El Amaneser

The Future of the Past: Judeo-Spanish in the Twenty-First Century
Bension Varon*

The Challenge

This essay both describes and addresses the concern over the future of the historic language known as Judeo-Spanish and, popularly, as Ladino. The latter originally referred to the liturgical Hebrew texts translated into Spanish, word for word, and is now used for the spoken language as well. Despite my preference for the term Judeo-Spanish, I shall use the term Ladino throughout the text, mainly for convenience.

I approach the subject as a native Ladino speaker from Istanbul (where growing up I spoke also Turkish, French, and some Hebrew and Greek). Emigrating from Turkey to the United States in 1960, I have separated from Judeo-Spanish culture and Ladino speaking communities for decades. Nonetheless, my Sephardic heritage and relationship to Ladino continue to define me, as it does so many among the far-flung Sephardic diaspora of the late 20th century. My investment in the future health and well-being of the language runs deep, as it signifies the survival of a complex heritage of which I am a part, albeit small. My awareness of the challenges to that future is also profound, given the trend lines I have tried to face with bracing honesty.

In 2010, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) classified Ladino as a “severely endangered language” in its Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger of Disappearing. The Atlas, then in its 3d edition, was part of a project launched in 1993 for the purpose of raising awareness about languages deemed endangered and the need to safeguard the world’s linguistic diversity. “Severely endangered” was defined as “spoken by grandparents and older generations; while the parents’ generation may understand it, they do not speak it to their children or among themselves.” The definition describes Ladino’s current state well. In comparison, Yiddish was classified as merely “endangered.”1

UNESCO’s listing of Ladino as a severely endangered language does not come as a surprise or a shock to those familiar with this historic language or Sephardic history. Ladino has been losing its distinctive character, traditional vocabulary and usage, and speakership for nearly two centuries for a variety of reasons: demographic (higher death rate than birth rate of Ladino speakers), social (intermarriage, dispersion, assimilation), cultural (infusion of foreign words and lifestyle), contextual (pressure to adopt the national language of the country of residence, including Israel), and dispositional (lack of interest). A contributing factor has been the heavy introduction since the mid-19th century of the French language by the schools of the Alliance Israelite among the educated classes of certain Ladino communities (reflected in my own biography).

The biggest impact on the use of Ladino in recent memory, however, was the Second World War. On the eve of the war, the city of Salonica (or Salonika) in northern Greece had a Jewish population of about 56,000, the overwhelming majority of who were Ladino-speaking Sephardim. About 48,000 of them were deported to Auschwitz in 1945; fewer than 2,000 returned, resulting in a loss of 96 percent.2 The Sephardic populations of other, smaller cities in northern Greece, such as Kavala and Didimotikon, and of the Aegean islands of Kos and Rhodes, were also nearly annihilated, as were those of the major Sephardic centers of Sarajevo and Belgrade in the former Yugoslavia.

The total loss of Ladino-speaking Sephardim attributable to the war is not known. It may have been twice as large as the loss of Salonica’s Sephardim, that is, in the range of 80,000-100,000. Regardless of its size, the loss represented a big qualitative—not just quantitative—loss for Ladino. Historically, Salonica had been a big Sephardic center culturally and intellectually, rivaling, if not surpassing, Istanbul. Salonica boasted the largest number of Ladino periodicals and other publications. It had had, moreover, a population which identified strongly with its Sephardic heritage—a heritage which the Holocaust victims would have passed on to their descendants. Sadly, no city or area took over the role that Salonica had played for the Sephardic people until the war, except for Israel, whose Sephardi population has surpassed that of Salonica as a result of immigration.

There are no reliable statistics about how many people speak Ladino today. Nor is the number of Sephardim known with any degree of certainty. This is due to serious problems of definition, timing and enumeration. To illustrate the complications that these factors present, there is general agreement that Sephardim are descendants of Jews expelled from Iberia (Spain plus Portugal) in 1492 and 1497, respectively. Some of these went north (to England, Holland and northern Germany), assimilated quickly, preserved a version of Judeo-Portuguese, and never used Ladino. A few headed west, to the Caribbean and South America. Others went to Morocco. Yet not all of Morocco’s Jews are strictly speaking Sephardic. Some are of Arab-Berber culture and never laid a foot in Spain. The Sephardim of Morocco speak a distinctive language, called Haketia, which is derived from Spanish but differs from Ladino. The plurality of the Iberian Jews ended up in Ottoman lands and developed their Spanish-rooted language in almost total isolation from Spain. Not surprisingly, Sephardim and especially Ladino became closely identified with the Jews of former Ottoman territories. Thus, for analytical purposes, one can think of two categories of Sephardim: a broad one encompassing descendants of all Iberian Jews, no matter where they settled after the Inquisition and the languages they spoke, and a narrower one limited to Ladino speakers, corresponding roughly, as noted, to Ottoman Jews. The latter is my focus.

