I spent my childhood in the small town of Haskovo. For the Jewish community there, and especially for my grandparents and their relatives, Ladino was the only language of communication. My grandparents could not speak Bulgarian and when they visited us, everybody at home used Ladino. I don’t remember clearly how I managed to make myself understood but I must have tried to somehow string the few words I knew into sentences. You know how it is with children – their brain soaks up the languages spoken around them.
Although I dearly loved my grandparents I remember feeling a bit uneasy about this language. I was even attempting to avoid it when I could. I thought it was a kind of broken Spanish and only later, much later, when I learned more about it I realised I had been entirely and completely wrong.
My later experiences with Ladino are connected with my research interests. I have a degree in finance and I have also worked in the State Archives office but I am also keenly interested in Jewish life.
Through my work in the Archives I came across a rich collection of over 2000 Sephardic proverbs and sayings in Ladino. They were gathered within a long term research project initiated by the Jewish Institute whose Director was the Chief Rabbi of Bulgaria. The Institute, however, doesn’t exist anymore.
Some of the proverbs were already familiar to me but I had never seen them pooled together in one place. I managed to publish them in a book which I named “The River Flows but the Sand Remains”. In its introduction I explain that I have included only those proverbs which hadn’t already found their way into the books of Isak Moscona – a great expert on Ladino. I studied his work carefully and made sure my own publication did not duplicate his.
The Ladino Club
Later on, the Jewish organisation in Sofia set up a Ladino Club and I enrolled. I did this in full awareness that this language is doomed to oblivion and will ultimately disappear. Some kind of nostalgia, though, binds me to this cause and I still go to the gatherings of the Club.
I am looking at what is happening here, in Bulgaria – while my parents used to speak Ladino with their own parents, nobody of my generation speaks Ladino with their children now. To say nothing of my grandchildren and great grandchildren who live in Israel. With no exception they all speak and communicate in Hebrew.
And in spite of all that and me being clear about what I can see happening, I persist. I am still being interested in this language and have collected even more proverbs – 400 of them. They collect dust in the editorial office of the Jewish News newspaper but by doing this I think I grant my due to history. I am convinced that Ladino is an important part both of our past and of our evolving culture. Back in time, our ancestors were thrown out of Spain but they took this language with them and went on speaking it. They continued doing this for a long, long time. It is only noble and, in a way, visionary to help preserve some written traces of the language. Ladino is an interesting phenomenon. And I don’t mean its spoken order structures only. You can detect and follow the traces of so many other languages – the languages of the peoples with whom the Jews had lived when they left Spain, for example Portuguese, Italian, Turkish, Bulgarian and maybe others. Ladino is an unbelievable mixture. Our ancestors have spoken it while interacting with each other, when trading, making love, and singing their beautiful songs. To cut it short, Ladino has preserved many diverse aspects of the lives we had lived in the past. It is part of the history of a big branch of the Jewish people – those who once lived in Spain.