I was born in Pazardjik, a small town in central Bulgaria, in 1923. There were four of us – my mother and father, my brother and myself. Ours was a traditional Jewish family. At home we spoke Judesmo but we used to call it by its Hebrew name – Spanyolit. I could speak Bulgarian as well.
Other families did not speak Judesmo so much. Most often it served as the secret language of adults when they wanted to hide something, either from their children or the neighbours.
We lived in the Jewish quarters where everything was close by. The Synagogue was the focal point. Almost all the Jews lived together forming a close and cohesive community – we were all friends. In terms of everyday living, we were more or less of the same economic status. There were no big differences between us and we wanted to preserve our unity.
The world beyond
As children we played ball and all kinds of different games in a small garden nearby. We did not dare go beyond that garden though. I remember once the ball bounced off, I ran after it and before I knew it, I was in the wrong side of the garden. It felt as if a magic wand had been waved for me. I discovered a miraculous new world – shops, buildings and many people who I had never seen or known before. In the evening, I told my mother about my adventure and how foreign, and, yet, how wonderful it all was.
It was amazing that we lived in this same neighbourhood and so many people came to us, but we seldom crossed its boundaries. It was not as if we were forced into a ghetto, rather, it seemed we had erected those walls ourselves. In effect, we had closed in on ourselves. I remember when our parents met in the streets, they would say, “I saw your daughter out there. She had ‘crossed’ over to the other side, what was she doing there?” People were afraid that something bad might happen. There didn’t seem to be any obvious reason for that.
The Jewish school
Like the rest of the children I went to the Jewish school. The language of instruction was Hebrew. According to our Hebrew teachers Judesmo was a language that should never ever be given the chance to develop. They used to say that the only rightful language of our future homeland was Hebrew.
I attended the Jewish school until the 7th grade. Other Jewish families had their children complete grade 4 only and then sent them off to a Bulgarian school. I know the reason – it was because attending the Jewish school was seen to estrange the children from their Bulgarian environment. Issues of assimilation and integration lurked in the background and parents believed that integration would be difficult and even impossible if their children went to the Jewish school. They feared their offspring would be sucked into what was seen as a Jewish core and would not be able to learn Bulgarian properly. And indeed, due to the influence of Judesmo and Hebrew, we spoke Bulgarian in a sing-song way. We were often laughed at.
In high school Judesmo had absolutely no place. Bulgarian was the only language of schooling and the only language we used. I don’t think that speaking Judesmo at home got in the way of my studies. Bulgarian literature was my favourite subject and I always won the highest grades. At the beginning, I did have this typically Jewish drawl, but I was aware of that and every time I caught myself doing it, I quickly reverted to what I thought was proper Bulgarian intonation.
At school, all the Jewish children did very well indeed. It might be that our parents only sent the good ones to high school, but most of us continued to university. However, there was something in our school which I did not like – the way they referred to us. They did not use our names but they would say, for example, “These little Jews are the best”. It might be that they did not mean it as an insult. It might be that our names were difficult to pronounce. But we took offence nevertheless. There were two of us in our class and we felt so out of place and pushed to the margins. We were brought up valuing equality and believing that the whole nation was one but, in reality, we always ended up isolated. We became confused in our values. It felt like a wound, a hidden one, which would open up every time we were insulted like this. I did not feel any deliberate or explicit anti-semitism. Just the opposite – my literature teacher would say addressing the whole class, “Shame on you all! The Jews here speak better Bulgarian then you do.” But this was like prejudicing people against us. It hurt when it happened.
My love and joy today is the Ladino club. In my opinion, it should not be called ‘Ladino’ club. It should be called the ‘Club of nostalgia and sentiments for the past’.
Enthused by the materials in the Aki Yerushalaim magazine we set up the club almost a dozen years ago. We wanted to draw attention to our language, the right names of which are Ladino or Judesmo. We don’t like it when in some of the textbooks they call it Spanish-Bulgarian.
To those who speak it, Ladino is a nostalgic language. It is a language of emotions. Of all past experiences, we remember our childhood with most fondness. This is exactly what we aim for in our club. Most of us are old people and we want to awaken our positive and pleasant emotions.
In the old people’s home where I live now I make an effort to speak Ladino. The only reason I do that is because I know that speaking Ladino brings back memories. I am a doctor and I know that memories arrange themselves in layers. The ones in the topmost layer are the least durable, while the ones in the bottom layer are the emotions which last forever.
I often revisit my childhood and when I do that I share my memories with my friends. I talk to them in Ladino, so that they themselves could reach for their memories hidden in the bottom layers of their mind, dig them out and bring them up. They would often ask me “Sophy, please, can you remind us of this Ladino word? And how do you say that in Ladino? What do these phrases mean?” Eventually, they would remember more and more words and by surfacing them they reverse the fossilisation process in their brains. Ladino is the perfect cure for forgetfulness and sadness.
Together, we bring our past back to life and living it through in Ladino, over again, we find the strength to speak out for ourselves. We are confident that we have found our voice and have interesting things to say. We want to open up hidden treasures and promote the development of Ladino as a spoken language. The Ladino club is our lifeline to Ladino.