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B'siyata d'shmaya - With the help of Heaven
Judy Frankel, the Ladino Songstress, 65

A Personal Note by Shelomo Alfassa / April 2, 2008


Today, I came across a report that my friend Judy Frankel had died on March 20, 2008. There is nothing like the shock of learning about the death of a good friend in a newspaper, it's a pain that has no match. Judy was a fabulous soft spoken lady with a selfless and caring heart.

While she could sing songs in twenty languages, Judy will best be remembered for singing traditional songs, which she learned from Sephardic Jews, in the Ladino (Judeo-Spanish) language. Judy was taught the songs, mostly from older woman, who possessed these songs in only as an oral tradition. Although Ashkenazi (of Eastern European Jewish descent), Judy learned the old Spanish songs from Jews which had roots in the Balkans, Egypt, Greece, Turkey, Romania and other locations where Sephardim lived. These were families, like my own, who had been exiled from Spain and Portugal in the late 15th century, and relocated to the Ottoman Empire where they rebuilt their lives.

Judy was raised in Boston, where she graduated Boston University then moved to the Bay Area in 1969. She first worked as a teacher, then went into singing. One of her first jobs singing was at Mount Zion Hospital, where she sang to patients. Joe Eskenazi, a writer for the J News Weekly recently wrote:

"Frankel's musical talent blossomed early; younger cousin Ellen Geisler remembered seders at the family's Boston home in which a pre-teen Frankel sang and played guitar. She was a professional performer by age 13, singing at weddings, bar mitzvahs and on the radio and TV. Originally gravitating toward rock and jazz, her tenor voice was more suited to folk music, and it was in pursuit of club gigs that she moved to the Bay Area from Hawaii with her then-husband in the 1960s."

I had met Judy ni 1995 in Colorado. We quickly became friends, and it was nice to see her when I visited California or when she played her many concerts in New York and Florida, both places I lived. I have fond memories of after concerts joining friends and taking Judy to dinner. One afternoon in Colorado, Judy and I were going for lunch, and she had her guitar in her car (she always had it with her). She brought the guitar into the restaurant, when I asked her why she brought it in, she responded, "she's my life!"

I bought my first Judy Frankel cassette in Miami, and I listened to it over and over on a three hour drive to Orlando. Her rendition of the Israel national anthem, Hatikva (The Hope), which she optimistically titled, 'Fiestramos' (Let's Celebrate), always moved me. On my first trip to Spain, I listened to nothing but Judy's albums in the rental car as I drove through the flowing hills from Cordoba down to Granada and then back up to Seville; these were cities from which the Sephardim originated from. Judy's sweet Spanish guitar coupled with her exquisite voice was the perfect accompaniment for my visit to my ancestral homeland. I truly loved Judy Frankel's music.

During WWII, the German Army, supported by other anti-Jewish individuals and factions, devastated the communities of Ladino speaking Jews in places such as Bulgaria, Greece and Serbia. So many Sephardim were murdered, that the old Sephardic communities never were able to recover. Judy helped perpetuate Jewish songs from these locations-songs which may have been forgotten about.

Her love of music, specifically, her appreciation of 'songs of old,' have left an enduring mark on the world. Unlike many contemporary "Ladino singers," Judy Frankel never tried to jazz up the old songs or perform them in a way which was not consistent with the traditional arrangement. She never attempted to mold the old Sephardic songs into New Age fluff or cheap sounding pop tunes. Because of Judy's diligence to preserve songs in a most authentic way-the way were originally sung at home, she leaves behind a true oral tradition for future generations to cherish.

Judy and I exchanged correspondence on various topics, and she would often ask me questions on Sephardic traditions and history. She once said that some day she would play music for my family, but that won't happen now. More than 20 years ago Judy was diagnosed with breast cancer, but she recovered from it; now, cancer returned and has taken her from the world.

Judy en ganeden ke repoze. Ha'makom yenahem etkhem betokh she'ar avele Siyon v'Yerushalayim.

Judy lived in San Francisco for many years. She was an only child and she did not have any children. Among the charities her family has asked that donations may be made to in her name are: The Susan B. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation, P.O. Box 650309, Dallas, Texas 75265 (and/or) The Osher Center for Integrated Medicine at U.C. San Francisco, 513 Parnassus Ave., San Francisco, CA 94143.





© Shelomo Alfassa