Drawing by Antonio Saura

Marcel Cohen grew up outside Paris. Twenty-five years ago, he decided to write a long letter to his friend the painter Antonio Saura in Judeo-Spanish, a language spoken by the descendants of Jews expelled from Spain in the 15th century. Cohen doesn’t speak Judeo-Spanish, but he grew up hearing it spoken by his grandparents from Turkey.

Cohen translated his extended letter into French and published it as a small book; now it’s out in English from Ibis Editions. In Search of a Lost Ladino: Letter to Antonio Saura, chronicles Cohen’s family history and the history of Sephardic Jews. He talks about writing in a vanishing language and about visiting Spain centuries after his ancestors were kicked out.

What follows is an excerpt from In Search of a Lost Ladino, first in Judeo-Spanish, then in an English translation.

* * *

La muerte avla por mi boka… A verda dezir, Antonio, ya sto muerto yo. Ay mucha dgente oy ke se interessa al ladino y al djudyo en las universitas. Eskriven esta dgente livros y livros sobre los djudyos. Es komo si fuera yo tapado en un muzeo. La dgente me kyere mucho byen. Todo es muy byen areglado en akel muzeo. Los mousafires vyenen, miran y meldan el papeliko ke ay detras del vidro. Y ke melda la dgente en akel papeliko?

“Interesante kavzo de djudyo sefardi buskado por miraklo en Paris en la segunda mitad del siglo veynte. Komo se puede ver, este djudyo es muy byen konservado. Aunke es inkapatche de avlar kasteyano, lo entiende siempre muy bien. Mira, sobre todo, al pelo suyo ke no sta preto komo el de los turkos. De la misma manera, la facha suya es muy klara. Es la prova kualmente akel djudyo apartene bien al groupo de los dolikocefales ke moravan en la peninsula iberika al tyempo de los Reyes Katolikos. Enkavzo ke algun visitor kerya eskutchar a las kantikas viejas del siglo kinse de ke se akodra todavya este djudyo, ay ke ser muy kebar y kalynyozo kon el: se espanta de ridikolarse. No olvida ke este raro specimen es muy solitaryo.”

(Nota a los visitores: “Akel konstantinopolitano ofre la partikolarida de komer solamente steak-frites y de bever gros-rouge. Por esta razon es danyozo de darle pepitas o fustukes komo a los maymounas del zoo.”)

* * *

Death speaks through your mouth…. In fact, Antonio, I’m already dead. In universities today, all sorts of students, linguists and the merely curious, are interested in Ladino. Entire books are devoted to the history of the Sephardim. How could I not seem like a fossil on display at a museum? Of course, everyone is extremely kind. Everything is perfectly organized. The mousafires approach politely and read the little label placed behind the glass that protects me. What does it say?

“Interesting specimen of a Sephardic man, miraculously discovered in Paris in the second half of the twentieth century. As you can observe, this sample is in perfectly preserved condition. Speaking Spanish rather poorly, from simple lack of practice, he still understands it without the least difficulty. Notice above all his hair, which is not dark like a Turk’s. And note how his skin is very pale. This proves that he belongs to the group of dolichocephalic humans inhabiting the Iberian peninsula at the time of the Catholic kings. Visitors wishing to listen to the snippets of fifteenth-century ballads that he still retains faithfully in his memory should exercise respect and patience, since this specimen has a horror of appearing ridiculous. Don’t forget that this rare specimen is a creature of a solitary nature.”

(Note to visitors: “This French-born Constantinopolite has the curious habit of subsisting only on steak frites and red wine. It’s therefore inadvisable to offer him those sunflower seeds and fustuks that monkeys in zoos are so fond of.”)