Oldest all-Ladino magazine in the world closes after 37 years
Text and photo by Daniel Santacruz
Aki Yerushalayim, the oldest all-Ladino magazine in the world, ceased publication in October.
With issue 99-100, an “adventure” that started 37 years ago, according to its editor, Moshe Shaul, came to an end.
There are several reasons why it ceased publication, according to Shaul. The most frequently cited was financial. The magazine was published by Sefarad, a cultural organization based in Jerusalem, in cooperation with the National Authority for Ladino, which earmarked an annual budget of 40,000 shekels for it. Over time it was reduced to 20,000.
Despite several donations from individuals and organizations overseas, the financial crisis in the last years became so severed that three of the members of the editorial committee, Mordehay Arbell, Zelda Ovadia and Shaul, offered to pay the cost of printing of the last three issues themselves.
Other reasons —such as readers’ apathy, which showed in their neglect to renew their subscriptions, as well as the advanced age of many of them—made Shaul and Ovadia realize that a printed publication wasn't perhaps the best vehicle for transmitting Sephardic culture.
The alternative they are considering now is publishing it online in the near future.
Shaul edited the magazine from the first issue, which came out on April 4, 1979 and had only 18 pages. Several years later an editorial committee was created, made up by people working in the field of Ladino, or Judeo-Spanish, among them Zelda Ovadia, born in Istanbul, Turkey, who was associate editor until the last issue.
Readers in three continents
Aki Yerushalayim reached several Latin American and European countries, and even Japan, where there was only one subscriber, and was well received by university professors and students, many of whom were not Jewish. It had several sections: books and CD reviews, philately, food—written by Ovadia—, upcoming cultural events in several countries, poetry, short stories, news and a crossword puzzle. Three sections set it apart from other publications: "El kantoniko de haketia," "El kantoniko de soliteo" y "El kantoniko de letras Rashi," which analyzed texts written in the former and in the style of the latter. Biographies of Sephardic personalities and articles about history, literature, and Sefardic organizations were common. Initially, 1,000 copies of each issue were printed, but the number dwindled to 800, then to 600 and afterwards to 500. Four hundred copies of the last issue were printed, most of which were never paid for by the subscribers, said Shaul. The frequency fluctuated between three and two yearly issues. The last one had the most pages in its history: 118. The only advertiser the magazine had during the 37 years was Ibercaja, a bank from Zaragoza, Spain, which advertised for several years. Shaul said that no other advertisers were sought as they were not interested in a publication with just 1,000 issues.
The rise and fall of Sefardic journalism With the closing of the magazine Ladino speakers have lost the most authoritative voice in Sephardic culture. In October, Ovadia, in an e-mail to the members of Ladinokomunita, an online group of Ladino speakers that reaches 45 countries, called it “a treasure, an exceptional encyclopedia of Judeo-Spanish culture, in all its fields.”
Writing to the group’s members recently, its founder, Rachel Amado Bortnick, of Dallas, Texas, said that during “37 years [it] helped us get to know our Sefardic heritage, keep our language alive and come together with Sefardim spread all over the world.“
According to historian Tracy Harris, author of Death of a Language: The History of Judeo-Spanish, from 1842 to 1959 between 296 y 310 publications in Ladino were published in countries of the former Ottoman Empire and New York City.
Aki Yerushalayim is the last Ladino publication in Israel. Three newspapers, El Tiempo, La Verdad, which changed its name to La Luz de Israel, all based in Tel Aviv, appeared between 1950 and 1990.
Turkey is home to the last two Ladino publications in the world. The weekly Şalom, based in Istanbul, the Jewish community’s only newspaper, carries a weekly page in Ladino, Şalom’s 24-page monthly magazine, El Amanecer, is written entirely in Ladino. It was launched in 2005.
Shaul’s greatest contribution to Ladino may have been the standardization of the language, which for centuries was passed from one generation to the next as Ladino dictionaries and grammar books didn’t exist, nor was it taught in schools.
Appalled by the inconsistency in the spelling of the language among Ladino speakers around the world—influenced by French, Turkish and Spanish
—, he decided to create a phonetic writing system, which was adopted almost unanimously around the
world by writers and other Ladino publications, such as Şalom and El Amaneser, and La Lettre Sepharade, in France.
