Ladino Theatre: Tragedy, Cultural Politics and Representing the Past in the Sephardic Jewish Diaspora

Mara Lockowandt

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

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This thesis considers the role of performances in the modern Sephardic diaspora. Live performances have been an integral part of Sephardic life for centuries: songs and narratives in Ladino (Judeo-Spanish) are performed to mark life cycle events, religious holidays, remember the past, and maintain cultural distinctiveness. Despite the decline of Ladino throughout the twentieth century, the language continues to be utilized in singing, storytelling, and dramatic events, often as a means of connecting a community to their diasporic past. In light of the ongoing value of Ladino in performance, the present study undertakes a wide historical examination of Sephardic performances from the nineteenth century to the present day to consider the shifting significance of Ladino and representing the past in constructing ethnic and cultural identities. Two key periods in modern Sephardi history are considered: 1) the emergence and development of modern Sephardi Theatre in the Ottoman Empire; 2) the revitalisation of Sephardi theatre during the late twentieth century in Israel and the United States.

A relational approach is utilized throughout this work, as forwarded in contemporary scholarship on diaspora and performance, to draw connections between different migratory experiences and cross-cultural encounters. Through application of this approach we show how Sephardi Theatre and the use of Ladino developed through specific socio-historical and political circumstances - and especially through relations vis-à-vis the Ashkenazim. Within each period we demonstrate how particular social and political structures and interests impacted theatrical forms as well as the role of language in performance. During the twentieth century, we identify a shift in the performance work of Sephardic artists away from dramatic representations and towards musical or storytelling events intended to increase accessibility and interest in Sephardi culture. While succeeding in bringing Sephardi traditions to international stages, it is argued that such performances overlook historical and contemporary experiences of marginalisation and conflate variegated Sephardic identities in a manner that risks homogenization and that may impede future linguistic and cultural usability. Nevertheless, this thesis points to the ongoing importance of performance-based events amongst the Sephardim in strengthening connections to their culture and diasporic histories.
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Royal Holloway, University of London
  • Gilbert, Helen, Supervisor
  • Cohen, Matthew, Supervisor
Award date1 Jan 2013
Publication statusUnpublished - 2013


  • Ladino, Sephardic, Performance, Diaspora, Theatre

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