Ladino in Sarajevo.

Susanna Zaraysky writes for BBC Travel (which tends to do a surprisingly good job with language stories) about the traditional language of Bosnian Jews (and, of course, many others):

When the Jews left Spain, they took their language with them. Over the last 500 years, the language has maintained the structure of medieval Spanish and sounds more similar to some forms of Latin American Spanish than European Spanish. “We could not have contact with Spain and the Spanish language, and therefore we have a special language that we speak,” Kamhi said.

Today, the language is known by a number of different names: Ladino, Judeo-Spanish, Judezmo, Spanyolit, Djidió (in Bosnia and Herzegovina) and Haketia (in North Africa). And, according to Unesco, it is one of the world’s 6,000 languages that are at risk of extinction.

Before World War Two, Sarajevo’s Jewish population numbered around 12,000, and the people even printed their own newspaper in Ladino. After the Holocaust, only about 2,500 Jews returned to Sarajevo, with many of them restricting their use of Ladino to the home so as not to stand out. Since the post-World War Two Jewish community in Sarajevo was so small, the Sephardic Jews had to share a synagogue – the one where Kamhi led services until 2017 – with the Ashkenazi Jewish community, whose ancestors had relocated to Slavic countries from Germany and France following the Crusades. Because the Ashkenazi Jews primarily spoke Yiddish, the blended community relied on the Serbo-Croatian language to communicate, limiting the use of Ladino even further.

There are some excellent stories (“‘Ladino saved my life in World War Two,’ Albahari, a Bosnian Holocaust survivor, told us as we sat together in the Sarajevo Synagogue”) and an inevitably depressing conclusion (“‘The new generation doesn’t speak Ladino, they speak modern Spanish,’ Albahari said”); read the whole thing. Thanks, Trevor, and get well soon!

Comments

  1. Not on a quest to fix all the misconceptions of the Internet, but it’s too venerable a tradition, to describe, after esteemed Dubnow, all the Jewish population migrations as a consequences of life-threatening persecution and forced expulsions, and to overlook migrations in search of better economic opportunities and to escape more garden-variety discrimination.
    As I understand, there were more Sephardic Jews migrating to Italy than to anywhere in the Middle East, and it happened not during the Grand Expulsion of 1492 but in the century which followed. These people converted by 1492, but were still threatened both by second-class status of the so-called New Christians and by the loss of economic opportunities in the limping economies of Spain and Portugal disrupted by the Expulsions. Some of them converted back once they left Spain. A process of moving to the Ottoman lands was rather drawn out and accelerated relatively recently, in the XIX century, as the opportunities in the East became more attractive. Some of my relatives from Turkey kept their Italian citizenship even at the turn of the XX century, when their Italian-born ancestors were still alive.
    But it just makes a better story to imagine the bloody horror of 1492 and the one-stop travel from there to here.

    It’s kind of the same in the Ashkenazi popular story of origin. The mass murders of the Crusades were horrible without a question, but the mass migration East started centuries later, largely driven by the economic opening in the post-Mongol Poland and Lithuania; and the starting point of this migration was primarily in Bohemia rather than in the Rhineland (of course one can argue that Bohemia was also a Germanic country, but it’s kind of silly to juxtapose it to “Slavic lands”)

  2. David Eddyshaw says:

    It’s just occurred to me that “Kamhi” may be the same name as that of the great grammarian דוד קמחי David Kimchi (also a Sephardi.)

  3. J.W. Brewer says:

    It is ironic that post-WW2 communication between Ladino-speakers and Yiddish-speakers was facilitated by a language that has itself apparently since disappeared from the face of the earth (viz. “Serbo-Croatian”).

  4. ə de vivre says:

    And on the other end of the Sephardic migrations, there was this 1916 guidebook for Ottoman Sephardic Jews encouraging emigration to the United States, which included a phrasebook from Ladino to both English and Yiddish—the two languages a Jewish immigrant needed to succeed in America!

