Habla Ladino Sephardim meet to preserve language

In an attempt to revive the Ladino language over date cakes and coffee, a group of South Bay Sephardim is coming together monthly for camaraderie and cultural activities.

They watch Judeo-Spanish films. They share books and harrowing World War II tales. But mostly, they hablan (shmooze).

Ladino, or Judeo-Spanish, is a patois of 15th-century Spanish, Hebrew and several other Mediterranean languages.

Like Yiddish, it is a dying Jewish language; its gradual disappearance began during World War II when Sephardic communities throughout Europe, the Middle East and North Africa were dispersed or decimated.

Refugees of the those communities scattered to Israel, the United States and Europe. Those who form the new Ladino club came here to reunite with their adult children.

They are mostly seniors and come from Turkey, Morocco, Bulgaria, Romania, Greece, Algeria, Egypt, Argentina and Italy. Some members are Ashkenazim who want to know more about their Mediterranean counterparts. One Ashkenazi woman from Argentina attends to exercise her Spanish.

Their meeting can be credited to another woman in their midst, Dorice Haynes, who had been pondering the idea since her Egyptian Jewish mother died.

Her mother, who lived in Israel until her death, insisted on speaking Ladino when she visited Haynes. During those visits, the mother reminded her daughter of Ladino expressions and folklore.

After her mother's death, Haynes often lamented the lack of local Ladino speakers. The former travel agent sometimes wondered if there were other speakers around who might form a sort of coffee klatsch.

Haynes' wish came true when she learned from a local friend, Frank Kushin, that a Ladino-speaking couple lived in Mountain View. The Moroccan emigres were relatives to the Ashkenazi Kushin by marriage.

Haynes began to hear of others. By October, she and Kushin, who is cultural arts and education director at the Albert L. Schultz Jewish Community Center, decided to start a monthly discussion group. Besides coffee, some 15 klatschers share bourekas — cheese-filo pastries — as well as date cakes and other Sephardic dishes at their get-togethers.

They are not the first Ladino group in the Bay Area — another is rumored to exist in Berkeley. But participants have managed to form friendships from a circle of strangers. And perhaps just as importantly, they've shown that Ladino is not ready to die just yet.

Sunday, the club gathered at the ALSJCC in Palo Alto to watch the movie "Every Time We Say Goodbye," starring Tom Hanks. The English-language film also featured Ladino speakers with subtitles. But once the group got to talking about their wartime escapes, everyone forgot about the video.

Mathilde Ovadia of Palo Alto told how she lost her Sephardic family to the Holocaust after Bulgarian soldiers descended upon her hometown of Cavallos, Greece.

Ovadia had just married an Italian-born Jew. Because Italy was allied with Germany, the newlyweds were spared from the roundup that herded her parents, brother and other Jews into a tobacco warehouse. From the warehouse, they were taken to sea where the boat sank and everyone aboard drowned.

Ovadia and her husband remained in Cavallos with five other Jewish couples who had been spared. The couple eventually went into hiding until the end of the war. They left Europe in 1951, when they finally received an affidavit for the United States.

Livio Sagues of Mountain View still counts his blessings for the 1938 Jewish expulsion that sent his family packing from Italy to Morocco. The prewar decree required that only foreign-born Jews leave Italy.

While Sagues was born in Italy, his Turkish-born parents did not share his citizenship. And it was a good thing, for they would have been deported to the death camps along with the Italian-born Jews who remained after the 1938 ouster.

"We must be grateful for the expulsion," Sagues told the Ladino group. His family stayed for 30 years in Tangiers where he met his Ashkenazi wife, Hilda. The couple later moved to Switzerland and three years ago to the United States to be with their daughter.

Hilda Sagues laughs about her fluent Ladino, which she learned from her mother-in-law. Now she speaks it better than her husband, several women in the group joked.

She also speaks French, Italian, Spanish and Yiddish. Livio speaks Italian, French, Spanish and Ladino. Now, the two are learning English.

"What's one more language?" quips Livio, who has become the group leader. That seems to be the motto of most of the Ladino speakers, who often slip into French or English during their meetings.

Most of the Sephardim have been wandering from country to country for generations since the Spanish expulsion. They come from one country and their parents from another.

Mary and Victor Saydun of Redwood City are originally from Istanbul. Mary's parents arrived in Turkey as clothing peddlers from the Russian republic of Georgia.

Stella Filler of Palo Alto was born in Tangiers, though her mother, Miriam Coriat, also a member of the Ladino club, was born a Spanish subject at a military base in North Africa. There, Coriat's rabbi father led secret services for other Jews in a windowless basement.

The family moved to Tangiers after the Spanish Civil War. As Filler came of age, she immigrated to Israel and later to the United States.

Coriat was reunited with her daughters here seven years ago. Before joining the Ladino club, she had not made many friends with whom she could communicate.

Similarly, most in the club had not spoken Ladino outside their families for years.

They've heard the wartime stories several times now as new members arrive. Nevertheless, they never tire of hearing them…one last time.

Lori Eppstein

Lori Eppstein is a former staff writer.