Ladino Today

Is the language of Sephardic Jews, undergoing a revival?

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Like Yiddish, Ladino is viewed as a personal language of the Jewish people. It's sometimes called "el espanol muestro"--"our Spanish"--and everything about it is tied to the ideas of home and identity. When Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492, they carried "their" Spanish with them, and so the Judeo-Spanish language moved throughout the Ottoman Empire, binding Sephardic Jews to their heritage and their original home in Spain.

In time, Judeo-Spanish sponged up some of the vocabulary of the new home countries of Spanish Jews, with Turkish, Greek, and Hebrew making their way into the language. That's why today, there are many different dialects within Ladino, with each area of the world putting its own stamp on the language.

As the language changed addresses, what it was called changed, too. In Turkey and the Balkans, Judeo-Spanish was called "Ladino," derived from the word Latin, so no one would confuse it with Turkish. In Morocco it was called "Haquitiya," and sometimes spoken Ladino is called "Djudesmo."

ladino livesLadino's History

Ladino has always been the language of the multilingual. "Ladino," or latinus in Latin, refers to a person who could speak a few languages in addition to his mother tongue, which was the case for most Ladino speakers. Ladino has its roots in the Latin spoken by the Romans who occupied the Iberian Peninsula from 200 B.C.E. to 425 B.C.E., but today's Ladino is closer to modern Spanish plus a mix of whatever other languages Ladino speakers knew.

Just as Yiddish became the cultural underpinning of the entire European-Jewish, or Ashkenazi world, with its own folklore, music, and literature, so Ladino has a rich tradition of literature, theater, folk tales and music. Ladino stories even have their own recurring character, Jocha, or Ejoha, who is alternately a fool, a wise fool, and a wily trickster, just as the Yiddish stories have the recurring foolish men of Chelm and the hapless Herschel.

The Ladino World

How many people speak Ladino? That's a controversial issue, because the definition of "Ladino speaker" varies depending on whom you ask. Most estimates say that between 160,000 and 300,000 Sephardim (Jews of Middle Eastern or Spanish origin) worldwide have some knowledge of Ladino. In Israel, many estimate that 50,000 to 80,000 people are somewhat familiar with Ladino. A few scholars are working on surveys of Ladino speakers and other efforts to get a solid number. If a recent flurry of conferences, study centers, book-collection efforts and teacher-training programs are any indication, Ladino may be in for a revival.

"I definitely think interest in Ladino is growing," says Trudy Balch, a translator of Ladino, who has worked on many Ladino folk tales. For the past seven years, Balch has been part of a theater group in New York called "The Ladino Players," which puts on plays in Ladino. "One year we did three one-acts, one a translation of a one-act play by Sholom Aleichem," she says. She's seen both Sephardic Jews and non-Jews attend performances, and she's observed some interest in Ladino from non-Jewish Latinos who happen to live in New York.

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Aviya Kushner

Aviya Kushner is a Lecturer of Creative Writing at Columbia College of Chicago. She is the author of And There Was Evening, And There Was Morning.