Judesmo is my mother tongue and, until I was 22, it was the only language we spoke at home. My parents, my brothers, my aunts, grannies, everybody … we spoke it all the time. Our domestic help, however, were Bulgarian girls and we used Bulgarian with them. Likewise, we spoke Bulgarian with some of the Ashkenazim in our neighbourhood but they were not many – most of the 5000 Jews who lived in Plovdiv were Sephardic Jews. Curiously, some of the Bulgarians in our neighbourhood had learned Judesmo and we understood each other very well.
At home, my parents sometimes spoke French and German. They were well-educated and learned people. My mother had completed her music and arts education in Zurich. She and Elias Canetti lived in the same boarding house and he made her the prototype of the Bulgarian character in his novel The Tongue Set Free. My father studied in Vienna and graduated from one of the business schools there.
My parents could read and write in Judesmo. Until 1925, Judesmo was written in the Rashi script. All documents and publications of that time were in Rashi – newspapers, journals, books, etc. The Jewish organisation in Plovdiv published a Judesmo paper, some of the pages of which were written out in Bulgarian and some – in Rashi. The reason to have them in Rashi was that a great majority of the Jews could not speak or read Bulgarian. My parents received the local Judesmo paper but also the newspapers published in Sofia and Thessaloniki. They would also borrow books in Ladino and Judesmo from the Jewish library in Thessaloniki.
Schooling without Judesmo
Until I started school, I did not speak any other language apart from a couple of words in Bulgarian. I first went to a Jewish primary school where all the children were Jewish and the language of instruction was Hebrew. We were not allowed to speak Judesmo. I learned Hebrew and had to study Bulgarian as well, but I found them really hard to master. Unlike Judesmo, which we learned as we went along living our lives, the study of Bulgarian and Hebrew was formalised. With Judesmo it was different – we did not learn any grammar rules and formulas but we spoke it well.
I then went to a Bulgarian middle school where I continued studying Bulgarian. In high school (girls only), we studied Latin and French but Bulgarian was the language of instruction and the only language we were allowed to communicate in.
And then, early in 1944, I got married and, gradually, Judesmo, stopped being the language of home. My husband came back from the Jewish labour camp in September 1944 and we started our family life together. At first, we lived with my parents and we spoke Judesmo with them and with my mother-in-law who had no Bulgarian at all. With each other, and with the children, we spoke Bulgarian. My children learned Judesmo from my parents. My elder son is literate in Judesmo, but my younger son finds it hard to express himself freely. Since he was the one who uploaded the contents of my Judesmo textbook, he is familiar with most of the rules and norms but he lacks the confidence to communicate. I hasten to say that before I started working on the textbook I had no formal knowledge of the rules and the language structures either.
I brought up my family during socialism, when it was not such a good idea to flaunt your knowledge of Judesmo. The process of assimilation was gaining speed fast, taking advantage of the fact that a huge part of the Jewish population was leaving for Israel at the end of the 1940s and the beginning of the ‘50s.
My return to Judesmo dates back to 1972 but a lot of things in my life led to that moment. In the first place, I have a knack for and an interest in languages. I have my philology degree which I got studying French literature in Strasbourg (1938-39) first and completing my studies at the University of Sofia.
When my father died, I inherited a folder containing all of my mother’s notebooks. Written out in her beautiful handwriting, was a collection of proverbs and sayings in Judesmo. In itself, Judesmo is not a very rich language but it generously pours out its wealth in hundreds and thousands of proverbs. My parents would attach a proverb to almost everything they said, especially my mother – she was well-known for her knowledge and use of proverbs. I wanted to continue her work and started collecting proverbs myself. I believe that the wisdom of humankind springs from the same shared roots and my desire was to compare Bulgarian proverbs with the Sephardic ones. I translated the Sephardic sayings first, and then looked for similar ones in the Bulgarian language.
Later on, in 1989, when the democratic changes in Bulgaria began, it became possible to subscribe to and receive newspapers and journals published in Judesmo from all over the world. I get them all!
In 1998, I went to Southern France. I have a cousin in Paris who is a keen researcher and investigates all things Sephardic. He came down to see me and brought a film crew with him. There was a woman accompanying him: she was Jewish, a Judesmo speaker, and with her family roots in Turkey. Our entire conversation in Judesmo was filmed and recorded because the purpose was to see what the differences were between the way she spoke and the way I spoke. Ten years later, my cousin came to Bulgaria to do another interview with me because he was curious to find out whether I would be smuggling the same amount of French words into my Judesmo speech when I was speaking the language in Bulgaria rather than in France.
