Ladino lingers on in Brooklyn - barely

Ladino, an amalgamation of medieval Spanish and Hebrew, was once spoken by hundreds of thousands of Sephardi Jews.

Jackie Calderon 88 248 (photo credit: Benjamin Peim)
Jackie Calderon 88 248
(photo credit: Benjamin Peim)
In a remote corner of Brooklyn untouched by gentrification, in the shadow of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, a dying language survives. Ladino, an amalgamation of medieval Spanish and Hebrew, was once spoken by hundreds of thousands of Sephardi Jews, those whose ancestors once lived in Spain (Sephardi is derived from sepharad, the Hebrew word for Spain). Today scholars estimate it is spoken by fewer than 60,000 people - not even enough to sell out most sports stadiums. The UN considers Ladino an endangered language on the verge of extinction. And yet, at the Sephardic Nursing and Rehabilitation Center, an old-age home in Bensonhurst, Ladino is holding on - if barely. "I still speak it but it's disappearing, and it's sad," said Lucy Eisner, 89, as she lounged on a couch at the center. Today home to more than 250 residents, the center opened in 1951 as a social club for elderly Sephardi Jews living in the area. At one time Ladino was spoken at the center all day long, but now Eisner is one of only a handful of Ladino speakers left. "One wonders whether the language is going to completely fade away," she said. "But I hope it doesn't because it's so beautiful." Ladino has its roots in medieval Spain's "Convivencia" period, a rare time of relative religious freedom and tranquility among Christians, Muslims and Jews during which a vibrant Jewish community flourished. But this period proved temporary and in 1492 the Jews were expelled. Some fled to Holland while others resettled along the Mediterranean in North Africa, the Ottoman Empire and the Balkans. There they learned the languages of their new host countries, but continued to use Ladino among themselves. Eisner, whose maiden name is Angel, grew up speaking Ladino with her parents, Sephardim who had settled in Brooklyn after immigrating in 1913 from present day Greece and Turkey. Now she scarcely uses the language and is concerned there's not enough speakers for it to carry on. "Hardly anyone speaks it now, and if you're with two people who do speak it and one that doesn't, you use English," Eisner explained. "Otherwise it's not nice." DURING THE first few decades of the 20th century around two million Jews immigrated to the United States, most to New York. They were overwhelmingly Ashkenazim from Central and Eastern Europe and spoke Yiddish. But about 25,000 Ladino speaking Sephardim from the Ottoman Empire immigrated as well, principally from the Greek city of Salonica, Monastir and Castoria in today's Macedonia, Istanbul and the island of Rhodes. Most of them settled in Manhattan's Lower East Side and the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn. At first Ladino flourished in New York. Some synagogues conducted services in it and Ladino newspapers sprang up, the largest of which was La Vara, published from 1922 to 1948. But learning English was prioritized among the immigrants and Ladino soon fell by the wayside. "They prided themselves on speaking English and learning English," said Jackie Calderon Green, the center's director of volunteers and Sephardic herself. "When I was growing up, English was always spoken in the house unless there was something my parents or grandparents didn't want us to understand." Although she knows more than a few words and can understand some of the language, she longs to learn more. "I wish they would've taught me." Use of Ladino declined even more during the second half of the century. Some speakers perished in the Holocaust. Many others immigrated to Israel after its founding in 1948 and gave up the language. ACCORDING TO Calderon Green, 20 years ago old-timers at the home used to converse all day long in Ladino. Some residents still say things in Ladino from time to time and some Ladino expressions are still popular, like en boca cerrada no entra moshka, which translates to "a fly doesn't enter a closed mouth," or to put in plain English: Keep your mouth shut. But many of the residents are now Ashkenazim and speak Yiddish, not Ladino. Even many Sephardi residents don't speak the language that well. "There's really only a handful left," Calderon Green said. Sopie Russo, 85, frets that she no longer speaks flawless Ladino. "I very rarely speak Ladino now," she said as she sipped from a bowl of soup in the center's dining room, aptly named Sepharbucks. "If I do it's only a couple of words." Russo's parents immigrated from Monastir to Brooklyn, her father in 1910 and her mother two years later. But they never managed to learn much English, and Russo grew up immersed in Ladino. "That's all we spoke in the house," she said. She fondly remembers her father telling her stories about Djohá, a comical simpleton popular in Ladino folktales, much like Gimpel the Fool in Yiddish stories made popular by Isaac Bashevis Singer. But Russo rarely spoke Ladino with people outside her family. Most of her friends were Ashkenazim who didn't speak Ladino, and she felt more comfortable speaking English with her Sephardi friends. "I've forgotten a lot because if you don't use it, you lose it," Russo said. Today her children understand Ladino but are unable to speak it. "It really is becoming a lost language," she said. "It's sad." Other residents reported giving up daily use of the language after their immigrant parents died. But in the last few years there has been an effort to preserve the language. Some Sephardi synagogues in New York now offer Ladino language classes. Sephardi musicians have also begun recording traditional Ladino songs. "I think it'll still be around in 20 or 30 years," Abraham Lavender, a professor at Florida International University and president of its Navon Program for the Study of Sephardic and Oriental Jewry, said. "There will always be some people who keep it for the sake of preserving it." Part of this effort is led by Esther Daiell, born to a Sephardi family in Cairo, who grew up speaking Ladino. She's now in her 50s and is an art therapist at the center. "We've organized plays here in Ladino," said Daiell. The center also arranges Sephardi cultural events, replete with traditional Ladino music and belly dancers. But still, Daiell, whose family settled in Bensonhurst in the early 1960s after being expelled from Egypt, is uneasy about Ladino's future. She continues to speak it with her aunt and her brother, but she married an Ashkenazi and her sons don't speak the language. "Sometimes I feel like the last dinosaur," Daiell said.