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Ladino!

Yasmin Levy.

Long overshadowed by its Yiddish cousin, Ladino—the "other" modern Jewish language, also known as Judeo-Spanish—has increasingly benefited from new waves of scholarly and cultural retrieval. A clearer picture is thereby emerging of what Ladino was, what it wasn't, and perhaps what it might yet be.

Relevant Links
King Merodakh's Telegram  Julia Phillips Cohen, H-Judaic. Beginning in the 18th century, Ottoman rabbis attempted to craft a worldview responsive to change while reinforcing the symbolic universe of traditional Jewish learning.
Who is Elia Karmona?  Michael Alpert, Spiro Ark. On the accomplishments and limitations of Ladino literature and its best-known writer.
A Dawning Problem  Maurice Hexter, Berman Jewish Policy Archive. Isolated by synagogue, ritual, and language, Turkish Jews have arrived in Cincinnati, Ohio. How to help them become integrated with their fellow Jews? (1913)
Ottoman Hebrew Sacred Songs  Samuel Benaroya, Jewish Music Research Centre. One of the last surviving members of the Turkish Maftirim choir sings on a recording made shortly before his death in 2003. (Audio)

The origins of the language lie in medieval Jewish transliterations of Spanish and other Romance languages into the Hebrew (and Arabic) alphabet. After the expulsion from Spain in 1492, Ladino came into its own as a separate idiom and as the lingua franca of the Sephardi Diaspora in the Balkans and Asia Minor, chiefly as a spoken language but eventually also in print.

Ladino's fortunes would intimately be tied, for better or worse, to those of the Ottoman Empire.  Within that multi-confessional, millet system, non-Muslim minorities, formally powerless, were recognized as legitimate sub-groups not only by religion but also by language. In places like Constantinople, Salonica, Adrianople, and Izmir, Jews and the Ladino language thus thrived together. While much of Jewish intellectual life continued to take place in Hebrew, Ladino made its presence felt in practical halakhic manuals and translations of classic texts (most famously a 1547 Pentateuch in Ladino from the press of Eliezer Gershon Soncino).

Later centuries saw a surge of Judeo-Spanish creativity, inspired in large part by what  is undoubtedly Ladino's greatest work: an encyclopedic Bible commentary titled Me'am Lo'ez (literally, "from a people of strange tongue," Psalms 114.1). This was the brainchild of Yaakov Khuli (1689–1732), Jerusalemite scion of a distinguished scholarly dynasty who arrived in Constantinople in 1714 to serve as a rabbinical judge. Spurred by the new possibilities afforded by print, as well as by a sense of responsibility for the spiritual health of a community still reeling from the Sabbatian heresies of the previous century, Khuli undertook a massive enterprise of public education, of which Me'am Lo'ez was a chief instrument.

The first volume, on Genesis, appeared in 1730; Khuli completed half of the volume on Exodus before his death in 1732. In the work he draws on rabbinic literature, biblical exegesis, the Zohar, and the rich legal, philosophical, and mystical sources of Sephardi Jewry to forge both simple homilies and intricate discourses. His purpose, he writes in the introduction, is to inculcate four basic ideas:  the wonder of God's creation, the centrality of Torah and its commandments, love of one's neighbor, and the fact of mortality. Armed with these, the reader "will know that man's end is to vanish from this world, and so he must take care to win companions that will stand with him in times of adversity, just as one does before embarking on a journey."

Me'am Lo'ez triggered a new wave of rabbinic writing, manifest above all in efforts to complete Khuli's work.  In her contribution to an ongoing series on the state of Ladino studies in the journal European Judaism, the scholar Alisa Meyuhas Ginio traces the evolution of the Ottoman rabbinate from the classic work of Khuli and his immediate successors, all of whom were steeped in classical learning and literary style, through a transitional era of figures neither so erudite nor so fluid, to, in the late-19th century, authors influenced by modernization and the European Enlightenment. 

It was in these latter decades that, as a literary language, Ladino entered its Golden Age, catalyzed (as Sarah Abrevaya Stein shows in her fascinating book, Making Jews Modern) by the radical uncertainties of modernity and the cultural hungers of new generations of urban readers. Although, as Michael Alpert notes in European Judaism, Ladino novelists were not on a par with their counterparts in Hebrew and Yiddish (indeed, the vast majority of Ladino novels were translations), magazines and journalism were another story.

The first Ladino newspaper, Sha'arei Mizrah, was launched in 1845. From 1860 on, Ladino journalism flourished, grappling with the major social and cultural issues of the day and becoming the primary forum for pioneering studies of the history and culture of Sephardi Jewry. In the 20th century, there were some 300 Ladino periodicals in Turkey and the Balkans in the period between the two world wars.

Ladino culture as a whole could not and did not outlast the Ottoman setting that had given it shape and coherence. Already in the interwar years, the periodicals were fissuring into narrowly segmented audiences; fewer young people spoke the language; and the older texts, printed in the classic "Rashi" typeface, were sealed into the past. The Holocaust and, later, waves of emigration to Israel and the West largely finished off what remained of a lived culture. 

