Course: Sephardic Cultures: The History, Literature and Music of Iberian Jews


HC 434H/421H

Professor: Monique R. Balbuena

Graduation Requirement: This class fulfills an Arts & Letters Colloquium and an International Cultures (IC) Multicultural class. If the student has already taken an Arts & Letters Colloquium, this class fulfills both of the following requirements: an Elective Colloquium and an IC Multicultural class.

This HC Colloquium focuses on the history, music and literature of Sephardic Jews—Jews who originated in the Iberian Peninsula and went on Diaspora after the 1492 expulsion from Spain. It examines aspects of the cultures in the Sephardi communities established in different centers around the world in the wake of the expulsion until today, especially their literary and musical output.

The course includes a survey of the history of Sephardic Jews, and an overview of their literature: we will read primary texts of oral and written literatures, including religious and secular poetry, exegesis, journalism, theater, and translation. We will also watch videos and listen to music, discussing differences between literary and musical genres, and observing how Sephardic song has transformed across space and time.

In this Colloquium we will discuss the development of Ladino, or vernacular Judeo-Spanish, the Jewish language that formed as a result of the encounter of different varieties of Spanish in the Ottoman Empire. In fact, an important part of the course is an understanding of the history of the Judeo-Spanish language and the fate of its speakers. We will discuss the characteristics of the language, its present state, the genres that have marked it, and the contemporary works that deviate from its traditional genres.

We will also cover the important wave of modernization in the Sephardic world in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and the impact it had on Sephardic culture. In addition, we will devote time to examining the representations and effects of the Shoah (Nazi genocide of the Jews) upon the Sephardic community. We will read poems by contemporary authors such as Margalit Matitiahu, Avner Perez and Clarisse Nicoïdski, and listen to songs by US American, French, Argentine, Brazilian, and Israeli artists.

Texts will be read in English, but students are encouraged to read the accompanying original version as well. Classes will combine lectures and intense discussion.

Students will be encouraged to work collaboratively. By the third week they should select a topic for a final in-depth project.