Israelis Hoping They Won’t Hear the Last Word on Ancient Dialect

Times Staff Writer

More than 500 years after Jews were expelled from Spain, an effort is afoot here to save Ladino, a medieval dialect that helped preserve the exiles’ culture as they scattered across Europe and the Middle East.

Ladino, also called Judeo-Spanish, is slowly dying. Israel is believed to have the largest number of people -- perhaps as many as 200,000 -- who can speak or understand the language. But many are older than 60.

Recognizing that the oldest generation of Sephardic Jews soon will disappear, some Israelis are trying to pump life into the flickering language -- collecting written works, recording Ladino love songs and teaching Ladino to young people.


The Israeli government joined the efforts seven years ago, establishing the National Ladino Authority, which has prompted a surge of interest in the language and culture. The agency spends $275,000 a year on organizing lectures, promoting festivals and sponsoring language courses.

Thanks to the push, Ladino is now taught in several of the largest Israeli universities. Two schools recently opened centers devoted exclusively to the study of Ladino language and culture.

And the second national Ladino music festival, to take place here today, already is a popular showcase for young composers and musicians from all over the world, including the United States.

“It is a disappearing language, but more and more people I know are starting to play it,” said Yasmin Levy, a 28-year-old Israeli singer who has recorded two CDs in Ladino and performs often in Europe. “It’s beautiful.”

Ladino is a recognizable cousin of modern Spanish, though some sounds and spellings vary. For example, pobre, the Spanish word for “poor,” is rendered in Ladino as prove. The letter “j,” pronounced like “h” in Spanish, sounds more like “zh” in Ladino.

The language is a form of 15th century Spanish bearing influences of Portuguese, Catalan and Hebrew. It remained largely intact after Spanish Jews were expelled en masse in 1492 and sought refuge in places such as the Balkans, the Netherlands, Greece and Turkey.

A large number of Ladino speakers perished during the Holocaust, but many survivors made their way to Israel.

Unlike Yiddish, an old language that has survived because it is commonly spoken in the homes of ultra-Orthodox Jews of European descent, enthusiasts say Ladino can no longer be expected to thrive on its own.

Yet even the most optimistic activists acknowledge that Ladino will not reassert itself as the mother tongue of Mazkaret Moshe and Baka, two Jerusalem neighborhoods once populated almost entirely by Sephardic Jews.

The term “Sephardic” originally referred to Jews of Spanish ancestry, but also is used to describe Jews from the Middle East and North Africa.

“It’s not that we think we’re going to use this language in the supermarket,” said Moshe Shaul, who edits a Ladino magazine, Aki Yerushalayim, or Here Jerusalem. “It’s a cultural language. We sing it. We read it.”

Long before the Israeli government invested in promoting Ladino culture, a few activists collected folk stories, poems and songs. Perhaps the most ambitious was Levy’s father, Yitzhak Levy, who compiled 10 volumes of Ladino liturgy before his death in the 1970s.

Ladino language and culture enthusiasts in Israel and abroad are continuing the work, scouring bookshops and attics for overlooked Ladino writings. Some of the literature has been saved in the original language, some translated into Hebrew. One Israeli enthusiast is at work translating Homer’s “The Iliad” into Ladino from ancient Greek.

Eliezer Papo, the coordinator of a new Ladino culture center at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Beersheba, said Ladino enthusiasts are taking their cue from the United States, where people are encouraged to celebrate their diverse cultures.

“Being different is beautiful,” said Papo, a Ladino speaker who arrived from Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina, 12 years ago. “Now everybody speaks about his roots. It’s antisocial activity not to have roots.”

Dorit Efrat, a 24-year-old university student in Haifa, said she signed up for a Ladino class to be able to communicate better with her grandparents, now in their 80s.

“It’s more personal reasons than historical reasons,” she said.

Not everyone is responding to the tug of ancestral identity. Many Israelis have signed up for Ladino classes after learning some Spanish words and grammar from Spanish-language soap operas, which are popular here.

Some say the recent bustle has created an apparent incongruity: Ladino is surging even as it is fading.

Levy, the singer, said that though she has been surprised by the appetite for Ladino music in Europe, sales in Israel have been disappointing. Her older brother has urged her to switch to a genre with broader appeal.

But Levy said she has no plans to abandon the language of her father.

“I’m going to keep fighting for this culture,” she said. “I’m going to sing it.”