The fight to keep Ladino alive

On island getaway, Turkish Jews fight to keep their ancestral language alive.

May 2, 2019 22:36
The fight to keep Ladino alive

Turkey’s Chief Rabbi Ishak Haleva (right) talks to a member of his congregation at the concert. (photo credit: ELHANAN MILLER / BÜYÜKADA ISLAND)

One of Vivet Sparkes’ earliest memories is being lulled to the Ladino song “Durme, Durme, Chikitiko” (Sleep, Sleep, Little One). As a young mother in Fairfax County, Virginia, the Istanbul native sang the lullaby to her baby son, Jim.
 A decade later, Sparkes was visiting her homeland to hear Jim perform the song on stage together with the children’s choir from his school.

“Boatman, take me to Balat,” the mother sings as she cradles her son, referring to a formerly Jewish neighborhood on the banks of the Bosphorus. “Bring me a fishy from the sea.”

“It made me so emotional to hear him sing the song he grew up with,” said the 39-year-old Jewish school teacher. “I was tearing up. This connection makes me feel loved.”

Sparkes is one of the few Jews making the return journey to Turkey these days. But one festive evening last August, hundreds of local Jews in their Sunday best put their community’s woes aside and congregated at Hesed Le-Avraam Synagogue for a Jewish music concert. The largely elderly crowd crossed through the heavily guarded steel gates for a final summer treat on their leafy island getaway, a short ferry ride from downtown Istanbul.

The performance was a medley of Turkish, Hebrew and Ladino, all popular tunes that sent elegant grandmothers to their feet on the women’s balcony, clapping enthusiastically. The audience joined in unison, some wiping tears, as singers Cenk Rofe and Ediz Bahar preformed “Adio Kerida” (Goodbye My Love) and “La Rosa Enflorece” (the Rose Blooms) with the children’s choir Estreyikas d’Estambol (Stars of Istanbul).

Jews trace their presence in Anatolia, modern-day Turkey, to the fourth century BCE. But it was the mass arrival of Jews following their expulsion from Spain in 1492 that made Ladino, also known as Judaeo-Spanish, the lingua franca of the Ottoman Empire.
Today, Ladino is considered a language at risk of extinction by the Endangered Languages Project, with an estimated 400,000 speakers worldwide.
According to Prof. Shmuel Refael Vivante, director of the Salti Institute for Ladino Studies at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, most Ladino speakers in Israel have low language skills, and are defined by linguists as “semi speakers.”

Vivet and Jim Sparkes (photo: ELHANAN MILLER / BÜYÜKADA ISLAND)

Alber (Avraham) Gershon’s grandmother, born and raised in the Istanbul neighborhood of Balat, spoke only Ladino and no Turkish. But the 43-year-old newly ordained rabbi of Hesed Le-Avraam struggles to understand the language. During his studies at the Shehebar Sephardic Center in Jerusalem, he would practice the language with colleagues from South America.

“People my age understand Ladino, but find it hard to speak,” Gershon said. He is especially pained by his difficulty to read formative religious texts written a century ago by Turkish community rabbis like Haim Bejerano and Rafael Saban. Me’am Loez, a popular commentary on the bible written in Ladino in 1730 by Rabbi Yaakov Khuli and published in Hebrew Rashi script is virtually inaccessible to modern scholars, who would require knowledge in Greek, Turkish, Judaeo-Spanish and biblical Hebrew to decipher it.

“The Ladino language is finished,” Gershon said sadly. “Even the elderly speak Turkish in public, except when they want to criticize the prime minister or something like that, then they switch to Ladino. But even they’ve forgotten it. For the younger generation, it’s a dead language. It’s very sad.”
Sparkes, the Jewish school teacher, said the growing interest of her community in Hebrew with the rise in Turkish aliyah, has also contributed to the demise of Ladino. “Everyone is trying to leave here, and one of the choices is Israel,” she said.

The number of Jews moving to Israel from Turkey has hovered around 200 a year, with Western Europe and North America considered prime destinations. The Jewish community in Turkey is estimated at 15,000, though no accurate numbers exist.
“In school, we always had Hebrew, never Ladino, but now the adults are also trying to learn Hebrew. We want all the Jews to learn Hebrew, but don’t want them to lose Ladino either because it’s our Sephardi-Jewish heritage. In a few years, the language may disappear.”
But some members of the community would strongly beg to differ. Karen Sarhon, coordinator of the Istanbul Sephardic Center, admitted that Ladino has ceased to be “the language of the home” as it was during Ottoman times, but is still far from finished.

