Judy Frankel, San Franciscos Ladino chanteuse, dies at 65

Judy Frankel performed to packed houses on several continents and sang for numerous dignitaries and heads of state.

Yet her most treasured moments might have been right here in the Bay Area: learning Ladino songs from elderly Jews who sang them in their Mediterranean youths.

Twenty-one years ago, Frankel told this newspaper that it would have been easy for her to pick up Ladino-language songs from books. But it was more important to make a personal connection with a real person — and learn exactly how to pronounce Ladino in his or her regional accent.

Frankel, a singer who embraced the traditional Spanish-Jewish tongue of Ladino as if it were her own, died March 19 in her San Francisco home from cancer. She was 65 years old.

“She saved this music — not single-handedly and certainly not all of it,” longtime friend Bonnie Burt said. “But what she collected from these people would have been lost without her. It was a mission: She had to gather and preserve.”

Burt, a documentary filmmaker, produced the 1989 film “Trees Cry for Rain,” about Turkish Sephardi women. The documentarian hadn’t planned on a singer dropping by and learning a song in her interview subject’s home, but it made for great footage.

Frankel’s singing ended up providing the film’s soundtrack, and one of her performances served as its emotional conclusion.

Frankel, incidentally, was of Ashkenazi heritage. It was only after singing before Ladino-speaking seniors in the 1980s that her passion for the music was ignited — to the point where she traveled throughout Europe and lived in Israel for months on end researching Ladino music and Crypto-Jewish culture.

“We shared a deep and abiding interest in Judeo-Spanish, in secret or hidden Jews. Judy traveled all over the world collecting songs,” Burt said.

“There’s something about the music, the poetry and the sound that is so very appealing and heartfelt. It’s not easy to put into words, but it’s a connection we both felt.”

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 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.

She was a regular at numerous Bay Area temples, old-age homes and hospitals, but her career shifted into another gear when she began focusing on Ladino songs. She released four CDs, wrote a book on Ladino music and sang in Israel and across Europe; she even serenaded Portuguese President Mario Soares at a concert in Portugal.

Frankel was a private person — Geisler predicted many people would be surprised to hear of her death as she kept most of her problems to herself — but she opened up on stage. Friends and fans recalled her as a captivating performer, one who always made certain to exhaustively explain who had taught her the songs she performed.

On stage or in life, Frankel didn’t seem to crave the limelight. A typical story came from Burt: Several years ago, she received a dazzling necklace from Frankel for her birthday. It was only recently that she learned — second-hand — that Frankel didn’t buy her that necklace. She made it.

Frankel didn’t stop to dwell on her own accomplishments, and she certainly didn’t dwell on her obstacles. More than 20 years ago, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She beat it, and never stopped collecting and learning Ladino songs.

“I don’t have time to be sick,” she told this newspaper at the time.

“There are bigger-than-life things to work on that just carry you away.”

Judy Frankel, an only child, did not have any children. Her cousins and friends believe donations to any of the following charities would have pleased her:

The Susan B. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation, P.O. Box 650309, Dallas, Texas 75265; The Osher Center for Integrated Medicine at U.C. San Francisco, 513 Parnassus Ave., S.F, 94143; The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, P.O. Box 90988, Washington, D.C. 20090; The S.F. Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, 2500 16th St., S.F., 94103.

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.