Ladino Literature

Literature in Judeo-Spanish, the language of Sephardic Jews

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One fable features the travails of a rock-cutter who lives on a mountain. The story delves into his life in exile, his problems with luck and work and poverty. Finally, he becomes the mountain itself, and he realizes it's better to be the rock-cutter than the rock.

Another story, called "Pearls and Diamonds," is about several girls and their father. Each girl says that she loved her father as much as pearls, or diamonds, or rubies. One girl, however, says that she loves her father as much as salt. The father is quite insulted to be compared to salt. Then, a prince invites the father to a meal at which he is served food that is unsalted. "This is terrible!" he says. Soon, he learns that his daughter was wiser than he imagined--and that salt, a cheap flavor, is actually quite valuable.

Many Ladino tales feature Ejoha--also called Joha--a folk character who is at times a fool, a wise fool, or a sneaky trickster. In 2001, the Jewish Publication Society published the first English translation of Ladino folk tales, collected by Matilda Koén-Sarano. The anthology includes nearly 300 stories, which Koén-Saranospent 21 years finding, editing, and translating. Folktales of Joha, Jewish Trickster: The Misadventures of the Guileful Sephardic Prankster, is an excellent introduction to the character of Joha--and to the tradition of humor and wisdom found throughout Ladino writing. The Joha stories came from 17 countries, including the United States, and they show how the oral tradition of storytelling moved throughout the Jewish Diaspora.

As for verse, Ladino poetry can sometimes be found in Israeli literary magazines. Major names include Margalit Matityahu, Avner Peretz, and Victor Perera, who is originally from Guatemala and has also written a memoir. Rita Gabbai Simantov, of Athens, worked as a Cultural Officer in the Israeli Embassy, and toward the end of her career in 1994, began publishing Ladino poetry. Sara Benveniste Benrey, a poet and playwright, began publishing in the 1980s, and has since written comedies, sketches, and poems.

Ladino Literature Today

In Israel, Europe, and the United States, writers are struggling to keep Ladino literature alive. The Jerusalem Book Fair sometimes features a booth with books from writers who use Ladino in their poetry, and it's not uncommon to hear some Ladino phrases in songs played by singer-songwriters.

Today, Ladino doesn't always stand alone. Instead, it finds itself threaded into Spanish or Hebrew work. A well-known example is Like a Bride  byRosa Nissán, a Mexican novel about a Sephardic Jewish girl who grows up in Mexico in the 1960s. The novel includes a lot of Ladino, and it has been made into a movie--bringing Ladino to the big screen. (An English version, translated by Dick Gerdes, is available from the University of New Mexico Press.) Nissán has also written a sequel, titled Like a Mother, a travelogue, and a collection of short stories.

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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.