• Daniel Santacruz

500 years of Ladino literature on display in unique exhibit

Updated: Mar 14

By Avner Perez

Editor's note: Avner Perez, Director of the Director of the Ma’ale Adumim for the Documentation of Judeo-Spanish and Sephardic Culture, in Maale Adumim, Israel, was one of the keynote speakers at the fourth annual ucLADINO Judeo-Spanish Symposium, held March 3 and 4, and organized by ucLADINO, a student organization at the University of California, Los Angeles, dedicated to the study of Ladino.

Avner Perez (Courtesy).

My presentation is based on the exhibition “Sueños de Sefarad: 500 Años de Libros en Ladino” (Dreams of Sefarad 500: Years of Books in Ladino), of which I am the curator.

The exhibition, first presented at the International Book Fair in Jerusalem in 1999 to celebrate 50 years of the creation of the State of Israel, featured the book collection of the Maale Adumim Institute, in Maale Adumim, and highlighted the continuity of creation in Ladino, both written and in book form, during 500 years.

The National Authority for Ladino, under the direction of Mr. Isaac Navon, Israel’s fifth president, took the initiative and sponsored it.

After the fair, the exhibition was seen at the Instituto Cervantes, in Tel Aviv, and in seven cities in Spain during two years, generating great enthusiasm. It is currently stored at the Israeli embassy in Madrid, waiting to be shown in other venues in Spain.

Since the first exhibition we have learned more about the history of books and Ladino literary creation, which has enriched the material available to researchers. This allowed us to expand and improve the new version of the exhibition.

One of the main components of the new exhibition is titled “La ladinización de la clásica española” (The ladinization of Spanish classic literature).

The panels of this section show the strong bond that existed between Judeo-Spanish literature and Spanish classical literature before the Expulsion from Spain in 1492, during the Renaissance as well as the Age of Enlightenment (19th and 20th centuries).

Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra.

A special place has been dedicated to the role played by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, author of Don Quixote, also known as “Sephardic Cervantes,” in Ladino literature. His influence is a new discovery, which will be explained later.

The reproductions of the books presented here, with explanatory notes, as well as fragments from some works, are in reality like a book that tells the story of Judeo-Spanish literature. Thanks to them the visitor can have an overview of its development.

Birth of a Language: Judeo-Spanish (Ladino)

Even while living in Spain, Jews used to write Spanish in Hebrew characters. Proof of this is a letter presented in the exhibit, written in 1492 in Spain by Haim de Leon shortly before the Expulsion. 

The exiles continued using the Spanish language, but with time the effects of living far from Spain could be seen. After three to four generations the language of the Jews of the Ottoman Empire started drifting away from that of the Iberian Peninsula. Its archaic vocabulary started disappearing little by little in modern Spanish. A new language was born. 

We know it as españolit, Jewish, Judezmo or Judeo-Spanish. It has been called Ladino in Israel in recent times, a name we will use here.

Letter written by Haim de Leon of Spain before 1492.

The proverbs show influences of Jewish thought and philosophy. In the 15th century the book was ladinizised. It was copied in Hebrew characters and came to us in a manuscript found in the Cairo geniza, which also includes an original work in Ladino titled Poema de Yosef  (Yosef’s Poem).

These two works survived the Expulsion and became part of the cultural baggage the exiles took with them to the Ottoman Empire. The Ladinization of Spanish Classic Texts: Rabbi Don Santob Carrion

Literature in Ladino existed already in Spain before the Expulsion. The Judeo-Spanish intellectual elite was involved in Spanish culture and among its members were authors of original works. One of the best known was Rabbi Don Santob Carrion, who lived in Spain during the first half of the 14th century and who dedicated his book Proverbios morales (Moral Proverbs) to Peter, the son of King Alfonso XI. 

The proverbs show influences of Jewish thought and philosophy. In the 15th century the book was ladinizised. It was copied in Hebrew characters and came to us in a manuscript found in the Cairo geniza, which also includes an original work in Ladino titled Poema de Yosef  (Yosef’s Poem).

These two works survived the Expulsion and became part of the cultural baggage the exiles took with them to the Ottoman Empire. A masterpiece, The Dance of Death, is the Spanish version of a theme that appears frequently in European literature. In the Spanish version, Death calls members of various social groups to participate in a dance, since they all are mortals. A satirical text, it was written as a dialogue between Death and the different people called into the dance, which gave it its theatrical character. The Jews of Spain also adopted it and it was ladinizised even before the Expulsion. The manuscript is known as Parma 2666 (c. 1470). In the two stanzas presented below we can read the dialogue between the King and Death. The King tries to avoid joining the dance and calls his vassals and warriors for help. Death, in turn, lists all the evils the King did, the riches of the land that he stole and the injustices committed with his subjects. These words express the satirical nature of the work.

