FUNDAMENTALLY FREUND: Don’t let Ladino die

FUNDAMENTALLY FREUND: Don’t let Ladino die

Ladino and all that it embodies are part and parcel of our people’s long and winding journey on the historical stage.

By any rational yardstick, the legacy of medieval Spanish Jewry should long ago have met its demise. The community, Europe’s largest and most influential at the time, was expelled in 1492 and scattered to the wind, spreading throughout the Middle East, the Balkans and North Africa. Few cultures could possibly hope to survive such a catastrophic and collective trauma, as its adherents were forced to rebuild their lives in foreign lands.

Nonetheless, defying all the odds, Spanish Jewry’s unique cultural, linguistic and religious traditions continue to live on – and it behooves Israel and the Jewish people to do more to cultivate and nourish this critical part of our people’s heritage.

I caught a glimpse of this precious patrimony firsthand at the Seder this year, when I joined my daughter-in-law and her family, part of which is of Turkish-Jewish background, for the annual retelling of the exodus from Egypt. 

Suddenly, and without much warning, I was exposed to new songs, different tunes and even selections that were read in Ladino, or Judeo-Spanish, an emotive dialect that mixes Old Spanish with Hebrew and Aramaic terms.

Having grown up with the familiar Ashkenazi customs and melodies, it was an enlightening peek into another proud Jewish set of traditions, one that is no less authentic or legitimate than our own. Indeed, with a little bit of imagination, it wasn’t difficult to conjure an image of exiled Spanish Jews sitting around a Seder table in Izmir, Naples or Sarajevo in the 16th or 17th century and reciting some of the same incantations. In many ways, the story of Ladino mirrors that of the Jewish people over the past six centuries, having survived expulsion, assimilation and mass murder.

Like Yiddish, the lingua franca of many Ashkenazi Jews down through the generations, Ladino served as a cultural canvas, one used by many Sephardi Jews to compose poetry, elucidate the Torah, and grapple with questions of philosophical and mystical significance as well as investigate history, mathematics and astronomy.

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Esther Surikova
Esther Surikova
esther@shavei.org