A few months before the catastrophic earthquake in Turkey, I arrived in Istanbul and heard the melodic words of Ladino for the first time. I was with colleagues at one of the hot restaurants in the city’s oldest, most historic district, the now uber-hip area, Karakoy. Sung by our Turkish-Jewish guide Reyna Leon, the Ladino words had a familiar ring. Was it Spanish, with a twist? Yes and no. Ladino, also called Judeo-Spanish, is a distinct 500-year-old language rich—like Yiddish—in wisdom, humor and cultural pride. Centuries before Michelin-starred restaurants opened there, the twisting streets of this old Jewish neighborhood, then called Galata, rang out with songs sung in Ladino, the mother tongue of Jews of the Ottoman Empire.
“What’s very important to understand,” Karen Gerson Şarhon, doyenne of Ladino’s revival, explains, “is that Ladino is an Ottoman language.” The story of Ladino begins in Spain in 1492, when the Inquisition forced Jews from the Iberian peninsula. At that time there was no standard Spanish as there is today; the numerous small kingdoms had their own languages. When Jews arrived in the Ottoman Empire, all those dialects went into “a linguistic cauldron” whose basis was the Castilian tongue from Spain’s largest kingdom. Into that cauldron also went Gallego (Galician), Catalan, Portuguese, Hebrew, Arabic, Greek and Turkish.
On their way into the Ottoman Empire, some Jews stopped in Italy, France or the Balkans, contributing words from those countries over the years. All these languages formed a “nice soup,” Sarhon joked. That “soup” is still spoken by more than 60,000 Sephardic Jews, most in Israel, and some in Turkey. Şarhon says most native Ladino speakers are elderly and most of their children grew up speaking a different language—she and her colleagues don’t expect Ladino to ever be a “family language” again.
Though Şarhon, 64, grew up in a Ladino-speaking family, her passion for the language intensified when she formed Los Pasharos Sefaradis (The Sephardic Birds), the first ensemble dedicated to researching and performing Sephardic music, in which she sang the old Ladino songs in the authentic style of her grandmothers.
Today, she is editor-in-chief of El Amaneser (“The Dawn”), a 32-page monthly Ladino supplement to Turkey’s weekly Jewish newspaper, Şalom and the world’s only monthly Judeo-Spanish publication. “We publish Ladino writers from all over the world,” Şarhon boasts. El Amaneser is a project of the nonprofit she directs, Sephardic Cultural Research Center, the hub of Istanbul’s Jewish community and a treasure trove of precious Ladino texts and translations. Included in these archives are recordings of native Ladino speakers preserved by the Center’s Ladino Database Project. Şarhon notes proudly that the center also has a variety of language-learning programs on its website, the only one on the internet with a Ladino language option. Ladino, like other foreign languages, benefited from “a kind of renaissance during the pandemic,” Şarhon says. “I gave a lot of Ladino classes on Zoom and they were full, full, full!”
Ladino was traditionally written in Rashi script, a 15th-century cursive subset of the Hebrew alphabet, “until Israeli linguists developed a standard modern Roman transcription in the 20th century,” explains Rachel Amado Bortnick, a Ladino activist and founder of Ladinokomunita, an online correspondence circle to promote Ladino written in Roman characters. Bortnick, like Şarhon, saw a spike in interest during the pandemic. Her weekly zoom group, Enkontros de Alhad, welcomes participants from all over the world—speaking Ladino for the entire hour is the only condition. “We now have a Spanish teacher from Japan who wants to learn Ladino, a wonderful musician from China who came to learn Ladino songs, a professor of Ladino from Oxford who is Spanish but not Jewish [and] a participant from India and Wales.” Bortnick grew up in Izmir in a family with Turkish roots dating back 500 years, but now resides in the United States. “There are no real cohesive Ladino communities anymore except in Istanbul,” she says.
Ladino is also being kept alive through theater and the arts. Istanbul actress Forti Barokas has been writing plays in Ladino for thirty-five years, but her unexpected fifteen minutes of fame came a few years ago when the Netflix series The Club ( “Kulüp” in Turkish), was being filmed in Istanbul. The popular series features a female Jewish protagonist, and Ladino is heard in every episode. Barokas was asked to be a Ladino consultant and can be caught onscreen as an extra. “It was very exciting…the most important thing for me was that I gave Ladino lessons to the lead actor and taught him the Shabbat prayer.” She continues, “As a stage actor, I believe a lot can be learned through theater. Many young people have learned about Ladino from the plays I have written.”
Other Ladino revivalists use music as their medium: Nesim Bencoya is founder of the Jewish Heritage Project, in Izmir, the city with Turkey’s second largest Sephardic population. “I chose to make the language relevant again by establishing a local music group to sing Ladino songs,” Bencoya says. The group performed at the Izmir Sephardic Culture festival that he started in 2018. Two years ago Bencoya met a band known for their ethnic music and persuaded them to add Ladino songs to their repertoire. Though they were not Jewish, Bencoya, fluent in Ladino, worked with them on pronunciation and the meaning of the lyrics. Today the band, Salut de Smyrne, fills Izmir’s Etz Hayim Synagogue with Judeo-Spanish melodies and is booked for an international tour. “This is not exactly teaching Ladino as a language,” admits Bencoya, “but it is a good way to make Ladino relevant to young people and entice them to be proud of their language and adopt it to their lives.”
In 1994, linguist Tracy Harris published a book called Death of a Language, predicting that Ladino had only a few more years to live. “Here we are in 2023 and the language is alive, and though younger people have shifted to Turkish, Ladino is continuing to be itself and change over time and adapt, which is what languages do,” says Julia Peck, a PhD student in linguistics at UC Berkeley who has worked on Judeo-Spanish since 2018 and will be heading to Istanbul this summer to work on a project with Şarhon. With the powerful revival movement, she adds, “I have a lot of hope for the language.”
“Ke mos biva esta lingua ermoza de muestros abuelos i el Dio ke mos de fuersa i enerjiya para luchar kontra su desaparision,” Karen Şarhon proclaims in Ladino. “Long live this beautiful language of our ancestors, and may God give us strength and energy to strive against its disappearance.”
Top image: Karen Sarhon reading El Amaneser, the Ladino supplement to the Jewish newspaper, Salom.