Ladino: A Half-Forgotten Language

Last week I read an article about Sephardic Jews who were getting Portuguese passports because of Brexit.  It was a fascinating bit of news that reminded me of something I had written years ago.

In 1996 I received a fellowship to study Ladino, a mix of 15th Century Spanish mixed with Hebrew.  My travels took me to the Library of Congress in DC, the Sephardic Home for the Aged in Brooklyn, archives in Spain and Israel and the streets of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.  Learning it had become an obsession of mine after I read an article about it in high school, and Professor David Halperin supervised my attempts to decipher manuscripts in Rashi script.  It was all a fanastic puzzle that I enjoyed immensely.

I wrote about my experiences, but never published them. I was too busy writing my honors theses in economics and history.  The piece is now dated, but I hope it might be of more general interest, so I’m publishing it here.  

 

If you are curious to read more about Ladino, you can read more here and here.

 


LADINO: A HALF-FORGOTTEN LANGUAGE

by Jonathan Tepper, September 1996

At a the Sephardic Home for the Aged, a retirement home on Cropsey Avenue in Brooklyn, I met Rebekah Behar, an eighty-four year old woman with thin white hair and a beautiful smile.  She did not grow up in New York City.  She grew in a small Jewish neighborhood of Skopje, a town in the Balkans, where everyone shared the same familiar language, a language she can now share with only a few.

With serene resignation she told me, “I have a grandson who doesn’t speak a word of Spanish.  It was the desire of my heart to speak Spanish to my grandchildren, but they told me, ‘What are you saying, Grandma? What are you saying?’ So I said, ‘Forget about it.’ It was as if I was speaking Chinese to them.”  She spoke with a tinge of sadness, knowing that she will not be able to pass on a part of herself to her children and grandchildren.

Rebekah is not alone in her frustration at the retirement home.  Her many friends tell me they can only speak Judeo-Spanish among themselves.  I hear their language around the dinner table, at bingo, and in quiet conversations whose private tones conceal their words.  Rebekah rightly says that it is una lengua media olvidada, a half-forgotten language.  She is probably one of the last links in a long, unbroken chain of Judeo-Spanish speakers who have passed the language from mother to daughter and father to son for half a millennium. 

From New York to Istanbul and from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem there are approximately 60,000 speakers like Rebekah Behar.  They are usually men or women of advanced age who were born in Turkey, Greece, Bulgaria, the Balkans and Romania and moved to Israel and the United States before and after the Holocaust. They grew up in homes, lived in neighborhoods and worked in businesses where Judeo-Spanish was the common tongue, and their unique language still unites them.

What is this singular language that few speak and fewer learn?  Judeo-Spanish, or Ladino, as it is commonly called by many who speak it, is a fascinating dialect of 15th century Spanish mixed with Hebrew.  (For example, “Good luck” is translated “Mazal bueno,” “mazal” comes from Hebrew, and “bueno” from Spanish.)  The language is little known outside of some Jewish circles and a few linguistic departments in the United States, Spain and Israel.  It faithfully preserves much of the vocabulary and pronunciation of 15th century Spanish, including sounds now lost to modern Spanish.  A similar example an English speaker might understand would be Ocracoke Brogue, a dialect on the coastal islands of North Carolina where one can still hear the strains of Elizabethan English. 

Although Ladino is archaic, it has not preserved its base in amber.  Ladino is an evolving language that has changed and adapted as its speakers have migrated and learned new languages.  It now has influences from mainly from Turkish and a smattering of French, Greek and Italian. 

The most curious feature of Ladino is that despite its origins in a Romance language, it was generally written in Rashi script, a variant of the traditional Hebrew script, which gives the language a distinctly eastern look and feel.  If one is familiar with Hebrew, it is not difficult to become accustomed to Rashi.  For anyone unused to reading Rashi, it can be an ordeal to begin reading with ease.

After the conversation with Rebekah I travelled to New York, Madrid, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv and or three months met many of the last speakers of a language that is dying unspoken, unsung and unattended.   

 

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Toledo was one of the centers of Jewish life in Spain. Today it has a Jewish neighborhood and synagogues that are museums.

 

The story of Ladino began May 31, 1492, with an edict of expulsion, “…with the counsel and regard of some of the prelates and greats and knights of our kingdoms and other persons of science and knowledge of our council, having had much deliberation on the matter, we agree to send all the Jews out of our kingdoms that they may never return to them…”  Signed, “I the King, I the Queen.”

