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Will Ladino Rise Again?

Will Ladino Rise Again?


When a language becomes extinct, the culture of the people who spoke it dies. According to some experts, that will be the fate of what was the most widely spoken of all Jewish languages: Ladino. Every year, several languages around the world disappear, just like species of birds and animals. Ladino is slated to join them.

Every few years, the United Nations agency UNESCO produces a Red Book of Endangered Languages. Yiddish is listed as "endangered"; Ladino as "seriously endangered." Apart from a small group of enthusiasts and academics, the Jewish world has taken little notice of Ladino's demise.

What is Ladino? Where is it from? Why is it important? And why is it ignored by the Jewish world?

The development of Ladino was similar to that of YiddishLadino, also referred to as Judeo-Spanish, Spanyolit, Judezmo, Hakitia and various other terms, began its life in 1492 when the Jews were expelled from Spain. Some refer to it as a "fossilized" language, implying that it is an antique that has not changed since 1492. That is not true.

When the 150,000 to 300,000 Jews left Spain, they took with them their languages. They took Hebrew, the language of prayer and study. Like Yiddish, it was not used at home or in the streets. The language of daily use was Castilian Spanish as it was spoken in the late 15th century.

From Spain, the Jews traveled to Holland, England, Morocco, and towns and cities throughout the Ottoman Empire. Cut off from the influence of the Spanish of Spain, which also changed through the centuries and was modernized, Ladino maintained its 15th century roots, and also changed, but in a different way. Its changes were influenced by the many countries and cultures in which Spanish Jews settled.

In this way, the development of Ladino was similar to that of Yiddish, which developed over the centuries with constant infusions of other languages wherever Jews lived. Ladino borrowed from Greek, Turkish and French. Yiddish developed into a distinct language, not simply a dialect of German, though remaining a Germanic language. Ladino also meets the criteria of a distinct language, and is not merely a dialect of Spanish. Like Yiddish, Ladino was heavily influenced by Hebrew, which remained the language of study and prayer.

With the Ladino-speaking Jews having settled so widely, Ladino gradually developed two dialects. Oriental Ladino was spoken in Turkey and Rhodes and reflected Castilian Spanish. Western Ladino was closer to northern Spanish and Portuguese and was spoken elsewhere in Greece, as well as in Macedonia, Bosnia, Serbia and Romania.

Like Yiddish, Ladino was written with Hebrew letters, except that Ladino used the Rashi script. The Rashi script was, in fact, originally a Ladino script to separate Rashi's commentary from the Torah. It was only at the beginning of the 20th century that Ladino began to be written using the Latin alphabet, like most European languages.

At one time, an estimated 80 percent of Diaspora Jews were Ladino-speakingSince the Expulsion, Ladino has been spoken in North Africa, Egypt, Greece, Turkey, the former Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Romania, France, Israel, the United States and Latin America. At one time, an estimated 80 percent of Diaspora Jews were Ladino-speaking. However, the Holocaust wiped out about 90 percent of all the world's Ladino-speakers.

For many years, Israel discouraged the use of both Ladino and Yiddish in favor of Modern Hebrew. There has also been assimilation with Ashkenazi Jews and with non-Jews, and the enormous disruption of Jews from Arab countries. In countries hike the United States, Jewish life has been dominated by Ashkenazis with a Yiddish background, often to the detriment of those speaking Ladino. Mere remnants remain, thought to be somewhere between 150,000 and 200,000 Ladino speakers, most of whom are not fluent, though a 2005 study suggested that only 110,000 Ladino-speakers exist, not one speaking only Ladino.

The Yiddish of the Sephardim

It is often said that Ladino is the "Yiddish" of the Sephardim. This is not exactly true, even though there are similarities. Some believe that, because at least in Israel there are now more Sephardim than Ashkenazim, Ladino will make a comeback. But while the word "Sepharad" refers to Spain, just as "Ashkenaz" refers to Germany, a high proportion of so-called Sephardim are not of Spanish origin, and Ladino was never in their history, including Jews of Yemenite, Kurdish, and Bukharan background.

The question is whether Ladino will become extinct. While scholars will still be able to read Ladino, once a language is no longer "living" it ceases to contribute to the cultural, social and intellectual development of a people. This is certainly true with Anglo-Saxon and Aramaic, and is likely to occur to Scots Gaelic.