And today, when the Ottomans are no more and Turkish Jewry is on the ropes? Unlike Yiddish, Ladino lacks both communities of speakers in the present and enough original literature of the past to leave a canon of its own. Nor did it play a role in setting the ideological terms or creating the leading institutions either of Israel or of American Jewry.

And yet it still has much to offer. The Italian poet Eugenio Montale once wrote of "the second life of art," in which the fragments and traces of an original poem, painting, or novel make their way "back into the streets" and into people's minds, in new and unintended ways but of a piece with the evolving consciousness of the tribe. It may be just so in the second life of Ladino and its treasures, from Me'am Lo'ez and other rabbinic works, to the feats of historical research performed by early scholars, to the political and cultural debates that enlivened the pages of Ladino periodicals.

And then there is the music, both sacred and secular: music that is being rediscovered and reinterpreted by scholars in Europe, Israel, and the U.S., and by artists from Yasmin Levy, daughter of a Ladino composer and cantor, to the Brooklyn-born musician Basya Schechter. In an increasingly globalized world, the recovery of several centuries' worth of Jewish experience, situated at a geopolitical crossroads all its own and set at a different angle from the usual pattern of modern Jewish history, is no small gift. 

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COMMENTS

Judith Roumani on January 13, 2011 at 9:51 am (Reply)
This excellent short article makes one point that is questionable: that Ladino lacks communities of speakers. Around the world, Ladino speakers occasionally meet for conferences, radio programs in several countries broadcast in Ladino, the online Ladinokomunita is a discussion group posted daily; websites and journals in several countries are maintaining and growing their readership. You may also be interested in viewing the new quarterly online journal http://sephardichorizons.org, which has begun a regular literature feature in Ladino.Groups called Vijitas de Alhad (Sunday visits)meet monthly to speak and learn Ladino, in Florida and Washington DC. Thank you to the author for a fascinating introduction to this language!
Ron Broxted on January 13, 2011 at 10:55 am (Reply)
My pal was to do a Ph.D on whether there was an Asian equivalent to Ladino/Yiddish.
Elizabeth Schwartz on January 13, 2011 at 12:59 pm (Reply)
I'm participating in a wonderful program about the "Golden Age of Spain" for anyone in the Los Angeles area - not to plug, but to show that this amazing and beautiful Jewish heritage has its proponents:The Jewish Music Commission of Los Angeles is proud to present

SOULS ON FIRE: Three cultures inhabited Spain in the 12th-15th centuries, each making an indelible impression on the region’s art and music. They lived in harmony until the expulsion of the Jews and Gitanos in 1492. Join us for a musical exploration of Spanish, Ladino & Arabic culture that will take you on a sonic journey through the passion of Flamenco, the poetry of Sephardic culture and the rhythm of the Moorish. A world-class ensemble, each renowned in their own right, will combine the traditional sounds from Spain’s Golden Age.

Starring Lakshmi Basile of Sevilla, Spain - dancer &
Adam Del Monte – Flamenco Guitar
and featuring Marisol Fuentes – Flamenco vocals
Geraldo Morales – Cajon
Jeff Pekarek – bass
Elizabeth Schwartz – Ladino/Arabic vocals
Yale Strom – violin

Sunday January 30, 2011 3:00 PM
Valley Beth Shalom
15739 Ventura Boulevard Encino, CA 91436
Admission: $10 in advance; $15 at the door
For reservations, call Valley Beth Shalom (818) 788-6000.
www.jewishmusicla.org www.vbs.org
Ana Lebl on January 13, 2011 at 2:53 pm (Reply)
I think it is very good that you published this article on Ladino as, according to it's level, it seems that many Jewish people have almost never heard about it. Until now I thought that all Jews in the world had equal knowledge on Yiddish and Ladino (Judeo-Espagnol), but this article shows that this is not the case. To my opinion, this article looks as if it was written for some non-Jewish newspaper or that it is about some non-Jewish language. I live in the "Sephardic" (Mediterranean) part of the world, just that Jews here, at least those who are Jewishly involved enough to read JTA, know a lot about Yiddish and would find such introductory text on Yiddish inappropriately basic. However, I agree that Ladino needs more revival, and in that respect it is good that you raised the issue.
Edythe J. Khazzoom on January 13, 2011 at 4:00 pm (Reply)
I am delighted that Judeo-Spanish has been discovered.

You might try also Judeo-Arabic.
Brett Hetherington on January 15, 2011 at 2:13 pm (Reply)
Yasmin Levy (pictued at the start of the article) is a wonderful example of Ladino culture. I saw her and her group perform recently in Barcelona (where I live) and was greatly impressed by her passion for Ladino.