And then, it was in 2003 when the secretary of the Jewish community in Plovdiv asked me whether I could organise and teach a Judesmo course for a small group of people. They were the ones who found the pace of learning at the ‘Ladino’ club gatherings too slow for their liking. I was tempted by the proposal. The arrangement was that they get themselves organised and I take care of the learning materials. I started exploring the bibliography for an appropriate textbook and, following a long search, I came across “Manueldе Judeo–Espagnol: Langue et Culture”. I contacted the author, Marie-Christine Varol from France and I got assured that the textbook was good for our context because it was written for French students studying Judesmo. The publishers were out of stock but as soon as the second edition came out, I got a copy. This happened in March 2004. The course was advertised among the Jewish community in Plovdiv and we started in May – a month typically dedicated to Bulgarian culture. I named the course “ErensyaSefaradiLaLuz”. There were lots of people who registered, but as time passed, some of them dropped out. There was a core, however, of 12-15 people who remained faithful to their desire to learn the language of their predecessors.
In 2004-2008, we gathered every Monday, at quarter to six in the evening. Sometimes it would be very hot, as we carried on with the course through the summer months too. The participants came straight from work. They were tired and often hungry but were still very keen. Often, I would bring a light snack for them – to keep them going. The lesson lasted 70 mins which we split into two parts. In the first part we dealt with grammar and various exercises, and in the second half of the session we spoke about the various traditions and celebrations and learned a lot of proverbs. We also sang Sephardic songs. At 7 pm we had to leave because they closed the Jewish centre.
The participants were mostly female, the men were just three. Three of the women were not Jews – they were the widows of Jewish husbands. We became very close, like a family. We learned, but we also celebrated birthdays and the Jewish holidays. We sang and had fun, but eventually, the course finished. Everybody wanted more … One of the participants, who was an absolute beginner, learned to speak Judesmo fluently. The rest developed and enriched their vocabulary. They all realised that Judesmo was not just a spoken language, passed from one speaker to another, but had its rules, spelling and everything else that other languages have.
It was taking me almost a week to prepare for each of the lessons. Ms Varol’s textbook comprised nine teaching and learning units, each of which had 19-20 pages. The first part of the unit presented the grammar material and exercises related to it. The second part featured different texts, proverbs, customs, traditions, etc. The original edition had a glossary, where the Judesmo words were translated into their French counterparts. There was also an anthology and verb tables. In the vocabulary part I translated the Judesmo words into Bulgarian. All of this was done by hand – I did not have a laptop of my own then. I would send the hand-written pages to my son in Sofia, who uploaded them onto his computer, printed them all out and each one of the participants received their own printed copy of the lesson. I also searched for the lyrics of the songs and prepared homework activities. As I taught the grammar, I was learning it myself. My guess is that my students and I would be the only people in the whole of Bulgaria who are familiar with both the grammar and pronunciation rules.
After I finished translating the textbook, I made a proposal to the Shalom publishing house for having it published. They readily accepted. Copyright was granted for free. I was given a free hand to adapt the texts, the visuals, and the anthology. To do that, I used some of the materials which I had prepared for my teaching. Everything was written over again, re-written, and edited until the textbook was done in a way we were all happy with. This textbook is my pride and joy. I was paid in free copies, which I then gave to all my students. I am still friends with them. They treat me with tremendous warmth. I am their Judesmo Teacher!
Revival of Judesmo studies
Recently, there has been a huge rise in Judesmo studies – in Paris, Israel, USA, Argentina, Chile, etc. It has been a revival really. I myself had a series of lectures at the University of Plovdiv. It all started when a lecturer in French contacted me one day and asked whether I knew about any literature in Judesmo. I told her everything I knew and I also mentioned my Judesmo textbook. And the next thing she did was to organise a Judesmo module within the MA Spanish philology course. I was invited as the lecturer.
In 1994 my first book came out – Sephardic Cuisine: Traditional Recipes of the Bulgarian Jews. The first print run of 6,000 copies disappeared from the bookshops within days. The same edition was translated into English in San Francisco in 2000. In the following year, 2001, I prepared a new edition, supplemented with 100 pages of new recipes. More books followed – the textbook, a book on Jews – medical doctors from Plovdiv, and, in 2010, El Amanesyo was published. I am listing them all to affirm my loyalty to my Sephardic ancestry! Our language, the Jewish neighbourhood, our customs and morals, they all make me very excited.