The reality is that most Ladino-speakers are over 50 years of age, and many of them (according to studies) do not speak it well. This means that in about 30 years, Ladino will be dead.

A Ladino Revival

There are efforts being made to keep Ladino alive. Sephardic music, including Ladino songs, boasts a wider audience than ever before. There are Ladino cultural festivals, and the five major Israeli universities all teach Ladino and have departments concentrating on Sephardic studies, including a major world center at Bar Ilan University and the center for Ladino culture at Ben Gurion.

Major American rabbinical schools have largely ignored LadinoA few European universities have similar activities, but in the United States the only university regularly teaching it is Tufts University. There, Prof. Gloria Ascher is one of the world's leading Ladino specialists. Major American rabbinical schools have largely ignored Ladino, though Yeshiva University is making an effort to revitalize it. Some Spanish and Portuguese synagogues give classes in Ladino, but even the Sephardic organizations do not have any major activity in revitalizing the language.

The recent establishment of the Ottoman-Turkish Sephardic Culture Research Center in Istanbul may become a catalyst in changing this situation. Israel, which has the largest number of Ladino-speakers in the world, has formed the National Authority for Ladino. The Maale-Adumim Institute for Ladino has also been established in Israel with the sole purpose of preserving the language. Kol Israel also broadcasts in Ladino. The Sorbonne in Paris has opened a Department of Judeo-Spanish, and there is renewed academic interest in Spain. The Spanish Embassy in Tel Aviv takes a particular interest in the preservation of Ladino. The Ladino Preservation Council was established in 2002.

One of the most unique efforts to establish a worldwide community of Ladino-speakers is the Ladinokomunita, an internet site where approximately 700 Ladino-speakers worldwide socialize via the internet in Ladino. The weekly Turkish Jewish paper also publishes one page in Ladino.

Ladino, Yiddish and the Future

While Yiddish is still regarded as endangered, the current thought is that it will not die out. It seems to have reached a plateau in its decline. Unlike Ladino, there is a Yiddish population which is still large enough to keep the language going. The real strength in the preservation of Yiddish however, lies in the Hassidic movement. Yiddish is still used as a daily language in most Hassidic communities, and many Hassidic yeshivahs use the language as a daily means of communication and teaching. Because the Hassidic communities have a considerably higher birthrate than the general Jewish population, there is a young Yiddish generation to replace those who are dying out or who have disappeared. This is despite the virtual disappearance of Yiddish theatre, with a handful of exceptions like the Folksbiene in New York, and Yiddish popular publishing.

Enormous effort will be required to teach and use the languageLadino is not in the same position. Because the Hassidic movement arose exclusively in the Ashkenazi world, there is no equivalent in the Sephardic world which uses Ladino as its means of communication or education. Similarly, it would be rare to find a school that teaches in Ladino.

The result is that if Ladino and its rich culture are to be handed on to future generations of all Jews, not just Sephardim, an enormous effort will be required to teach and use the language, even in a secondary way. The zealous academics and other enthusiasts will not be enough.

Lorne E. Rozovsky (1943-2013) was a lawyer, author, educator, a health management consultant and an inquisitive Jew.

The author acknowledges with thanks the assistance of Prof. Gloria Ascher of Tufts University, Prof. Shmuel Refuel of Bar Ilan University and Prof Tamar Alexander of Ben Gurion University of the Negev.
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Eduardo Spain April 10, 2016

To Natalie Natalie, you are completely mistaken. Ladino, like many other spanish words have differents meanings. In this case it's not related at all with the jewish people, ladinos in Guatemala are an etnic group descendant of europeans (from Spain) and indigenous it's a kind of middle class. Hope this helps. Reply

Natalie Sweden March 30, 2016

Christian Ladino speaking in Guatemala? We sponsor a child in Guatemala. She had trouble in school learning Spanish because she spoke Ladino at home. She was presented to us as a Ladino. She tells us about Christmas and Easter celebrations which sound like a combination if Indian culture and christian. It wouldn't be surprising if some Ladino speaking people became Christians, but I would like to know more. Reply

Anonymous Seattle, WA March 9, 2016

Ladino Language at the University of Washington The University of Washington, Seattle is teaching Ladino, as well! Many people may not know that Seattle has the third largest population of Sephardic people in the world. And UW has the largest collection of Ladino treasures -- texts that date as far back as the 16th century -- in the world. The collection is larger than that of the Library of Congress or Harvard University! Reply

