The answer to the question, “Will Ladino Survive?” depends upon which Ladino you’re talking about.
Haketia, the “western Ladino” spoken in Morocco, is practically extinct except for a tiny handful of dedicated “refuseniks” who are still striving to instill it with the breath of life. As they might tell us in their lost tongue, “Rabi Shimon (Ribbono shel Olam)! Don’t be a chamor (fool)! Just because we’ve suffered a little negro mazal (bad luck), it doesn’t mean that all hope is lost!”
The better known “eastern Ladino” of the Ottoman Empire and the Balkans is still spoken by, perhaps, 100,000 or 200,000 Jews worldwide and by, maybe, 50,000 Jews in Israel. The trouble is that most of these speakers are in their mid-fifties since their children saw little purpose in speaking a language that is rarely heard in the street. Unlike Yiddish, whose sup-posed demise is fictional since it is still intensely used by tens-of-thousands of chareidi families, Ladino is barely used at all by the younger generation. Only two Ladino “papers” still exist, and even they consist of only one page in the Şalom newspaper of Istanbul and a section in La Lettere Sepharade of Paris.
WEAK LANGUAGES PERISH
Ladino’s fate is shared by many languages in the global fight for lingual survival. The factors leading to Ladino’s shrinking popularity follow a global pattern since, generally, for a language to survive, it must be relevant to a large population. In our day, a cultural war is being waged between lingual giants, like English and Mandarin Chinese, which are spoken by almost a billion-and-a-half people. Minor languages are being crowded out of existence so rapidly that experts claim that over half of the approximately 6,000 languages of today will be confined to nostalgia in the next century.
Through this process of attrition, Jews, too, have already lost many languages in the past, including Jewish Aramaic (preserved in the Gemara), which was replaced by Arabic after the Moslem conquest; Jewish Malayam – an Indian dialect, spoken by Jews who have since moved to Israel; Judeo-Greek that persisted since before the days of the Targum Shivim until World War II; and Judeo-Provençal, a French dialect that began vanishing after the French Revolution, and expired with the death of its last living speaker in 5737/1977.
Home is always home. Despite a horrific century of persecution ending with expulsion, the hundreds of thousands of dispossessed Spanish Jews remembered their old home with longing, calling themselves Sephardim (Spaniards), and the language they took with them el Espanol maestro (our Spanish). This was Ladino. Hebrew had already worked its way into Ladino in Spain – an example of a Spanish/Hebrew mix is when a Ladino wishes someone a good journey by saying, “Have a kamino de leche i miel,” (a way of milk and honey). Inaddition, many Hebrew words without Spanish counterparts had infiltrated the Jews’ speech, plus other subtle changes that emphasized Jewish culture. For example, while the Spanish word for G-d is “Di-os,” suggesting plurality, the Ladino version of G-d is “Di-o” in the singular. Also, Spaniards call Sunday “Domingo,” (G-d’s day), reflecting their moving of the day of rest to Sunday, while Ladino calls Sunday “Alhat,” an Arabic word for “one.” A modern-day Spaniard listening to Ladino will experience something akin to our feeling if we were to travel back to Elizabethan England and schmooze with Shakespeare since the language of Spanish Jews was frozen in time, except for imported words and stylistic influences from Turkey, Greece, Morocco, or wherever the sieve of exile dropped them. Ladino was such a part and parcel of Jewish life that, like its Yiddish counterpart in Eastern Europe, Jews of the Ottoman Empire called it Yahudice (Jewish), and an eighteenth-century Turkish poet quipped, “Spaniards speak the Jewish language but they are not Jews.” So entrenched was Ladino that, in certain seaports, business was conducted exclusively in Ladino.
Ladino was originally written in square Hebrew letters and, later, in Rashi script. In fact, it is claimed that the Sephardim invented Rashi script, and it only became known as Rashi script when printers used it to differentiate Rashi’s commentary from the main text of Chumash or Gemara. Ladino handwriting was in the cursive solitreo script.
Ladino literature commenced in Spain with translations of Hebrew seforim while original Ladino seforim only developed after the Expulsion. The most famous of these is the “Meam Loez” commentary on Tanach, began by Rav Yaakov Culi in the eighteenth century and completed about a hundred-and-fifty years after his passing. After modernization during the nineteenth century, Ladino was widely used for secular books, newspapers and books, and gradually began to be written with Spanish letters.
