balkans, where Spanish became tinged with Turkish.

But Judeo-Spanish retained much of the identity of its medieval Spanish roots, creating an opportunity for Hispanists like Armistead to study Spanish as it was spoken more than 600 years ago.

Sarah Shreeves, coordinator of the Illinois digital environment for access to learning and scholarship, said the University is now making sure that scholars like Armistead can study these ballads.

“The biggest thing that we’re offering is actually stability,” Shreeves said. “We are committing to the long-term preservation of this material so that scholars years and years into the future will continue to have access.”

The database is located at http://sephardifolklit.illinois.edu.