Born in Izmir, Turkey, Shaul migrated to Israel in 1949 at age 20. In 1954 he joined the Jerusalem-based La Bos de Israel’s Ladino programming and in 1977 took over as director following the death of Yitzhak Levy, its manager. In April of last year, he and professor Shmuel Rafael, director of the Naime and Yehoshua Salti Center for Ladino Studies at Bar Ilan University, in Ramat Gan, Israel, were named Foreign Corresponding Academics of the Madrid-based Spanish Royal Academy. In a recent interview in Jerusalem, Shaul reflected about his work at the helm of the magazine. Ovadia, who also taught Ladino at a girls’ school in Jerusalem for six years and coauthored a book of Sefardic gastronomy, was present. Excerpts follow. The interview was conducted in Spanish and Ladino. Kol Sefardim: What countries did the magazine reach? MS: It can be said that it reached all the continents, especially the Iberoamerican world: Spain, Colombia, Argentina, Mexico. (…) Those born in Ladino-speaking homes are very few and most in the Iberoamerican world are people interested in Ladino, especially students and non-Jews. (…) We receive electronic messages from people in Costa Rica, Honduras and Mexico who are interested in reading and receiving the magazine. I think Iberoamerican people have a great potential and Sefardic culture is a topic they are interested in, more so now because until now little was know about it. Spain has gone to great lengths to research and renew ties with Sefardim to keep this culture. ( …) We also reached Turkey, North America, Germany, Japan, Latvia, a few [readers] in Australia, and many universities with Hispanic departments. There is a lot of interest in Ladino in the university world. (…) Even today we get requests from [university] students that need help with their thesis because they know that Aki Yerushalayim is one of the sources of information of Sefardic culture. (…) There are researchers in Japan that are interested in Ladino and one of them wrote a dictionary based on words from the magazine. We can ask, for example, what does Germany have to do with Sefardic culture? There are hispanists there that are fascinated [with Ladino] and people who aren’t Jewish or Sefardic that are interested in it, and thank God there are people all over the world with that cultural foundation, which allows them to read and understand Ladino.
KS: Let’s talk about the financial situation of the magazine. MS: The [National] Authority [for Ladino] was created [by the Kneset] in 1996 and the following year we already had a grant, which initially was 40,000 shekels and we published more often. Over time it was reduced to 20,000 shekels, which is what we received for the last three issues, 98, 99 y 100. The grant wasn’t enough and only covered part of the expenses
(…) We received donations from FASSAC [Foundation for the Advancement of Sephardic Studies and Culture, in New York], for 3,000 dollars through Robert Bedford [its director], which helped us a lot, from [magazine] La Lettre Sepharade [in France] and a personal one from Rachel Amado. Last year there were difficulties and there was no money in the bank to pay running costs. That’s why each of the editorial committee members [Arbell, Ovadia and Shaul] contributed with money and that allowed us to continue almost until the last issue. (…) Four hundred copies of the last issue were printed, most of which weren’t paid for (…) Very few of the subscribers that had to renew the subscription did so, but that wasn’t enough. But there weren’t only financial reasons [to close the magazine]; some of the people that helped us said that if the reasons were money related, a solution could be found to print one more issue. So, Zelda and I thought that if people hadn’t renewed, not only for a year, but for two or three, it is because they aren’t reading the magazine, aren’t interested or are old and can’t make the minimal effort. We concluded that the effort we were making to print it could be better used if we publish it on the Internet. [It] has a wider audience and more possibilities of attracting younger people. KS: Tell me about the plans for Internet. MS: Aki Yerushakayim is going to appear on the Internet (. . . ) We are getting it ready now. We have a partner, Marcelo Benveniste [one of the editors of the portal eSefarad, in Argentina], who is helping us with the plans. He’s working in a new site that will also be called Aki Yerushalayim, where you can see the magazine’s 100 issues, and it will have comments, lots of visuals and sections. It will be like eSefarad. I’m convinced it’s going to be successful. What people are interested in is hearing Ladino, not only reading it. Zelda and I just talked about buying the equipment to do recordings here, read Djoha [a folk hero] stories, read poetry, read articles about practices and customs and weddings. We have lots of written material about that. I always get requests from people who want to know where to hear Ladino and this is going to be a means because the Internet is all over the world, so why not do it. Zelda Ovadia: Now that we are going to do it on the Internet it will be easier to have music and songs in Ladino. It’s going to be slightly different from what had been done until now. KS: The two of you did practically everything in the magazine: write, edit articles, stuff it in envelopes, take it to the post office. There was nobody else in Jerusalem that could do that? ZO: There is nobody else that can do that; we are the last 2 Musketeers [laughs]. MS: You have to have a good knowledge of Ladino and the authority to make corrections. It makes no sense to make them if one doesn’t now. We both have years of experience because we worked in Ladino radio broadcast; I, more than 40 years, and Zelda, more than 30. We are competent enough to say when a word isn’t correct. KS: Moshe, do you see yourself as the world’s leading authority on ladino? MS: There is no world authority on ladino. I am glad that Aki Yerushalayim's spelling rules were accepted because now there is uniformity [to write]. KS: Of all the 37 years as editors, which was the happiest moment? KS: To me, when we celebrated 25 years, which took place in the Museum of Biblical Lands [in Jerusalem], organized by Zelda [The former president of Israel Yitzhak] Navon attended, as well as select group of people working in Ladino in Israel. It was very exciting. We celebrated the 30 y 35 years less enthusiastically. ZO: The 25 years were really wonderful. Friends came from Spain. KS: And the saddest? ZO: Now, I’m really sad. I was crying . . . MS: There is no sad moment for me, I’m convinced that we re going to continue (…) Aki Yerushalayim wasn’t the end but the means to keep Ladino culture alive. I did it not do because I wanted to publish a magazine; I was a radio journalist and what I was interested in was doing interviews. We started the magazine to help keep Ladino alive and, over all, to respond to requests from listeners who had not been able to hear programs in Ladino. Over time we made the magazine into an influential one (…) Thus, we are going to continue with this work in order to insure that djudeo-Spanish culture remains a living one, but we are going to do it on the Internet and with interviews in which Ladino can be heard and not only read. I hope this is going to have results.
© Daniel Santacruz