Fragment of Proverbios Morales

Por nacer en el espino Non val el azor menos

no val la rosa cierto menos, por nascer de mal nido

nin el buen vino ni los enshemplos buenos

por salir del sarmiento. por los decir judío

The Ladinization of Spanish Classic Texts: The Dance of Death

A masterpiece, The Dance of Death, is the Spanish version of a theme that appears frequently in European literature. In the Spanish version, Death calls members of various social groups to participate in a dance, since they all are mortals. A satirical text, it was written as a dialogue between Death and the different people called into the dance, which gave it its theatrical character.

The Jews of Spain also adopted it and it was ladinizised even before the Expulsion. The manuscript is known as Parma 2666 (c. 1470).

In the two stanzas presented below we can read the dialogue between the King and Death. The King tries to avoid joining the dance and calls his vassals and warriors for help. Death, in turn, lists all the evils the King did, the riches of the land that he stole and the injustices committed with his subjects. These words express the satirical nature of the work.

Dize el rrey Dize la muerte  Valia, valia, los mis caualleros; Rey fuerte, tirano que sienpre rrobastes yo non querria yr a tan baxa dansa; todo vuestro rreynado e fenchiste el arca, 

llegad vos con los ballesteros, segunt es notorio por vuestra comarca,

hanparadme todos por fuersa de lansa de fazer justisia muy poco curastes,

mas que es aquesto que veo en la balansa venit para mi, que yo so monarca,  acortarse mi vida e perder los sentidos? que prendere a vos e a otro mas alto;  el corason se me quexa con grandes gemidos; llegat a la dansa cortes en vn salto; a Dios, mis vasallos, que muerte me transa. en pos de vos venga luego el patriarca

Birth of a Language: First Publications in Ladino The exiles introduced printing in the Ottoman Empire upon arriving there and were the first to print books. Soon many printing houses flourished in Sephardic communities, beginning in Constantinople and Salonika, and afterwards in Smyrna, Belgrade, Sarajevo, Sofia, Ruschuk and Filipopoli. In Western and Central Europe books were printed in Amsterdam, Livorno, Venice, Pisa and Vienna.

Books were printed in Hebrew as well as in Ladino. One of the first was Regimiento de la vida (Guide for Daily Living), by Rabbi Moshe Almosnino, published in Salonika in 1564. It is a work of moral theology and its language is very similar to the Castilian spoken at that time in Spain. After a few generations the gap between the Castilian and the Ladino spoken in the East widened.

Thus began a period of 500 years of Ladino book publishing.

Birth of a Language: Ladino Manuscript of Dialoghi di Amore

Translation into Ladino by Gedalia Ibn Yahia of Dialoghi di Amore.

The 16th century Ladino books at our disposal are probably only a part of what was actually printed. What we lack is complemented by manuscripts of that period. 

A testimony to the vitality of Judeo-Spanish among Jewish intellectuals is Guedaliá Ibn Yahiá’s Ladino translation of Dialoghi di Amore (Dialogues of Love), by Yehuda Abravanel. This philosophical book, which had great influence on the culture of the Renaissance, was printed in Latin characters in Venice in 1568.

The copy shown here, in Hebrew characters, was printed in Salonika and was intended for Sephardic intellectuals in the Ottoman Empire. The Ladinization of Spanish Classic Texts (The Post-Expulsion Era): Coplas de la muerte de su padre

Las coplas de la muerte de su padre, or Las coplas por la muerte de su Padre (Songs to the Death of his Father), a philosophical poem with biblical influences, is Jorge Manrique’s best known work (1440-1479). A loose sheet that was part of a notebook, included in the exhibit, is housed at the Maale Adumim Institute. Apparently, it is a private notebook in which a Sephardic intellectual who lived in the East during the Renaissance copied Spanish classical poems, among them Manrique’s work.

The presence of the poem in his notebook shows there was continuity between Spanish classic culture and Ladino original creation among the intellectual elite of the exiles from Spain and their descendants. 

The document is written in middle Hebrew script with diacritical signs, and the spelling and the paper indicate that it dates back to the 16th century. Parts of the seam on the edge of the sheet can still be seen. 

Coplas: Features of the Genre

Coplas, also known as komplas, the most original genre of poetry in this language, are poems in verses, some authored by rabbis and intellectuals. Although they usually cover various subjects, they are generally descriptive poetry and fiction. The ones devoted to celebrations enjoyed great popularity among the people. The first were written in the 15th century. The Coplas del Felek, which occupy a special place in literature, tell the misfortunes of time. Some refer to events that took place in Jewish communities, while others are a satire to the despotism of their leaders.