There has been a tendency to exaggerate the numbers of both the Sephardim and the Ladino speakers in the world for at least three reasons. First, in the absence of a census, which has never been attempted, the available estimates are based on deduction drawn from place of origin, namely, that since their ancestors came from Spain, all Turkinos (Turkish Jews) in Israel speak Ladino, which is not true, as do all Jews of Greece, Bulgaria, Romania, etc., which does not hold either. Second, since the long-term trend in the number of Sephardim and Ladino-speakers among them has been dramatically downward, the latest number always overstates, or lags behind, the reality. In a world of chronic erosion of Sephardim and Ladino, a period as short as twenty years in the date of estimation can make a great difference. Third, and most important, is the problem of what one is measuring, that is, the degree of proficiency in Ladino. Those who speak Ladino well are a fraction of those who claim they do. Speaking well, for the purpose of this essay, means being able to carry out a conversation on daily life but also current events, to relate an experience, tell a story, and contribute an item to a Ladino periodical such as El Amaneser or Aki Yerushalayim, which I shall introduce later.

To cite some figures despite the above caveats, according to the few published and internet ‘guestimates’ available, plus my own, the world’s Sephardi population, by a broad definition, is about 2 million and represents roughly 14 percent of the total Jewish population of 14 million. Excluding the North African Jews for the reasons I noted brings the total population of Sephardim closer to or even below half a million. The number of Ladino speakers among them has been estimated at 100,000-300,000, a range too broad to be meaningful. Besides, figures within this range typically refer to Sephardim with “some knowledge” of Ladino. Even under this more restrained definition of competence, the number of Ladino speakers today is much closer to 100,000. The number who speak the language well—that is, for illustration purposes, like I do—is less than half that number, perhaps closer to a quarter or a third of it, that is, in the 30,000-50,000 range at best.

Sadly, the numbers I cited are based on guesses by observers and scholars, often offered with little or no explanation, methodology or source. Although none of these numbers are firm, there is—or should be—agreement on two things. First, roughly half of today’s Ladino speakers live in Israel. The center of Ladino culture has shifted permanently from the former Ottoman lands eastward. Second, even the upper estimate (50,000) of reasonably proficient Ladino speakers would be equivalent to roughly a quarter of the number of Jews expelled from Spain (speaking an early version of Judeo-Spanish), which is commonly estimated at about 200,000. Population growth alone over a period as long as five centuries should have led Ladino speakers to number 10-20 times above their current level.

What has been happening to Ladino has been of growing concern to Sephardim and academic linguists alike, giving rise to headlines in both the scholarly world and popular press such as “The Demise of Ladino,” “The Death of a Language,” “Ladino in Life Support,” and “Will Ladino Rise Again?” It has produced heroic action by people who may be truly called pioneers in the effort to preserve and propagate the historic language. Notable among these is Haim Vidal Sephiha (1923- ), a retired French professor and Holocaust survivor, who has numerous credits to his name. These include teaching and lecturing on Ladino at the French Institute of Oriental Languages and Civilizations in Paris (INALCO) beginning in 1967; extensively researching the Ladino language; creating of an association called “Vidas Largas” (Long Lives) for “the Defense and Promotion of the Judeo-Spanish Language and Culture” in 1979; initiating weekly radio broadcasts totally in Ladino; and, in 2003, after a long delay, installation of a plaque at the Auschwitz concentration camp, in Ladino, in memory of the Sephardim who perished there.

Other key figures in the endeavor to study and preserve Ladino included the Spanish-born Jacob Hassan (1937-2006), an indefatigable professor of the language and literature of Sephardim who was closely affiliated with Spain’s Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Cientificas (Superior Council of Scientific Research) of Madrid and the Instituto Arias Montano. He lectured in many universities in Spain and abroad, authored numerous studies, and raised hundreds of disciples. He was truly the dean of Spanish scholarship on the ex-Spanish Jews’ language and literature. Moshe Shaul (1929- ), a contemporary of Hassan also deserves mention for his role in founding in 1979 and editing, until today, the Ladino journal called Aki Yerushalayim (the first of its kind at the time). His many achievements include serving for many years as the anchor of Israeli National Radio’s (Kol Israel’s) daily Judeo-Spanish broadcasts. The period 1987-1995 saw the convening of a number of conferences, notably by the American Sephardi Federation based in New York City, to draw Sephardim together from around the world.

The above activities, many of them firsts, were followed by a flood of initiatives to revive interest in Sephardic culture and Ladino over the last 20-25 years. The impetus came to a large extent from the quincentennial anniversary of the Jews’ expulsion from Spain, which occurred in 1992. Starting even before that date, the world witnessed numerous conferences, symposia, seminars, workshops, roundtables, concerts, and other activities resulting in the launching of a plethora of periodicals, books, radio broadcasts, cultural and folkloric events, and pedagogical programs—all dealing with the heritage of the once-Spanish Jews. These activities are the focus of the rest of this essay. What follows does not purport to be a complete account of what has been taking place; it aims to convey the variety and range of the unprecedented activities, going from the broad to the specific.