“Turkish Jews are working hard to preserve the language,” said Sarhon, who first learned the language at home, then improved it through acting in her youth movement’s theater group in the late 70s. “Judaeo-Spanish isn’t just a language, it’s also a culture. It’s about food, poetry, everything.”

Shalom, the community newspaper, publishes a weekly page in Ladino, commissioned to writers across the world. Every month, the paper publishes a 32-page Ladino supplement called El Amaneser (the Dawn). Rabbi Gershon would be happy to know that it has recently undertaken to transliterate and annotate Me’am Lo’ez in Latin script, with the help of language experts in Israel.

The Sephardic Center has also compiled a database of 80 interviews with native Ladino speakers, documenting linguistic variations between Istanbul and Izmir. Another project, Maftirim, collects traditional Shabbat hymns used in the liturgical rites of Turkish synagogues.

Attracting the younger generation to the language has proven more difficult, though. “We thought young people weren’t interested. We’d organized Ladino days, concerts, but they just didn’t come. The average age was 85,” Sarhon said.

Recently, however, she found the key to the heart of wider audiences: social media. A project called “one word a day” disseminates bite-sized Ladino on Facebook, Youtube and Twitter. Sarhon sends 400 subscribers one Ladino verb a day on WhatsApp, along with a recording of its conjugations and correct pronunciation.
“Today we have to change the way we teach young people. The old methods don’t work anymore,” she said.

Izzet Israel Bana, an Istanbul-based veteran musical producer, is one of those fighting for Ladino on the cultural front. Bana, who grew up in central Istanbul speaking the language, fell in love with Ladino music listening to recordings of Israeli singer Yehoram Gaon. In 1977, he decided to adapt the tunes to a musical he wrote, titled “Kula 1930.” The show, a bittersweet comedy that has been performed 90 times over the past 40 years, depicts the vibrant life of Jewish Istanbul in the neighborhood of Galata at its zenith, shortly after the birth of the modern Turkish Republic.

Two years later, Bana joined Karen Sarhon and two others to form the Ladino folk band Los Pasharos Sefaradis (the Sephardic Birds), performing worldwide. “We brought the most authentic style, the way our grandmothers sang,” Bana said.

In 2004, Bana formed the children’s choir Estreyikas d’Estambol, with the goal of instilling the love of Ladino in the younger generation.
“For years people have been saying that Ladino is dying, but it hasn’t happened,” Bana said with a smile. “I performed with the children twice in Cordoba, Spain, and we spoke Judaeo-Spanish. People would say to us, ‘Wow, you’ve come from the books of Cervantes [the 16th century Spanish author]!’”
According to Sarhon, Ladino has not survived for over 500 years as a Jewish dialect due to the steadfastness of its speakers, but thanks to the tolerance of the Ottoman Empire in which they lived.

“Ladino is an Ottoman language,” she said. “Since the Ottomans didn’t interfere in the affairs of the Jewish community it allowed them to preserve the language for such an incredible amount of time. It had nothing to do with the courage of Jews or the wonderful feelings they had for the language.”

Ironically, Ladino may now get a new lease on life due to the desire of Israelis and Jewish Turks to gain European citizenship. In 2015, the Spanish government passed legislation allowing Sephardi Jews to apply for citizenship if they prove conversational in Ladino. The Salti Institute, Israel’s only body granting a certificate of proficiency in the language, reported 120 applicants to date.

Leaving the concert at Hesed Le-Avraam Synagogue, Istanbul-native Stella Kent said she was one of the optimists regarding the future of Ladino, though she was unsuccessful in passing the language on to her children.

“In Israel there is lots of research into Ladino and we’re returning to it, trying hard to prevent its death,” said Kent, who made aliyah with her husband to Tel Aviv in 2000, and came to Büyükada Island for a family reunion. “It’s never going to be a widely spoken language, but once you know Judaeo Spanish you know Spanish as well.
“As a Turkish Jew, I cry when I hear a Jewish song in Ladino, and I cry when I hear nostalgic songs from Turkey or from Israel. This is a synthesis of our experience,” she said.

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