Gustavo Buenos Aires September 13, 2015

I find it strange that 90% of Ladino speakers died in the holocaust. I thought most of them were settled in Yugoslavia, Turkey and North Africa. Reply

Ozzy Florida March 26, 2014

Well, many people are worried that Ladino may disappear, but we have big population speaking Ladino today, more than 90% of the Latin American population are Ladino speaker the thing is that we need to be pushed to speak because everybody understand it and can write it, remember that 90% is saphardim, I am saying this for experience my parent and older brothers/sisters speak ladino, I understand more than I speak so we need more encouragement to do so, we mainly speak castillian at home. Reply

Jorge Munuzuri Qro/Mexico August 8, 2013

My mind resists the idea of Ladino demise. For those of us of Spanish mother tongue these are sad news but I feel confident that G-d will lead us in all that concerns to Ladino language. Reply

Mayer Bloom Montreal Quebec Canada August 7, 2013

Language itself does not preserve a culture Language is certainly a component of a culture, however, in itself it does not preserve the culture. Certainly Jews have spoken many languages through the millennia, yet the languages alone have not maintained the strident connection to our religion and culture. It is the commitment to the culture that keeps the language, and even that not always. In our own lifetime, we witness non-Jews speaking Yiddish and inversely, sincerely committed Jews not knowing a word of Yiddish or Ladino.
Sadly, there is a move to save the Ladino language, but is there truly a pure and living Ladino culture left and/or maintained? To which end are we striving to keep afloat this language? Perhaps it would be wiser to concentrate our efforts on reconnecting otherwise Ladino speakers back to their native culture - Judaism! It would be resources better spent than artificially propping up a language which has no native speakers and which is probably sadly destined to join the growing heap of extinct languages. Reply

Israel Spain August 7, 2013

I Love "La Lingua Florida"! At the time the Ladino was originated, there were not only the Castilian language in the Hispanic kingdoms, but also the Aragonese, the Catalan and the Galician… spoken and written by the jews. After the Expulsion they were mixed and preserved giving birth to an autonomous language distinctively Jewish. Personally I love hearing that beautiful language. Reply

Anonymous Tennessee July 30, 2013

My uma still teaches it at home My avuela and her parents (sephardic jews) moved from Spain to Mexico a very long time ago, when she was a lil' girl. She was raised in Mexico city and married an ashkenazi immigrant jew. They had 10 children, my uma is one of her eldest daughters. There is a huge sephardic and orthodox jew community in the capital city and hopefully Ladino will continue to be taught at home for generations to come. Godspeed Ladino! :D Reply

Michael Assaraf Los Angeles, CA May 8, 2013

I am fifty years old, I've spoken Ladino all my life. My parents and grandparents still do. Reply

Jan Rehovot, Israel April 11, 2013

Judesmo It's a very beautiful language. I'm 29 years old and it's my second mother tongue. I speak to my grandparents with it and also to my 15 years-old cousin with it. I sometimes speak, think, sing and dream in this language. I know that there is a huge decline in the population that speak it (my sister and my other cousins don't speak it for example), however I feel that it's still very alive. I wish I had a way to teach it to higher number of people and a way to practise it much more.
Sano y rezio que estex :) Reply

Anonymous Jerusalem, Israel August 19, 2012

Ladino Firstly, Ladino cannot be compared to Anglo-Saxon as a language that no longer has any speakers and therefore the culture has got lost. Anglos-Saxon was the "predecessor" of English, as Latin was the predecessor of French, Spanish, Italian, Portguese, Romanian. So, in the same way you don't expect to find in the world today Romans in togas , you won't find Anglo-Saxons. These ancient cultures have developed, but Ladino and Aramaic are languages spoken by relatively few people whose culture may disappear when the current speakers die.
Secondly, a comment on one of the comments: original speakers of Ladino are the Sepharadim (Spanish). In Israel, most of the non-Ashkenazi population are from "edot ha-mizrach" (Eastern Jews), though North African Jews are more "western" geographically than Polish and Russian Jews!! Reply

Tim Upham Tum Tum, WA June 17, 2012

It Is All Our Responsibility It is just as much as the responsibility of the Ashkenazim to help preserve the Ladino language, as much as the Sephardim. That is the reason why the Yiddish Book Center is collecting Ladino literature as well. But it would be nice if there was a separate institution such as a Ladino Book Center to perform that task. It may have been that Yiddish had a more prolific literature, but both are essential to preserving a culture. Reply