The Scene, 1990-2015

In 1997, the State of Israel established by law a “National Authority of Ladino” with the goal of preserving and safeguarding Judeo-Spanish. The authority was more an umbrella organization than an authority with jurisdiction over the use of the Ladino language, as the Académie Française has been since 1635 in the case of French and the Real Academia Española for Spanish. A former president of Israel, Yitzhak Navon (service 1978-1983, life 1921-2015), a Sephardi, was appointed President. The authority took over the publication of the journal Aki Yerushalayim and the journal’s founder and editor, Moshe Shaul, became vice president of the authority.3 Kol Israel’s Ladino broadcasts also came under the jurisdiction of the authority. These actions greatly enhanced the recognition and prestige of Sephardim and their language, long lagging in Israel.

Another groundbreaking event was the UNESCO conference on Ladino—the first of its kind—in June 2002, in Paris, with the goal of preserving and promoting Ladino. The conference was spearheaded by Jean Carasso, founder, publisher and financer of the magazine La Lettre Sepharade, both in French (1991-96) and in English (1995-97). A dozen countries were represented in the conference, although ambassadors from many more attended as well. Total participation was more than 300. The discussions covered a broad range of topics and concerns, including: the Ladino language’s status, instruction, transmission, and conservation; the promotion of the Sephardic culture through music, folktales, poems, foods, etc.; and the current and potential role of the media, including the Internet. The conference concluded with a series of resolutions for the continuation and intensification of efforts to maintain the Sephardic culture and language.

The UNESCO conference has been followed by similar conferences on Sephardim and Ladino too numerous to do justice to in this space. Some of the more interesting or in-depth ones have had a regional or local focus. Noteworthy are: the biennial academic conferences since 1995 on Judeo-Spanish arranged by Dr. Hilary Pomeroy of the University College London; the conference on the “Social and Cultural Life in Salonika through Judeo-Spanish Texts,” held in Salonika (October 17-18, 2004); the conference about “Sephardic Culture and Traditions: Present, Past and Future,” held in Livorno, Italy (November 2005); and the First Historic-Cultural Hispanic-Turco-Sephardic Encounter in Ankara (28-30 November, 2005), organized by the Asociacion Cultural y de Amistad Ibero-Americana in collaboration with the Spanish Embassy and the University of Ankara’s Faculty of Language and History-Geography. The American Sephardi Federation (New York City) also held national conferences during the same period.

A common feature of these conferences was the multinational and multidisciplinary background of the participants, the strong support received from the host country’s cultural, educational and even political institutions, and the upward trend in interest in them, measured by the length and size of the events. The conference in Ankara was one of the biggest. It attracted some sixty scholars (researchers and artists) who presented more than fifty papers dealing with history, language, linguistics, literature, culture, folklore, and art. As I write, at least two new conferences are under planning by other organizations.

These initiatives were accompanied by the establishment of numerous Sephardic culture celebration and study centers wherever a significant number of Sephardim are found. Some countries, such as the United States, have many more than one of them. Most centers are largely cultural-social in nature, focusing on Sephardic tradition, literature, food, music, and folklore A significant number are research and study centers in the true meaning of the words. Among the oldest or most prominent centers in that category are: the Foundation for the Advancement of Sephardic Studies and Culture (New York), the Maale Adumim Institute for the Documentation of Ladino and Its Culture (Jerusalem), and the Ottoman-Turkish Sephardic Culture Research Center (Istanbul). Also noteworthy are the Maurice Amado Program of Sephardic Studies at UCLA, the Jacob E. Safra Institute of Sephardic Studies at Yeshiva University (New York), the Centro de Investigación y Difusión de Cultura Sefardi (CIDICSEF) of Argentina, the Salti Center for Ladino Studies at Bar-Ilan University (Ramat Gan, Israel), and the Moshe David Gaon Center for Ladino Culture at Ben Gurion University of the Negev. A common concern of these centers is the collection, preservation and study of the Hebrew-based Rashi and Solitreo scripts in which Judeo-Spanish documents were written.

Anyone familiar with the Jewish religion knows that Sephardim, like most Jews, do not report to a central authority like the papacy. In a weak parallel to this, the Sephardic centers I enumerated above do not do so either. In 2013, the National Authority of Ladino in Israel “recommended” that Sephardic communities introduce an “International Ladino Day” annually to celebrate their culture and language. 4 The response was prompt and broad. Some 24 cities complied in the dwindling balance of 2013 through their Sephardic centers or ad hoc community efforts. Many of them inaugurated Ladino Days the following two years. The planning of Ladino Day 2016 is well under way in some places. Participation in Ladino Days has been in the 100-300 range. The activities have included lectures (some in Ladino) by local or invited experts, performances of Sephardic music and short plays, the exchange of memories, stories, proverbs, and the enjoyment of Sephardic culinary specialties. The special day has provided an opportunity to introduce non-Sephardim and non-Jews to the Sephardic history and experience, as well as a chance for Sephardim of all ages to mingle with and learn from each other. It is interesting to note that a Ladino Day-like event has also been organized by a few Spanish cities, such as Murcia and Zaragosa, and that Ladino Day-Dallas (Texas) was held at the city’s United Methodist University.