Jewish people are surviving and thriving here in Spain despite the kind of anti-Semitism I have written about here: http://bretthetherington.blogspot.com/2010/03/barcelona-bookseller-jailed-for-selling.html

and here:

http://www.bretthetherington.net/Modules/Blog/Pages/BlogEntry.aspx?BlogEntryId=411
Rachel on January 16, 2011 at 12:25 am (Reply)
Yes, this is a superficial article which is appropriate only for those who know nothing about what Ladino is or its situation today. Andi in my experience, that is most people, especially most Ashkenazim, in the United States. It is sort of a "better than nothing" kind of article, and yes, MUCH has been left our. The comments hae been useful to clarify some things, but of course there is much more.

Yes, I think an article on Judeo-Arabic would be in order, hopefully with a little more depth.
R


Joseph on January 16, 2011 at 6:14 am (Reply)
Even though the frustration of some readers over the "basic" informative level of the article is completely understandable, unfortunately it reflects the level of knowledge by today's Jewish world of Ladino culture's history.
And I'd have to add that not only American, but Eastern European Jews as well are to be "accused" in lacking the very basic knowledge of this enormously precious gift "du jour" - one would be tempted to say 'du hire pass' - of Jewish
people to human civilization.
And it is clear that in and of itself this constitutes one more reason to express our gratitude to the author of this short but profound article.
Aryeh on January 16, 2011 at 1:21 pm (Reply)
Edythe and Rachel, it's wonderful that you're interested in Judeo-Arabic culture. A number of articles that treat Judeo-Arabic and the Arab dimension of Jewish identity have been published on this site. For instance:

http://www.jewishideasdaily.com/content/module/2010/12/10/main-feature/1/the-mood-of-the-oud

and

http://www.jewishideasdaily.com/content/detail/continue-reading-tzanaa

You're invited to look around and find even more.
Edythe Khazzoom on January 16, 2011 at 1:54 pm (Reply)
I am the mother of Loolwa Khazzoom who has done much work on educating people on Misrachi culture.

Her work can be acccesed by just entering her name in the search.

Thank you for the information you sent I wil check it out.
Davichon on January 17, 2011 at 12:22 pm (Reply)
As a child (Bronx, 1950s), I thought "Yiddish" culture was Jewish culture -- except for those "Brotherhood" events we sometimes attended, which were connected somehow with my mother's mother, who lived nearby. And grandma's songs. And that she had already forgotten 2 or 3 languages, and only spoke "Spanish".

Later I came to think of Sephardic as relatively snobbish (meant gently, and evidenced in some comments above), but only later learned that there were whole communities of Jews (Mizrachi?) that were neither Ashkenazi nor Ladino-speaking Sephardi.

So to agree (i'm 'half-snobbishe') and extend some of what has been said by others here, here's what I wrote to the editor:

"The treatment of Ladino as a moribund culture, with music and some other positives included almost as an afterthought,is consistent with his dismissal of the living culture. That is a complex question. Mirsky's observations may make more sense applied to 30 years ago. The subsequent "revival" has of course been based in academic and cultural interest (especially music, of which Mirsky offers an impoverished sampling). That is is not the same as folk life or organic community, but I believe means far more than what Mirsky implies."

I also added something about the kind of informal Sephardic groups that exist today, as Judith Roumani noted in the first comment. I am happy to say that she and I participate in our "vijita" in the Washington, DC area.
Edythe Khazzoom on January 17, 2011 at 12:59 pm (Reply)
About fourty five years ago my husband and I spent the summer and other times the university he taught at was out, in Silver Spring. There was a Sephardic minyan every Shabbat in the apartment complex that we stayed in.

I am glad to hear that there is still Sephardic activity
in the D.C. area.
Rachel Bortnick on January 17, 2011 at 3:29 pm (Reply)
Edythe, your husband is Daniel Khazoom, right? I had met him when he was in Berkeley, kept in touch for a while, but then lost track.
I'd like an update privately, if you don't mind.
Edythe Khazzoom on January 17, 2011 at 5:15 pm (Reply)
Danny remembered you. Said I can give you his e mail. My email is ejkrabbit@aol.com Email me and I will give his to you.
Tim Upham on February 27, 2013 at 3:32 pm (Reply)
I collected all of the tapes by the late Judy Frankel, but her music was strictly the music of the Sephardim after they resettled in the Balkan Peninsula. But Voice of the Turtle did music that actually originated and was performed in Medieval Spain. I am not sure, how the ensemble tracked this music down. I was at a synagogue that had a Sefer Torah, which came from Crete, but it was bought there originally from Spain. No historical records existed at all of where in Spain this Sefer Torah was made. Now I am making a comparison between Modern Castilian Spanish and Medieval Castilian Spanish, because the majority of Ladino is Medieval Castilian Spanish. But it is trying to read Ladino in the Hebrew alphabet. Because the Hebrew letter "kaf," is pronounced as the Spanish sound "que."

Comments are closed for this article.

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