At home, my grandma Lora was the one who spoke Ladino most. She could speak Bulgarian, but the language which she regarded her own was Ladino. Her whole life had passed in the Jewish neighbourhood and among Jews.
I grew up in that same neighbourhood but we, the young ones, spoke Bulgarian. We spoke it with a peculiar distinctive accent – there was this special and very pronounced nasal drawl which was a telltale. Everybody could tell we were Jewish. We did not like sticking out like this and did our best to get rid of the accent – so that nobody could tell. I myself believed it was my duty and responsibility to speak ‘good’ Bulgarian. I was a Bulgarian Jew and did not want to be laughed at.
Ladino and the integration process
Immediately after WW2 there were over 45 000 Jews in Bulgaria. And then, all of a sudden, the number of people drastically dropped. A terrible pressure for integration was exerted, both from the inside and from the outside. Even our Jewish newspapers were all written in Bulgarian. There was nowhere we could communicate in Ladino.
The socialist authorities wanted to integrate us, the Bulgarian Jews, and Ladino was frowned upon. What is more, our own desire to become an integral part of the Bulgarian society was remarkable. I believe this is one of the reasons for us to have always been so readily accepted and protected even. We are different from the Jews in some other countries – they are immediately distinguishable because they dress and they speak differently. They keep themselves to themselves. While here, we have so many Jewish people in all the public and state institutions. And I can understand why – it is because we think about the way we are seen by others and the impact we have on the Bulgarian public and society.
A surprise – speaking Spanish
It was in the summer of 1963 – a youth festival was held in Bulgaria. I had the chance then to meet and spend a good amount of time with a group of Cubans. Originally, the festival was going to take place in Algeiria but because of the coup d’etat staged there, it was relocated to Bulgaria. Fidel Castro had sent over a lot of young people – the most hard working sugar cane harvesters in their country. And indeed, a Soviet ship brought 1000 Cubans to the festival. I was asked, by the people in the Central Committee of the communist youth organisation, whether I could accompany one of the groups. I agreed. But I had never before heard Cubans speak Spanish! To me it sounded as if they had swallowed their consonants and it was hard to understand them. For a whole week I kept my mouth shut and did not dare speak. By and by, I gathered courage and would put in a word here and a word there. The response of the Cubans was twofold. At first they thought they heard somebody who had risen from their grave. So obsolete was the language I produced. They were enormously delighted and would make me repeat what I said, time and time again. And their second reaction was that they thought I was employed by the Communist Party to follow them and report on their doings. But the truth was that nobody in the youth organisation knew I could understand and speak Spanish. Until it happened, I was not aware of this either.
Establishing common ground
My Ladino memories are neither very clear nor too specific but one thing I know for sure – I have always been keen to establish common ground between myself and other speakers of Spanish. I have actively sought out and initiated such contacts. Something quite interesting happened during a trade fair in Frankfurt. I was thumbing through the catalogues there when I spotted a family name the same as mine – Bali. I managed to find the person and introduced myself, “My name is also Bali”. We spoke in Spanyol. He was amazed, “But that’s wonderful”, he said, “Where does your family come from?” “My family was originally from Odrin”, I replied. “Mine was also from Odrin. Primo hermanos – we are cousins!” And indeed, we looked very similar in appearance – we both had dark complexions and were tall and well-built.
From time to time, I go to Istanbul, in Turkey. Our community is much larger there and more people speak and understand Ladino. Half of my communication is in Turkish, the other half – in Spanyol. I have friends in Turkey, with whom I also speak Ladino. But they tell me they don’t like speaking Ladino because they reckon Ladino was the language of the poor, of their servants. Richer Jews spoke French. Nevertheless, Istanbul is a place where Ladino is still alive.
Sparks of hope
I wouldn’t like to use negative qualification for attitudes towards Ladino, but ‘integration’ stopped our Ladino culture from developing. And now, it seems to be all too late. We cannot get young people involved in the Ladino cause and we receive no support from them to have Ladino revived. There is more attention to and more emphasis is placed on Israeli traditions. But it might be that Ladino is a like a live coal hidden among the ashes – it might spark off a fire. I tried to teach my son, Soni, a few Ladino words and he knows that he would have me all softened inside if he says them every now and then. I also became a member of the Dulce Canto choir. My time is already gone, but it was a beautiful experience singing in that choir. Dulce Canto is just one example of how we tried to preserve and revive Ladino.
Ladino is a beautifully sweet language. It makes us distinct from all others and inspires beauty. For me, its sweetness arises from the connection it helps me make with my grandparents and with the people I love most. I remember clearly the day when I realised I knew a language which was not typically spoken in Bulgaria and was brought here from somewhere so far away. Being able to understand this language is a blessing.