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.
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The language is made even more expressive by embellishments by the speakers, as they slowly enunciate evocative verbs and nouns and add facial expressions and hand motions as they speak. “Every word, every phrase, every proverb captures where we once lived — our relationship with our surroundings,” Bortnick said.

She forges strong, affectionate bonds with members on the site such as my 90-year-old mother-in-law, Alegre Tevet, of Portland, Ore. She recently visited Tevet at a rehabilitation center to converse — in Ladino.

Bortnick’s grasp of the history of Ladino is encyclopedic. The first printing press was brought to the Ottoman Empire, she will tell you, toward the close of the 15th century, and its owners were allowed to use only Hebrew type. The sultan, unlike Jewish leaders, feared literacy.

Today, she said, Jews of Latin America are increasingly interested in Ladino, even if they are not of Sephardic heritage.

In Israel, there is a yearly competition to select the best new Ladino songs. “The language will live forever in the songs,” Bortnick said.

Perhaps most important, interest in Ladino is surging on college campuses.

Gloria J. Ascher, co-director of Judaic Studies at Tufts University, said that there is growing student fascination in “rich, diverse, colorful, and earthy” Ladino.

University of Washington’s Devin Naar, assistant professor of history and Jewish studies, just launched a Sephardic studies initiative at the school which is beginning to formalize the study of Ladino.

On March 5 and 6, a Ladino support organization at UCLA, ucLADINO, will hold its second annual Judeo-Spanish Symposium focused on “Survival in the Diaspora.”

Ascher and Naar view Bortnick’s efforts as heroic — and successful.

Bortnick, however, is well aware that Ladino “is living its last days as a regularly spoken language.”

Ever upbeat, she believes it will thrive in new ways: “What is wonderful is knowing that it is not disappearing. People will know and understand it because of all this activity going on. “

Martin Rosenberg is a Kansas CIty writer and editor. He recently traveled to Spain and Greece to study Sephardic Jewish life.


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