Rabbi Rifat Sonsino, Ph.D.
March 1, 2019
“Keridos haverim. En tomando la palavra delantre esta asistensya siendo el dover de rengrasyar nuestro karo professor…” (Translation: Dear Friends. As I begin to address this audience, I feel I need to thank our teacher…).
Thus I began my talk on April 2, 1954 in a synagogue in Istanbul, Turkey. I was 16 years old. The language was Ladino (or, Judeo-Spanish), spoken in Turkey and the Balkans by Jews since their expulsion by the Spanish in 1492. Regrettably, after more than 500 years, the language is now dying for lack of use, and the younger generations’ preference for local languages.
In my childhood, we spoke Ladino at home and Turkish in the streets. Most of our friends and relatives were of Jewish descent, and spoke with each other only in Ladino. The lectures and announcements in the Jewish houses of worship were done in Ladino. We had a Jewish newspaper in Ladino. My maternal aunt was from Edirne, close to the Greek border, and she spoke Ladino with a slight accent.
There is a great deal of Jewish literature written in Ladino using Latin characters or Rashi script (a semi-cursive typeface). My father knew how to write in Soletreo, a special Ladino script, but I never learned it. The Meam Loez, a major kabbalistic (mystical) commentary on the Hebrew Bible, was written in Ladino by Rabbi Yaakov Kuli in 1730.We used to sing songs, like “Kuando el Rey Nimrod” (When the King Nimrod), or “A la una nasi yo” (I was born at 1), “Non komo nuestro Dio”(None like our God, En Kelohenu). Please note, it is DIO and not DIOS (as in modern Spanish), for Dios could imply plurality, which Jews rejected).
All this is disappearing. Younger generations in Turkey do not speak Ladino. Turkish is their language. My two kids, one born in Argentina and the other in the States, have no clue about Ladino. Because my wife is from Buenos Aires, at least at the beginning with our son, we maintained Argentinian Spanish at home, but that too soon disappeared. My children understand modern Spanish and my grandchildren learn it in school. Ladino itself is becoming a language studied only by academicians and historians. Even though some of my contemporaries still speak Ladino or understand it, at the present time, it is heavily saturated with Turkish words and expressions. The next generation is not likely to speak the language at all. Five hundred plus years of creativity will now be at the hands of a very few, if any.
Yes, there are attempt to preserve Ladino as a spoken language, but, I believe, the efforts, are in vain. Like many other ventures, this too will become part of history. At least I am glad that I was exposed to this very rich literature of the past in my childhood. The future belongs to my children and grandchildren. And this is the way it ought to be.