A Haaretz story by Benny Ziffer:

The audience at “Sephardic Jews and Ladino,” a conference held Wednesday at Jerusalem’s Mishkenot Sha’ananim, was no less interesting than the academics and distinguished figures on the dais…
Researchers and their fans and the few remaining speakers of a language that for centuries served the Jews of Turkey, the Balkans and the Middle East have not given up. They continue to fight to preserve Ladino, also known as Judeo-Spanish, which apparently has achieved “museum” status. The National Authority for Ladino Language and Culture, which is headed by former President Yitzhak Navon, Wednesday gloried in what was billed as the first public conference on Ladino literature.
The question is whether there is anything on which to confer. About a year ago I was invited to Yad Ben Zvi in Jerusalem. Dr. Yaron Ben-Naeh, an expert in Jewish history during the Ottoman Empire, ushered me into the holy of holies of the institution’s library the rare books wing. Books in Ladino take up less than a wall and a half of shelf space. Apparently that is nearly all there is, according to Ladino literature researcher Dov Hacohen of Bar Ilan University and Yad Ben Zvi. It’s not much in comparison to the endless treasures of Yiddish, Ladino’s rival since the creation of the state.
Still, participants insisted on speaking of “Ladino literature,” even when the material was in fact advertising, aimed at getting readers to contribute to some yeshiva. Hacohen, who spoke on Ladino publications in Jerusalem since 1500, was a crowd-pleaser with his presentation of these rare documents. In one, consisting of Ladino mixed with Arabic, the Jewish target audience is warned against sitting in kahwe houses or enjoying the merriments of the Gentiles. But is it literature?
Literature was a luxury for Ladino speakers. The novels and poetry written in the language are on such a primitive, basic level as to evoke pity.

That’s a pretty negative take on it, but if all of Ladino literature takes “up less than a wall and a half of shelf space,” I guess it’s hard to be too positive. (Thanks, Kobi!)


  1. I suspect that the music might be better. I haven’t studied it at all but I’ve heard things here and there. Paging…. I forgot his name, the ethnomusicologist who comes around now and then…. Zaelic?

  2. Here’s a vaguely pop song in Ladino, for the curious.

  3. There’s a djudeo-espanyol Yahoo conversation group. If you know Spanish, it is fairly easy with interesting spellings such as ke instead of que.

  4. Yeah, I hope zaelic will show up. And he’s not just an ethnomusicologist, he’s a musician!

  5. The so-so Wikipedia article points to the homepage of an REE shortwave broadcast in Ladino, from which a half dozen episodes from last year are downloadable as MP3s (complete with the music that follows the interval signal and frequency and band announcement).
    Counting literature shelf feet may be taking the inevitable comparison with Yiddish too far. That revival may be recovering the rich literature; this has something else. Plus, how would Gothic fare, even if extravagant bindings are allowed?

  6. Sorry… I was running around upstate New York touring with the Eldridge Street Klezmer Orchestra… in Yiddish. As for Ladino having no literature… well I’m not a Ladino expert but the Jewish Museum in Karakoy, Istanbul, has a wall and a half of mainly contemporary Ladino literature and poetry for sale in their book shop. And some of it was quite good.
    Given that Yiddish literature flourished in a pretty narrow space of time – say, from Sforim to Singer, 150 years, why hold Ladino tyo the same standard? All eductaed Sefardim (males) would have been literate in Hebrew, and probably in a local language as well. French was the language of education in the Sefardic world after 1850.
    As for music, ballads and romanzas were the realm of women’s oral tradition, which is precicely how Yiddish literature got its start, as a linguistic medium for women (‘mame-loshn’ – mothers toungue) whereas men wrote in the ‘loshn-kodesh’ (holy toungue) of Hebrew. Sefardic women, hoever, were more likely to have been educated in French speaking schools and may have been less of a market for literature in Ladino.
    For a taste of contemporary Ladino writing, there is always something to find browsing around the Brussels based Sefardi magazine “Los Muestros” (

  7. Thanks, I knew you’d have an informed take on it!

  8. I think Zaelic nailed it.

  9. I had no idea Ladino existed as a language but if it’s of any interest culture-wise, in Portugal there is a children’s nursery rhyme that goes “rabino ladino” which I never associated with anti-semitism until I read this. The adjective “ladino” also means cunning but in a swindling kind of way. A grifter, maybe.

  10. Michael Studemund-Halévy. Ladino, kerido mio: Judenspanische Literatur im 20. Jahrhundert. München 2003. ISBN 3-935549-54-7

  11. It does not look to be hard to find similar works.
    Here is a recently started collection of economically priced reprints (de ayer de oy i de syempre).
    An appropriate university library has several pages full of listings. Here is a typical list in the middle of Brandeis’.
    As so often happens, Google Books disappoints. Copyright 1896 and No Preview Available?

  12. Sephardim: the Jews from Spain by Paloma Diaz-Mas (University of Chicago, 1992) is a good source, I’ve found, for meaninful general information here. D-M draws a strict distinction between “Ladino” and “Judezca” (a.k.a. “Judeo-Espanol”):

    Ladino is really a calque-language of Hebrew, used to put Hebrew liturgical texts into Spanish words. It was never a real language for everyday communication.

    Observation teaches that it is all pretty much called “Ladino” these days.
    Some versions of Judezca are heavy with direct transliterations from Hebrew. Key words in most versions include special grammatical constructions analogous with Hebrew grammar. Others versions could almost be described as “misspelled Medieval Spanish” (that is to say almost the entire vocabulary is Spanish). Again, D-M:

    The basis of the dialect is Castilian-Andalusian speech of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, with the retention of certain archaic features…

    The closer a version is to the original Judezca, the closer this should be to being correct.
    I have a couple of old record albums of “Ladino” folk songs. As I recall, they sound a bit more oriental, musically, than Spanish folksongs of the period cited above. They are very expressive, often plaintive. Just how representative the few dozen songs are I can not say.
    It would seem that the vast bulk of Medieval Judezca literature was poetry of origins more or less obviously oral. All of Ladino-proper (as it were) was written translation from Hebrew religious literature. In time the Judezcan poems were written down and they formed a basis for limited advances in secular poetry.
    D-M says that Judezcan secular prose flourished only after the language was being systematically expunged from many populations by governments intent on forming a single national culture/identity. This might go a long way toward explaining the quality issues you mention and the lack of bookshelf space.

  13. The Ladino/Djudesmo music style that is most familiar to actual Sephardic Ladino speakers is that of the eatern Mediterranean, particularly Turkish Jewish music. Essentially, it was purely Turkishclassical and light classical (fasil) music set to Ladino lyrics, and is still popular in Istanbul today. Victoria Hazan’s recordings from the 1930s are available at complete with sound samples.

  14. my cousins grandma speaks ladino. shes prolly one of the last ladino speakers in egypt.

  15. Pity this came up now and not two weeks ago, when we had a visitor who grew up in Cairo in a Jewish family but came to France in the 1950s. Although he said his home language in Egypt was French, his name is Spanish in origin. However, I didn’t think of asking him if any of his family spoke Ladino.
    The examples of Ladino that I’ve seen are so much like modern Castilian (apart from the spelling and sprinkling of Hebrew words) that I think it would be hard to maintain a literature that was clearly differentiated from Spanish. It’s a lot closer to ordinary Castilian than either Portuguese or Catalan are.

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