The last thing I need is another shawl. But as I wandered down Istitklal Cadesi, the main shopping drag of modern Istanbul and I spotted bright red embroidered swirls dancing across soft black wool, I found myself lured into the Ipek Silk Shop, where soon enough I was presented with endless variations of my original object of desire. At least it is not a rug, I reasoned as the salesman performed the timeless ritual, shifting the textiles tenderly from one pile to another. Like all shopkeepers in the tourist centers, he—along with the brothers and cousins he worked with—spoke fluent English. “These make very good Christmas presents,” he commented, as I perused a stack of floral neck warmers. He paused and studied my face. “You don’t celebrate Christmas, do you?”
“No,” I said.
“Neither do we.”
How fortuitous to meet this genial Sephardic clan on my way to the headquarters of newspaper in Judeo-Spanish, also known as Ladino, the language brought to Turkey by the Jews after the Expulsion from Spain, and I asked the man, could we complete the transaction in it. Well, we understood it, he said, from hearing it growing up, but the language his family spoke was the same modern one I had learned living in Spain.
The encounter was a fairly accurate representation of the general state of affairs of Ladino among Turkey’s 20,000 Jews, I soon learned. The average age of native Ladino speakers is at least 70, according to Karen Gerson Sarhon, coordinator of the city’s Ottoman-Turkish Sephardic Culture Research Center and editor of El Amaneser (The Dawn), one of the world’s few remaining Judeo-Spanish periodicals, when I reached her office. “Ladino is dying,” she told me matter-of-factly in English, before switching at my request to Judeo-Spanish. I was surprised how much I understood. “Now more people are interested in learning the language,” she added, “but it’s too late. It’s more feasible to learn modern Spanish—and Spanish gives them access to their heritage.”
In the 1970s, Gerson Sarhon notes, it was a common expectation that Ladino would be dead in 10 to 15 years. Then, in the 80s, Turkey abolished restrictions on foreign travel, enabling Turkish Jews to see how far even a smattering of Ladino went in communicating in Spanish-speaking countries. At the same time, the impending quincentenary of the arrival of Jews in the Ottoman Empire brought scholars of Sephardic culture to Turkey, producing what Gerson Sarhon describes as a “halo effect” that raised consciousness of a language that the local community had cast aside.
The opening of the research center, in December 2003, was intended to capitalize on that interest, but it came at a bittersweet moment for the country’s Jewish community, just a month after fatal synagogue bombings. “There is a lot of anti-Semitism powered by outside forces,” Gerson Sarhon said. “It is not like it used to be.” The center’s mission is to research, archive, and transmit the language, music, and history of Turkish Jewry, a task made more difficult by the fact so little was written down. “It was mostly an oral culture,” she said. “Whatever we had was not documented.” The change of Ladino transcription in the 1920s, shortly after Turkish independence, from the Rashi alphabet, with its Hebrew characters, to Latin ones, makes preserving the Ladino heritage even more difficult, Gerson Sarhon said, because very few people today can read the language in the old alphabet.
Amaneser, founded in 2005, is a last relic of a grand tradition of Ladino publishing in the Ottoman Empire, which began in 1842 with the launch of the newspaper La buena esperansa in Izmir. By the interwar period, as Sarah Abrevaya Stein recounts in her lively history of Jewish ethnic publishing, Making Jews Modern, more than 300 Ladino periodicals were published in Turkey and the Balkans. But even though in the mid-1920s, 85 percent of Turkish Jews identified Ladino as their mother tongue, the language was already in decline. It was eclipsed first by French, which became the language of educated Sephardic Jews anxious to align themselves with Western European culture, and then, with the founding of the Turkish republic in 1923, of Turkish.
