Meet America's Internet Champion of Ladino

Rachel Amado Bortnick's Push To Rescue Dying Language

Her Language: Rachel Amado Bortnick was the subject of the documentary ‘Trees Cry for Rain.’
Courtesy of Bonnie Burt
Her Language: Rachel Amado Bortnick was the subject of the documentary ‘Trees Cry for Rain.’

By Martin Rosenberg

Published January 27, 2013, issue of February 01, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

Each year, languages slip into oblivion. Some say Ladino, or Judaismo, is on that path.

But a community of Ladino speakers thrives online, and songs enlivened with Ladino lyrics are surging in popularity in Israel and Latin America.

Academic interest in the language is flowering on campuses from Boston to Los Angeles. At the heart of this Ladino buzz is Dallas resident Rachel Amado Bortnick, born in Izmir, Turkey, in 1938.

To support the dwindling ranks of Ladino speakers, in 1999 Bortnick established an online community on Yahoo, Ladinokomnita. On the site, Ladino speakers share reminiscences about the language and Sephardic traditions, exclusively in Ladino. She calls it “an online correspondence group.”

Initially, Bortnick’s online community was made up of five of her friends. It has since grown to 1,400 members in 40 countries, from Sweden to Australia to Brazil. “That’s the magic of the Internet,” she said.

The seeds of the effort were planted 55 years ago, when Bortnick traversed the world to attend a small college in St. Charles, Mo., to study chemistry on a full scholarship. That odyssey was the result of a friendship between the college’s dean and the principal of the school Bortnick attended in Izmir. Bortnick’s story was later recounted in the 1989 documentary “Trees Cry for Rain: A Sephardic Journey,” that has been shown in film festivals around the world.

“When I came to Missouri, I never met a Sephardic person,” Bortnick recalled. “Jews I met didn’t believe I could be Jewish, because I never spoke Yiddish and never ate gefilte fish.”

Over the decades, she has sought out and forged links with Ladino speakers wherever she could find them. Then the Internet helped multiply her outreach.

Some of the rapid growth of her web group was organic, as far-flung Ladino speakers found out about the virtual community through word of mouth — and as links flew over the Internet. A large part of it was the care Bortnick has given to the site: promoting it, telling others about it and spurring the online dialogue about Ladino sayings, language usage discussion, recipes and Sephardic rituals.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • “You will stomp us into the dirt,” is how her mother responded to Anya Ulinich’s new tragicomic graphic novel. Paul Berger has a more open view of ‘Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel." What do you think?
  • PHOTOS: Hundreds of protesters marched through lower Manhattan yesterday demanding an end to American support for Israel’s operation in #Gaza.
  • Does #Hamas have to lose for there to be peace? Read the latest analysis by J.J. Goldberg.
  • This is what the rockets over Israel and Gaza look like from space:
  • "Israel should not let captives languish or corpses rot. It should do everything in its power to recover people and bodies. Jewish law places a premium on pidyon shvuyim, “the redemption of captives,” and proper burial. But not when the price will lead to more death and more kidnappings." Do you agree?
  • Slate.com's Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.