Karen Gerson Sarhon is fighting a rearguard action to save Ladino – once the lingua franca of Sephardi Jews – from utter extinction.
Founder and director of the Istanbul-based Ottoman-Turkish Sephardic Culture Research Center, she is frankly glum about Ladino’s prospects.
“It’s dying,” said Sarhon, a 54-year-old former English teacher who established the institute in 2003 under the auspices of the chief rabbinate to document, collect and transmit the rich cultural treasury of the Jews of Turkey. “My generation is the last Ladino-speaking generation.”
Nonetheless, Sarhon, who has written two MA theses on Ladino, is doing her level best to nurture it.
She edits El Amaneser (The Dawn), one of the last remaining Ladino newspapers. A monthly with a circulation of 4,000, including 300 overseas subscribers, it appears as a one-page supplement in Salom, the official organ of Turkey’s Jewish community.
She has also compiled a data base of 80 hours of spoken Ladino, culled from native speakers.
Ladino was at its peak in the 19th century, when it was the language of communication in the far-flung Ottoman Empire, which stretched into the Balkans and the Middle East.
“Ladino was the most important element of Jewish identity in the Ottoman Empire,” said Sarhon. “Few Jewish women could speak Turkish. Jewish men who knew Turkish spoke it with a heavy Jewish accent.”
A form of 15th-century Castilian Spanish, with words borrowed from Hebrew, Turkish, Arabic, Greek and French, Ladino was transmitted orally. Its speakers were Jews expelled from Spain in the late 15th century.
Sometimes called “El Espanol Maestro,” or “Our Spanish,” Ladino was also referred to it as “Djudesmo.”
Ladino basically developed three dialects, reflecting the countries to which Spanish Jews fled in the wake of the great expulsion. Western Ladino emerged in the Balkans: Greece, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Serbia, Bosnia and Romania. Oriental Ladino sprouted in Turkey, the successor state of the Ottoman Empire. Haquitiya sprang up in North Africa, mainly in Morocco.
For centuries, Ladino was written in Hebrew characters, its alphabet having been devised by Rashi, the medieval rabbi and rabbinical commentator.
With the advent of the Turkish republic in 1923, Ladino began using the Latin alphabet.
In retrospect, Ladino has suffered a long decline.
Two hundred and fifty thousand Jews were fluent in it a century ago, compared to 40,000 Jews worldwide today. Some 200,000 Jews, however, have a rudimentary knowledge of Ladino.
“They can say a few words,” said Sarhon, who learned Ladino at home from her parents.
In Turkey, there are upward of 8,000 Ladino speakers in a Jewish population of about 18,000. Sami Kohen, an 83-year-old journalist who writes a foreign affairs column for the daily newspaper Milliyet and once edited his father’s Ladino newspaper, is a member of that declining group. “I speak and read Ladino,” he said. “But my children don’t.”
In Israel, where 100,000 Jews of Turkish descent and their children and grandchildren live, there are 25,000 Ladino speakers.
There are also pockets of Ladino speakers in France, Bulgaria, Belgium, Canada, the United States and Latin America.
According to Sarhon, Ladino is withering because it has lost its function as the “home language” of Ottoman Jews.
The first blow was struck by the Alliance Israelite Universelle, a Paris-based organization founded in 1860 and dedicated to providing Jewish children with elementary school and vocational training in French. By the dawn of the 20th century, there were 115 such schools in the Middle East, with the bulk in Turkey, Morocco and Tunisia.
In Turkey, French displaced Ladino. “Jews speaking only Ladino were considered uneducated and looked down upon,” said Sarhon. “French had status. It was the language of the elite.”
This trend was hastened by the creation of the Turkish republic, which encouraged the use of Turkish. “It became shameful to speak Ladino outside the home,” she said. “My father learned Turkish when he was inducted into the army in 1941.”
During the 1930s, in a further bid to encourage the use of Turkish, the Turkish government shut down Alliance Israelite Universelle schools.
“With this development, the prestige of Ladino dropped even more,” she said. “By the 1970s, Ladino was regarded as a jargon rather than a language. The expectation was that it would be dead in 10 or 15 years.”
The Holocaust was a bitter blow as well, resulting in the deaths of some 100,000 Ladino speakers.
In the 1980s, fate intervened and handed Ladino something of a reprieve as Sarhon and like-minded Turkish Jews began exploring their Sephardi culture and Ladino heritage.
By the age of 19, she spoke Ladino fluently, having learned it in order to perform in high school plays.
In Israel, meanwhile, an institution to perpetuate Ladino was opened under the patronage of Yitzhak Navon the then Israeli president. The quincentennial of the arrival of Spanish Jews in the Ottoman Empire gave Ladino yet another boost.
The Cervantes Institute, founded by Spain to promote Spanish language and culture in foreign countries, was another step in promoting Ladino, she observed.
Apart from El Amaneser, Ladino periodicals are published today in Israel (Aki Yerushlayim), Belgium (Los Muestros) and France (Aki Estamos). La Lettre Sepharade ceased publication in France several years ago.
There are also digital Ladino publications in Argentina and Izmir, Turkey.
Additionally, a handful of Ladino books, ranging from dictionaries to cookbooks, are published annually in countries such as Turkey and France. Ladino language courses are taught at Israeli, U.S. and European universities, but not at Jewish day schools.
Despite an upsurge of interest in Ladino studies of late, Ladino’s future remains hazy and uncertain, Sarhon said, noting that her 15-year-old daughter is not a Ladino speaker. As she put it, “We speak Turkish and English at home.”