Turkish Jews look to Spain for back up plan

In an Istanbul classroom, six greying students are converting the language of their grandparents into a possible passport out of Turkey.

The group is perhaps among the last of a long line of speakers of Ladino, the language the forebears of Turkey’s Sephardic Jews brought with them when they fled the Spanish Inquisition for the Ottoman Empire in 1492. Today those emigrants’ descendants are an ageing minority of the country’s much diminished Jewish community.

Few around the table see a future for the tongue they learnt at home 50 years ago or more — a mixture of the 15th century languages of the Iberian peninsula, words of Greek and Turkish and rules and expressions all of its own. None has managed to pass it on to the next generation.

“Ladino is dying. My children do not speak it,” says Nesim Mihail Halfon, a businessman who attends the Spanish language class. “That is why I think we should learn Spanish. It is a language that is going to stay.”

Turkey’s Jewish community is in decline, its numbers shrinking by a 10th in the past decade, to not more than 17,000 today. Of those about 5,000 have applied for Spanish nationality, which new legislation means they are likely to be granted. While visa-free travel to the EU is an advantage of itself, many add they may need a “plan B” to life in the country of their birth.

Turkey has not witnessed recently the kind of murderous attacks on Jews that have been carried out this year in France and Denmark. However, security is oppressively tight at Turkish synagogues after 2003 bombings that killed more than 20 people.

Many Jews smart at what they see as hostile rhetoric by the country’s Islamist-rooted government, not least President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s repeated references to an “interest rate lobby” supposedly plotting against Turkey. Last year, the governor of Edirne province said he felt “hatred” towards Jews because of Israel’s actions in Gaza.

Mr Erdogan has said he is the first leader in the Islamic world to denounce anti-semitism, and his government has emphasised its steps to restore property confiscated long before from Jewish and other minority groups. But many Turkish Jews feel deeply uneasy all the same.

“There is open anti-semitism in the pro-government press,” says Ivo Molinas, editor of Shalom, the Jewish community’s weekly newspaper. “This is hate speech and in places like Germany or Switzerland it would be taken to court.” One columnist last year called for Turkey’s Jews to pay a special tax to compensate for damage in Gaza, adding: “Naturally you want to say: ‘God bless Hitler’.”

Everyone around the classroom table knows that, under a law likely to be approved by Spain’s parliament this year, dual citizenship will be offered to Sephardic Jews with a basic knowledge of Spanish. One already has his Spanish passport, granted under previous, more discretionary guidelines.

It is an age from the time when Ladino prospered in what was then Constantinople. In the 1920s, the 50,000-strong Jewish community accounted for as much as 7 per cent of the city’s population. There were Ladino newspapers, theatres and a concert hall. Ladino songs were adapted from the tangos of Buenos Aires and arias of operas such as La Traviata.

But a confiscatory wealth tax in the 1940s, emigration to Israel and a campaign for citizens to speak Turkish rather than their ancestral tongue combined to hasten the decline of the community and its language.

“My grandmother never knew how to speak Turkish — in our house everyone knew Ladino,” says Avram, one of the grizzled students. “But then this campaign came and the new generation left the old language behind.” Jews in other centres of Ladino, such as the Greek city of Thessaloniki, perished in the holocaust.

By around 1965, scholars say, it was no longer customary for Istanbul’s Jews to hear Ladino at home. In the 1980s, the newspaper Shalom switched to Turkish. It conserves a page in Ladino, the work of writers older than 50; one is 94.

“I understand Ladino perfectly but I do not speak it so well because I never practised it at home with my parents,” Mr Molinas says. “This language, this Ladino culture, is on the verge of dying … In 50 years’ time there may be fewer than 1,000 of us left.”

Some of the languages’s champions, such as Karen Gerson Sarhon, a scholar who has collected Ladino songs and published Ladino dictionaries, reject suggestions that the language is in effect dead. She points to Ladino-speaking communities in Israel, the Balkans and Latin America.

“We just held an international Ladino Day, where over 300 people came and spoke the language for a whole day,” she says. “Ladino has been caught up with our identity for centuries; when we lose it we lose part of that identity.”

But as Istanbul’s last few Ladino speakers pass from the scene, that heritage has to be conserved as best it can. “For young people,” Ms Gerson adds, “I recommend they learn modern Spanish.”


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