With the edict King Fernando and Queen Isabella expelled approximately 250,000 Jews from Spain.  Prior to expulsion, Spanish Jewry had enjoyed a golden age lasting several centuries and had played a prominent role in Spanish society. Legend has it that they took their house keys with them, convinced that their exile would be temporary, but what is certain is that these Jews would take their Spanish tongue and preserve it as their own through their songs and sayings and in conversation and writing for more than five centuries.  They left Sefarad, as they called Spain in Hebrew, and settled throughout the Mediterranean countries and the Ottoman Empire where they established thriving communities joined naturally by their Jewish faith and, more particularly, by the lingua franca of Ladino. 

It was not the first time Jews had been expelled from a European country; England and France had expelled Jews from their soil before 1492.  Nor would it be the last; only four years later Portugal expelled its Jews, many of whom had just left Spain to settle in Portuguese cities.  What was remarkable about the expulsion was that Spanish Jews ardently preserved the language of the land that had so mistreated them in banishment.  Although they resented the expulsion for the cruel, intolerant act that it was, they had nothing but fondness for a culture that was their own for centuries. 

The degree to which Spanish Jews have preserved their cultural identity is stunning.  Ramón Menéndez Pidal, the foremost Spanish philologist, once wrote that Spaniards would do well to study the Sephardim, the Jews from Sefarad, as they have preserved old proverbs and romanzas, medieval Spanish songs, long after these have been forgotten on the Iberian peninsula.

The idea of Sefarad as a home, even a historical one, is ingrained in the Sephardic culture.  When one asks the Sephardim, the Jews from Spain, what they consider themselves, whether they are in New York, Istanbul or Tel Aviv, they will proclaim they are Spaniards, “Somos espanyoles!” 

A young Israeli computer programmer told me how his older brother was asked to draw a picture of the diaspora country from which his parents came.  He could have drawn Bulgaria or Greece, the countries where his parents lived before immigrating.  Nonetheless, he drew a picture of Spain and proudly proclaimed himself a Spaniard in front of the class, despite the fact that he did not speak Ladino as his parents still did and even though his ancestors had not set foot on Spanish soil for almost 500 years.

Sephardim have maintained their closeness to Sefarad by telescoping historic events.  They have what could be called “a historic conscience.”  Each generation of Sephardim passes on to the next the story of the expulsion – having to leave all their homes and belongings as they were hurriedly kicked out of Spain.  Many speak of the expulsion as it had happened yesterday, reminding one of the way a Beacon Hill  WASP once condescendingly spoke to me of the Irish, “The way the Irish talk about the famine, you would have imagined it happened last week in South Boston.”  Time passes, but events retain their potency.

Many Jews adopted the last name of the towns from which they came.  Common last names like Toledano, Barceloni, Valenci, and Behar immediately tell that these families came from the towns and cities of Toledo, Barcelona, Valencia, and Béjar.  Conversely, in many of the Spanish towns, the Jewish neighborhoods are still preserved and street names bear witness to their historical presence (though many of these were only re-named recently in honor of the 500 year anniversary of their expulsion).

For five centuries Ladino was the dominant tongue of the scattered descendants of the Jews who had been expelled from Spain.  Most of them settled in Greece and Turkey, and the liberal language policies of the Ottoman Empire and the relative self-rule of the Jewish communities allowed the language to survive in conversation and writing until the Twentieth Century.  Undoubtedly an important cause in the preservation of Ladino was the conservative spirit of most Sephardic communities.  They took full advantage of their liberties and preserve their own distinct language and culture in the midst of a sea of Greek or Turkish. 

Ladino thrived around the Mediterranean.  In towns such as Salonika, Greece, half of the population was Sephardic and most gentiles could speak Ladino.  Salonika was not unlike New York City many years ago when even a Jamaican immigrant like Colin Powell learned Yiddish to work in a Jewish store in South Bronx (although Powell modestly claims to speak only ein bissel, a little, Yiddish).

 

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The language has suffered much of late.  From the violent attentions of the Holocaust to the quiet neglect of linguistic assimilation, the language approaches its death.  The average age of a fluent Ladino speaker is seventy-five.  Short of a miracle, the language will be dead within ten to fifteen years.

The flames of the Holocaust touched every aspect of twentieth century Jewry, and Ladino was no exception.  While historical speculation is an empty pursuit, it is worth wondering what Ladino’s state would be if most of the juderias, Sephardic neighborhoods, had not been destroyed (although none of the Jewish neighborhoods in Turkey were harmed).

