Ladino experts ponder ways to keep historic dialect alive

PARIS — A desire to preserve Ladino, a Jewish language with a colorful history, drew hundreds of participants to a recent conference here.

Based on 15th century Spanish, Ladino is spoken by an estimated 200,000 people around the world, half of them in Israel.

Some fear that the number of Ladino speakers will diminish rapidly if steps are not taken to save the language. With that in mind, participants at the two-day symposium came up with a plan for keeping the language and its culture alive. Attending the conference were at least 250 Ladino speakers, including 30 specialists from 13 countries.

Believed to be the first of its kind, the Ladino conference was held under the auspices of the U.N. Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization.

The history of Ladino can be traced to 1492, when Sephardi Jews were expelled from Spain and took their language with them. Ladino has been enriched through contact with the languages of the various lands where those people resettled.

During the symposium, participants discussed the language's heritage and the songs, proverbs, tales and cuisine associated with Ladino culture.

They also spoke about the importance of education for preserving Judeo Espagnol, as the language is called in Ladino.

Organizing the event took years.

"There were many stumbling blocks along the way," said Yitzhak Eldan, the Israeli ambassador to UNESCO.

"Our main achievement was that despite the hostile atmosphere" in UNESCO toward Israel, "we managed to bring together 11 countries to support this project and to have it passed at UNESCO's general assembly last November. That was the first time the subject was raised officially at UNESCO," Eldan said.

Yusuf Altintash, publisher of Shalom, a newspaper in Ladino and Turkish, spoke about the situation of Ladino in Turkey, where, he says, 99 percent of the nation's approximately 20,000 Jews have ancestors who came from Spain.

Erika Perahia-Zemour, director of the Jewish Museum in Salonika, Greece, said she does not speak Ladino. But that was apparently an exercise in humility — because she then launched into a fluent and moving speech in the language.

There were also representatives from other members of the UNESCO: Bulgaria, the Dominican Republic, France, Germany, Israel, Italy, Portugal, Romania and Spain. Specialists from the United States and Serbia, which are not members of UNESCO, attended as well.

A proposal drafted at the end of the conference called for training Ladino teachers and for preparing textbooks, a comprehensive dictionary and grammar books.

The proposal also called for the publication of books, newspapers and magazines in the language, and even the establishment of a Ladino publishing house.

Also discussed was the idea of recording and cataloguing Ladino tales, songs and proverbs.

The event was co-organized by Jean Carasso, who publishes La Lettre Sepharade, a Paris-based newspaper in Ladino and French, and Moshe Shaul, the deputy chairman of Israel's National Authority for Ladino Culture.

"UNESCO now has an interest in nurturing dying languages," Shaul said. The symposium's participants hope that this will involve a "recognition by UNESCO that this is an important heritage that must be protected. We hope that UNESCO will also provide financial, or at least moral, support."

Ladino is taught at only a few academic institutions. Most of the courses are offered in Israel, where four universities, adult education classes and a high school in Jerusalem teach the language.

There also is an Internet chat group conducted solely in Ladino, at group/ladinokomunita.