The teaching of Ladino has been spreading on both sides of the Atlantic and Israel. The pioneering work by Haim Vidal Sephiha at INALCO in Paris is being continued by Marie-Christine Varol-Bornes, who wrote a popular textbook for the task, titled Manual of Judeo-Spanish: Language and Culture (2008). Drafted originally in French, the book has been translated and adapted into six languages, including English.5

In the United States, some Ladino lessons were offered historically, though sporadically, by Sephardic synagogues or social groups. Formal teaching—for credit and at the college level—started at Tufts University near Boston in 2000, on the initiative of Prof. Gloria Ascher who, until then, taught German and Scandinavian literature there. Though American-born, Ascher quickly earned the title of dean of those dedicated to the teaching of this historic language. The courses at Tufts have covered both the Ladino language and Sephardic culture, which are difficult to separate. They are offered at three levels, that is, in three successive semesters, depending on student demand. Attendance the first year was 12, when, as Ascher put it, she expected no more than 3. The number has reached 35 in some years. The students cross religious and national boundaries. They have included Sephardim, Ashkenazim, Christians and even Muslims. They have come from four continents, including Africa, Asia and Latin America, and countries such as India, Cape Verde, Hong Kong, and Jamaica. The classes, which are typical of college classes, last 75 minutes each. The courses involve homework, examinations, and individualized projects, although Ascher’s preference is for practice and exposure to the language and culture through contacts with native Ladino speakers.

Since 2005, the University of Pennsylvania, too, has offered Ladino classes, although at a more modest level than Tufts. The course is taught by Prof. Daisy Braverman, born and raised in Turkey, who, speaks Ladino the way I do. She is an experienced teacher who has taught Ladino to larger groups in New York City synagogues and other establishments before. She offers in her classes some background not just on Sephardic culture but also on Ottoman history. In addition, she covers the contrast between Ladino and Castilian Spanish.

A number of American universities have been joining the ranks of those offering Ladino instruction or considering doing so. These include the University of Washington (UW) in Seattle, UCLA, and the State University of New York (SUNY) in Binghamton. At UW, Ladino instruction is part of a comprehensive program of Sephardic activities led by Prof. Devin Naar (Ph. D., Stanford). A major focus of the program is the location, acquisition and preservation of Sephardic documents and other works. Some five hundred Ladino books have been digitized to date. The next step is to upload them on the Internet to make them accessible to students, scholars and Sephardic communities everywhere. Ladino courses in 2013 and 2014 attracted 35 and 30 students, respectively. Seven graduate students are currently studying and preparing theses on various aspects of Sephardic history and culture, including Ladino, under Dr. Naar.6 UCLA, too, has a program of Sephardic studies run by an expanding, specialized faculty. The program includes weekly language and culture workshops. An unusual aspect of it is the important promotional, organizational and support role played by a “student run” organization called ucLADINO, dedicated to promoting the knowledge and use of the Judeo-Spanish language.

By far the most extensive work on Sephardic culture most directly focused on Ladino has been taking place in Israeli universities. One of the largest programs is at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem and directed by Prof. David Bunis (Ph. D., Columbia), who has won many honors for his contribution to the study and teaching of Ladino. Equally important is the Ladino program at by Bar-Ilan University (with its Salti International Center for Ladino) in Ramat Gan. At least two more universities have similar programs.

All four Israeli universities have strong programs of research on the origins, characteristics and variations of the Ladino language, followed increasingly by Spanish universities in this work. The preeminence of Israeli universities’ work is explained partly by the concentration of today’s Ladino speakers there. It owes also to the ability of Israeli universities to attract, support and reward the most qualified scholars in the fields concerned. Many of these scholars have been non-Sephardim. The world’s center of Sephardic research has definitely shifted from the West (mostly and longest in Europe) to Israel after a long period of neglect.

In addition to the educational and research institutions I covered above, there have been a number of initiatives undertaken by individuals—people I earlier referred to as pioneers. Noteworthy are courses offered from time to time in the past by Wilfried Busse and Almouth Münch in Berlin, Heinrich Kohring in Tübingen, Michel Studemund-Halévy in Hamburg, Elena Romero in Madrid, Béatrice Schmidt in Basel, and Dora Mancheva in Sofia (Bulgaria).7 Many of these courses are no longer continued, however.

