09 October 2009

Turkey: A Ladino newspaper

Tablet Magazine has a story by Robin Cembalest on a Ladino newspaper in Turkey that is seeing a revival.

At the bottom of this post, also see Tracing the Tribe's note about "Mountain Spanish" still spoken in northern New Mexico (and elsewhere) by the descendants of the old families who arrived at the end of the 16th century.

Read A New Dawn here.

Ladino or Judeo-Spanish was brought to Turkey post-1492 Expulsion by the Jewish refugees from Spain. For Tracing the Tribe's Ashkenazi readers, think of it as the Sephardic equivalent of Yiddish. Both Jewish languages created literature, poetry, music and other hallmarks of history and culture.

When Sephardim arrived in New York in the early 20th century, many Ashkenazi Jews didn't believe they were Jewish because they didn't speak Yiddish - they never knew that Ladino was a major hallmark throughout Jewish history.

Ladino nearly died as a result of numerous factors. Ladino-speakers and Yiddish-speakers alike were decimated by the Holocaust as just one reason.

The average age of native Ladino speakers is at least 70, according to Karen Gerson Sarhon, coordinator of the city’s Ottoman-Turkish Sephardic Culture Research Center and editor of El Amaneser (The Dawn), one of the world’s few remaining Judeo-Spanish periodicals, when I reached her office. “Ladino is dying,” she told me matter-of-factly in English, before switching at my request to Judeo-Spanish. I was surprised how much I understood. “Now more people are interested in learning the language,” she added, “but it’s too late. It’s more feasible to learn modern Spanish—and Spanish gives them access to their heritage.”

The editor noted that in the 1970s, it was expected that Ladino would have disappeared in 10-15 years. In the 1980s, Turkey allowed freedom on traveling abroad, and its Jewish population realized that with Ladino they could communicate in Spanish-speaking countries. The 500th anniversary of the Expulsion brought Sephardic scholars to Turkey, and raised awareness of Ladino - and acceptability - to the community.

The research center opened in December 2003, to research, archive, and transmit the language, music, and history of Turkish Jewry, a difficult task because very little was written down. Another problem was that Ladino switched from the Hebrew Rashi alphabet (called solitreo) to the Latin alphabet in the 1920s.

Only a handful of people can still read the old alphabet, which makes genealogical research difficult in Turkey, as the records were written in solitreo.

Today's El Amaneser was founded in 2005. Ladino publishing began in 1842 with Izmir's La buena esperansa. During the period between WWI and WWII, more than 300 Ladino periodicals were published in Turkey and the Balkans. In the 1920s, some 85% of Turkish Jews said Ladino was their mother tongue, although even then, the article states, it was dying. It was supplanted by Western Europe's language of culture French and then by Turkish in 1923.

The new government promoted Turkish and suppressed Kurdish. Ladino was not suppressed, but according to scholars, the community itself helped to suppress it.

In Eastern Europe, where scholars were promoting Yiddish literature and education, Turkish Jews felt Ladino was backward and didn't transmit it down the line. Says Gerson Sarhon, because the Jews were notorious for speaking Turkish with horrible accents, they thought they should give up Ladino and assimilate with Turkish.

In this century, at a time when Yiddish continues to be used as the primary language in chasidic households around the globe, Ladino has “lost its function in the home,” said Gerson Sarhon, who wrote two master’s theses—in social psychology and applied linguistics—on Judeo-Spanish.
Jews today who are 50-70 years old, learned Ladino from their fluent parents who spoke it at home. Those who are younger may have learned it from their grandparents or not at all.

Gerson Sarhon is heading an effort to record the vanishing generation of native speakers and post sound files to the Internet as part of a study to analyze vocabulary and accent. As a lead singer in the Los Pasharos Sefardis musical group, she also documents Turkish Jewry's musical traditions.

The center has already published a new book on Turkish synagogues, although it focuses on publishing the monthly El Amaneser and the Salom weekly (in Ladino until 1983's switch to Turkish). Salom also prints a monthly Ladino supplement with some 4,000 subscribers. Amaneser goes to readers in Turkey, and also to Spain, China, Latin America and the Philippines.
While Salom publishes hard news—mostly stories from the Diaspora that don’t necessarily make it into the local papers—Amaneser provides a space for community news, history lessons, book and film reviews, memoirs, short stories, and recipes, many of them sent in by readers from all over the world and edited by the mostly female, mostly volunteer staff.
Along with the features and stories, ranging from music to recipes, each issue spotlights a transliteration of the Rashi (Hebrew character alphabet) with a Judeo-Turkish proverb. The example given is No ay koza ke trae yoro al mundo kuanto el vino (“Nothing makes the world cry more than wine”), from a Ladino commentary on the Torah published in the 18th century.

The article also covers an excellent interview by Gerson Sarhon with Spanish scholar Paloma Díaz-Mas who specializes in Sephardic culture.
Still, Díaz Mas comments, the revival highlights the way people use language to define their cultural and ethnic identity. The new generation, she says, is looking for a connection to the language “that identifies them as Sephardim, not only among non-Jews but among Jews of other origins.”
Read the complete article at the link above. To hear spoken Ladino, listen to this podcast with author Marcel Cohen ("In Search of a Lost Ladino: Letter to Antonio Saura")

[NOTE: In northern New Mexico, the descendants of Converso settlers who arrived as early as the late 16th century, still speak "Mountain Spanish." In reality, it is 16th century Ladino, and scholars who have visited them have been amazed at how well the language has been transmitted down through the generations. When people move away from that area, they need to learn modern Spanish, as those who speak the old language are considered uneducated. If they only knew.... El Amaneser might want to send some copies to northern New Mexico and see what happens. I will suggest that to my northern New Mexico friends.]


  1. It was really detailed and nice post. Thanks for sharing with us. Keep writing.

  2. Anonymous11:06 PM

    I descend from the old New Mexican families on both sides. And I appreciate that you've shared what my grandparents and father told me throughout my life...that our Spanish was special, and was spoken by Los Sefarditos, and that we are Sefarditos too.