Ladino Class at Penn Tries to Resuscitate Dormant Language

It sounds like Spanish at first, but listen harder. The six students in Daisy Braverman’s class are speaking a mostly dormant language – Ladino.

Invented by Jews in Spain, the idiom – also known as Judeo-Spanish – infused Hebrew elements into Castilian Spanish. Like Yiddish, Ladino provided Jews a vocabulary for daily usage outside of Hebrew, which was reserved for the synagogue. And, also like Yiddish, Ladino was originally written in the Hebrew alphabet.

After Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492, Ladino continued to evolve, soaking up linguistic influences from the countries – Greece, Turkey and other Mediterranean nations – where Sephardim settled.

At its height, Ladino could be heard throughout the Sephardic world. Today, however, the chatter is much quieter. In fact, Braverman’s class – held on Wednesday afternoons at the University of Pennsylvania – offers a rare opportunity to hear Ladino in the flesh.

For Braverman, who grew up speaking Ladino in Turkey, and who also knows English, Turkish, Spanish, French, Italian and some German – the class is part of a lifelong quest to preserve the tongue. Among other things, Braverman, a New York City resident, has helped translate plays into Ladino, sung with a Judeo-Spanish music troupe and taught the language at Congregation Shearith Israel, the Spanish and Portuguese synagogue in New York.

Now a visiting professor at Penn, Braverman says her main goal is to enable students to converse in Judeo-Spanish. But she’s not deluding herself; she readily admits that Ladino’s prognosis is poor. “I think that the only way the language can live as, you know, a true language, is if one teaches it to one’s children – and that’s really not happening,” said Braverman, who has not taught her own son the language. “I regretfully have to concede that if it’s not being used as a maternal language, then it has no chance of surviving.”

She said that its demise, in part, remains a casualty of the Holocaust, as the Nazis decimated large communities of Sephardim in Greece and Rhodes. But it’s also a product of assimilation, she said. When Spanish Jews first settled in the Ottoman Empire, they tended to settle in enclaves, according to Braverman. In this way, they maintained separate institutions and preserved traditions. “And that was the way the language survived,” she said.

With the dissolution of the empire and birth of individual nation states like Bulgaria and Romania, however, Jews began to assimilate; they moved into new neighborhoods, and started learning the language of their host countries, explained the professor. Now, Braverman said that Ladino lives only among a minority of elderly Sephardic Jews, and in small pockets in Israel and Turkey.

College senior Eitan Danon’s family is one of those vestiges. His grandmother and father are native Ladino speakers. In fact, Danon said that he’s spent three years petitioning Penn to host a Ladino scholar. “I’m very glad my hard work has paid off,” said the student. “It’s fun to be taking a class for credit about my ancestors.”


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