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Ladinokomunita: 20 years old and still going strong

Updated: Jan 27

By Daniel Santacruz

Members of Ladinokomunita from different countries during a reunion in Istanbul in 2009.
Members of Ladinokomunita from different countries during a reunion in Istanbul in 2009. (Photos courtesy).
Rachel Amado Bortnick and Alegre Saban Nahmias in Buenos Aires during one of LK reunions.

On its 20th anniversary, in November 2019, Ladinokomunita (LK) received a surprise, but not the type you might expect for a birthday.

Yahoo, which hosted the online Ladino forum, told the site operators that it would be removing everything that was stored on LK’s website: 20 years worth of messages, over 65,000 of them, hundreds of files, attachments and pictures. Yahoo’s decision made it difficult to continue operating, said Rachel Amado Bortnick, its founder and one of the moderators.

In December the group switched to grous.io, which allowed them to transfer all the content, even all the members,

A resident of Dallas, Texas, since 1988, Amado Bortnick has lectured extensively about Ladino and Sefardic history. Her articles on those topics have appeared in several publications in the United States and overseas.

She was born in Izmir, Turkey, in 1938 and in 1958 received a full scholarship to study chemistry at Lindenwood University, in Saint Charles, Miss. After meeting her husband, architect Bernard Bortnick, in the United States, the couple married in Izmir.

“At home [in Izmir] we only spoke Ladino, the major vehicle of our Sephardic identity,” she said in a previous interview with this site. “I didn't know much about Sefardis then. We were just Jews.”


Los Amigos Sefaradis is born

In 1988, Amado Bortnick founded Los Amigos Sefaradis, a group of Ladino speakers in Oakland, Calif., that held monthly educational programs during its four years of existence.

The following year she was profiled in a documentary titled Trees Cry for Rain: A Sephardic Journey, directed by Bonnie Burt. She has been active in Turkish associations and served as president of the Dallas Jewish Historical Sociery from 1996 to 1998.

The idea of creating a virtual community that would enable Ladino speakers around the world to talk to each other, or echar lashon, was first suggested by Moshe Shaul, editor of Aki Yerushalayim, a Ladino journal, at an international conference in Jerusalem on the orthography of Ladino organized by the Autoridad Nasionala de Ladino i su Kultura (National Authority in Ladino and its Culture) in Jerusalem in October of 1999.

Amado Bortnick attended the conference, where she moderated a panel. She was attracted by the idea of organizing an Internet group for Ladino speakers and upon return from the conference she asked some friends if they would be interested. They were, but the number was small, four or five, she recalls.

Today, 20 years later, LK is the most respected voice for Ladino speakers in the world.

Following are excerpts of an interview with Amado Bortnick.

Kolsefardim: Do you consider that, 20 years later, LK is the primary promoter of Ladino in the world on the Internet?

Rachek Amado Bortnick: I hope that is so! I am happy to see that there are so many other attempts to keep Ladino alive on the Internet today, but for sure LK was the first and is still going strong.

KS: How many members does LK have today and from what countries?

RAB: 1,674 members so far. I have marked 42 countries in total, but I don’t know if the one-member countries here and there, like India, China, Japan, are still there. I don’t know the background of each person. I had always a questionnaire prepared for new members, but it was not obligatory, and most people joined without filling it out.

KS: What was the response to LK the first year?

RAB: When we started, in 1999, we didn’t know how to spread the word about it. A few of the messages of the first week expressed concern that new people were not registering. Then two weeks later it was over a hundred, and it went on from there, skyrocketing the second year and on.

The first ten years or so almost everyone was a Sefardi from a Ladino-speaking background. Then, slowly others, Ashkenazim, Spaniards, people claiming or suspecting anusim background and academics of all backgrounds, such as linguistics, Spanish, Jewish studies, began to join. Now, a sizable number are non-native speakers of the language, or new learners.

KS: Did you imagine, 20 years ago, when you launched LK, that it would be so successful?

