SAVING THE JUDAEO-SPANISH LANGUAGE AND CULTUREParis - Five hundred and ten years after the expulsion of the Jews from Spain by the Catholic Monarchs in a decree dated March 31, 1492, some 150,000 people around the world still speak the Judaeo-Spanish language.
In Morocco it is called Haketiya, in the Oran region of Algeria Titauni and in the Middle East Judesmo or Espanyoliko. Some call it Ladino, though strictly speaking this is the name for an older, non-oral language used by rabbis translating holy Hebrew works. Whatever name is used, it is a living relic of the Spanish spoken at the end of the 15th century, enriched with words borrowed from Greek, Hebrew, Turkish or Arabic.
As the centuries passed, the tongue that Sephardic Jews took with them from the Iberian Peninsula to other cities in the Mediterranean, Palestine and the Ottoman Empire was spoken only within families. Then in the 19th century, regular publications using it began appearing, and by 1865, there were more than 300 of them, mostly in Salonika, Istanbul, Smyrna and Sofia.
The Shoah dealt a heavy blow to the communities that had so carefully kept the language alive. On the Greek island of Rhodes, for example, only 161 Sephardic Jews were left of the 1,800 or so who lived there before World War Two.
Today, because speakers of the language are widely scattered, because of its proximity to Spanish and also the failure to pass it on to new generations, Judaeo-Spanish is in serious danger of dying out.
To remedy this, about 50 experts and more than 200 other participants attended a conference at UNESCO Headquarters in Paris last week called "Judaeo-Spanish Language and Culture: Challenges and Prospects" which aimed to come up with a plan to rescue and revive the language and make recommendations to UNESCO to this effect. The meeting was organized by 11 countries (Bulgaria, the Dominican Republic, France, Germany, Greece, Israel, Italy, Portugal, Romania, Spain and Turkey) with UNESCO's support, and was sponsored by Italy's Emilia Valori Fund for the Preservation of Traditions.
In a message to the meeting, UNESCO Director-General Koïchiro Matsuura said that "Judaeo-Spanish history is an eloquent illustration of the capacity of languages to transmit the values of intercultural dialogue and pluralism."
As the conference made clear, the matter is urgent. In towns such as Kavala, in northern Greece, there is just one speaker of the language left, while in others, with fairly large Sephardic populations, such as Skopje, probably nobody speaks it any more.
However, there are plenty of projects afoot and lots of enthusiasm. Spain's Radio Exterior de España puts out a weekly programme in Judeo-Spanish and has a very large sound archive. Salonika has a private museum of Sephardic culture that has plans to become a documentation centre for speakers of the language all over the world.
In Israel, Judaeo-Spanish is taught as a subject at Jerusalem's Hebrew University and the Autoridad Nasionala del Ladino works to preserve and publicise as many aspects of it as possible. In the United States, an internet forum was started two years ago in which more than 200 people now exchange daily messages in the language. And in France, publications such as La Lettre Sépharade and organisations such as Vidas Largas actively defend and promote it.
Among proposals approved at the UNESCO conference were urgent ones such as producing suitable material for teaching the language to children (the alphabet, stories, games and comic strips), gathering and microfilming all available printed material, and encouraging publication of new books in bilingual editions. It is also hoped to set up audiovisual archives of the customs and rituals of Judaeo-Spanish culture, with examples of domestic and religious celebrations, food recipes and accounts of daily life.
Some of the projects are already underway. The Emilia Valori Fund has agreed to translate and publish a teaching manual compiled by a French teacher, Marie-Christine Varol. The Council of Europe, which was represented at the conference by its director of Culture and Cultural and Natural Heritage, Jose María Ballester, is promoting the establishment of a Cultural Itinerary called "The Route of the Spanish language in the Mediterranean." It would pass through Istanbul, Salonika, Sofia and Tetuan, the major historical centres of Sephardic culture.
The long-term aim would be, as the conference's scientific co-director, Jean Carasso, suggested, "to get our language and culture acknowledged as part of UNESCO's Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity," which reconizes the most striking examples of popular and traditional culture, including languages, oral literature, music, dances, games, legends and ceremonies.
It's important to make the effort. As Marcel Cohen wrote in Letras a un pintor (Madrid, Almarabu, 1985), "morirse una lingua (…) es komo kedarse soliko en el silensyo (…) komo estar sikileoso sin saver porke." ("When a language dies, it is like being all alone in silence, like being sad without knowing why").
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