Sometimes passions, talent, and personal history come together, jigsaw pieces fitting exactly into place.
Nicole Murad of Englewood has been lucky in that way. Her family’s story, her desire to sing, and her very real ability to do so has led her to Ladino music. On Sunday, she will perform some of the songs from that tradition in Fort Lee (see box); here, she tells her story.
Ms. Murad was born in Montreal and grew up in Albany, but her mother can trace her family back to 15th-century Spain. Were her family tree to be in a record book, though, there would be a huge asterisk next to it. It includes only men’s names. It can show a man’s ancestors, all the way back to the family founder, but it does not show wives, daughters, or even the names of the families that married in.
Ms. Murad’s mother, Rachel Murad, is a Sassoon. That is a near-mythic name. The family founder, who left Spain in the expulsion of 1492, was named Abraham, although it is unlikely that the parents who named him could foresee that like his biblical namesake, he first would wander and then generate a dynasty.
Abraham Sassoon went to Iraq, where his descendants flourished for centuries, “until they were forced to leave in the 1950s,” Ms. Murad said. Her mother’s family moved to France, where they had business dealings, and Rachel was born there; she went to school in France for a few years, became fluent in French, and then moved with her family to Argentina. It was during the Peronist era. “She heard crazy things going on in the street then,” Nicole said; once, on a trip back to Argentina, at a soccer game, when fans started screaming, “my mother tensed up,” she said. “ ‘What’s going on?’” she asked. It had not been an easy place to live.
By high school, Rachel Murad was in the United States; after a stay in Highland Park and a short stint back in Argentina, the family wound up in White Plains, N.Y. “There were a lot of language and cultural changes,” her daughter understated.
Nicole Murad’s father, Jeff, also came from an Iraqi family; in 1952, when he was very young, they moved to Israel. The state, too, was very young, and had more hope than luxury to offer. At first, the Murads lived in a tent. Jeff served in the IDF and became an engineer; soon he left Israel for opportunities in Montreal.
“Then he met my mom,” Nicole said.
At 38, in Albany, Jeff Murad went to medical school and became an ophthalmologist. Jeff and Rachel Murad had two daughters. Both are singers, with strong theatrical backgrounds and interests. Deborah Murad Nesser, who lives in Englewood, is a singer who most recently directed “Ten Minute Jewish Plays” at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly.
The sisters went to the Hebrew Academy of the Capital District, a Jewish community day school in Albany, through eighth grade, when it ended, and then on to public school. “The first time I sang on stage was in eighth grade,” Ms. Murad said. “We did a Broadway musical thing” — songs from Broadway musicals, often the gateway drug for the theater-obsessed — “and I sang ‘Castle on a Cloud’ from Les Miserables.
“I found my passion.”
Ms. Murad trained as a classical singer. “That’s where my teachers pointed me,” she said. “Even though I wanted to sing like Whitney Houston — but that wasn’t going to work.” For quite a few years, she has worked with Marni Nixon, famously the voice that issued from the moving lips of Natalie Wood in “West Side Story,” Deborah Kerr in “The King and I,” and Audrey Hepburn in “My Fair Lady.”
Ms. Murad went to college, where she dutifully majored in biology — “my father said that music was not practical” — “but I always took music classes,” she said. She taught both music and science at the Rodeph Sholom School, the Reform day school in Manhattan. “It was amazing to see the same kids in those two different environments,” she said. “They were different, and they said that I changed, too. They said I was much more serious in science.”
After marrying, Ms. Murad and her husband, by then the parents of two young children, moved to Englewood. Now, with an almost-7-year-old and an almost-5-year-old, she has time to devote to the projects “that I always wanted to do but didn’t have time to do.”
Chief among them is exploring and presenting Ladino songs.
Remember how her Sephardic family tree showed only male names? Perhaps ironically, Ladino music, as we know it today, is women’s music, melodies and words that have been passed down through the maternal line.
Ladino, Ms. Murad said, is based on medieval Spanish. Like Yiddish, it absorbed many words from the cultures in which it developed, with Turkish, Italian, and Arabic roots. It’s written with Hebrew letters, but it includes little Hebrew. Traditionally it is sung a cappella, “because these songs are the product of an oral tradition,” Ms. Murad said. “Women sang them at home.” They are not well documented, she added.
Their themes, she said, “are something that everyone can relate to. There are a lot of songs about love, and they address a lot through love songs. They talk about marriage, life, hardship, kids, and death. There’s a lot about falling in love, and a lot about lost love. There’s often an element of sadness about them, but also a real sense of humor. They laugh a lot.
“The music is a combination of styles. There’s a medieval feel to it; you also can hear flamenco, a Middle Eastern sound, a more western sound.” Like Yiddish, like Ladino, each place the Jews lived left an echo in the music.
What’s her favorite Ladino song? Ms. Murad hesitated — there are so many she loves, she said — and then she said “Noches, Noches,” which means “Nights, Nights.”
Transliterated into English, that is how the song begins.
“Noches, noches, buenas noches/Noches son d’enamorar/Ah, noches son d’enamorar.
Dando bueltas por la kama/Komo l’peshe en la mar/Ah l’peshe en la mar.”
Spanish-speakers — or even speakers of other Romance languages — will recognize much of this.
“Nights, nights, good nights/Nights are for falling in love. Ah, nights are for falling in love,” the singer begins.
“In my bed I am restless/Tossing, turning like a fish in the sea/Oh, like a fish in the sea.”
There are many reasons for the song’s survival, Ms. Murad said. One is the music. “It’s a very Middle Eastern-scale melody,” and it’s lovely. Another is the words, which go on to talk about three sisters, each in love, each with her own perspective on her plight. “You could say it’s just about love, but there is a lot of trauma there.
“Those nights should have been in Spain — with the smells of roses and the sounds of fountains, with all that beauty — but it wasn’t like that. It was so tormented for them. They just didn’t know what was going to happen, if they would survive the night.
“You really feel the sense of the Jewish experience, of being tossed around like a little fish in the sea. You’re a little fish — there are not a lot of you — and you are in the vast ocean, and you have to fight against the tide. You have to fight all the time.”
But somehow, she said, “they did survive. And so did the music.”