My early childhood memories go back to the 1950s. By that time our relatives had all migrated to Israel. Except for my aunt who stayed behind with us I don’t remember anybody using Ladino for spontaneous communication. Later on, she married a Bulgarian guy and stopped speaking Ladino altogether.
I truly regret not being able to speak Ladino properly. I can only manage bits and pieces – odd words I have heard from my parents who would occasionally say things to each other in Ladino. Something else that surfaces are terms of endearment and the names of traditional Sephardic dishes that my mother used to make, e,g, apyu, borekitas, anginara.
My mother sang songs in Ladino but I do not think it has influenced me in any significant way. However, I like some of the Ladino songs and have an affinity for Spanish singing and music.
As a child, I attended the Jewish pre-school. We sang songs in Ladino and I learned some little poems, but all communication ran in Bulgarian. I even learned to read and write there but that, too, was in the Bulgarian language.
At the age of 15-16, I went to Israel to visit and get to know my uncles. Communication was funny – we would begin a sentence in Bulgarian, throw in some Hebrew words and finish in Ladino.
Until recently, I would put the blame for having lost Ladino on my parents. I regarded myself as having been unjustly deprived of a precious part of my identity, a resource I would now enjoy drawing upon. My parents could have certainly spoken with us in Ladino, but they had chosen Bulgarian as the language of our home. One obvious reason was that they didn’t want us to feel different but, in fact, the bigger issue
was that the need to speak Ladino never occurred. The social context which might have supported interaction in Ladino was missing. Most times we communicated with Bulgarians. My family was very small and there weren’t enough of us to live as a self-sufficient community.
The Jewish community
Outside my immediate family my other contact with Ladino was through the Jewish community in Plovdiv. Parties were organised in the Jewish centre and I remember my father dancing with me. He floated across the big room with me in his arms and I was hearing Ladino from all sides. But now, when I think back, I have a sense of this space having been quite marginal and isolated.
I was brought up to be tolerant. I was aware of my Jewish identity but I also knew I was in no way special or exceptional just because I was Jewish.
There was this little episode when the time came to have my first passport issued. My full name is Claire Solomon Levy. The officials in the passport department informed me that they would put my name down as Claire Solomonova Levieva – making it sound Bulgarian through adding the typical Bulgarian suffix for female names. I protested and managed to stop them from changing my name. I did not even tell or ask my parents – I acted on my own. Luckily, the authorities did not put any more pressure on me.
Much later, when I had already graduated from the Musical Academy and wanted to publish an article, it was suggested to me that I sign the publication as Katya Ivanova. I put my foot down and firmly refused. It was not because I was fixed on my Jewishness but I felt it was wrong to change my name on the whim of some bureaucrat. The article came out signed with my real name.
And yet, in spite of these two episodes, there hasn’t been any serious hostility towards me or anybody I know. I think this was the main reason for the Jewish community not to feel in any way threatened or at risk. Rather than sticking together we opened up and merged with our Bulgarian neighbours and into Bulgarian society more widely. One of the prices we paid was the loss of our heritage language.