On the varieties of Jewish experience


Some years ago, my wife Sandy began to research her family history with the aid of a good friend, an accomplished amateur genealogist.  During the course of his investigation, he alerted Sandy to a 1920 census form for La Juderia, the Jewish section of Rhodes, where Sandy’s mother was born into the island’s close knit Ladino-speaking Sephardic community.

Aron Hassan, founder of the Rhodes Jewish Historical Foundation, emailed us a copy of the document, which appeared to include the names of several members of Sandy’s family. Unfortunately, I had great difficulty deciphering what I took to be the Hebrew script. So I brought the  copy to my study partner, Rabbi Moshe Laufer of Barrington’s Chabad House, to see if he might be able to help me.  After an hour or so of intense scrutiny, we concluded that whoever filled out the document did not know how to write Hebrew script correctly. Every single Aleph, for example, looked like a misshapen Lamed.

Moshe and I were both wrong. The form had not been completed in badly written Hebrew but rather in properly written Solitreo, a cursive form of Hebrew script used in transcribing Ladino, the language spoken by Sephardic Jews in the Ottoman Empire after their expulsion from Spain in 1492. I had spent my entire life immersed in the Jewish world, and I had never seen the Solitreo script until I was in my late sixties. It turns out that there is much that I never knew about the language of Ladino, despite the fact that I have been married for 48 years to a woman whose mother’s native tongue was Ladino.

In mid-November, Sandy and I had the opportunity to deepen our knowledge and appreciation of Ladino culture; we spent an intense weekend at the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Massachusetts, as participants in a program on “The Rise and Fall of Ladino-Speaking Jews” under the able leadership of Devin Naar, assistant professor of history at the University of Washington in Seattle. During the course of four lectures, Naar traced the rise and flourishing of Ladino culture, especially in the Balkans, Greece and western Turkey, a vital part of the relatively stable and long-lived Ottoman Empire (1299-1923). Naar went on to demonstrate how Ladino culture declined along with the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire after World War I. Tragically, the Nazis destroyed those Jews who remained in Greece between the wars, while the Ladino-speaking population of American and Canadian Jews – at its peak, about 50,000 – has greatly diminished as a result of the relatively benign process of assimilation.

Sandy and I learned from Naar’s lectures that Ladino – also called Judeo-Spanish, Judezmo, and Djudio – is, at its core, Castilian Spanish; however, perhaps 20 percent of its vocabulary is based upon Hebrew. While Ladino is written in its cursive form in Solitreo, it is printed in Hebrew Rashi script. By way of contrast, Yiddish is based upon the German language, with a percentage of Hebrew words similar to what is found in Ladino; it is both printed and written in the more recognizable form of the Hebrew alphabet.

At the high point of Ladino culture, about 500,000 Sephardic Jews in the Ottoman Empire spoke the language; compare this with 15 million Ashkenazic Jews who at one time all spoke Yiddish. Perhaps this huge discrepancy in numbers explains why Ladino has produced no writers of the caliber of Sholem Aleichem, I.L. Peretz, or I.B. Singer. Then again, it could be that since so little Ladino literature has been translated, Ladino works of genius are yet to be discovered.

On the Saturday morning of our immersion into Ladino culture, news of the horrific ISIS attacks in Paris interrupted our tranquility. “PARIS TERRORIST ATTACKS KIILL OVER 100, FRANCE DECLARES STATE OF EMERGENCY” was the banner headline in the Nov. 14 issue of The New York Times.  Beneath the banner headline were three interrelated front-page stories: “Bursts of Chaos and Horror, Once Again.” “Series of Shots and Blasts, Apparently Coordinated” and “Inside Sold-Out Concert Hall, A Siege and a Scene of Carnage.”

On that very same morning that we were trying to process the events in Paris, we participants in the program on Ladino culture were learning that the Jews in the Ottoman Empire were living for centuries in relative peace and harmony within a largely Muslim population.  Indeed, Salonika (Thessaloniki), the largest Ladino-speaking community, was known as the “Jerusalem of the Balkans.”  By the early 20th century, Salonika was home to as many as 90,000 Sephardic Jews, roughly half of the city’s population.

The essentially quiet character of the history of Ladino-speaking Jews in the Ottoman Empire belies the insistence, in some quarters, that Muslims have always been infected with anti-Semitism. Jewish experience in the Diaspora has been widely variable. At times, Muslims have been the tolerant ones, while Christians have been murderously intolerant.  At other times, the situation has been reversed. The history of Ladino-speaking Jews in the Ottoman Empire teaches us that once again Jews and Muslims may learn to live together in peace.

Make no mistake: we need to defeat the barbarians of ISIS; but let us look beyond the defeat of ISIS to a time when all the children of Abraham – Jews, Christians and Muslims – will, to paraphrase the words of the prophet Micah, “sit beneath our vines and our fig trees, with none to make us afraid.”

JAMES B. ROSENBERG is rabbi emeritus of Temple Habonim in Barrington. Contact  him   at rabbiemeritus@templehabonim.org.