Like Hanukah Oil, Endangered Ladino Endures Among Jews

As Jews around the world celebrate Hanukah, some in Boston are singing in Ladino, a language UNESCO rates as “severely endangered” in its 2009 Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger. Ladino has been traveling with the Jews since they were expelled from Spain in 1492. 

In a studio at Berklee College of Music in Boston, Julia Madeson sings a lullaby in Ladino – a language also called Judeo-Spanish.

“Nani, Nani…nani…

Sleep, sleep my son, who is going to grow up to be a big boy, your father will come home and will be so happy.”

Madeson is coordinator of the guitar department at Berklee — but her “other” work is performing songs in Ladino, a language UNESCO rates as “severely endangered” because it’s spoken mostly by older people and not being passed down to younger generations.

The Ladino language is full of proverbs and sayings, very rich, very humorous that does describe daily life 500 years ago. You get a sense of what the people were like, they’re very earthy, gritty people..

Madeson’s translation shows the way Spanish Jews confronted life directly – even in a lullaby.

It’s basically character of the husband saying, “Open the door woman, open the door, I’m tired from working in the dirt.” She says, “I’m not going to open the door. You aren’t tired from working in the dirt. You’ve been with your new lover

Madeson is accompanied by 19-year-old Palestinian student Ali (Ah-LEE) Amr (Ahm-er) who’s from Ramallah on the West Bank. Amr (Ahm-er) plays the 72-string qunan (Ka-NOON’).

Here I’m studying jazz, I’m studying Latin music I’m studying it all but Ladino is part of it too. I love the feeling, I feel really comfortable playing this stuff.

Just outside Boston at Tufts University, Professor Gloria Ascher is comfortable slipping into a Hanukah song she wrote in Ladino, a language she heard from the moment she was born.

Hanukia, bayla mi tia, Hanuka, bayla mi bava

Auntie is dancing, Hanukah, and my grandma, too.

Afeura ya sta frio i eskuro, Largas noches de invierno. Ma no ulvidemos: La ora mas eskura Es para amaneser. Toda eskurina podemos dezazer, Kon el nombre del Dio !

Outside it’s dark and dismal and freezing, too. Long, long are the nights of winter. But let us not forget the hour that seems the darkest comes right before the dawn. All the darkness will dispel, soon it will be light, with the name of God. Con el nombre del Dio…

Con el nombre del Dio con a nombre, that is like Spanish, Dio…it’s only in Ladino, it’s the word for God. Dio, Dee-Eye-Oh….. in Spanish it’s DIOS with an “s”, the popular explanation is that although we knew it comes from Deus singular in Latin…and the “s” doesn’t mean it’s plural. It just sounds too plural for a Jew –God is one.

Ascher is Co-Chair of the Judaic Studies Program at Tufts. She says after Spain expelled the Jews in 1492 and they wandered to new lands, Ladino evolved.

It sounds like Spanish but it has different pronunciation, very often a different flavor, also the elements from many other languages. So you have elements of Hebrew, elements of Turkish, even Slavic, Greek, many other things, Arabic..

Ascher’s parents came from Turkey and settled in the Bronx, New York. Even though her parents spoke Ladino at home, Ascher says the language of the Spanish – or Sephardic Jews – was not encouraged by her mother.

And I told my mother, “Teach me that song again, I want to sing it well.” She said, ” What do you want that? It’s an old language only we speak that, it’s a crazy language and it’s not even real Spanish,” so she would put it down. But I said, “But it’s beautiful, I love it, it’s mine, I want it.”

Ascher began teaching Ladino ten years ago. Students, professors and people from the community keep filling up her classes to learn that “crazy language.”

According to the Center for Ladino Culture at Ben-Gurion University in Israel, there are now about 200,000 Ladino speakers in the world, most of them in Israel. There are about 20,000 in Turkey… The U.S. has communities of Sephardic Jews speaking Ladino in places including New York, Florida and Seattle, Washington.

Today Ascher is teaching her Ladino students a song she wrote.

I chose it because it’s also simple and also expresses the essential wish of the culture. El Dio God, ke te de… may he give you,… i.. vida..and life.

El Dio ke te de salu i vida….

Many in the international Sephardic community say her classes are the only continuous Ladino instruction at an American university.

I’m Rhonda Miller in Boston.

(Broadcast History: WAMC, Dec. 1, 2010; WXIN, Dec. 4, 2010)


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