When professor Bryan Kirschen was asked to set up an online Ladino course by the Sephardic Jewish Brotherhood of America last spring, he thought he would get a handful of students. Instead, he got hundreds.
“It was incredible,” said Kirschen, professor of Spanish and Linguistics and co-director of the Ladino Collaboratory at Binghamton University in upstate New York. “This was the first time, even for me who has been working in Ladino for over 15 years, that I’ve started to say, ‘Wow, there is an incredible amount of interest and a wonderful opportunity before us.”
Ladino, or Judeo-Spanish as it is also known, was the primary language of the Sephardic diaspora following their expulsion from Spain in 1492, and was spoken in Jewish communities from North Africa to the Balkans and beyond.
However, like other Jewish langauges such as Yiddish, it saw a steep decline following the Holocaust, with major Ladino speaking communities in Greece and the former Yugoslavia entirely wiped out. Meanwhile, speakers from Turkey, the Middle East and North Africa found themselves replacing the language with Hebrew upon emigration to the newly founded State of Israel.
Today, barely 60,000 native speakers of the language remain – mostly elderly, and mostly in Israel. For those in the U.S. looking to reconnect with the language of their parents or grandparents, there was little opportunity to learn.
And then came COVID-19. “The pandemic opened new doors, virtual doors, so to speak, and that’s been a really positive thing,” Kirschen said.
The success of that initial program led Kirschen and other Ladino educators around the world to set up online courses, while most of their in-person classes have been shuttered due to the pandemic.
“It really made us realize that there’s still so much opportunity to teach and create community for this language outside of the typical confines of a university,” Kirschen explained.
In the year that has followed, he has run 22 other online programs in the language, aimed at all experience levels.
“There are two ways you can teach Ladino, as an endangered language or living one,” says Kirschen. The latter method is far more difficult, but also far more important.
“Ladino is doing well at universities,” said Kirschen, but universities are too often closed ecosystems available only to a small slice of population, either by age or economic background.
“We need to get Ladino into K-12.” Kirschen said. “That might be a pipe dream in some places, at least outside of Israel, but Ladino deserves more than a university classroom life, which is so limited.”
The online Ladino classes held over Zoom are open to all age ranges and are not just for traditional students. Senior citizens who had grown up in Ladino speaking homes have found a new way to reconnect with their heritage.
Kirschen also said that, for many of his students, the classes served as a much-needed escape from the stresses of the pandemic.
Will this uptick in interest continue even after everyone returns to normal life? Kirschen is hopeful.
“I do see a bit of renaissance going on right now,” Kirschen said. “We are now able to bring Ladino into the households of so many people around the world. It doesn’t matter if you are in a Sephardic community or if you have a car, as long as you have access to the internet at some point, you can engage in learning with this community.”
David Ian Klein covers breaking news and international Jewish communities for the Forward. You can reach him at Klein@forward.com and on Twitter@davidianklein