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  • Daniel Santacruz

Book collection preserves treasures of glorious past

By Daniel Santacruz

Avner Perez, director of  the Maale Adumim Institute for the Documentation of Ladino and Sephardic Culture.
Avner Perez looks over some of the books published by the institute (Photo: Ada Gategno Saltiel).
Las coplas de Yosef ‘ha-Tsadik."
Cover of "Las coplas de Yosef ‘ha-Tsadik."

One of the most valuable collections of Ladino books and documents in Israel is turning 20 this year.

With about 1,400 volumes, the collection, the second-largest in Israel, is housed at Instituto Maale Adumim para la documentación de lengua española (ladino) y su cultura, (Maale Adumim Institute for the Documentation of Ladino and Sephardic Culture) in an unpretentious building off the Terem parking lot in Maale Adumin, a town north of Jerusalem.

The largest collection in the country is that of The Jewish National Library at Hebrew University with 2,000 works.

Directed by Avner Perez, the town’s first mayor and one of its founders 30 years ago, the institute, which occupies a large rent-free room owned by the town, is staffed by Perez and researcher Gladys Pimienta.

Ladino version of "La Odisea."
Cover of "La Odisea."

Among the works the institute owns are original copies of the second edition of the Ferrara Bible, published in Amsterdam in 1630 in Spanish, as well as close to 70 copies of the first edition of Meam Loez, a commentary on the biblical book of Genesis and parts of Exodus, written in Ladino by Jerusalem-born rabbi Yaakov Hulli and published in Constantinople in 1730. Hulli died in 1732.

The commentaries on the other biblical books were subsequently written by several Sefardic rabbis.

Also property of the institute are commercial letters written in solitreo, or Ladino cursive, from the 16th century that shed light on business dealings conducted by Sefardic merchants in the Ottoman Empire and in ports of the Mediterranean, prayer books, haggadot, plays and works of poetry.

Among the latter are Las coplas de Yosef ‘ha-Tsadik, Purim verses written in the 17th century by Avraam Toledo, considered Ladino’s most important poet.

One of the few poets who write original poetry in Ladino today, Perez was born in Jerusalem in 1942 to a Ladino-speaking family who settled in the city about 200 years ago.

Among his works are two book of poems, Verjel de mansanas (An Orchard of Apples), and Siniza i fumo (Ashes and Smoke). The latter pays homage to the Sephardic community of Salonika, Greece, which lost thousands to the Nazi concentration camps during the Holocaust. Twelve of the poems were set to music by Haifa-born composer Daniel

Akiva and are available in a CD by the same title. A Bouquet of Songs Sung by Sephardic Jews, another book, contains 25 romanzas.

In pursuit of rare books

He is also the editor of Daat le-Navon: Seleksion de tekstos del Meam Loez Bereshit and La odisea (The Odissey), the Greek classic written by Homer, both published by the Institute in conjunction with the Autoridad Nasionala del Ladino.

Perez served as vice president of MALAM, an agency that provided computer services for the Israeli government, for nine years and collected Ladino books as a hobby, some of which he inherited from his grandfather. But things changed in 1980. When one of his coworker’s daughter found two copies of Meam Loez in the mud on a street in Jerusalem, the pursuit of rare Ladino books became a job.

He said he had mixed emotions when he received the books.

“I didn’t know if I should be happy because those were the first editions of Meam Loez

or to cry because ending up in the mud was the fate of my ancestors’ books,” he added.

His quest took him to book dealers in Jerusalem and yeshivot, where he acquired some.

At the suggestion of Tamar Alexander, a professor of Ladino at Ben Gurion University

in the Negev, he studied for a doctorate in Ladino literature there before devoting

himself full time to researching Ladino culture.

The institute was for several years a branch of Sefarad, a Jerusalem-based organization devoted to the preservation of Sefardic culture that funded it. But Sefarad cut the funding four years ago and Perez receives no salary for his work. The municipality of Maale Adumim pays Pimienta’s salary.

Besides Daat le-Navon and La odisea, the institute has also published En los kampos de la muerte (In the Fields of Death), poems about the Holocaust by Moshe Ha-Elyon; El princhipiko (The Little Prince), by Antoine de Saint Exupéry; and Diario 1917-1918 (Diary 1917-1918), by Hayim Nahmias, a Jerusalem soldier who served in the Turkish Navy

during Word War I.

Ongoing projects

The institute has published online the world’s largest collection of refranes (sayings) in Ladino, some 20,000, told by immigrants to Israel in the 1980s. Two other ongoing projects of the institute are the translation into Hebrew from Ladino of about 2,300 romanzas (songs) recorded also from immigrants, and the Trezoro de la Lengua Djudeoespanyola durante todas las epokas (Treasure of Judeo-Spanish Throughout the Ages), an online Hebrew-

Ladino/Ladino-Hebrew dictionary.

“The dictionary is the most important project of the institute,” said Perez as he made a demonstration on the computer for me.

He considers it the most ambitious project in the field of Ladino culture but more funding is needed to continue it, as well as more people to help with it, he said. The dictionary, to which Perez has devoted two years, has 25 subscribers all over the world. The subscription costs $150 shekels (35 dollars) for a year, $240 shekels (60 dollars) for two years or $250 shekels (62 dollars) for three.

The words for the dictionary are culled from different sources, among them religious books, newspapers and novels, dating from different historical periods. Besides providing a translation of the word, the work, also known as el trezoro (the treasure), shows the context in which it is used.

“The dictionary reflects aspects of the Judeo-Spanish language throughout different phases and constitutes a cultural work in its own right,” Perez said. “When it is finished it will have some 300,000 entries and references.”

He expects to finish it in two years.

The address of the institute is

© Daniel Santacruz

December 2012

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