The year 2012 saw two interesting initiatives: the organization of a Universita d’enverano de djudyo (summer university of Ladino) by the Association Aki Estamos in Paris, and, almost simultaneously, of a Universita Sefaradi de Enverano (Summer Sephardic University) by Michel Halévy in Sofia.8 Both were universities in name only and have been repeated annually since. Their common objective was to bolster and foster interest in Sephardic culture broadly defined. The Sofia event had a local and regional focus. It lasted for about a week and was attended by twenty people from seven countries. Its focus was the Balkans’ and especially Bulgaria’s Sephardim to whom Halévy developed a close affinity. Unlike neighboring Greece, Bulgaria had managed to protect its Jews during the Second World War. About half of those still spoke Ladino. Typically, both events were akin to a summer camp for adults where Sephardic culture was celebrated and perpetuated through lectures, some instruction (especially of the Rashi and solitreo scripts), songs, and exchange of knowledge and experiences. The Halévy-led event, especially, has been more like a week-long Ladino Day with a Bulgarian focus. Yet, given Halévy’s energy and ambition, the event is likely to make waves in the future.

The above activities were joined by the publication of numerous newsletters and periodicals, though with mixed success, and a growing number of books on the Sephardic heritage and language. The weekly paper Şalom (Shalom), published in Istanbul since 1947, was originally a very modest paper of four pages almost entirely in Ladino. In 1983, to assure its continuation, the paper was converted into Turkish, with the exception of a single page devoted to Ladino. Circulation jumped greatly, reaching more than 4,000 currently, of which one-fourth (1,000 plus copies) go overseas. Three publications have folded in the interim: La Lettre Sépharade created by Jean Carasso in French in Paris and continued by Rosine Nussenblatt in English in Maryland; Los Muestros, a child of Moise Rahmani, published in multiple languages in Brussels in print form until very recently; and El Djudió (Brazil), which quit paper publication in December 2015). All were discontinued for financial reasons. Fortunately, a fourth and rather unique publication survives. It is Erensia Sefardi (Sephardic Heritage), devoted to excerpts, extracts, maps and photographs going back centuries in their original languages, including Spanish and Ladino. It is prepared since 1990 in Connecticut singly and lovingly by Dr. Albert de Vidas, who deserves the label of ‘pioneer’. Luckily, too, a number of Sephardi-oriented publications, including some of those mentioned above, are now online. Notable is the digital eSefarad—a weekly news bulleting lovingly prepared by Liliana and Marcelo Benveniste in Buenos Aires.

The year 2005 witnessed the launch of a new, groundbreaking Ladino publication, called El Amaneser (Dawn) in Istanbul. It was created by Karen Gershon Sharhon whose distinctions include creating also and performing for a Ladino music group, called Los Pasharos Sefardis (The Sephardi Birds) in Istanbul. El Amaneser (EA) is a monthly publication distributed as a supplement to that week’s issue of Shalom. Its circulation is therefore the same as Shalom’s, plus some 300 subscribers who receive EA alone. It is written entirely in Ladino, giving it the distinction of being the only monthly publication of its kind in the world. Both the paper’s name and its goal or raison d’être are effectively coveyed by its slogan, namely, the Ladino proverb. Kuando muncho eskurese es para amaneser (The darker it gets, the closer dawn is.) The intent is to suggest the hope that Ladino, the light, may rise again from the darkness of near death. The paper is 20-plus pages in length; it covers history, nostalgia, literature (some of it original that is written for the paper), Biblical interpretation, humor, and current news (conferences, travel, Spanish citizenship). The contributors include Sephardim from a variety of countries, ranging from Israel in the East to Chile in the West. Regular features include the Rashi and solitreo alphabets and their conversion to roman letters, and a review of recent books of interest.

Since its creation, EA has played a role unequalled by other publications in at least three ways. It has been used as a teaching aid in the instruction of Ladino; to my knowledge, there is no course that does not make use of it, together with the aforementioned Aki Yerushalayim. Its publication office and staff have become a clearing house for information on Sephardic culture and activities. Through its editorial, EA has become a voice of Sephardim, albeit not the only one.

Mirroring the advance in communications technology, the latest addition to Sephardic media publishing has been a quarterly on-line journal called Sephardic Horizons, now in its sixth year, started and edited by Judith Roumani. It contains both articles and book reviews. It is mostly in English but publishes articles and other material in Ladino as well.

The multiplication of books dealing with Sephardic Jews in recent years can only be called astonishing. This can be gauged by the listing of new books contributed to each issue of EA, as a regular feature, by Michael Halévy from Hamburg. The number of such books highlighted in the 18 monthly issues of EA ending in September 2015 is about 125, excluding books in Hebrew, which Halévy does not cover—a number large and statistically significant enough to consider representative. It shows, among other things, the following:

The books cover a broad range of subjects, topped by history and followed by literature and language/linguistics, in that order. Other categories include fiction, biography, music, conferences, religion, medicine, and folklore. The largest number, but not by a large margin (less than a third), are in English, followed by French. Surprisingly, next comes modern Spanish; books in that language exceed those in Ladino. Surprisingly, too, a large number of the recent books have been in German; they match in number those in Turkish and exceed those in Italian. There have been books in a wide variety of other languages such as Dutch, Portuguese, Bulgarian, Albanian, Judeo-Italian, Bosnian, and Serbian. More than ten percent of the books were published by academic (university) presses: Cambridge (several), Oxford, London, Manchester, and Sussex in the United Kingdom; Brandeis, Indiana, Nebraska, and Stanford (several) in the United States; and Cordoba, Granada, and Monaco elsewhere.

