Embracing Its Jewish Heritage, Spain Recognizes Ladino as a Spanish Language

Madrid’s efforts and a new research center in Israel will try to revive the Judeo-Spanish tongue that was spoken throughout the Ottoman Empire – and the world

Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
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Jews seeking a pardon from King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella.
Jews seeking a pardon from King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella.
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

More than 525 years after expelling its Jews, Spain is officially recognizing Ladino as a Spanish tongue in the hope of saving the language of Spanish-Jewish exiles from extinction.

At a conference last week at the Royal Spanish Academy in Madrid, officials announced the establishment of a new Ladino academy to be located in Israel. “One of its goals will be to save Ladino from fading away,” says Prof. Shmuel Rafael, director of Bar-Ilan University’s Salti Center for Ladino Studies.

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Ladino, also known as Judeo-Spanish or Giudeo-Spagnola, is the language that was preserved by Spanish Jews following their expulsion from Spain in 1492. “It was the main tool for creating, disseminating and preserving the spoken and written culture of the Spanish Jews,” Rafael says.

He says Spain’s decision derives from an understanding that Ladino is a Spanish language in the same way as are Portuguese, Catalan, Basque and the Spanish dialects spoken in Argentina, Mexico, Venezuela, the Philippines and elsewhere. “Remember, there’s no single form of Spanish throughout the world,” Rafael says.

One of the new academy’s first tasks may be to put together a historical dictionary of Ladino that collects textual sources in the language from the many places where it has thrived in different periods. Also, with Ladino becoming an official language, Spain will be able to add Ladino words and phrases to its popular online historical dictionary, for the benefit of the world’s 500 million Spanish speakers.

Prof. Shmuel Rafael, director of Bar-Ilan University’s Salti Center for Ladino Studies, 2013.Credit: Moti Milrod

“Ladino will join the international upsurge of the Spanish languages, and hundreds of millions of Spanish speakers all over the world will be able to learn about the culture of the Jews of Spain and what became of them,” Rafael says.

Ottoman sanctuary

Originally, Ladino was a force that brought together a wide variety of ethnic groups throughout the Ottoman Empire, where Jews fled from Spain. Jews spoke, wrote and composed in it in modern-day Turkey, North Africa, the Middle East and parts of Europe, especially the Balkans.

“But in the Israeli melting pot and the global village, it gradually lost this importance,” Rafael says. UNESCO currently classifies it as an endangered language. The number of Ladino-speakers around the world is not known, but it is believed to be in just the thousands.

Recent studies show that many people who call themselves Ladino-speakers only partly meet this definition because they do not master the language in all four areas – reading, writing, speaking and understanding. Meanwhile, their Ladino vocabulary is often limited.

Referring to the ceremony at the Royal Spanish Academy, Rafael said it felt like “the generations of the Jews expelled from Spain and the cattle cars of Jews who left Salonika and the Balkan lands on their way to Auschwitz” were passing before his eyes. Salonika in Greece, also known as Thessaloniki, had a large, vibrant Jewish community before the German invasion in 1941 and the Nazis' subsequent deportation of Greece’s Jews to Auschwitz-Birkenau.

“Even in those cattle cars they spoke to one another in ancient Ladino,” Rafael says. “Only the crematoriums at Birkenau finally silenced the voices of the Jews who spoke this language.”

Rafael’s father Haim, who survived the Holocaust, was one of the Salonika Jews who were deported to Auschwitz.

For this reason, Rafael considers the establishment of the Ladino academy not just Spain’s debt to the descendants of the people expelled from Spain, but also the debt of the German people, “which smothered this culture in Poland. Therefore,” he says, “the academy won’t just have a linguistic mission, it will also have a crucial cultural and diplomatic mission.”

Israeli efforts

In Israel, Ladino is studied and taught at Bar-Ilan University, Ben-Gurion University and Hebrew University. The new academy will aim to act as “a crossroads for a vast amount of scholarship,” Rafael says – scholarship that will spread well beyond the institution. The academy will operate in Israel as an arm of the Israel National Authority for Ladino and its Culture, which was established in 1996.

“This is a very important moment, a historic moment,” Prof. Tamar Alexander, chairwoman of the Ladino authority and a scholar of Spanish-Jewish culture, told the Madrid conference. The new academy might operate out of the Yitzhak Navon heritage center to be built at Neot Kedumim near Modi’in, named for Israel’s fifth president who did much to champion Ladino culture.

But despite all the academic research, scholars are divided on the chances of reviving Ladino as a spoken language. Prof. Jacobo Sefami, an expert on Latin American literature whose Spanish family emigrated to Mexico from Turkey and Syria, isn’t optimistic.

“I’m an enthusiastic supporter of the establishment of the Ladino academy, but to be honest, I don’t know a single young person today who speaks Ladino,” he says. “On my last visit to Turkey, the only people I met who still spoke the language were at least 80. Despite all the efforts, I don’t think we’ll see the kind of success that happened with the revival of the Hebrew language.”

Sefami says the Ladino academy will offer a framework for study and research, but here too he has reservations.

“Creating a comprehensive dictionary of the language is necessary, but I also like its rebellious nature where you have people writing it the way they want without a higher authority setting its linguistic rules,” he says.

After all, Sefami notes, “How can you control a language spoken by exiles who are scattered all over the world?”

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