A Language Less Spoken: Conference Hopes to Revive Ladino

The audience at "Sephardic Jews and Ladino," a conference held yesterday at Jerusalem's Mishkenot Sha'ananim, was no less interesting than the academics and distinguished figures on the dais. There was a descendant of Abraham Senior, who as everyone familiar with the expulsion of the Jews from Spain knows was the rabbi who gave in to pressure from King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella and converted to Christianity. Senior's Jerusalem progeny is, of course, a completely observant Jew, bubbling with good cheer, who called out Ladino proverbs from his seat in the front row. The great granddaughter of Eliezer Benveniste was there, too, in a back row. Benveniste Sr. was a publisher, one of the first to issue books in Ladino in the late 19th century. There was also a man who worked on a Ladino crossword puzzle, surrounded by rabbis who had attended so many lectures on the language that they recited, like children, the dates and names and songs and sayings together with the speakers.

Researchers and their fans and the few remaining speakers of a language that for centuries served the Jews of Turkey, the Balkans and the Middle East have not given up. They continue to fight to preserve Ladino, also known as Judeo-Spanish, which apparently has achieved "museum" status. The National Authority for Ladino Language and Culture, which is headed by former President Yitzhak Navon, yesterday gloried in what was billed as the first public conference on Ladino literature.

The question is whether there is anything on which to confer. About a year ago I was invited to Yad Ben Zvi in Jerusalem. Dr. Yaron Ben-Naeh, an expert in Jewish history during the Ottoman Empire, ushered me into the holy of holies of the institution's library - the rare books wing. Books in Ladino take up less than a wall and a half of shelf space. Apparently that is nearly all there is, according to Ladino literature researcher Dov Hacohen of Bar Ilan University and Yad Ben Zvi. It's not much in comparison to the endless treasures of Yiddish, Ladino's rival since the creation of the state.

Still, participants insisted on speaking of "Ladino literature," even when the material was in fact advertising, aimed at getting readers to contribute to some yeshiva. Hacohen, who spoke on Ladino publications in Jerusalem since 1500, was a crowd-pleaser with his presentation of these rare documents. In one, consisting of Ladino mixed with Arabic, the Jewish target audience is warned against sitting in kahwe houses or enjoying the merriments of the Gentiles. But is it literature?

Literature was a luxury for Ladino speakers. The novels and poetry written in the language are on such a primitive, basic level as to evoke pity.

Conferences of this type attempt to inculcate a non-arrogant stance toward the aging or moribund languages of the Jewish people and to gradually make Ladino an accepted subject for study. It worked with Yiddish. With Ladino, the process is slower, perhaps impossible so much so that when one hears Ladino, the response is nearly always laughter.