Ladino speakers dwindling, but newspaper reaches milestone: 200th issue
Throughout the world, only about 60,000 people speak Ladino, or Judeo-Spanish.
But the historic language of Sephardic Jewry is enjoying a bit of a renaissance. And what is believed to be the only print Ladino publication in the world, El Amaneser, reached a milestone last week when the Istanbul-based publication cranked out its 200th issue.
“What the editors of El Amaneser have accomplished is no small feat,” said Bryan Kirschen, an American and professor of Ladino at the State University of New York at Binghamton. “Ladino has a long-standing print culture and this monthly paper is a remnant of a thriving past and a hopeful future.”
Though the number of Ladino speakers is rapidly shrinking, with the last generation raised with Ladino as their mother tongue born in the 1940s, younger people are breathing new life into the language, said Karen Şarhon, editor of El Amaneser, which translates to “The Dawn.”
And the pandemic has given those with an interest in Ladino more opportunities to study it, she said, with more online classes and Zoom meetups that put Ladino speakers and wannabe speakers around the world in touch with each other.
This has enabled Şarhon to cultivate young Ladino writers key to the language’s survival, she said. Though much of El Amanser’s content still comes from older Ladino speakers in the Middle East, Europe and elsewhere who are dedicated to writing in and about the language of their heritage, in the pandemic, she added a section specifically for students of Ladino.
“I have motivated a lot of young people to write in the newspaper,” Şarhon said. “The people who know the language, before they die away they have to help the youngsters progress.”
Among those youngsters are not just young Turkish Jews, but writers from around the world and even non-Jews, one who Şarhon says first learned the language from reading the paper.
“El Amaneser has not only re-envisioned what it means to use Ladino in the 21st century, but also how to foster a global community and welcome different varieties of the language across generations,” said Kirschen.
Where does Ladino come from?
Ladino, historically, was chiefly a language of the Ottoman Empire. In the 15th century, Jews exiled from Spain arrived in the Near East on ships sent by Sultan Beyazid II. These Sephardic Jews settled in western Anatolia, Thrace, Marmara and the Balkans, Şarhon explained, and the myriad of Spanish dialects they had spoken in the Iberian peninsula merged with Turkish, Greek, Arabic and Balkan languages to form what is now considered Ladino. Today their descendants live all over the world.
Şarhon, who was born in Istanbul in the 1950s, learned Ladino at home as a child, though by then it was already secondary to Turkish in her family. For other Ladino speakers, the language gave way to Hebrew, English or other national languages in their countries. Among the younger generation of Jews in Istanbul today, very few still speak Ladino.
Nonetheless, Şarhon and others founded the paper in 2003 as an effort to maintain what they viewed as an important vessel of their culture.
The paper thickens
Despite the dwindling number of speakers, Şarhon said that she’s never been short on content. In fact often she gets too much.
When El Amaneser was first imagined it was as a four-page supplement to the Ladino section of Şalom, Istanbul’s largest Jewish newspaper. Şalom, founded in 1947, had been published entirely in Ladino for much of its history. But when its founder and editor Avram Leyon died in the early 1980s, control of the paper passed to the Turkish Jewish community, and the decision was made to change the language of publication to Turkish — the main language of the Istanbul Jewish community at the time. One page of Şalom would remain in Ladino.
But after its first edition in 2003, the supplement quickly expanded and in a little over a year, the number of pages had doubled and it split off into its own separate publication.
“We received so much material,” Şarhon said. That first issue that was meant to be four pages? ”It came out as 12 pages.”
It wasn’t long before those 12 pages were expanded to 16, then 24, then 32, and now for its 200th issue 48 pages worth of articles in Ladino.