What is Ladino? What country is Sefarad? Who are the Hispanic Jews?
In the novel Nunca volverás a casa, 1997, by José María Carrascal, a New York sefardita travels to Toledo in search of the house his family left behind in the Spanish-Jewish Diaspora, carrying the key which has been in his family for hundreds of years in case some day they were able to return to Sefarad, to Spain. Carrascal’s book is fiction, but based on reality.
The year 1492 was a true milestone in Hispanic history: America was discovered, and the Reyes Católicos signed the decree of the expulsion of their Jewish subjects who were forced to leave the land where they had lived for centuries. About 50,000 persons went into exile to different countries and regions—Portugal, North Africa, Italy and Turkey— and we can all imagine the hardships and tribulations they had to endure in their search for a new home.
England had exiled its Jewish community in 1290 and France in 1394, but we know little of the Jews who left those two countries. The homeland Sefarad, the Hebrew name for Spain, remained behind but was kept alive for generations in distant lands, like Salonika, in Turkey. The Sephardic Jews (Hispanic Jews) kept their language alive—now called Ladino or Judeo-Spanish, which reflects the grammar and pronunciation of old Spanish—as the language of the family and the Synagogue.
They also kept their Spanish traditions and, in some cases, the keys to the homes they had left behind. This is unique in Judaism, I think, because after the terrible hardships of exile, those sefarditas kept a longing and a love for the lost Sefarad, Spain, without bearing a grudge or ill feeling against the country that had expelled them without cause.
It may sound farfetched but Hispanics in the U.S. and the sefarditas have a lot in common. Of course, Sephardic Jews partake of the common Hispanic culture and have kept alive a language that is similar to the one their ancestors spoke in Castile and Aragon in 1492. We all share common cultural roots, and we all owe them—especially Spain—gratitude for their unbroken Hispanic tradition.
The U.S. has a Foundation for the Advancement of Sephardic Studies and Culture and in their website we can read: “One would think that the memory of the cruel and unjust punishment inflicted on them by the Spanish Inquisition would dictate an erasure of any memory of that country. Evidently the millennium the Jews lived in Spain was too deeply ingrained in them to forget. That the Sephardic culture has been able to endure into the present time is truly a miracle.” In Israel, the Ladino language, music and lore, is watched over by the Autoridad Nasionala del Ladino.
I have sought the opinion of Dr. Pancracio Celdrán, author of Red de juderías de España y caminos de Sefarad , a respected scholar in Spanish Philology and Hebrew history and sociology, professor at several Israeli universities, author of over 30 well-documented and crafted books and dictionaries.
“Ladino is a linguistic fossil which, paradoxically, enjoys a strong good health in spite of the fact that this fossilized language has been handed over from generation to generation all over the Mediterranean, especially in countries that once belonged to the Turkish Empire. I have collaborated with journals and radio stations whose language is Judeo-Spanish and have made countless friends in the Sephardic quarter of Jerusalem. There is a Chair of Judeo-Spanish at the Beer-Sheva University in Negev, where I taught courses on the history of the Mediterranean Jews.
The interest to keep alive the flames of the past is constantly growing. Isaac Navon, a sefardita himself, and former president of the country, told me that Ladino is in good health in part because it has reunited with present-day Spanish thanks to the waves of Spanish-speaking Jewish immigrants. Besides there are many educators and scholars set on keeping alive this linguistic fossil.
Speakers of Ladino—Latino—always longed for their lost Sefarad where they had lived since the first century of our era. I must add that feelings of spite, bitterness and rancor are strangers to the Jewish soul, which is used to being uprooted by force; to the cruelty of times, to the injustice that often go along living with peoples of a different way of thinking. Today, still, “things Spanish” inspire emotion mixed with tenderness.”
This is our small tribute to the Sephardim of the world, the Hispanic Jews.