Text and photos by Daniel Santacruz
There is a shade of irony in Moshe Shaul’s smile when he mentions the title of a documentary produced in Spain about Sefardic culture, El último sefardí (The Last Sephardic Jew), that touched a raw nerve among Ladino-speaking intellectuals around the world.
Although four years have passed since the release of the film, Shaul, editor of Aki Yerushalayim, an all-Ladino journal based in Jerusalem, still resents its title.
“In the movie they interviewed a young man and they say he’s the last Sephardi left, suggesting that Sefardic culture and Ladino are dying or are not relevant anymore,” Shaul said in an interview in the magazine's offices on King George Street, Jerusalem.
But, contrary to what the title suggests, he added, in the last two years there has been a renewed interest for Sefardic culture and Ladino and “lots of fantastic activities” all over the world to promote them.
As examples, he mentioned several symposia about Ladino in Bulgaria, France and Argentina; publication of poetry books, folklore and history in Greece, Spain, Turkey, Bulgaria, France and the United States; and expositions about Ladino books, Sefardic food-tasting and lectures in several Spanish cities.
Music from all over
Add to that the release of several CDs of romanzas (ballads) by more than 10 different musical ensembles and soloists in Spain, Turkey, Canada and the United States.
Conferences, publication of books and tadradas (cultural gatherings), all in Ladino, are common in Israel. Some 600 Ladino speakers from all over the world get together every February and May at a hotel near the Dead Sea for a week of cultural activities called Dias de Leche I Miel (Days of Milk and Honey). Ladino cultural groups have formed in Jerusalem, Haifa, Ashkelon, Tel Aviv, Bat Yam, Ranana, Natanya, and Petach Tikva.
The driving force behind most the activities in Israel are Shaul and the editorial committee of Aki Yerushalayim, Zelda Ovadia, Mordechai Arbell, Matilda Koen-Serrano, and Avner Perez. Aki Yerushalayim is Ladino for “Here Jerusalem."
At a recent conference at the Rabin Hostel in Jerusalem, Shaul and Ovadia each lectured about Sephardim in Turkey to a group of seven middle-aged Israelis born of Ladino-speaking parents.
Ovadia, 43, who migrated to Israel in 1965, told the attendees about Sefardic customs and peppered her talk with personal anecdotes about her life in her native Istanbul. The attendees, hailing from different Jerusalem neighborhoods, spoke to Ovadia in Ladino, but Hebrew among themselves, a phenomenon common among children of immigrants: familiarity with their parents’ language and a mixture of curiosity for customs of the old country.
After Ovadia’s lecture, Shaul did a slide presentation about synagogues, cemeteries and customs in Izmir, the city where he was born in 1940 before immigrating to Israel.
The lecture, as well as the Dias de Leche I Miel, is sponsored by the National Authority of Ladino, created by the Knesset in 1997. The Authority also pays for the microfilming of the collection of Ladino newspapers of the Yad Ben Zvi Institute in Jerusalem, the world’s largest, and the cataloging of the 2000-plus Ladino books in the University of Jerusalem, partially covers the salary of university professors, fosters the writing of plays, fiction and non-fiction, and trains teachers.
Taught in 5 universities
In Israel, Ladino is taught at Hebrew University, Ben Gurion University, Haifa University, Tel Aviv University and Bar Ilan University. The Authority has also given scholarships to students attending those schools.
The number of Ladino speakers around the world has dwindled as young Sefardic Jews prefer to communicate in the dominant language of the society they live in, be it Hebrew, French, Spanish or English.
In a paper presented the Second International Judeo- Spanish Conference, held in Salonika in 2000, scholar Mary Altabev said that Ladino “meets the requirements of the language death criteria insofar as it has suffered physical, demographic and social dislocation.”
It’s believed that there are some 200,000 Ladino speakers in Israel, and from to 15,000 to 20,000 in the United States, most of whom live in New York City, Seattle, Dade and Palm Beach counties, Florida, and Los Angeles.
Published twice a year, Aki Yerushalayim, one of only two all-Ladino publications in the world, has been credited with keeping Ladino relevant. It standardized the spelling of thousands of Ladino words, no small feat considering that Ladino dictionaries and grammar books are few and far between, and the language wasn’t taught in school settings until the creation of the Authority.
In its 29 years of existence it has showcased books, journals, poetry and CDs that otherwise would be overlooked by other publications. It also publishes memoirs, biographies, recipes and rarely known episodes of Sefardic history.
Readers in three continents
In 2003 Aki Yerushalayim’s frequency increased from two to three issues thanks to money from the Authority, which at the time it was created had an annual budget of $400,000 shekels. It went back to two a year later because the Authority reduced its subsidy. The publication’s current budget is $40,000 shekels, not enough to cover expenses, said Shaul.
It is mailed to 1,000 subscribers in Europe, Japan, South America and the United States, and the subscription costs $40.
Ibercaja, a bank headquartered in Saragossa, Spain, the magazine’s only advertiser since 1995, stopped advertising in it six years ago due to a change in management, said Shaul. The money, $1,000, was mostly a symbolic donation, he added, although he decided to keep running the ad.
Keeping Aki Yerushalayim afloat has been difficult, especially in the last two years, said Shaul, but should it fold, he is confident the seed has been planted to keep the language alive.
La ora mas negra es antes del amaneser (The darkest hour is before dawn), he said quoting a Ladino saying. Perhaps unaware of the pun, he praised the launching three years ago of El amaneser (The Dawn), an all-Ladino newspaper published in Istanbul twice a month that Shaul seemingly considers as the rightful successor to Aki Yerushalayim.
“Despite the problems, we are trying to improve the literary level and the layout of the magazine, and have more color pictures and glossy paper,” said Shaul. “We look for advertisers, but not aggressively because it’s only two people who work here and we are overwhelmed with work and do not have the time or the energy, although there is room for publicity if someone wants to advertise.”
© Daniel Santacruz