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.

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.



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