  5. ə de vivre says:

    Also, Canary Records has a lot of great music (with free previews, even) from the early 20th century “Ottoman” diaspora in the US.

  6. David Marjanović says:

    A process of moving to the Ottoman lands was rather drawn out and accelerated relatively recently, in the XIX century, as the opportunities in the East became more attractive. Some of my relatives from Turkey kept their Italian citizenship even at the turn of the XX century, when their Italian-born ancestors were still alive.

    I had no idea.

    the starting point of this migration was primarily in Bohemia rather than in the Rhineland

    That I happened to know because of these linguistic reasons

  7. People of the Book
    The title should probably be bestowed on the Lakhlukhs (sp?), the Assyrian / Kurdistani Jews who spoke several related dialects of Aramaic, and proudly declared themselves “ansei targum”, People of the Aramaic Scripture / Babylonian Talmud. Thousands of them escaped WWI and settled in Georgia, only to be uprooted by Stalin and resettled in Kazakhstan among other former Iranian subjects. Alma-Ata is still a kind of a spiritual capital of the Lakhlukhs, although almost all of them moved to Israel, where they form a (very invisible) 100,000-strong minority.

  8. Huh, I never knew about them — thanks! They’re not mentioned under that name in Wixman’s very thorough The Peoples of the USSR, but he has this entry:

    LAKHAMUL (TSY) The origin of the Lakhamul is still debated. They appear to be either Svanetianized Jews (most likely Georgian Jews) or Svanetians who converted to Judaism. By the late 19th cent. the Lakhamul had been converted to Eastern Orthodoxy and were considered Svanetians. Their population was estimated in 1864 as 300. SEE Svanetian.

    I guess that’s the same group?

  9. David Marjanović says:

    Doesn’t sound like the same group at all…

  10. They were Georgian Jews whose name starts with Lakh-; is that likely to be a coincidence? It may be that the “Lakhamul” converted and the “Lakhlukh” didn’t and were resettled in Kazakhstan and then moved to Israel; at any rate, I’d like to know more.

  11. The so-called Kurdi Jews of Israel are well-known, though Neo-Aramaic (popularly called kurdit) does not have a special status as a minority language. I’ve never heard the name “Lakhlukh”, and since likhlukh means ‘dirt’ in Hebrew, I doubt such a name would be popular.

    Anshei hatargum means ‘the people of the Translation’. Translation here is not meant generically, but refers to the early Aramaic translations of the sctriptures, above all that of Onkelos to the Pentateuch, and those ascribed to Yonatan ben Uziel for the later books of the Old Testament. These translations stand on their own as important exegeses.

    I read a few years ago about Gideon Shalom, a young standup comedian in Israel doing his act in Neo-Aramaic, doing his part for language revitalization

  12. Lots of Sephardic Jews migrated to Italy due to the foundation of Livorno and the “Livornine” laws that the Medici passed with the specific aim of attracting them: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_the_Jews_in_Livorno . It’s a pretty fascinating story, especially since some of these Italian Sephardim then went on to establish “Livornese” communities in North Africa (and yes, the Levant, where they preserved their Italian citizenship in order to take advantage of the Ottoman capitulations).

  13. Capitulation is an interesting word; we think of it as “humiliating surrender,” but it originally just meant a document divided into chapters.

  14. Stu Clayton says:

    Specifically, says the OED of capitulation: “The instrument containing the terms” (of surrender). “Divide and conquer” is a principle common to books and wars. I suppose footnotes count as collateral damage, or perhaps skirmishes.

  15. Lakhamuli aren’t Jews, they are a dialect group of the Svans located downriver ( so the soil of their communities is more fertile, even grapes grow there; and lowland trade is easier). The upriver Svans despise them for Earth-tilling and trade ( it is a virtue to graze cattle and live a lazy life) and half-seriously call them Jew-like

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