An event just as important as, and more novel than, the introduction of the periodical El Amaneser has been the creation of an internet correspondence circle in the year 2000. The creator was another one of my heroines, Rachel Amado Bortnick, born and raised in Izmir, Turkey but now living and working for all Sephardim out of Dallas, Texas. The conversation circle was appropriately called Ladinokomunita and has had enormous success. As of mid-November 2015, it had 1,544 members from some 45 countries, and had exchanged 54,155 messages.9 It operates only in Ladino, following strict rules of communication and orthography—the same orthography introduced and used by Aki Yerushalayim. The subjects which the members cover range from history to food, social events (holiday and birthday commemoration), travel, and quite frequently language and etymology—the origins and meanings of words, names, and customs. While political and religious exchanges are rare, some can deal with serious and controversial subjects, such as intermarriage. The conversation circle itself has become a valuable, all-purpose or multi-purpose, indispensable network. It serves every day as a pedagogical tool as well as a psychological one, providing members a release from loneliness, both physical and emotional, and an opportunity for reconnecting with one’s past and those who share it.

One must also take note of the various initiatives concerning Sephardic, especially Ladino, music and film. The more interesting one is the former. While Sephardic film festivals have been held for 18 years in both New York City and Los Angeles, the films have been mostly in French, due to the large number of North Africa-produced ones, and rarely in Ladino. The identification, collection and performance of Ladino songs, on the other hand, has often prompted, and still does, interest in other aspects of Sephardic culture. The number of individuals or groups performing Ladino songs has been rising steadily and is several dozen globally—two dozen in Israel alone. Ladino music has become a field of research within a field. I shall not deal with it here, except to note that the revival of the songs has contributed significantly to reviving interest in the language itself, independently of the music.

Finally, Sephardim worldwide have not waited for instruction or inspiration from anyone, including the National Ladino Authority, to celebrate their culture. Social groups have sprung everywhere, whether to enjoy the traditions, the customs, the language or the typical pastries called borekas. One such group is the one called Vijitas de Alhad (Sunday Visits), created in the Washington, DC area under the stimulus of the Sarajevo-born composer/singer Flory Jagoda. The group currently has about forty members and meets normally on a Sunday a month in a member’s residence. The meeting lasts about three hours and combines food, song, conversation, and Ladino practice or exploration. It is, to my mind, akin to a Ladino Day squeezed into three hours but held several times a year.

The Balance Sheet

Undeniably, the above achievements are impressive both quantitatively and qualitatively. They show energy and drive, devotion, dedication and determination, creativity and imagination. They are, moreover, the product of old and new generations of Sephardim. They add up to “a movement.” If comparing them to a flood is excessive, the fact is that there has not been such a confluence of attention to Sephardim and their language in a long time.

As a result, there is an unprecedented recognition of Sephardim, their origins, culture, and language. I face less and less the need to explain to strangers what the words Inquisition, Sephardim and Ladino refer to. There has been, moreover, an explosion of knowledge on the subject, much of it catalogued, digitized and closely analyzed. Compared to the past, archives, bookshelves, file cabinets and hard drives are bursting with information and studies on Sephardim and their language. This alone suggests that Ladino—at least knowledge of it—will survive. But does this mean that the language is alive, when those who speak it are dwindling? A Ladino proverb states, Todo lo ke briya no es oro (All that glitters is not gold). The suggestion here is that while important achievements have been made to preserve Ladino as a spoken language, significant obstacles remain. In the rest of this section, I discuss the signs, the reasons and the implications.

Not all news has been good. As noted earlier, three important and, in many ways, unique publications have ceased to exist. One of these, La Lettre Sepharade, established by Jean Carasso coincidentally in 1992 (the quincentennial anniversary of the Spanish Jews’ expulsion), was discontinued in its original French language in 2002, giving way to an English edition published in the United States. That edition, in turn, was terminated in 2007. Print publication of Los Muestros stopped very recently, after its landmark 100th September 2015 issue, although an online version continues. Ironically, or sadly, the magazine was sub-titled until the end, “The Sephardic Voice,” and its slogan was,”I shall not die, but live.” Both publications were the victims of weakening demand of a particular sort. In economics, there is a concept called ‘effective demand’, that is, demand for goods and services backed up with the resources to acquire them. Although demand for the publications continued, there was insufficient willingness by subscribers to pay for them against the backdrop of rising costs and falling advertising revenues.