In a strange twist of history, even though General Francisco Franco, the Spanish dictator, sympathized with the German-Italian Axis, Spain issued passports for thousands of Sephardic Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe during the Holocaust.  Most of this activity was due to enterprising Spanish diplomats, like Angel Sanz-Briz in Budapest, who were interested in the culture of the Sephardim.  Thousands more Jews were permitted to transit through Spain on their way to other countries.  Sadly, though, the fortunate Jews were a rare exception.

At a retirement home in Tel Aviv I met Samuel Noar, a quiet man with numbers tattooed on his arms – an ever-present reminder of his time at Auschwitz.  He was sent there when he was nineteen.  He had a youthful smile, but his eyes were shrouded in a deep darkness.  He didn’t like to speak much, and he refused to let me take any photographs of him, as I did of all those I spoke Ladino with, but he did want to tell me about his native Salonika and the total annihilation of his world. 

Samuel told me about the unusual efficiency of the Nazis at rounding up every Jew.  During the Nazi occupation the Greek Jews were decimated by the concentration camps in Poland and Germany.  Samuel’s father and mother and his younger brother and two sisters, along with almost all the other Jews in Salonika, were sent on a train to Auschwitz.  He remembered parting with his mother and sisters, as men and women were sent separate ways to be examined by Dr. Joseph Mengele, Dr. Death, as he was known in the camp.  He could also remember the last time he saw his brother and father.  His entire family died in the gas chambers.

“It was frightening there.  I went there and my eyes were opened.  Si yo no para mi, kien para mi?  If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” Samuel said, quoting the words of Rabbi Hillel in Ladino.  “You had to be very intelligent.  It was a game of life or death.” 

It was a game he knew he had won when he ate his first meal of vodka, onions and bread that a Russian soldier gave to him when Auschwitz was liberated. 

After the Holocaust Samuel did not return to Salonika – there was nothing left for him.  Almost all the Jews of Salonika died in the Holocaust, so he went to Tel Aviv where he worked in the docks and married a Romanian Jew who did not speak Ladino.  Like most Sephardim after the war, the couple raised their sons to speak only Ivrit, modern Hebrew.  His children and grandchildren did not learn to speak his native tongue and they could only communicate with him in Hebrew. 

 

La Tribuna Judea newspaper from 1947, Salonika. The articles describe commemorations of those lost in the Holocaust.

 

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The linguistic gulf between the older generation and their children is remarkable.  Most children have no exposure to Ladino at home or school.  There are no schools in Israel or the United States that teach it regularly even as a foreign language.  Many grandchildren are not even aware that their grandparents can speak Ladino.  Once I was chatting with an elderly Ladino speaking woman in an antiques shop in Old Jaffa when her granddaughter interrupted in Hebrew with infinite amazement, “Grandma, you speak like in the Latin American soap operas on television!” 

Even in some Israeli families where both mother and father spoke Ladino, parents did not teach it to their children.  Miriam Ebn-Ezra, an elderly woman whose husband was a Hebrew teacher, told me, “I did not want my children to learn Ladino.  I did that for Israel.  I came here as a Zionist, and for me Israel was life itself.”  Speaking Hebrew instead of Ladino was a natural sacrifice, an act of patriotism necessary to build a strong, united Israel.  Anything less, in her view, was un-Israeli.  As I listened, I could tell Ladino was the language she was most comfortable in, even after all of the years of living in Tel Aviv; she spoke Ladino until she arrived in Tel Aviv in her early twenties.

In America the Sephardim were dragged relentlessly into the process of Americanization and cultural and linguistic assimilation.  Suburbanization, however, was a much greater threat.  The Lower East Side of Manhattan and parts of Brooklyn were havens where Ladino was kept alive by small communities.  Community meetings were conducted in Ladino, shopkeepers used it with clients, and extended families spoke it at home.   As the Sephardic immigrants moved up the social ladder and became economically successful, they abandoned their communities and went to live in the suburbs, losing contact with brethren and language.  They had emerged from their juderias and been transformed. 

Yiddish, Ladino’s more famous cousin, has been fortunate to have small, closed communities that keep the language alive.  The Sephardim have no groups like the Hasidim, meaning pious Jews, who keep Yiddish alive by marrying among themselves, teaching the language to their children and retaining a critical mass of speakers.  The Hasidim are familiar for their black outfits, fur hats, long beards and curly side-burns.  They make up a large proportion of the population in Besonhurst, Crown Heights and Flatbush, Brooklyn.  In contrast, there are no longer any Judeo-Spanish speaking neighborhoods in New York. 

The Holocaust and linguistic assimilation in America and Israel prevented the transmission of Ladino to younger generations.  This fact was vividly illustrated when I was stopped at security at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport.  When asked what I was doing in Israel, I responded that I was studying Ladino.  The guard said with a smile, “Ah, the old people’s language!” 

