I have been on the ‘Jewish street’ for more than 20 years. Ladino is a significant component of my Jewish identity. It is a language which not only defines our community but shapes our worldview.
My first memories of Ladino go back to my childhood – I grew up in a Jewish environment but we did not speak Ladino at home. Unlike my father, who learned it at home and could understand what his parents were disagreeing about, we lived separately from my grandparents and I did not have the chance to learn Ladino in my early years.
I remember that the first thing I learned was the word pashariko and only later, many years later, I realised that my grandmother was actually calling me ‘my little birdie’. And this is very pleasant of course. Later on, I learned ijo de azno (son of a donkey) or cavesa di tuch (wooden head). And I knew I was somewhere between the birdling and the donkey’s son, and this felt like the most natural thing in the world to be.
Everything that my Grandma cooked had its own unique name in Ladino. Some of the things she made had no analogy in the cuisine of the people around. Being in the kitchen with her I soaked in a lot of Ladino phrases and words. My wife now, she makes these dishes from time to time, and our sons, too, know their weird names.
A language for singing
In fact, I learned my first post-childhood Ladino words and phrases as late as when my wife and I started singing in the Dulce Canto choir. We sang Ladino songs there and I felt I was able ‘to hear’ this language and identify with it. Only then did I start developing an awareness of the language. So much so, that every time I hear somebody speak Spanish now, I get a general idea of what is being said. I wouldn’t be able to repeat any of the words or sentences, or say anything myself, but I imagine I can capture the general sense of the conversation. I rarely get this general idea wrong and this makes me think that Ladino is part of my ‘basic programming’. However, we gave up our choir singing because they took a religious turn and Hebrew prayers which formed a significant part of their repertoire are not my cup of tea.
Ladino for links
Ladino is a whiff of something warm and sweet which is still there for us, but its time is running out. It is fading away and is doing so in a dramatic away. The whole culture of communicating in Ladino is dying a slow death but still, Ladino is our link with a small fraction of the Jewry – with people like us
There aren’t very many Jews left on the Balkans but of the few left, the Sephardic Jews are the leading majority. There are more of them simply and Ladino culture is still dominant among them. If I could speak Ladino, I could easily communicate with people in Greece and Turkey, and elsewhere, especially with the elderly. I would have been very well positioned, exactly because of that. But even as it is, I am being well-positioned and accepted now.
Sephardic culture can be understood as al sub-layer, underpinning our ways of being and making it possible for the others to better understand us, the Bulgarian Jews. If you think of it, we became ‘Bulgarian Jews’ as recently as 70-80 years ago. Before that we used to be Balkan Jews. Should we find ourselves among Jews from other Balkan countries, there would hardly be anything to make us inherently different from each other – except for the language of our respective passports. Everywhere on the Balkans I feel at home. My great Grandad was born in what is now Turkey. What was he? What kind of Jew was he exactly? My Grandma used to tell me about her family and relatives who are no longer among us. They came from what today is Serbia and Macedonia.
When I was in the US, I came across similar Sephardic communities. I met a Jewish guy from Cuba and we chatted for hours. Our conversation resonated with something deep inside me and we both felt we belonged together. It is the language that brings us close, and the worldview that goes with it.
I have a sense of nostalgia because there is an ongoing discourse about the unique value of Ladino and the worth of our Sephardic identity but the whole of this conversation is conducted in … English.
Through Ladino I can trace a connection with one of the most progressive civilisations in Europe of past times. And now, all of this is disappearing. Whether it will disappear altogether and for good, I don’t know. I wish it could stay alive, and deep down I believe it will be here forever. From something which used to be practical, usable and indispensable, Ladino is now turning into a kind of intellectual brooch. And you know how it is with brooches – you wear and enjoy them if you have them, but you can very well manage without them. Brooches are somewhat eccentric but on the other hand, what would life be without a certain dose of eccentricity.