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Ladino Professor Keeps a Language — and Her Heritage — Alive

Among the hundreds of panels convened at the Association for Jewish Studies conference in San Diego last month was the impishly titled “Is Ladino Dead Yet?” The panelists came from wildly divergent backgrounds and scholarly orientations, but on the central question of whether or not the Sephardic language has expired, their answer was a unanimous no.

For proof, one need look no further than Gloria Ascher, a session panelist and Tufts University literary scholar with the distinction of being the only professor in America offering regular college courses in modern Ladino. A diminutive woman with outsize enthusiasms, Ascher may be doing more to stave off the tongue’s demise than anyone in the country today.

And yet, if her mother had had any say in the matter, Ascher would never have spoken Ladino at all.

Born in the Bronx in 1939 to Ladino-speaking immigrants from Izmir, Turkey, Ascher was a polyglot from the first. She reveled in Ladino and took any opportunity she could to use it — but when she did, her mother would bristle.

“She didn’t think much of the language,” Ascher said of her mother’s attitude toward Ladino. “To her, it was a kitchen language. Her generation was taught that French was the language of civilization. If you wanted to do high things, you did French. If you wanted just to have fun, you did Ladino.”

And so, as an undergraduate at New York’s Hunter College, Ascher tried to major in French, but, for some bureaucratic reason, when the time came to declare, she couldn’t. She chose English instead. Then, in a literature class one day, a beloved professor read aloud a passage in German. Ascher was hooked. She took an intensive language course that summer, a literature course in the fall, a year of study in Bonn, West Germany, and, ultimately, chose graduate school at Yale, a dissertation on Goethe and a position in the German Department at Tufts, outside Boston. Ladino would have to wait.

The 20th century was not kind to Ladino, the Judeo-Spanish language that Sephardic Jews around the world have nurtured since their expulsion from the Iberian peninsula in 1492. Globalization, migration and Holocaust all took their toll. The once-thriving Ladino-speaking Jewish communities of Turkey, Greece, North Africa and the Balkans have withered. The one remaining stronghold is Israel, where an estimated 100,000 speakers live.

Among these Israelis is the folklorist-poet-grammarian Matilda Koén-Sarano. Born in Milan to a Sephardic family from Turkey, Koén-Sarano made aliyah in 1960 and worked for many years at the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Today, her main occupation is the preservation and revitalization of Sephardic language and culture. To this end, she reads news in Ladino for Israeli Radio, teaches the language at Ben-Gurion University, writes for the Israeli Ladino journal Aki Yerushalaim and has assembled two course books for classroom instruction.

Had it not been for a 1999 article in the Boston Herald, Koén-Sarano and Ascher may never have met, and the linguistic world would have been the poorer for it. The article, on the “uncertain future” of Ladino, quoted Ascher as a Ladino enthusiast, though she was not yet a teacher of it. Koén-Sarano’s daughter, a Massachusetts resident, saw the piece and, expecting a visit from her mother, gave Ascher a call, thinking maybe the two would get along.

Ascher was, at first, terrified. To her, Koén-Sarano was a hero, a larger-than-life figure. “It’s like saying, ‘You’re an English major? How’d you like to meet my father, Will Shakespeare?” Ascher said of the experience. But in the end, she said, it was meant to be. “It was as if I’d known her all my life,” Ascher said of her first conversation with Koén-Sarano. “It was an instant friendship.”

When the two met, in May 1999, Koén-Sarano immediately defused Ascher’s sense of self-consciousness about Ladino and encouraged her to begin teaching it at Tufts. In the spring of 2000, with an on-the-spot translation of Koén-Sarano’s beginner’s grammar, Ascher — in addition to her usual courses in German, Scandinavian and Jewish studies — began teaching Ladino.

And, except for when she has been on sabbatical, Ascher has taught it every semester since.

Who’s taking the classes?

“You’d be surprised,” Ascher said. “Everyone: You get Jews who know Spanish, people with Sephardic backgrounds, Christians and even some Muslims. This semester I had 21 or 22. I started out the first time with 12, which I was delighted to have. I thought it would be three.”

Ascher likes to keep the classroom environment relaxed — “I don’t make discipline a big thing,” she said — but she does require that students do a major project. Herself a poet, songwriter and amateur painter, she gives students a wide berth in choosing what to do. Two of her students once teamed up with a local public-school teacher to teach a fifth-grade class a lesson in Ladino. One student composed a song and accompanied herself on the cello. “She brought her big cello all the way up to the third floor,” Ascher said, still impressed. Students can even get credit for cooking Ascher a traditional Sephardic meal. “A lot of students choose to cook,” she said, “but it’s not an easy way out. You not only have to do it, but it has to taste good.”

Ascher has clearly built a devoted following. The mixture of affection and wonder she inspires can be discerned even in the often unforgiving realm of the Web site

“She’s absolutely a nut,” writes an anonymous Ladino 1 student from 2003, “but has a real passion for the class and really wants you to love it, too. Projects are creative, fun and easy. And she wears purple shoes. We think she made up the language.”

And she may have to keep making up more. Ascher today not only teaches an introductory course, but second- and third-semester continuations as well. “Instead of two, I’m teaching five courses,” she said, still a little tired from her end-of-semester grading. But in discussing her students and their progress she brims with pride.

“They’re really contributing to the tradition,” she said. “They’re passing it on.”

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