 

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Max Elias, one of the most colourful characters of the Sephardic Home for the Aged, had seen a little more than one of the five centuries in the life of Ladino when I met him in 1996.  Born in Castoria, Greece in 1895 he was the oldest man in the retirement home, and he would not let me forget that, “No munchos pueden bivir mi vida.  Imposible! Not many could live my life.  Impossible!”  Max declared with resolute pride as he clutched his cane with both hands and held his head high. 

Max had indeed lived a remarkable life.  He spoke Ladino as his mother tongue, Greek and Turkish (languages he learned under the Ottomans), French as the language of culture among the Sephardim, English as the language of his new homeland, and Yiddish to get by in the Lower East Side the 1920s.  This linguistic ability was not at all uncommon among those in the Sephardic community.  For five centuries they have been resilient and adapted to each new language and culture.  They have learned and forgotten language after language, but they have never forgotten their mother tongue.

Ladino was a strong bond between Max and his friends at the retirement home.  The seating arrangements at lunch at the Sephardic Home for the Aged are dictated by an unwritten code.  The Ladino speakers sit with the Ladino speakers and the English speakers with the English speakers. 

The ties to his old community of Castoria were strong.  Every day Max sat with his inseparable friend Joe Paparo, an eighty-four year old man – young by Max’s standards — who speaks with a thick Brooklyn accent.  Joe’s family also came from Castoria and was working class like so many first generation immigrants.  Joe spoke Ladino at home because his older relatives only spoke Ladino.  Joe and Max liked to use Ladino because it was their native language, but they also enjoyed furtively carrying on conversations in a language that their nurses and doctors could not understand. As a nurse approached, they told me, “Este es malo. This one is bad.”

Many in Castoria packed their belongings and moved together to the United States at the turn of the century.  Five centuries earlier, the Jews of Galicia, a northern Spanish region, packed their belongings in the same way and moved together to Castoria.  Max and Joe affirmed, and I could not help but believe them, that their ancestors came from the same town in Spain. 

Max saw Ladino’s last century from its heights under the Ottoman Empire to its death at the hands of the Holocaust and linguistic assimilation.  Reflecting on his own life and the future of Ladino, Max mused in his emphatic, gruff voice, “El mundo tiene kabo.  Todo tiene kavo.  Asi es.  Este es mi lugar.  The world has an end.  Everything has an end.  So it is.  This is my place.” 

Max died a month after I met him.  

 

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In contrast to the language’s general decline, Ladino is the subject of much interest to a small group of researchers in the USA, Spain, and Israel.  As there are fewer speakers each year, the role of professors and researchers is crucial while the language wanes.  Future generations will rely on the work of these scholars as they study the literature once the last speakers are gone.  Most of the researchers are intimately acquainted with each other’s works.  Given the small, yet growing opus of studies on Ladino, it is not difficult for the earnest student to read the major works on Ladino language. 

The first professor I met was Dr. David Altabe, a native speaker.  He spent almost all his life teaching and is Professor Emeritus of Queensborough Community College of the City of New York and Adjunct Professor at Hofstra University.  He invited me to see one of the final rehearsals of Orchard Street Blues, a play he wrote mostly in Ladino that draws its name from the street that was the epicentre of Sephardic Life on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.  The play chronicles the experiences that his aged viewers lived in their youth as immigrants.  It takes the viewer back to the days when Ladino was still spoken in the United States. 

We met on the Upper West Side outside the synagogue Shearith Israel, which faces Central Park.  Established by Sephardic Jews in 1654, it was the first synagogue in America.  With the support of the synagogue and the American Association of Jewish Friends of Turkey, he put on the play in the main auditorium of Shearith Israel.  While very few in the congregation speak Ladino any longer, there are enough speakers to form the Ladino Players theatre company.  The play provides entertainment for Sephardim in their native tongue, but more importantly Professor Altabe was keen to bring a play in Ladino to a wider audience.  Although a professor and researcher by training and vocation, he had a flair for directing – challenging the actors’ choices, going over the blocking with great precision, coordinating props, costumes and lighting.   