RAB: All I can say that it is just amazing. It makes me very happy, but the credit goes to all the members who write in.

DS: How do you see the future of Ladino?

RAB: This is a big question. So many people are interested in learning it, saving it, even using it, that it is probably not going to disappear for a long time to come. But it will change and evolve, and maybe lose a lot of its old character.

I am very impressed with the ardor with which some young people embrace it.

Look at the wonderful work of the young Dr. Devin Naar at the University of Washington in Seattle, Wash. He is even teaching the language to his two little children. On the East Coast, Gloria Ascher, at Tufts University, and Daisy Sadaka Braverman, at the University of Pennsylvania, have been teaching it to college students, as has Dr. Bryan Kirschen, a young Ashkenazi, who had started the UCLadino classes and a yearly symposium, which have been going on for eight years now!

Many of the young people studying and specializing in it are not Sefardic or even Jewish. Two of the most ardent promoters of Ladino today are the Spaniards Carlos Yerba and Alejandro Acero, PhD students at the University of New York, in Manhattan, and Florida State, respectively, founders of Ladino 21 on Youtube.

And let’s not forget the songs. More and more singers and musicians sing the old ones, and even play around with them, making them into hip-hop, rock, flamenco or even rap, even as some pretend that they are all medieval and sing them to accompaniment of medieval instruments. Most of them are actually from the 19th and 20th centuries! And even if some of them mispronounce the words, the language is out there in song, where it will go on forever.

However, it certainly is not going to be that old-time Jewish language that was the hallmark of our Ottoman Sefardic communities. The young academics and others learning it may learn the grammar, the vocabulary, even some Turkish words, but they will never know how to speak with sayings, blessings, and proverbs at every turn, and a few curses and insults, too, and all the Hebraisms that were an integral part of our language.

Once, when I paid my friend Perla back the money I had borrowed, she said a tanyedores ke des. (May you give [money] to musicians.) Who would say something like that today, except a person who grew up in a Ladino-speaking household?

So, yes, it will go on. Some devotees will probably even use it as a language of communication over the Internet, but it will never be the language of Sephardic homes or communities, which in themselves are, unfortunately, fast disappearing. Also, we native speakers have a certain intonation (Haham Jerusalmi used to say it derived from the Talmudic discussions!) that young people are not even aware of, and certainly will not perpetuate.

KS: What is one of the most memorable anecdotes you remember as a moderator?

RAB: Oh, it is so hard to choose, as there are so many! There were several instances of people finding long-lost friends and relatives via LK, and then actually reuniting with them.

In one case, I tracked down members in Buenos Aires, [among them] my childhood friend and neighbor Alegre Saban whose family had left for Argentina when we were both 11. After exactly 60 years I was reunited with her during a LK trip to that country.

The most dramatic, unforgettable reunification started on LK when Izak Roditi of Israel sent a message asking for help in finding his mother’s long-lost sister in Turkey. That sister had married a Moslem, changed her name and city, and never told anyone about her Jewish origins. Their eventual reunification was recorded on video in two parts:

I am proud to say that the idea of an annual Dia Internasional de Ladino (International Ladino Day) was born in LK in 2013, the brainchild of member Zelda Ovadia of Jerusalem.

It is celebrated since then in several cities, including at the University of Murcia, Spain. At the moment I am involved in planning the seventh one in Dallas.

The nostalgic writings of the moderator Rosina Karako Esmeraldi and the poetry of Haim Vitali Sadacca, both now of blessed memory, the texts on the experiences of Holocaust survivors, the wonderful religious, folkloric and linguistic commentaries, of Yehuda Hatsvi (ke mos biva munchos anyos) are among the treasures of the LK archives.

In 2007 we had the first of our many annual LK trips, when members from many countries met in Israel. Subsequently we have met in and toured Turkey, Spain, Argentina, Brasil, Mexico, Greece, the United States and even had a cruise to the Caribbean islands, where we visited the historic synagogue and Jewish cemetery of Curaçao.


© Daniel Santacruz

December 2019


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