Ysmael Escudero Luna (Coronel)Tisnado.II Binyamin Temecula, CA/U.S.A February 22, 2012

Ladino I am a Ben Anus Ve Sefarad Masorti studying it for 13 years and still im not fluent in language for I did not grow up speaking the judezmo
and don't have access to a class to learn properly. Reply

Rashelika Coen Boston , Ma September 6, 2011

One wonderful benefit of being a native Ladino speaker is that the whole Hispanic world is totally comfortable to us.Whether I am conversing with Cuban exiles,vacationing in Valencia or bringing a daughter to study in Buenos Aires,I AM a part of that world.I don't know if Yiddish speakers feel that way about Germany or Austria,say.May I tell you a funny story?Afew years ago,my husband and I went to Spain.At the airport,I went to the information booth .The young officer answered me politely and then,pardoned himself and asked me what country I come from.(I was born in Greece but grew up in The US.)I told him that since he was an expert in "foreigners"he should guess as to where I was from and where I learned this "spanish"I spoke.he guessed about every country but mine!He was totally unbelieving when I told him I was a Greek of Spanish a matter of fact,I ended,"You and I due to our common Spanish origin might be familia".He had never heard of us!! Reply

Yismin Portland, USA June 28, 2010

i Pray that it does not disappear!
I am a college student who stumbled upon some Ladino prayer books at the Library one day. It is so hard to find them! it is a beautiful language and yet it is hard to find material to study for it. I am a Spanish major and I know a little (Kitzat Evryt). When i can i go to the book store, but because i am a college student, there is not always a budget for books needed. However,
I pray that more Sephardi communities teach the language, it is an important part of our history!
Thank you for this article! Reply

Paul Glasser Brooklyn, NY March 1, 2010

Ladino Nice article about Ladino/Judezmo. However, there are some inaccuracies in it:

1. Just as Yiddish was most likely never identical to contemporaneous German, Ladino was never identical to "Castilian Spanish [of] the late 15th century." By 1492, it was its own language, even before its speakers began to borrow from Greek, Turkish, etc. Likewise, Yiddish was a distinct language even before most Ashkenazim moved into east Europe.

2. Writing that "a high proportion of Sephardim are not of Spanish origin" is an oxymoron. By definition, Sephardim are of Spanish origin. The fact is that now, most Jews who are considered Sephardic - or lumped together with Sephardim - are not Sephardic, but of "Yemenite, Kurdish, Ethiopian, and Bukharan," as well as Moroccan, Iraqi, and many other origins.

3. Yiddish popular publishing has not disappeared; a visit to any bookstore in Wiliamsburg or Borough Park proves that. And the weakening of Yiddish theater has little to do with its vitality! Reply

Lorne Rozovsky Bloomfield, CT, USA February 2, 2010

Attitude of the Speakers - response In response to "attitude of the Speakers", to a certain extent I agree. In my opiinion one of our weaknesses as Jews is that we talk in terms of being one people, but we are very divided. Every community, especially those that are larger and more influential, either have little knowledge of the others, or that being in the "center" they are more "authentic". This may explain the lack of appreciation and knowledge of the Ashkenazim of the Sephardim, even though the Sephardim population may at times have been larger, but they lived in less influential countries than did the Ashkenazim. Since the centre of the Jewish world shifted from Europe in the first half of the 20th century to the United States, and then Israel, many communities elsewhere were seen to be on the fringe.and therefore not as authentic. We need a vast improvement in Jewish education to teach Jews that we are truly a world-wide "people of Israel". Reply

Anonymous via February 1, 2010

Attitude of the Speakers Most Sephardim lived in societies much freer than the Ashkenazim. The effect of ghettos and other experiences of isolation by Ashkenazim nurtured two attitudes which also support the survival of Yiddish, and though pervasive in a many Ashekenazi dominated communities are found most strongly in those communities which still speak Yiddish. 1) a strong sense of Ashkenazi superiority (Yiddishkeit as the Jewish ideal) and 2) resistance, bordering on refusal, to interact with neighboring culture(s). It is understandable that these attitudes grew out of the lives and suffering of Ashkenazim. And for all the faults that can come from such attitudes, the survival of Yiddish is certainly a positive outcome. Reply

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