I call this language Judesmo-Espagnol. I cannot be absolutely sure about the difference between its various names but that is how I call it.
I would be exaggerating if I said I knew Judesmo. It is a language from my childhood and I understand quite a lot but I find it hard to speak. For my parents it’s different – Judesmo is their mother tongue. Take my mother, for example. Only now I realise that my mother has got problems with expressing herself in Bulgarian, although she is a highly educated person. But this can be easily understood – in the first six years of her life she did not speak any other language but Judesmo. The same goes for my father. He used to go to the Jewish club in Plovdiv on a daily basis. He played cards with his friends. All their jokes, curses and playful bantering was done in Judesmo. However, when we were growing up, our parents wanted to integrate themselves into the newly emerging socialist society and have their children integrated too. They sometimes used Judesmo with each other, but with us (my brother and me), they spoke Bulgarian. I never spoke Judesmo-Espagnol with any of the Jewish children I grew up with. With my maternal grandfather I also communicated in Bulgarian. He never taught me Judesmo.
Judesmo and my other languages
My perception of the language was mostly of its spoken form. Apparently, this kind of oral readiness has given me a lot. If I compare the level of competence I have in various languages to the amount of effort I have put into learning them, it becomes obvious that through Judesmo I have developed my sense of and affinity for languages. My bilingual family background has undoubtedly helped me. I am fluent in French without having tried too hard to learn it. The same goes for English – I only started learning it when I was 25. It seems that Judesmo lingers in the background and supports me in my language learning efforts.
Common cultural paradigms
I remember my first visit to Spain. It was quite an emotional experience. I felt completely comfortable in the Spanish speaking context and was pleasantly excited listening to the people around me and actually being able to understand. Although I was not at home and in my own country, I still had this amazing sense of being in a linguistically familiar context. It must have all sounded ridiculous and primitive because I had never specially studied Judesmo, but I was very well received. People applauded me. I did a presentation at the Chamber of Commerce in Barcelona and I said my last couple of sentences in Judesmo Espagnol.
The same thing when I was in Brazil. They speak Portuguese there of course but again, I felt at home and an insider. This must be because I assist my mother in her Ladino work, including the gathering of proverbs and in this way I position myself in a shared cultural paradigm. It all matters.
Only recently I’ve acquired some better structured knowledge of the grammatical and written forms of Judesmo. The reason why I know some bits and pieces is because I am involved in the work my mother does. I think she is apostolic in what she has accomplished, especially with regard to organising the Ladino club in Plovdiv. I am so proud of her. Five or six years ago she designed a beginner course in Judesmo. She compiled the course textbook basing it on a French textbook written by Marie-Christine Varol. My mother not only translated from the original, she also wrote new material. The publication came out with photographs from our family album – images of Jewish houses, Jewish holidays and some of our relatives. I uploaded the whole of the textbook. I’ve met some of my mother’s students – adults, mature people. Most of them are Jews but there are some Bulgarians with an interest in Judesmo. Their enthusiasm is enviable. Some of these people claim to have re-discovered their roots.
Old recipes notebook
Really, my interest is secondary. I just help my mother. It all started when she turned 75. Hidden in the bottom of a small kitchen drawer she discovered a notebook of recipes that belonged to my grandmother. This was the thing that triggered off my mother’s Judesmo work. She started writing a cookery book, where, in addition to the recipes she put proverbs in Judesmo for each of the sections. I was very skeptical at first but, as time passed, I could see my mother looking back, exploring and tuning to her Judesmo childhood experiences. I am very glad she lives a meaningful life.
The way it is now
The language has gone through many changes over the years but the truth is that it is now dying away. My generation don’t speak it; my children haven’t got the slightest idea. They live in a world which is completely different form the world of Judesmo and my world. My son would sometimes ask questions related to Judesmo but he asks his grandmother, not me. He goes to a ‘Jewish’ school but they study Hebrew there. They have no awareness of Judesmo whatsoever.
In conclusion, I know that some people speak highly of Judesmo- Espagnol as a language which is in many ways exceptional. But I also know that it is the language of the common people, the language they used in their everyday life. For that reason, Judesmo is quite primitive in its vocabulary, discourses or varieties of expression.