Jewish World Review Oct. 20, 1998 / 1 Mar-Cheshvan, 5759

Dr. Jay Levinson


Ladino --- a language destined to be lost?

"THE RACE IS ON to save the treasures of Ladino."

This is the way Avner Peretz, Director of the Institute of Ladino in the Jerusalem suburb of Maale Adumim described his efforts to record the the Sephardic equivalent of Yiddish before much of it vanishes. In this spirit Peretz, a sixth generation Jerusalemite of Turkish background, has been collecting books, newspapers, and manuscripts. And he has not stopped there. He has also made a concerted effort to document the Ladino oral tradition.

When the Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492, they took their language with them. In the Balkans and Turkey it was called Ladino, a corruption of the word "Latin" used to distinguish it from Turkish. In Tangier and Tetuan in Spanish Morocco it was called "Haquitiya."

The classic of Ladino Literature is clearly Me-am Lo'ez, a monumental work of biblical commentary and talmudic tradition written in systematic form for the layman. In 1730 Rabbi Yaakov Culi published the initial volume, the first part of Exodus, in Constantinople; it was not until more than a century and a half later -- and more than a half dozen authors -- that the opus was finally completed. Today Me-am Lo-ez is a popular set in Hebrew, and it is making inroads into the market of English-speaking Jews, where it has appeared as The Torah Anthology (Maznaim Publishing Corp., Brooklyn).

Editions in Ladino, though, are all out of print --- but can be found, of course, in Peretz' Institute. He was also able to find a rare copy of selected portions of Me-am Lo'ez translated into Judeo-Arabic.

The library of the Institute is growing rapidly. In the last three years over three hundred volumes have been added. Part of the problem, however, is that no one knows for sure how many books were printed in Ladino. There was no equivalent of the Library of Congress in those days.

But for every problem there is a solution. And Peretz has, indeed, found an interesting approach. A visitor is taken to a bookcase and is shown a bound volume of Ha-Shofar, a Zionist newspaper written in Ladino and published in the beginning of the century in Bulgaria.

"I read the book advertisements just like a modern newspaper," explained Peretz, "so that I have a better idea of what was published. Then I look for the books." Peretz has been successful. He has recovered the scripts of at least seven otherwise unknown plays.

Not every book in the library has been "published." With pride Peretz shows a book-style manuscript with piyutim, and a dedication in Ladino. He has also found the correspondence of a rabbi from Constantinople who dealt in commercial matters during the period 1564-1573. The letters, written in Ladino with Hebrew characters, were recovered from the binding of a book. From North Africa there is a bar mitzvah drasha (address) written in a strange mixture of Ladino and Hebrew, very much reminiscent of the many Hebrew words, particularly related to religious concepts, which spice the English of British and American Jews.

The Ladino-speaking world is diminishing. In Israel today there are an estimated 50,000 to 80,000 people with varying degrees of passive Ladino knowledge. Actual Ladino speakers are many fewer. One high school in Jerusalem has a Ladino progam, and thirty high school teachers have been in a year-long part-time course of study, learning how to teach the language to others. Neverthless, the future of Ladino as an active language is bleak. The shuls where Ladino was lingua franca in Jerusalem's Yemin Moshe and Ohel Moshe neighborhoods are but memories of the past. Only in Istanbul is a Ladino newspaper still published.

Before the traditions are lost, Peretz is collecting proverbs. To date he has entered more than 5,000 sayings into a computer database. There are many collections of proverbs in various different languages, but again, Peretz' efforts are unique. Together with the proverb and its translation, Peretz has added the informant's explanation of what it means.

The Maale Adumim Institue for Ladino is not the only group interested in preserving the Judeo-Spanish heritage. The Knesset established ministries to rescue both the Yiddish and Ladino cultures. Israel Radio still broadcasts in Ladino, and for many years they have been collecting folk songs on tape, then transcribing and translating them. On an encouraging note, all of these organizations have been working together towards the goal of saving a tradition before it is forgotten.

Interested in learning the language? The Institute for Ladino has a computer progam with explanations in Hebrew; soon the material will be published in book format. Reading material in Ladino is also available for those who want it, from the three times a year journal, Aki Yerushalayim, ... to a cookbook with pictures easily whetting the appetite ... to a Pesach Haggadah. Who knows? Maybe some day Me-am Lo'ez will again be available in Ladino!

Dr. Jay Levinson is a London-based writer.


©1998, London Jewish Tribune