Here’s a little quiz. What language was spoken three centuries ago by the Jewish community of Istanbul? Of Bordeaux? Of Hamburg? (Hint: three different answers.)
Answers (and much more) within….

The first answer is easily guessed by anyone who knows the basic history of the Sephardic community: Ladino (Judeo-Spanish). The second is not surprising to those who know the assimilative capability of France: French. The third answer surprised the hell out of me when I learned it: Portuguese.

The best-known Sephardic community is that from Spain (Sepharad is a Hebrew term that occurs once in the Bible and eventually became used for Spain). As everyone knows, it was expelled in 1492; some went to Portugal, but the same thing happened there five years later. The bulk of the community went to North Africa (where some still speak the dialect called Haketia), from which many later moved eastward into the Ottoman Empire and concentrated in cities like Constantinople, Alexandria, and Salonica. There, where they lived in large numbers and were not competing with significant preexisting Jewish communities, they kept their Spanish language, larded with Hebrew and, more and more, with borrowings from the languages that surrounded them: Turkish, Persian, the Balkan languages, and eventually Italian and French. It was primarily a spoken language, written down at first only in word-by-word paraphrases of Hebrew texts (parallel to the Taitsch used by the Yiddish-speaking community), but became a literary vehicle with the publication of the Me’am Lo’ez, an extensive commentary on the Torah, in the 18th century. There are Ladino links here and a grammar here, there is an anthology whose introduction provides a good sample of Ladino if you want to try reading some, and Hippocrene publishes a bizarre and delightful dictionary.

Those who went to Western Europe, however, mainly spoke Portuguese, which was the language of the communities in the Netherlands, England, Hamburg, and (at first) France, as well as of those who emigrated to the Americas (including New Amsterdam, now New York). Spinoza’s mother tongue was Portuguese. As I say, I had no idea, and I am glad to have my picture of linguistic history still further complicated.

Addendum. The implausibly polyglottal Bob Cohen reminds me that Sephardim also spoke Judeo-Italian, Judeo-Provencal, and Romaniote Judeo-Greek; see his comment for further info. (There are also Judeo-Persian speaking communities, notably the “Bukharan Jews,” but including them as “Sephardim” is controversial.)


  1. Bob Cohen says

    Nice new Design, Hat. Actually, there were more than three languges, check out Judeo-Italian is pretty moribund although it is generally recognized that the standard dialect of downtown rome is the Jewish dialect. Judeo-provencal is the source for Yiddish terms like “leyen” (from ‘leer’, to read) and “bentshn” (via ‘benedictum’, to bless). And if you want to hear spoken Romaniote “Judeo-Greek” you better hurry down to 280 Broome Street at the Kehila Kedosha Janina on NY’s lower East Side – it’s the only place it is still spoken, by about a dozen elderly speakers.

  2. You’re absolutely correct, of course (and thanks for the tip about Kehila Kedosha Janina). I wasn’t intending to imply that those were all the languages spoken by Sephardim; what happened is that I was going to make a Ladino post, then discovered the Portuguese stuff and did a two-fer. Good thing I have knowledgeable readers to fill in the gaps!

  3. Don’t know what happened to my link there; it was supposed to be:

  4. I’ll be doing some travel guide writing in Istanbul this summer, also Bulgaria (and Romania, but heck, I go there for weekend getaways…. Gypsy wedding in Transylvania on May 3!!!) and I think this time I may spend more time checking out the Sephardic scene. There is an island in the Bosphorus that serves as a sort of Sephardic Catskills, but hanging there is pricey…

  5. Because you didn’t begin the reference with “http:”, it is a relative link (i.e. to the current directory) rather than absolute.

  6. Jaime Irsarel says

    I am a descendant from Janina.Ny parents were born in the old city of Jerusalem My grand parents family name was Begas we maybe related to Rabbi Cook and Rabbi Petito.I would like to reestablish my contact with my roots. I speak Ladino, and Spanish, French, Hebrew and Arabic
    My father was a cantor and I would like to be a Cantor in a Sepharadi Greek synagogue.I know there are many Ladino sephardic in the city of Seattle. I could come to New York and even could sebd you a tape of how I can sing and pray. I know many of the prayers by heart and the bible as well. I hope you can help me or tell me who should I address my request. I have served in the Haganah at the age of thirteen and in the Israeli Army 2 and a half years. Thank you for your courtesy. My phone if you like to reach me with dispach is 1-619-286-9170
    Shalom, Yassu

  7. Jaime: All I can suggest is that you contact Kehila Kedosha Janina, mentioned above in the comments. Sounds like you have a fascinating family background!

  8. eli mallon says

    my grandparents (both sides) were from romania. was their davenning “romaniot”? what might their language have been (it seems to have been yiddish)? any other interesting facts you can tell me about romanian jewry? thank you.

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