Translations of the Bible in Ladino: The Beginning 

Loose sheet of the 1547 edition of the "Ferrara Bible."

Translations of the Bible into Ladino have been a close companion of this language for more than 500 years. The word Ladino, in its original sense, is connected to these translations. Ladino means “foreign language or language for translation.” 

The tradition of translating the Bible into a Judeo-Spanish calque-language began in Spain even before the Expulsion.

Later, in the mid-16th century, two translations of the Bible appeared within a few years of each other in two centers of Sephardic Judaism: one in the East, the other in the West. In 1547 the Pentateuch in Ladino in Hebrew characters was published in Constantinople.  Six years later, in 1553, in Ferrara, Italy, the famous Ferrara Bible, written in Latin characters, was printed. Several loose sheets of this edition, found in the cover of a Yemenite book, are included here. We also have included the second edition of this Bible, published in Amsterdam in 1630. At the end of the 19th century a new translation of the Bible was published in Constantinople, free from the shackles that tied it to the Hebrew text. 

In 1873 the Christian Mission of London undertook this translation, which was widely known among the Jews of the Ottoman Empire. Those editions apparently follow the ancient tradition of medieval translations in Spain.

The Ladinization of Spanish Classic Texts (The Renaissance): Drama For a long time, researchers thought that literary creation in Ladino had only begun in the first third of the 18th century. Material discovered in recent years has given us a completely different picture. The intellectual elite of the exiled Jews spoke a Judeo-Spanish dialect, but it was still part of the Hispanic world and used literary Castilian in their literary creations. What set it apart was the use ofHebrew characters as well as the presence of other signs of ladinization. Three pieces of classical theater in ladinizado Spanish printed in Hebrew characters, dating back to the end of the 16th century, have come down to us. They were the first such pieces printed in Hebrew characters. Two of them, Aquilana, by Bartolome de Torres Navarro (1480-1530), and Tragedia Josephina, by Micael de Carvajal (who died in 1578), are pieces of Spanish classical theater. The third, Ma'aseh Yosef (Joseph’s Tale), included here, is an original work. All this shows that the intelligentsia that descended from exiles from Spain had a rich cultural life.

The channels through which they received the Spanish Renaissance culture were still open. 18th Century (Religious Era): The Meam Loez and . . .

Copy of the first volume of Meam Loez, published in Constantinople in 1730.

The most famous and outstanding literary creation in that language is Meam Loez, whose author, Rabbi Yaacov Hulli, conceived it as a multi-volume work dedicated to the Holy Scriptures.

His goal was to create a broad encyclopedia that contained commentary and midrashim (Talmudic literature) on ethics, halacha and customs, as well as information about life in the world and the nature of the Universe. 

The first volume of the classic Meam Loez, consisting of the Pentateuch, was published in Constantinople in 1730. Modeled after Talmudic treatises, it was printed in large-format volumes. New editions and additional volumes on the Prophets and the Hagiographa, which form a unit from the point of view of its content, wording and style, were published in the 19th century.

Yaacov Hulli’s dream became reality. The book reached all the Sephardic communities, including North Africa, and achieved great esteem and appreciation among all classes of Jewish society. During Shabbat and the long winter nights members of the community, young and old, women and men, gathered to listen to a Haham (rabbi) explain a chapter of the Meam Loez, which opened the doors to the treasures of culture and wisdom of Judaism that until then were closed for most of the Jews in the Ottoman Empire. . . . how its pages disappeared and were found again

One of the "lost pages" of "Meam Loez," published in Consatinople in 1777.

The third author of the Meam Loez on the Pentateuch, Rabbi Yitzhak ben Shemaria Argueti, published the first part of his commentary on Devarim (Deuteronomy) in Constantinople in 1773. In the book's introduction he writes that he had finished the second volume too, but that lack of money made it impossible to print it. For centuries it was thought that this volume was lost without trace. But the cover and a booklet of 16 pages of this tome were discovered in Jerusalem in 1930, which shows that an attempt to print it had been made (Constantinople, 1777). 

But shortly after the newly found leaves were lost again. Only the cover survived, which is housed at the National Library in Jerusalem. Half a century passed and 20 years ago and the same fascicle was discovered again, which is now in the library of the Maale Adumim Institute and presented here. 

The Songs of Yosef 'ha-Tzadik

Cover of "Las Coplas de Yosef 'ha-Tsadik."

