When I arrived in Israel as a young diplomat, Ladino saved me. Although I had studied Hebrew for six months at the Foreign Service Institute in Washington and with a private tutor in Mexico, the rate at which Israelis spoke Hebrew was a little too rapid for me to follow at first. Much to my delight, I discovered that Turkish taxi drivers and some Moroccan and Greek Jews were able to talk with me in a slightly antiquated form of Spanish. During my first few months in Israel, whenever I met a Sephardic Jew, I asked him in Hebrew if he spoke Ladino. If the answer was “sí,” I immediately switched to Spanish. Ladino helped ease the transition to life in Israel for me, and I still listen to Ladino music as often as possible.
Given my affinity for Ladino, I was pleasantly surprised to receive an email earlier this month from Bethany, a Mormon graduate student in UCLA’s Department of Spanish and Portuguese. The university is planning to host its second annual Judeo-Spanish Symposium next month, and she wanted to enlist my help in promoting it. Of course, I would have immediately agreed no matter who had asked me, but the fact that a Mormon was put in charge of publicity for a conference on Judeo-Spanish made me even more willing to lend a hand.
I did ask Bethany why modern linguists and Spanish speakers should be interested in learning about Ladino. Her response is pretty convincing: “The connections between Spanish and Judeo-Spanish are many, and so it's perhaps natural for those who study Spanish to at least have an awareness of them, and to recognize the influence of Judeo-Spanish in various nations of the Americas, from the U.S. to Argentina. The history of Judeo-Spanish is fascinating and complex. Yet, it's not just a historical language, since it's spoken today in many nations around the world. Internet sites like Ladinokomunita have allowed speakers from all over to connect with one another, and they foster dialogue. The music is also thriving, with performers and audiences appreciating the unique style and lyrics. It's important to recognize the vibrancy and cultural importance of Judeo-Spanish--it's not a ‘dead’ language, and there are many people who want to make sure it never becomes one, lest those cultural elements be lost.”
Hats off to Bethany and the students at ucLADINO for all of their hard work. If you’re interested in attending the conference on March 5-6, here is the link with all of the information you need: