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  • Daniel Santacruz

Members from 40 countries echan lashon on Internet group

By Daniel Santacruz

Members of Ladinokomunita during a reunion in Istanbul in 2009.
Members of Ladinokomunita during a reunion in Istanbul in 2009 (Photos courtesy).
After not seeing each other for 60 years, Rachel Amado Bortnick and Alegre Saban Nahmias.
Rachel Amado Bortnick (left) and Alegre Saban Nahmias.

On any given day, the messages in Ladinokomunita come from Barcelona, Tel Aviv, New York City and several other places in the world. The topics are as varied as the correspondents.

A correspondent in New York City, for example, may thank another in Rio for clarifying an obscure Ladino verb. 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.

The brainchild of Rachel Amado Bortnick of Dallas, Texas, Ladinokomunita is a correspondence group in Yahoo Groups that turned 13 this year.

As the introduction to the group says, its purpose is to promote the use of Ladino, spread the use of a standard spelling of the language in Latin characters according to the rules of Aki Yerushalayim as well as promote the knowledge of Sefardic history and culture. Aki Yerushalayim, based in Jerusalem, is the leading Ladino and Sefardic culture journal in the world.

An idea born in Jerusalem

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 that 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, 1999. Amado Bortnick attended the conference, where she moderated a panel.

Attracted by the idea of organizing an Internet group for Ladino speakers, she asked some friends, upon her return from the conference, if they would be interested. They were, but the number was small, four or five, she recalls.

“Then I asked another about the mechanics of starting it and I did it,” she said.

But most importantly, she added, her real motivation to launch Ladinokomunita “was my love of my native language and culture.”

Amado Bortnick was born in Izmir, Turkey, in 1938 and in 1958 received afull 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. “I didn't know much about Sefardis then. We were just Jews. Here, in the U.S. nobody had heard of a Jew from Turkey, or one who did not, whose parents even did not, speak Yiddish.” 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 Society from 1996 to 1998.

A resident of Dallas since 1988, she has lectured extensively about Ladino and Sefardic history. Her articles on those topics have appeared in several publications in the United States and overseas. Following are excerpts of the interview with Amado Bortnick, who also moderates the group. Kolsefardim: What was the response to Ladinokomunita the first year? Rachel Amado Bortnick: We started with four or five members, and in the first month we had about 30. By the end of 2000, we had a few hundred. I don't remember the exact numbers, but it was a phenomenal growth. On the website there is message history that shows 33 messages on January of 2000, and 174 by September of that year. Now we average about 400 a month. In March of this year there were 697. The number of messages goes up and down, which has nothing to do with the number of members but with how much they have something to say, and the time to write, about the subjects being discussed. At first, it was mostly elderly Sefardic, Ladino-speaking people, but then we started to get a lot of Hispanics with Crypto-Jewish backgrounds as well, and lately a surprising number of young people, mostly university students, interested in the language or doing research in it. We have now 1461 members [mid June]. Over the years about 100 Sefardic members have passed away. KS: Did you encounter any technical difficulties at the beginning? RAB: The name of the server kept changing. It changed three times before it became Yahoo Groups, but that didn't affect us. A few years ago we decided to have chat rooms to talk with each other. We called it salon de moabet, but that fizzled out when the person who was doing the technical part of it lost interest. So long as we just write, we are fine. KS: Do you consider that, 13 years later, Ladinokomunita is the primary promoter of Ladino in the world on the Internet? RAB: I had no idea where the venture would go at all. I just thought it was something worth trying. I am very happy with what developed from it. KS: Besides you, who else works on the group and in what capacity? RAB: Rosina Karako Smeraldi, who was born in Bulgaria and lived in Florida, was the main moderator of the group for 10 years. She died last year. Yehuda Hatsvi, who lives in Israel, is a co-moderator. Moshe Gormez, in Paris, is our technical advisor. Guler Orgun, in Istanbul, does some moderating and is in charge of the on-line dictionary that we have. KS: What is one of the most memorable anecdotes you remember as a moderator? RAB: On June 14, 2005, a correspondent living in Israel, Itzhak Roditi, wrote to Ladinokomunita asking for help to locate a long-lost sister of his mother, Dudu, or Idi Roditi, who also lives in Israel. He had just discovered that his mother, who was born in 1921 in Edirne [Turkey], from the family Shoef, had a younger sister in Turkey named Fortune, who had married a Moslem at a young age and hadn't been heard from since. He asked for help in finding her. Dan Bayer, a correspondent from California, knew and remembered the family. My brother, Selim Amado, had contacts in the bureaucracy of Ankara. After much effort on the part of some Ladinokomunita members and others in Turkey and Israel, within a few months Fortune was found, living under her Turkish name. No one in her family knew she had been Jewish. Itzhak ended up visiting her and her family. Fortune and her son came to Israel and the sisters reunited after more than 60 years. Itzhak became good friends with his Moslem cousin, a filmmaker, who filmed the whole reunion. © Daniel Santacruz June 2013

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