The 17th century can be called “Mute Century” as far as publications in Ladino are concerned. The only four books in that language from the Ottoman Empire are known to exist. But this was also the time in which the most important Ladino poet, Avraham Toledo, lived. His works are found in 18th and 19th century publications but were written in the 17th century.

Toledo wrote songs for the holiday of Purim and piyyutim (religious poems) in Ladino and Hebrew, but his most important work was Las Coplas de Yosef 'ha-Tsadik, a spectacular production that is both a biblical epic (“feature length” as it has more than 2500 verses) and a throbbing musical comedy.

The poem focuses on two biblical events: the life of the patriarch Avraham and his struggle against idols, and the story of the sale of Yosef. Both are based on the biblical text and midrashim, but it is also an original creation of the author as more than 60 percent of the work is a product of his own imagination.

18th Century: The Literature of Donmés

Cover of a Hebrew-English anthology of mystical poems, printed in 2007.

In the first half of the 20th century the first collections of prayers and poems of the domnés were discovered. In them we can see the religious and ritual use of certain traditional romanzas (ballads) by adherents of Shabetay Tsevi. 

According to the evidence we have, this use began with the mystic himself, who sang a romanza from Melizelda in the synagogue. Hence it was so exciting for the first researchers of shabateista literature to find it in notebooks of religious songs of the domnés.

A Hebrew-English anthology of mystical poems, printed in 2007, is part of the collection of the Instituto. An unprecedented event took place in Salonika in 1683—16 years after Shabetay Tsevi converted to Islam, when it seemed that the largest Jewish Messianic movement had come to an end and 10 after the death of this false Messiah—300 Jewish families who had followed him left Judaism and converted also to Islam. These families and their descendants, called domnés, lived in separate neighborhoods of Salonika and had secret rites. Ladino, which they used as vernacular, became a holy language in which they prayed and wrote religious poems. Apparently, shabateistas attributed mystical significance to the original text. Melizelda, the daughter of the emperor, was perceived as a personification of the Shehina (Providence) as she came out of the ritual bath. By singing this ballad, Shabetay Tsevi reached heights where he met the Shehina. His followers could identify with the rapture of their extraordinary Messiah. A Product of the Age of Enlightenment: Journalism

Front page of "Sha'are Mizrah," the first Ladino newspaper in modern times, published in Izmir in 1845-6.

The Age of Enlightenment arrived in the Ottoman Empire in the mid-19th century, which is partly due to a common trend throughout the Empire and to particular events in the Jewish community.

Chief among them is the creation of the network of French schools of the Alliance Israelite Universelle. 

New winds begin to blow in Jewish circles. The old and traditional structures were loosened, life-styles changed, new horizons opened and the eyes looked again to the West. 

One of the main features of this development is Ladino journalism. We should point out here that 180 years before, La Gazeta de Amsterdam, the first Jewish newspaper in the world, written in Spanish by Sefardic Jews, was published in that city. We present here the first issue, dated 01.07.1675.

The first Ladino newspaper in modern times, Sha'are Mizrah, was published in Izmir in 1845-6. Thus began about 150 years of Ladino journalism during which more than 300 newspapers were published. Some existed only a short time, others managed to survive longer. 

The Ladino press had a role in education, information and entertainment. It opened the door to new literary genres: novels, plays, modern poetry, humor and more. In its columns public and ideological debates were published. 

Thus, when political Zionism was born, this movement became one of the main topics in the press. On the one hand, Zionist organs were born, such as Ha-Shofar, in Bulgaria (photo), but at the same time the movement was also opposed by others, among them El Tiempo, edited by David Fresco. 

Apart from covering important events in the Sephardic communities, the press also focused on news of general interest, both from a Jewish point of view as well from a general one. For example, in 1898, El Avenir of Salonika assiduously followed the Dreyfus case in Paris, which stirred the Jewish population of the Ottoman Empire and at the same time also served as the theme for plays in Ladino.

Ladino Journalism: Aki Yerushalayim

First issue of "Aki Yerushalayim."

The decline of Ladino in the last two generations brought also the decline of the press in that language. In Israel, various newspapers ceased publications one after another. The last of them, La Luz de Israel (The Light of Israel), closed down in the early 1990s. Today there is only one journal written entirely in Ladino in the world: Aki Yerushalayim.

Born 35 years ago, it is published by Sefarad, an association for the preservation and promotion of Ladino culture based in Jerusalem, and it is mainly the work of one man, its editor, Moshe Shaul. The publication functions as a platform for writers in Ladino, researchers and lovers of the language and Sephardic culture. 

