Turkish newspaper extends a lifeline to Ladino

In decline for more than a century, the Sephardic language is getting a boost from editors in Istanbul — and online

Salom, a Jewish Ladino-language weekly published in Turkey, launched in 1947, just a few years after more than half the world's Ladino speakers died in the Holocaust. (Courtesy of Salom)
Salom, a Jewish Ladino-language weekly published in Turkey, launched in 1947, just a few years after more than half the world's Ladino speakers died in the Holocaust. (Courtesy of Salom)

ISTANBUL — When Avram Leyon, the founder of the Istanbul-based Şalom newspaper, became ill in 1983, he considered shutting down the publication. He was no longer able to devote his energies to running the weekly Jewish newspaper, which he had started in 1947. But the leaders of Istanbul’s Jewish community were not ready to stop the presses.

“They thought that the newspaper has to go on,” said Eti Varon, the vice coordinator of Şalom.

At the time, the four-page publication was written entirely in Ladino, the language of Sephardic Jews, save for the occasional political article in Turkish. But by the 1980s, Turkish Jews were speaking Turkish at home, not Ladino, and were learning English or French in school. So the new leadership decided to give Şalom a facelift. The language of the paper would become Turkish, except for one page, still written in Ladino.

Now Şalom, still a weekly, publishes 20-plus pages in each edition, up to 28 during the High Holidays. It has a website, a Twitter feed and a Facebook page. Volunteer writers, who range from university students to professional authors, contribute articles on a variety of topics, from community news and child care to technology and sports. Şalom, which means and is pronounced “Shalom,” also publishes a monthly Turkish magazine, Şalom Dergi (Shalom Magazine), and distributes a monthly Ladino supplement, El Amaneser (The Dawn), produced by the Ottoman Turkish Sephardic Culture Research Center, an institute based in the same building.

By the time this photo was taken in the '90s, Salom was being published mostly in Turkish. (Courtesy of Salom)
By the time this photo was taken in the ’90s, Salom was being published mostly in Turkish. (Courtesy of Salom)

To this day, every week, one of Şalom’s pages is written in Ladino, making it the only newspaper in the world that still publishes in the language.

The newspaper’s Ladino page is just one example of efforts occurring in Sephardic and academic circles worldwide to breathe energy into the old language, which has long been on life support.

Originated in Spain, Ladino started to spread throughout Europe, the Ottoman Empire, and eventually beyond in 1492, when Jews were expelled from Spain, according to the Foundation for the Advancement of Sephardic Studies and Culture. From the 16th until the 19th century, almost all of the estimated 200,000 Jews in the Ottoman Empire spoke Ladino, according to Rachel Bortnick, a native speaker, Ladino activist and writer originally from Turkey.

The proliferation of French-language schools in the 19th century dealt the first blow to Ladino, according to Bortnick. As members of the Sephardic community immigrated to Europe and the Americas in the early 20th century and assimilated into new cultures, Ladino as a spoken language began to decline.

The Holocaust would obliterate more than 100,000 Ladino speakers in Europe, particularly those of in Greece, the Balkans, and the Aegean islands, Bortnick said, and post-war immigration would not help the language’s cause. As a result, the only remaining native speakers of Ladino are now senior citizens, creating challenges for those interested in salvaging the language for its cultural and historical value.

“I don’t think there is much chance that it will go on . . . it won’t be spoken,” said Rıfat Bali, an independent researcher on Turkish Jews and the owner of Libra publishers in Istanbul.

In Anatolia, Ladino started its decline during the founding of the Turkish republic, in the 1920s, when the leaders of the country sought to create a new national identity partly through language.

Several thousand followers read Salom's Ladino Twitter feed. (Screenshot)
Several thousand followers read Salom’s Ladino Twitter feed. (Screenshot)

“One of the conditions was [that] you should speak Turkish in public spaces,” according to Bali.

“There were signs, even in bus stations, that said, ‘Citizens, speak Turkish!’ ” said Bortnick, who writes articles for Şalom and El Amaneser, among other Ladino publications.

While some Turkish Jews spoke Turkish, they did so with a heavy accent. Assimilation required learning Turkish both at home and at school, said Bali, sowing the seeds of Ladino’s demise in Turkey.

“We were sort of embarrassed to speak Ladino in the street, like our parents did,” said Bortnick, who now lives in Dallas.

In the late 1920s, written Turkish was undergoing its own linguistic changes, switching from Arabic script to a modified Latin alphabet. That, too, had implications for Ladino, Bortnick said. At the time, some parts of the country’s Jewish media were still publishing in Rashi script, a style of Hebrew lettering that was the original written form of Ladino. Now, the last holdouts of the Turkish-Jewish press shifted to the Latin alphabet, too.

In the wake of these cultural and historical events, it is unclear how many Ladino speakers are left. While Bortnick has heard estimates in the range of 100,000 to 150,000 speakers throughout the world, she believes those numbers are optimistic.

“What we do know is that there is nobody in the world today whose only language is Ladino,” she said.

Perhaps as a result, there is renewed interest within academia to study the language, suggesting hope for Ladino not as a spoken tongue, but as a topic of study. Universities from Tufts in the United States to the Sorbonne in Paris offer courses in the language.

“We had students who came from [Japan] to see us,” said Varon, who noted that about 500 of Şalom’s 4,500 subscriptions go to Turkish expats and universities abroad.

Bortnick attributed the attention paid to Ladino among academics to several factors. Young Jews interested in Spanish or Hispanic studies “see a connection to Judaism through Ladino,” she said.

‘It’s not a language only, but the songs, the food — it’s altogether a culture’

The language has importance to linguists and historians studying Spain in particular, offering clues to older forms of Spanish.

“Ladino retained much of medieval Castilian forms that have disappeared from modern Spanish,” she said. For example, she noted that Ladino has a soft “j” (as in “measure”) and hard “v,” “s,” and “z” sounds that modern Spanish lacks.

The efforts to keep Ladino alive extend beyond academia.

“It’s not a language only, but the songs, the food — it’s altogether a culture. We don’t want to lose the culture that came from Spain,” said Varon.

In 1999, Bortnick attended a Ladino conference in Jerusalem, where attendees discussed the potential for computers to aid the standardization of Ladino spelling in the Latin alphabet. Bortnick had just gotten a computer, and decided to put it to good use, starting an online forum for Ladino speakers.

Now, Ladinokomunita, which is hosted by Yahoo!, has more than 1,400 members from 45 countries. Together, they have written more than 45,000 messages, all of which are edited for accuracy. Its membership includes people from “Australia to Sweden to Japan and India, places you wouldn’t think of,” Bortnick said.

The only common language for every member of Ladinokomunita is Ladino. For Bortnick, then, the group — and the Ladino language — does more than just start conversations. It brings together members of the Sephardic community across national boundaries, Jews who would otherwise have no way of communicating.

“For that reason alone, I think the language is worth saving from oblivion,” she said.

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