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Israel is Ladino's new address in the world now

Text and photos by Daniel Santacruz

Moshe Shaul, Yehoshua Salim, and professors Refael and Alexander.

First, the bad news about Ladino: It has only 250,000 speakers worldwide, of whom few are under 55 years old. It is not taught at the elementary or high-school levels in any country and it is not being passed on to the next generation.

Further, UNESCO considers it “severely endangered” (the organization’s criteria to measure the health of languages are, in order, “vulnerable,” “definitely endangered,” “severely endangered,” “critically endangered” and “extinct”). Ladino, unlike many languages, is not associated with a country or countries. But despite those problems, Ladino has experienced a surge in popularity in Israel, Spain, the Americas, Turkey, and the United States in the last 20 years.

It is ironic that as the numbers of Ladino speakers shrink, the more the language tries to stay relevant. It prefers to ignore the signs of its demise and forges ahead.

The language’s boost has come from hardcore enthusiasts all over the world, the Israeli government, and Israeli academics.

Ladino’s most recent show of vitality was evident last Hannukah, December 2014, as the second Dia Internasional del Ladino (Ladino International Day) was marked in several cities around the world, including Murcia, Zamora, Toledo and Madrid (Spain); Buenos Aires; Tampa, Medford, Seattle and Los Angeles (United States). Other cities, such as Istanbul and Dallas (Texas), celebrated the event in January of this year.


Main events and new popularity

The main events were held at the Givataim Theater, a suburb of Tel Aviv, including a symposium on the future of Ladino that featured professors Shmuel Refael of Bar-Ilan University and Tamar Alexander of Ben-Gurion University as well as Moshe Shaul, editor of the Jerusalem-based Aki Yerushalayim (AY), the only all-Ladino journal in the world, and Yehoshua Salim Salti, founder of the Naime and Yehoshua Salti  Center for Ladino Studies at Bar-Ilan University. Ladinokomunita (LK), a correspondence group in Yahoo Groups, is one of the reasons Ladino has found new popularity around the world. Based in Dallas, Texas, and founded in 2000, the group is the main vehicle of daily communication for several of its 1,526 members in 40 countries. The topics discussed in LK are as varied as the correspondents.

Someone in New York City, for example, may thank another in Rio de Janeiro for clarifying an obscure Ladino word. Another, a resident of Barcelona, may write about her impressions of Portugal as she tours the country, and yet another, based in Tel Aviv, may share a Youtube video of a Jewish dance group in Mexico.  After the expulsion from Spain in 1492, the bulk of Ladino speakers lived in the Ottoman Empire. In the early 1900s many moved to the United States and settled in New York City, Seattle, Washington, and Los Angeles, California. World War II, assimilation, a population decline as well as the need of many to switch to more “prestigious” languages like French, English and Turkish to succeed in society took a toll on several Sefardic communities.

Books and CDs in Ladino were sold in the lobby of the the Givataim Theater.

Moving forward However, things have changed. Israel is Ladino’s central address now.

Despite a decline in the number of Ladino speakers and the “Israelization” of Sefardim in the country, as some scholars call it, the language has moved forward, mainly due to two forces: the advent of AY and the creation of the Jerusalem-based Autoridad Nasionala para el Ladino i su Kultura (National Authority for Ladino and its Culture) by the Knesset in 1997. Founded in 1979, AY is published twice a year (it published three issues until 2005) by Sefarad, an association for the conservation and promotion of Ladino culture. It standardized Ladino spelling, and their spelling was adopted by other publications, and became the leading publication in that language in the world. A must-read for scholars and enthusiasts, the magazine is an eclectic mix of articles on Sefardic history, CD and book reviews, poetry, crossword puzzles and recipes.  The Authority, which publishes AY jointly with Sefarad, has been a blessing for Ladino. It provides funding for courses at the Israeli universities where the language is taught (Hebrew University, Ben Gurion University, Bar-Ilan University, Haifa University and Tel Aviv University) as well as scholarships. The Authority also supports the Sirkolos de Kultura-Djudeo Espanyola (Circles of Judeo Spanish Culture), informal gatherings of Ladino speakers that have sprouted all over Israel, and the microfilming of the collection of Ladino newspapers of the Yad Ben Zvi Institute, said to be the world’s largest. The Authority’s latest project, which has a wider appeal, is the uploading of 30 songs from the CD Kantes del Folklor Djudeo-Espanyol (Songs of Judeo-Spanish Folklore) on Youtube, sung a cappella by non-professional singers in the style of the “old country.”

A new publication is born

Also based in Jerusalem, a publication that deserves attention for its creativity is Orisontes, an online publication sponsored by the Authority. Launched in the summer of 2013, it seeks to change the face of Ladino as it caters to a new generation of Ladino readers and writers. Orisontes goes beyond the confines of Sefardic life and history, which characterize other Sefardic publications, and tackles other topics. The magazine's mission was spelled out right on the cover of the first issue: Una revista de kreasion manseva en ladino (a magazine created by youngsters in Ladino). Proof of that was the age of the writers in that issue. Of the 14, 11 were under 40 years of age, which is unusual because it is difficult to find young Ladino speakers. The third issue, published in August 2014, features fiction, poetry and first-person accounts by 18 writers from Argentina, Israel, Uruguay, Chile, and the United States. Although it changed its slogan to Una revista kon alma manseva en ladino (a magazine with a Ladino soul), its goal is still to cater to a new generation. Like the first issue, the introduction to both issues appears in Rashi characters, a script that was used to print books in Turkey until the 1920s. Two editorial milestones made news in 2014, and they are in stark contrast with the decay of a language that no youngster can speak: the translation of Lewis Carroll’s classic The Adventures of Alice in Wonderland into Ladino (Las aventuras de Alisia en el Paiz de las Maraviyas), by Maale Adumim-based editor and translator Avner Perez, and Nono’s Kisses for Sephardic Children, by Flori Senor Rosenthal, a California-based writer. There are several resources for those interested in learning and practicing Ladino. For Hebrew speakers, the Authority sponsors a course online (www.youtube.com/watch?v=H8Pt-AS0ppM).  To conclude, Ladino, which has followed Sefardim in their wanderings during more than 500 years, is enjoying an unprecedented popularity, especially in Israel. However, its decline, albeit slow, cannot be reversed.

Reprinted from Targima, the Journal of the Israel Translators Association.

© Daniel Santacruz  June 2015

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