Matilde Gini de Barnatán and her daughter Viviana Rajel Barnatán didn’t set out to make Jewish history in Spain.
In the 1960s and ’70s, Matilde, now 85, established herself in Argentina as a prominent researcher, teacher and scholar of the history of Sephardic culture and the Spanish Inquisition in Ibero-America. Her extensive expertise and recognition in Argentine intellectual circles helped her become a close friend of the renowned writer Jorge Luis Borges.
Viviana Rajel, now 55, studied acting in Buenos Aires.
But in April 1986, as Israel was establishing its diplomatic relations with Spain, so did the Spanish government with its Jewish ancestry. Through its state-owned public radio service, the country set out to develop a cultural project in the form of a radio show to reintroduce Ladino — or Judeo-Spanish, an endangered Romance language spoken in the Sephardic Jewish Diaspora — as a vital piece of Spanish heritage.
It was “a gesture of friendship between Spain, Israel and the Sephardic communities around the world,” according to Viviana Rajel.
Due to the lack of native Ladino speakers in Spain at the time, there was virtually no one available to take on the endeavor. Through academic networks of Sephardic scholars that linked Spain with Argentina, Matilde was found and asked to relocate and be the project’s primary role — which its developers pitched as a way to redress the historical wrong of the Spanish Inquisition, the 15th-century expulsion of Jews from the country.
Viviana Rajel followed her mother because she wanted the show to portray the matriarchal essence behind the oral tradition of Ladino, which traditionally passes from generation to generation through the women of the family.
Hence was born “Emisión Sefarad” (or “Sepharad Broadcast”), a weekly radio show available online and on shortwaves in Judeo-Spanish that broadcasts every Sunday on the Spanish National Radio’s overseas service. April marked 35 years of the program, which has aired uninterrupted since its launch.
“It is against this background that the 35th anniversary of the show must be understood, as the Spanish public radio’s effort to promote the mutual knowledge between Jews and Spaniards and also encourage integration and intercultural dialogue,” Luis Manuel Fernández, director of foreign languages at the Spanish National Radio, wrote in an email to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “It is about adding value to what binds both groups of people through the culture they share.”
From a folkloristic perspective, the program is a vibrant showcase of the rich and diverse repertoire of Jewish liturgical melodies. It usually plays a mix of “romanceros” (narrative ballad poems), “kantikas” (poetic chants) and “dichas” (proverbs) that Sephardim carried and maintained orally throughout the lands that sheltered them after the Spanish expulsion — mostly the Ottoman Empire and countries in northern Africa such as Morocco and Algeria.
Although Judeo-Spanish is predominantly a medieval language, for centuries it has become more of a linguistic melting pot, absorbing expressions and words from the cities and local dialects where Sephardic Jews have settled. Although no reliable figures are available, it is estimated that at least 300,000 people currently speak Judeo-Spanish.