The toughest problem faced by Ladino—by far the toughest one to overcome—has been demographic, namely, the death of Ladino speakers. This bitter reality accompanied the encouraging development (the demise of the publications I cited notwithstanding) of the last quarter century. There are no numbers on it, but the trend is not in doubt, given the well-established advanced age of Ladino speakers. Bortnick reports that at least 100 of the original members of the Ladinokomunita chat group have passed away—which seems a gross understatement. Closer to home, eight of the original 38 members of the Vijtas group—a ratio of 20 percent—are no longer living. The majority of those who passed away were born of Sephardic parents on both sides and spoke Ladino fluently and authentically.

As tough a problem for Ladino has been intermarriage, both inter-faith (Jews to non-Jews) and intra-faith (between Sephardim and Ashkenazim). The problem is as tough to overcome as the demographic one because one cannot legislate for or against intermarriage. Again, there are no numbers on it, but the anecdotal and circumstantial evidence is alarming for Ladino. Of the Vijitas group’s 34 current members of either gender, more than two-thirds are or were previously married to non-Sephardim. This is true also of the majority of the nearly twenty people I have called heroes or heroines in the fight to preserve Ladino. While in most cases non-Sephardic spouses have been highly supportive—often enthusiastically—of their counterparts’ attempt to preserve Ladino, intermarriage has worked against passing on the language to the new generation. To my knowledge, none, not one of the Vijitas members has a child who speaks Ladino. This is not striking; it is doubtful that any of the Ladinokomunita members have children who speak Ladino, either.

The teaching of Ladino has been where the most hope for preserving the language has been placed in recent years. By all measures, this hope is greatly exaggerated. The number of students—even the peak 35 at Tufts in the past—fall far short of offsetting the loss of Ladino speakers due to death. Nor is the yield of the instruction as promising as one hoped. The problem lies not with the teachers, the programs or the textbooks; it lies with the students. Their mixed backgrounds—including the occasional Christian and Muslim among them—may make news, but the sad fact is that the majority of the students enroll to learn something “about” Ladino rather than the language itself. Many are attracted to the courses by the perception of Ladino as an exotic language.

There have been exceptions, of course. Notable have been cases of non-native speakers of Ladino who mastered the language and went on teach it in turn. There have also been cases of people who were stimulated by the courses to undertake research on Sephardic culture and history, including Ottoman history, either in the United States or in the field (today’s Turkey or Isael). Some succeeded not only in learning their ancestors’ rashi and solitreo scripts, but to become rare experts in them. These examples speak well of the talent, hard work, and drive of the people concerned, of the instruction and inspiration provided by their teachers, and of the magnetism of Ladino and the Sephardic culture at large. But a few trees don’t make a forest. The fact is that the courses have been having little ‘multiplier effect’ — to borrow a term from the field of economics—to reverse the long-term decline in the use of Ladino.

Regrettably, the use of Ladino by those who know the language has been frozen at best. Discussion among them, even on their common culture and food, is normally in the local language—English in the United States. Within the Vijitas group, even the occasional exchanges on the origin and meaning of Ladino words are in English. (An early attempt to generalize the use of Ladino by common agreement was short-lived.) While the Ladinokomunita chat group has more than 1500 members, less than 5 percent of them submit communications to it in the obligatory Ladino. Bortnick also reports that most of the young people involved with LK are non-Sephardim and non-Jews, mostly Spanish speakers from Spain and Latin America and so-called Anusim (ex-conversos).10 I have personally witnessed that even many Turkish Sephardim in Israel still communicate with each other in Turkish; their Israeli-born children are more familiar with Turkish than with Ladino.

A word on activities in Spain concerning its once-Spanish Jews, which never cease to amaze. Currently, nearly a dozen Spanish universities have programs of research on Ladino and other aspects of Sephardic history and culture. Recently, King Felipe VI of Spain gave a speech in which, addressing representatives of Sephardic communities in emotional terms, he said, "Thank you for having kept like a precious treasure your language and your customs that are ours, too. How we have missed you!" The king captured well what has been motivating Spanish research on Sephardim, namely, to learn more about not only the Jews but Spain and the Spanish people themselves.

Quo Vadis: Options

The preceding assessment leads to the following conclusion. As a result of the developments and often-heroic efforts of the last 25 years outlined above, knowledge about the Ladino language has expanded greatly. Moreover, this knowledge is being increasingly catalogued, analyzed and preserved through digitization and other means. As a result, even if these efforts were to be discontinued—turn out to have an element of a fad, which is possible—the knowledge will not be lost and the Ladino language will not be forgotten; it will remain alive in this sense. But the use of the language has been and is almost certain to continue to be on the decline for demographic reasons alone. Can Ladino be considered alive under these circumstances? A language is like an engine which turns off automatically if it stops running. Can it maintain life if it stops evolving? Can it evolve if it is not used? What is a balanced attitude toward Ladino, and what can be done to improve its prospects? Following are some personal suggestions, wrapped in observations.