Over some cigarettes and a Turkish coffee (not Greek coffee, he insisted – the collaboration of some Greeks with the Nazis seems to weigh heavily on the Sephardim) he talked to me about his own work with Ladino and his view on the death of the language.  Professor Altabe said he has no great aspirations about saving Ladino, but he is labouring to bring attention to its literature.  Yiddish writing had giants like Isaac Bashevis Singer and Sholem Aleichem, famous for his short stories that served as a basis for Fiddler on the Roof; Ladino unfortunately has no writers of their stature.  Nonetheless, Professor Altabe told me, “There are many works that are true jewels of writing and should be of interest to Spanish scholars beyond being mere linguistic curiosities.”  His works as a professor and the many essays and books he has written have kindled interest in Ladino novels and plays.  Orchard Street Blues no doubt is a major contribution to a dwindling output of novels, poems and plays. 

 

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Although Ladino is certainly facing what linguists call language death, this only gives greater impetus to people like Moshe Shaul at Kol Yisrael, the Voice of Israel, and Matilde Gini de Barnatán at Radio Exterior de España, the short wave radio stations of Israel and Spain.  Every day they go on the air with their Ladino programs that last less than a quarter of an hour to broadcast shows that provide important news in Ladino and highlight Sephardic musical and literary heritage.  They make broadcasts that affirm those who already speak the language and encourage the younger generations to learn. 

Since the creation of the state of Israel in 1948 Kol Yisrael has been broadcasting in Ladino, Russian, Yiddish, and other languages to help new immigrants adapt to life in Israel.  Moshe Shaul, who was born in Izmir, Turkey, began working for the radio in 1954 to help pay for his education.  He never left his job and now produces the Ladino broadcasts. 

Shaul has devoted his life to the preservation of Ladino through his radio broadcasts and many other projects.  His greatest contribution to Ladino is the publication of the cultural review Aki Yerushalayim, meaning Here Jerusalem.  It is the only magazine written entirely in Ladino.  Shaul publishes news and original essays, poems, and plays.  It is a forum where those who can write in Ladino maintain a lively discourse.

Another contribution he made to Ladino is Project Folklore, which he began in 1978.   Sephardic culture is rich in old Spanish songs and proverbs that would have died unrecorded if he had not intervened.  To preserve these songs for posterity, Shaul visits homes and retirement centers throughout Israel.  He has amassed over 3000 songs and countless hours of spoken Ladino.  It is the largest collection of Ladino recordings in the world.

A few years ago, he began teaching Ladino to an elementary school class in Jerusalem.  He has prepared a textbook of Ladino that other native speakers might use to pass on the language.  There are now three textbooks in Hebrew for teaching the language.  Shaul says that if only he could find more teachers willing to teach and more schools willing to open up their classrooms, hundreds more children could be exposed to the language. 

Matilde Gini de Barnatán in Madrid and Moshe Shaul in Jerusalem, were polite in agreeing to meet me and discuss Ladino, but I was completely unprepared for their effusive reaction when I began my conversations with them in Judeo-Spanish.  They were astonished that I was observing the proper pronunciation, vocabulary and syntax of a language so few could speak.  How had I learned it?  Who had taught me?  Why did I care about Judeo-Spanish?  It was painfully obvious that I was a rarity – a young Ladino-speaker.  They invited me to participate as a guest on their programs, and in both cases I was held out as an example for young Sephardim to follow. 

After the broadcast, I visited Shaul at his home in the south of Jerusalem where he offered me typical Sephardic hospitality, Turkish coffee and pastries  (Turks say that “Coffee should be black as hell, strong as death, and as sweet as love,” and not once was I disappointed by the coffee I was generously offered by my Sephardic hosts.)   Over coffee he spoke at length of his efforts to record and save Ladino.  Shaul is without a doubt the leader in the effort to preserve Ladino, but he confessed that that after spending his life fighting to preserve Judeo-Spanish he is torn between hope and surrender.  Shaul told me, “I believe we are in the last moments, but little by little a public that has more interest is being created.  In what measure this will prove great enough to blow new life into the language only the future will tell.  There are those who say that this language is already lost and that nothing more can be done.  I say history is curious, and one can never say what will or will not happen.”

Shaul is optimistic of late as the Israeli Knesset, the parliament, declared Ladino and Yiddish cultural treasures.  It also established National Authority of Ladino to marshal resources for its study and preservation.  Shaul was the natural candidate to be one of the leaders this new body.  Now he works with Yitzhak Navon, former President of Israel, to encourage the preservation of the language.

Like Shaul, I am torn between hope and surrender after meeting and speaking to hundreds of Sephardim in New York, Madrid, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.  After five centuries of continued existence on every tongue and in every breath of the Sephardim, Ladino appears to be dying.  While it gives one pause to foretell the death of so noble a language, one cannot escape the conclusion that it will take more than an act of the Israeli Knesset to fan the dying embers of Ladino. 

 

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