That a magazine of such a high level has been published for so many years continuously it is proof of the vitality of the language, which tells us: “I still breathe and live.” Aki Yerushalayim circulates in Israel and in many other countries, mainly in the Spanish-speaking world. 

 The Ladinization of Spanish Classic Texts: The Sephardic Cervantes

Page of "La Boz de Oriente."

In the last quarter of the 19th century Ladino looked again westward. The language grew, it became more flexible and adapted itself to European cultural creations and original creations. Researchers show the significant influence of French on the development of Ladino. The Spaniards, on the other hand, point out with sadness the absence of Spanish literature in Judeo-Spanish culture. However, this panel, dedicated to Cervantes, refutes this idea. 

In 1931, the newspaper La Boz de Oriente (The Voice of the Orient), based in Istanbul, began publishing regularly a page in Latin characters, which was the first step toward the latinization of Ladino script right in the heart of the Jewish community of Turkey. The spelling chosen was not Castilian, with which the editors wanted to say that Ladino was a tongue in its own right, different from the former, that should be preserved as an independent language and not to let it be “absorbed” by Castilian. One of the first works to be serialized was a short story taken from Chapter 33 of Don Quixote. In the exhibit, the original Spanish text and the Ladino version are presented on facing pages. Not only can the differences in spelling be observed, but also grammatical and lexical changes, which is a result of a centuries-old gap between the two languages. A New Creation in Ladino: Poetry

Cover of "Poezías," by Moshe David Gaon.

The Age of Enlightenment also gave birth to original poetry in Ladino. At the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th poets published their works in newspapers or in modest publications.

A group of Salonika poets excelled in this field: Josef Romano, Yosef Uziel, Isaac Button, Alexander Ben-Giat, Gershon and Moshe Catés Saddiq, Yitzhak Ben-Reuven Rubi and Shlomo Reuven.

The dean and most eminent of them, Shlomo Shalem, published his poems and translations of La Fontaine in La Epoca, and his poetry and that of most of his contemporaries did not have ties to traditional works but it is influenced by French Romantic poetry. The poet Moshe David Gaon is an exception. In 1925 he published in Jerusalem a book called Poezías, which has a clear influence of German and English romanticism, as well as French symbolism, mainly Verlaine’s, notable for its melody and tone. At the Other End of the Mediterranean: Haquetía Some of those expelled from Spain in 1492 crossed the Strait of Gibraltar and settled in North Africa, particularly in Morocco. Over time some most of them integrated into the indigenous Jewish population, which also included a linguistic assimilation. In northern Morocco, under the influence of Spain and Portugal, the descendants of the Jews expelled retained their identity. In cities such as Tetouan, Tangier, Arzila, Larache, Alcazarquivir, Ceuta and Melilla Jews have continued speaking their Judeo-Spanish language, Haquetía. 

As Ladino was enriched by Turkish and Balkan languages, the former has absorbed, besides Hebrew words, terms of Moroccan Arabic dialect. This is especially noticeable in the spoken language and much less in writing. There are very few books in Haquetía. One of them is Dat Ye'hudit (Jewish Religion), by Abraham and Isaac Levy Laredo, published in Livorno (Italy) in 1827. A Meam Loez edition was adapted in Haquetía and published also in Livorno in 1823. The most important contribution of Haquetía has been in the field of romanzas. The number of old romanzas preserved by the Sephardim of Morocco, which is significant, is a treasure that complements that of the Jews of the Ottoman Empire. To these romanzas, ballads and songs that accompanied Jews in their celebrations and in their daily life were added. In recent generations researchers set out to collect, transcribe and study this important cultural treasure.

Some of them are the Spaniards Menendez Pidal, Larrea Palacín and Manuel Alvar; the Moroccans José Benoliel, Zarytus Nahón and Gold Anahory-Librowicz; and the Americans Samuel Armistead and Joseph Silverman. In recent years Israel-based Dr. Shoshana Weich Shahak has collected many songs among Spanish Moroccan Jews living there and published them in books and recorded them. Hundreds of songs belonging to the Kol Israel (Voice of Israel) collection were recorded and transcribed by researcher Gladys Pimienta. Present and Future of Ladino

In 1994 professor Tracy Harris published her book Death of a Language announcing the demise of Ladino. The number of books on display here—including original works, new editions of classics as well as research on Ladino and Sephardic culture—show that the language is not in such a bad shape after the announcement of its death. 

Paraphrasing what Isaac Bashevis Singer said about Yiddish, we can say that Judeo-Spanish has been “near death for 500 years. We wish it another 500 years of such an agony . . .

Translated from the Ladino by Daniel Santacruz

© Daniel Santacruz  March 2015

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