While the government actively promoted the national language with a policy called “Citizen Speak Turkish,” it made no effort to suppress Ladino, as it did with Kurdish. However, in a sense this effort came from the community itself. In contrast to Eastern Europe—where at the same time, as Stein notes, activists were working to promote Yiddish literature and education, establishing institutions like YIVO—in Turkey, Sephardic Jews made no effort to transmit Ladino, which they viewed as backward, to a new generation. Jews, who were notorious for speaking Turkish with “horrible accents,” Gerson Sarhon says, “thought they’d better give up this old language and incorporate Turkish into their home life. People wanted to assimilate.”
In this century, at a time when Yiddish continues to be used as the primary language in chasidic households around the globe, Ladino has “lost its function in the home,” said Gerson Sarhon, who wrote two master’s theses—in social psychology and applied linguistics—on Judeo-Spanish. Though many Jews aged 50 to 70 learned Ladino as a second language from their parents, Jews of younger generations, like my new friends in the scarf store, may have learned it from their grandparents—or not at all. Currently, Gerson Sarhon is supervising the effort to record the vanishing generation of native speakers and post sound files on the Web as part of a study to analyze distinctions in vocabulary and accent. She has also devoted her career to documenting Turkish Jewry’s vanishing musical traditions, recording secular and liturgical songs as a lead singer in the ensemble Los Pasharos Sefardis.
Though the center has a small book publishing arm—which just produced a lavish new volume documenting Turkish synagogues—its main resources are devoted to the monthly Amaneser and the weekly Salom, which was printed in Ladino until it switched to Turkish in 1983. Salom , which publishes a monthly Ladino supplement, counts about 4,000 subscribers, Gerson Sarhon says; Amaneser, about 250—not only in Turkey but as far afield as Spain, China, Latin America, and the Philippines. While Salom publishes hard news—mostly stories from the Diaspora that don’t necessarily make it into the local papers—Amaneser provides a space for community news, history lessons, book and film reviews, memoirs, short stories, and recipes, many of them sent in by readers from all over the world and edited by the mostly female, mostly volunteer staff.
Recent issues included an item on the Turkish Jewish poet Yosef Habi Gerez, a reflection on Baruch Spinoza, discussions of Jewish holidays, an interpretation of the story of Esther, a recollection of life in Chile under Allende, an interview with the Turkish Jewish photographer Alberto Modiano, a profile of the Sephardic singer Sandra Bessis, and a recipe for Bulemas de Monastir, a rose-shaped pastry with spinach or eggplant. Each issue also includes a transliteration of the Rashi alphabet along with that of a Judeo-Turkish proverb, such as “No ay koza ke trae yoro al mundo kuanto el vino” (“Nothing makes the world cry more than wine”), from a Ladino commentary on the Torah published in the 18th century.
One issue last summer featured an interview by Gerson Sarhon with Paloma Díaz-Mas, a Spanish scholar who specializes in Sephardic culture. Gerson Sarhon asks Díaz-Mas if she believes that the current revival of interest in Ladino is enough to preserve the language, or if in time Judeo-Spanish will meld with modern Spanish. Political initiatives, Díaz Mas suggests, might help to maintain and cultivate the language, much as what happened with minority languages that had been prohibited under the Franco regime. However, she notes, those languages have since been declared official in their individual regions, an outcome not possible for Judeo-Spanish.
Still, Díaz Mas comments, the revival highlights the way people use language to define their cultural and ethnic identity. The new generation, she says, is looking for a connection to the language “that identifies them as Sephardim, not only among non-Jews but among Jews of other origins.”
As a younger generation seeks out Spanish to commune with their past, meanwhile, there’s a small irony in the fact that the older generation—people who still speak Ladino as their first language—still think “anyone who can speak Spanish is Jewish,” Gerson Sarhon told me. “It’s part of the identity that people have in their minds.”
Robin Cembalest is executive editor of ARTnews.
RELATED: To hear an audio sample of spoken Ladino, listen to Tablet’s podcast with Marcel Cohen, author of In Search of a Lost Ladino: Letter to Antonio Saura.