Singer recorded centuries-old Sephardic songs

Times Staff Writer

Judy frankel, a classical musician who performed and recorded long-forgotten songs that originated with Sephardic Jews living in Spain in the 15th century, has died. She was 65.

Frankel died March 20 at her San Francisco home after a long illness, said her friend Anne Treseder.

Folk songs written in Ladino, a language that mixes Spanish and Hebrew, first caught Frankel’s attention in the early 1960s when she heard folk singer Theodore Bikel perform one in a concert. Over the next 40 years, she came to be known as one of the leading interpreters of traditional Sephardic music.


Frankel’s interest led her to Turkey, Greece, Morocco and other countries where Sephardic Jews resettled after being expelled from Spain in 1492 when Christianity was declared the official religion.

She built a repertoire by gathering songs remembered by the descendants of Spanish and Portuguese Jews. Many had been passed down orally.

“Ladino was the language spoken at home, sung to the children while sweeping or cooking,” Frankel said in a 1998 interview with the San Francisco Chronicle. She believed that many of the songs were created by women.

“The scholarly language was Hebrew,” Frankel said. “Men were in charge of teaching their children Hebrew.”

Born Judith Bradbury on Aug. 12, 1942, and raised in Boston, Frankel was an Ashkenazi Jew, with family roots in Eastern Europe. She studied music at Boston University and graduated in 1965. She sang in classical ensembles from the start of her career but also performed folk music.

In 1969, she moved to San Francisco, where she sang with the San Francisco Symphony Chorus for 10 years starting in the early 1970s and was a soloist in the San Francisco Consort, an early music group she helped to form in 1980.

She sang and played guitar at concerts featuring Ladino songs around the world, including in Portugal and Spain.

In 1995, she performed in Lisbon at a ceremony in honor of the Portuguese diplomat Aristides de Sousa Mendes, who helped thousands of European Jews escape the Nazis during World War II.

“The sweet irony is that the music was driven out of Spain and now it is being performed there,” Treseder, a member of the Society for Crypto-Judaic Studies, said in an interview last week.

It was not unusual for people in Frankel’s audiences to tell her about their Sephardic roots. Some had ancestors who were “conversos,” Jews in 15th century Spain who converted to Christianity to save their lives but kept up their Jewish traditions.

“Judy saw herself as a vehicle for keeping the Judeo-Spanish culture alive and vibrant,” Treseder wrote in e-mail.

“I sing what I love,” Frankel told The Times in 1998, “and I happen to love this.”

Frankel recorded four solo CDs, including “Stairway of Gold” and “Sephardic Songs of Love and Hope.” She also published a songbook, “Sephardic Songs in Judeo-Spanish.” She and her music are included in “Trees Cry for Rain: A Sephardic Journey,” a documentary by Bonnie Burt.

Her marriage to musician Ken Frankel ended in divorce. She had no immediate survivors.




To hear Judy Frankel singing “Stairway of Gold,” go to