FALL OR FIGHT
There are a number of reasons for Ladino’s decline. In countries like Yugoslavia, Romania and Greece, Ladino speakers were decimated by the Holocaust, while Jews of African communities streamed en-masse to Israel in the 5710s/1950s, where their native Ladino was easily eclipsed by Hebrew.
In Turkey, which still has a 25,000-strong Jewish population, Ladino was initially weakened by the network of French schools, opened by the Alliance Israelite Universelle after it was founded in Paris in 5620/1860. Unable to make much headway in Poland and Russia, the Alliance turned to the Middle East, opening schools in Baghdad, Istanbul, Smyrna, Salonica and a host of other places, and the over one hundred schools, opened through-out the Ottoman Empire by 5672/1912, made French the elite language. This first altered Ladino into an admixture of Ladino and French, known as Judeo-Fragnol, and finally began ousting Ladino altogether.
After World War I, the rise of Turkish nationalism with its slogan, “Citizen, speak Turkish,” marked the death knell of both Ladino and French. Not wanting to be the odd man out, Jews began speaking Turkish and made their schools subsidiary to Ministry of Education, which put Turkish on the curriculum.
However, like survivors of many dying languages, present day Ladino aficionados are not giving in without a fight. The five-hundredth anniversary of the Spanish Expulsion in 5752/1992 and the worldwide trend of people searching for their roots gave an added impetus to this trend.
Things are changing. The huge Israeli Sephardic community has created an international Autorirad Nasyon-ala del Ladino (Ladino Preservation Council), whose vice president, Moshe Shaul, publishes the world’s only Ladino magazine, Aki Yerushalayim. After years of deliberations, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) recently granted Ladino the status of an endangered language, and this was followed by an international conference in Paris, attended by thirty experts and hundreds of attendants.
Universities in America, France, Germany, Belgium, Scandinavia and Eastern Europe offer courses in Ladino; the first professor of Ladino was appointed in a French university in 5744/1984. In Israel, four universities offer special Ladino programs, while Bar-IlanUniversity opened a special Ladino Center in 5663/2003. World-wide, Ladino enthusiasts attend Ladino clubs where they can speak their favorite lingo to their heart’s content. Ladino lessons are also available in New York. In Turkey, the Ottoman-Turkish Sephardic Culture Research Center, too, focuses on the research and preservation of Ladino.
Ladino enthusiasts are fighting to save not only the language but also its rich oral heritage of stories, proverbs, songs and charms. Ever since World War II, people have been collecting these literary treasures before it is too late. In Israel, Avner Peretz, founder and head of the Maale Adumim Institute for Ladino, near Yerushalayim, has the goal of collecting all extant Ladino literature. He has also collected five thousand Ladino proverbs, includ-ing one whose Hebrew equivalent is used every time politics goes awry – “El pexcado fiede de la cavesa,” (“the fish stinks from its head”).
The hero/villain of Ladino literature-culture is an enigmatic character called Hoa (or Jocha or Ejoha), a counterpart of Hershele Ostropoler, who combines folly with subtle wisdom and imparts a grain of wisdom in the process.
In one tale, Hoa teaches generations of Sephardi children how a person is often paid back in his own coinage:
“Hoa!” a jokester once challenged. “Tonight, stand on top of the minaret tower until morning and I’ll give you a hundred piastres!”
“That’s a deal!” Hoa retorted. Through a bone-chilling wind and sub-zero temperatures, Hoa managed to perch on his tiny minaret balcony the entire night.
“Where’s my money?” a stiff, exhausted Hoa asked the jokester the next morning.
“Why should I pay you?” came the reply. “You were warming yourself up from the watchman’s lamp down below.”
Without a word of dissent, Hoa calmly invited the jokester home for a cup of coffee. Lighting the fire, he hung the coffee pot high up, just below the ceiling.
“How will the water boil up there?” his guest complained.
“How could the watchman’s lamp warm me all the way up the minaret?” retorted Hoa.
What is the prognosis for Ladino? Will its dry bones ever be re-clothed in flesh and skin? Will the efforts pay off, or can it be argued that language is a natural, organic animal that cannot be resuscitated by artificial means? One thing is certain. No matter what happens, the chief Sephardic legacy is alive and well – its communities are thriving and seforim of past Sephardic gedolim stand proud on millions of bookshelves and shtenders.