Ladino book for children makes literary history
By Daniel Santacruz

When was the last time that a book teaching children how to read and write Ladino was published? Probably never.

A new book, Nono's Kisses for Sephardic Children, has filled that gap. Written and illustrated by Flori Senor Rosenthal (photo), the book is self-published and contributes to the goal of reviving the usage of Ladino, she said in a recent interview

The book, published was Scholastic Media, was released in October, and it was preceded by the publication of a translation into Ladino of Lewis Carroll's classic The Adventures of Alice in Wonderland in England by Israeli translator and editor Avner Perez. 

Both books have made literary history, although the market for such publications is very limited as there are few Sefardim under 55, let alone children, who can speak it. It is not secret that Ladino is an endangered language and that in a few years the books will become collectors’ items and literary curiosities.

Ladino has produced major literary works, among them the Meam Loez, a commentary on the Bible as well as plays and novels, but children’s literature is practically non-existent in the language. In a recent interview, Senor Rosenthal said that she hopes her book will encourage others to start writing children’s books to introduce them to Sefardic culture.

Nono’s Kisses contains a Ladino alphabet that follows the spelling guidelines of Aki Yerushalayim, the all-Ladino journal published in Jerusalem, and a statement in English about each of the nine illustrations in it. Below each statement is an expression, with its English translation, that describes the illustration, followed by a question in Ladino about it, also with its English translation.

Senor Rosenthal is a New York City-born genetic counselor based in California with more than 30 years of experience in that field. In 1993 she took a leave of absence from her job for a few years to be home with her three children and started a home-based business hand-painting porcelain with Jewish motifs, and designing and printing invitations for weddings and other Jewish life-cycle events.

She now divides her time between genetic counseling and graphic design.

She has a Bachelor of Arts in Biology from the University of Rochester, in Rochester, N.Y., and a M.S. in Genetic Counseling from Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, N.Y.  

Senor Rosenthal’s father, Gabriel Senor, was born in New York City of parents who hailed from Salonika. Elihau Senor, her nono, or grandfather, as she calls him, arrived in New York in 1912, and her nona, Flora Mordoh, came two years later. “My dad always believed that we were related to Abraham Senor (Senior), Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand’s chief treasurer,” she said.

About 20 years ago, Senor Rosenthal found out that her mother’s father’s family was also Sefardic, having originated in Spain. They migrated to Eastern Europe and changed their name to Auslander, which means foreigner in Yiddish. The original name was lost.

Because she never was taught Ladino growing up, she said, she was not able to talk to her three children in it, but insisted that they learn Spanish in school. Her oldest daughter made it a priority and is interested in learning Ladino and attends a Ladino singing group with Senor Rosenthal in Los Angeles.

Following are excerpts of the interview.

Kolsefardim: What inspired you to write Nono’s Kisses?

Flori Senor Rosenthal: My dad was Sefardic and my mom was Ashkenazy, although she later found out her father’s family was Sefardic (…) My mother’s mother lived with us for a few years when I was very young and was exposed to hearing Yiddish. But I was drawn toward my Sefardic roots and loved hearing Ladino spoken by my father and his family and friends. It sounded so exotic to me, and I wanted to learn it too.

Unfortunately, we lived far from my nonos and my father was busy with his business. So there was no one to really teach it to me. I felt the next best thing was to learn Spanish in school. I took classes from seventh grade until my freshman year in college. I also read as much as I could about Ladino, which was not too much since it was before the Internet (. . .) At that time, from all that I could find, Ladino was a language in danger of being forgotten. That idea always stayed with me, and as far back as I can remember I had a goal in mind that I needed to do something to revitalize it [but] life took its turns with college, a career and children (. . .)

Since I have some artistic talent, and children, I thought maybe the best way to accomplish my goal was to write and illustrate a book to teach Ladino to children and at the same time help myself to better learn it. Since losing my parents a few years ago, the need to fulfill my goal got stronger and stronger and finally I had an experience, a sign, that it was time to write my book.

KS: Was Ladino widely spoken in your extended family?

FSR: It was spoken by my grandparents, my father and his four sisters, two of whom married Sefardic men, who also spoke it. My great aunts and uncles who were here [United States] all spoke Ladino, and some of them never learned English. Those facts also influenced me to learn Ladino or even Spanish. I remember thinking how much I wanted to talk to my great Tia Sarah. Unfortunately, the language was not passed down to my generation. Perhaps it was thought to be too much of a connection to the “old country.”

KS: In your “Special Note” in the book you say “I always thought to revive Ladino somehow.” Do you think that the book contributes to that goal?

FSR: I definitely feel that this book contributes to the goal of reviving the usage of Ladino (. . .) For the survival of our Sefardic heritage Ladino must be taught along with our special customs to the young. Unfortunately, the teaching of the language may have skipped a couple of generations, but I am hoping my book will inspire my generation to start teaching it to our grandchildren, or maybe even to our children.

 I am hoping that my book will also encourage others to start writing children’s books to teach Ladino. These books, like mine, may just be introductory, but if we can kindle an interest in our grandchildren when they are young maybe they will have the interest to take classes at the university level, where they can really study and learn it and pass it on to their children because it is their heritage. There are classes today being given at universities in the United States such as the University of California, Los Angeles.

KS: Also, in that note you say that you had the idea of writing and illustrating the book for more than 20 years. How do you feel now that the book came out?

FSR: I feel really inspired that I finally accomplished that initial goal!  However, now I am even more excited (. . .) I no longer have to question [if] I can do it because I did it.  That is, I wrote my first book to help children and even adults learn Ladino. So now I am off starting to run toward my next book! 

KS: I assume this is the question everybody asks you: Why a children’s book in Ladino now given that it has been shown that few people under 55 can speak it?

FSR: The death of my parents four years ago had a great effect on me.  They were wonderful role models for all areas of Jewish tradition and Sephardic and Ashkenazy culture (…) I realized that I now had become that generation that needed to carry on where my parents’ generation had left off.  I now needed to make sure I taught everything that was taught (…) I thought younger children are more open to learning from their parents and therefore a children’s book that could teach our beautiful Ladino language and pass on some important Jewish values might be a way to pass on our legacy. So that is why I decided to write this book now to try and revitalize Ladino, even though it has been shown that few people under 55 can speak it. I think the book actually helps anyone at any age learn a little Ladino. And I think a number of the phrases can open up conversations between parents and children about the ethics of our people (…)

KS: Do you have another writing project in mind?

FSR: It is another children’s book to teach Ladino, but this time it will involve more of a story that does revolve around a Jewish theme.

KS: How is the book selling?

FSR:  It is selling slowly. The word about this book is just beginning to surface. So I would like to thank you for this interview. I think this will help get the word out there, and more and more people will start talking about Nono’s Kisses, and then others will be curious and inspired to buy it.  I am trying to have a blog about Ladino and anything Sefardic related so I hope people will write to me at www.NonosKisses.com. 

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