Be realistic. The strong attachment that Sephardim have to their ancestral language, whether they speak it or not, is an asset but it can also be a liability, insofar as it blurs judgment. To believe, as I do, that the death of native Ladino speakers is unlikely to ever be offset by new learners of the language does not represent taking sides. What the current programs of instruction can achieve is limited.

Carry out a census or a quantitative study of Ladino-speakers worldwide, covering their exposure to and knowledge of the language. Numbers are essential to diagnosis. The task is not easy and can only be accomplished locally (not by a central authority) and, most likely, through a sample. A decade ago, Karen Sharhon, head of the Ottoman-Turkish Sephardic Research Center, carried out a survey of Istanbul’s Ladino speakers of Istanbul of a certain age group and presented its finding at the Ankara conference I mentioned earlier. The survey can serve as an inspiration or a model for the kind of exercise I am proposing.

Continue and expand the programs and courses on Ladino—they can only help—with an important proviso: do periodic follow-ups of the students to learn about the use to which the fruits of the courses are being put. To my knowledge, this has not been done systematically to date; yet it is essential for estimating the long-term impact of the courses.

Continue and expand the programs of research on Ladino, with some changes of emphasis. The programs are largely in the hands of historians and linguists—or linguistic historians—when we need to interest increasingly sociologists in them. They cover the evolution of the language in depth and from multiple linguistic angles, which is admirable, but with scant attention to the factors behind the limited use of the language today. They are also too narrowly focused in some respects. An area insufficiently examined is the comparison of the linguistic experiences of the Arabs (or Moors) and the Jews who were both expelled from Spain a few years apart from each other.

Work closely—combine goals and forces-—with Spanish. There is no doubt that the use of Ladino has been in long-term decline. At the same time, interest in learning Spanish among Sephardim has been on the rise, starting before the enactment of the law granting them Spanish citizenship, based on special conditions, including a specified degree of proficiency in modern Spanish. Interest in learning Spanish has been met with a negative, emotional reaction by some Sephardim who see it as an unwelcome preference for Spanish over their ancestral Ladino. Those who have taken the Spanish route report that their exposure to Spanish kindled their interest in Ladino … that knowing some Spanish was better than knowing little or no Ladino. Testing of the Spanish language proficiency of applicants for Spanish citizenship is to take place at the local branches of the Cervantes Institute. In this instance at least, the goals of Sephardim and Spanish authorities converge rather than conflict. I learned recently that, in the past, Karen Sharhon, founder and editor of El Amaneser, taught Ladino at the Cervantes Institute in Istanbul for a while. So, combining forces with the Institute in promoting either Spanish or Ladino is not without precedent. Besides, Sephardim spoke Spanish (various regional variations of it) before their language evolved into Ladino. Spanish is, after all, the mother of Ladino and should not be viewed as its enemy.

Whatever happens to their language, there will always be Sephardim—Jews tracing their origins to Spain five centuries ago. How about the language? Will the past it represents extend into the future? The ongoing efforts to assure that it does are commendable, even groundbreaking. Yet the concern—the near panic—about the language’s survival is justified and requires both individual and group efforts. A realistic objective is Ladino’s preservation rather than its revival. While today’s Sephardim have every right and many reasons to be proud of their heritage, they need to approach the challenge with clear eyes and an open heart.


* Bension Varon (Ph. D., Econ.) is a Sephardi born and raised in Istanbul, Turkey, and the author of Cultures in Counterpoint: Memoirs of a Sephardic Turkish-American (2009). This essay is an advance chapter of his forthcoming book on his multilingual experience. The author wishes to acknowledge the valuable comments by Daisy Braverman, Rachel Bortnick, and Güler Orgun.

1. The softer designation of Yiddish is attributable especially to the Hassidic movement. Most Hassidim use Yiddish as their daily language and for the purpose of religious teaching and communication in Yeshivas.

2. Figures supplied by Prof. Devin Naar, University of Washington.

3. The authority endorsed the orthography (based largely on the alphabet of modern Turkey) introduced by Aki Yerushalayim earlier, although it exercises no authority over Ladino’s usage, vocabulary, and grammar.

4. The idea was introduced by Zelda Ovadia and approved by the ANL

5. In the long absence of a standard Ladino textbook, teachers of the language have had to devise their own. Nearly ten of them have been produced over the last 25 years. Varol’s has become the most popular and a model.

6. Information supplied by Dr. Naar.

7. As reported by Prof. Ora Rodrigo Schwarzwald of Bar-Ilan University in 2002. (See http://www.jewish-languages.org/judeo-spanish.html.)

8. Aki Estamos (full name: Aki Estamos – Association des amis de la Lettre Sépharade) is a very active cultural organization established in 1999. Halévy, a German national and a multicultural and multilingual person par excellence, has been conducting research on Sephardic culture in Bulgaria for many years.

9. Numbers supplied by Bortnick. The number of messages increases every day and is much larger today.

10. Communication to me dated February 2, 2016.

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