Skip to main content
clickable transparency Dartmouth College Library
Home >  About the Libraries >   Friends of the Library >   Dartmouth College Library Bulletin > April 1990 >

Dartmouth College Library Bulletin

Wandering Thoughts on the Sephardim and Their Language, Ladino


SINCE childhood my concept of a Jew had been limited by my 3 family origins in Eastern Europe. The only Jews I knew were Yiddish speakers, some of whom also spoke either Latvian, Lithuanian, Polish, or Russian and, in my mother's family, uncles, aunts, and cousins who spoke Yiddish and Rumanian. Not all of them spoke similarly-accented Yiddish, and sometimes certain words had to be defined but, by and large, Yiddish was the lingua franca that held the various communities together.

I remember comments about Sephardic Jews, mostly in glowing references to Supreme Court Justices Brandeis and Cardozo. In my family's circle of friends only these two were identified as Sephardic Jews who were Spanish. However, the large colony of Sephardic Jews in a neighboring town, mostly laborers and artisans, were called 'Turks,' in spite of their self-identification as Spanish. For the most part they were a mysterious people to me, and even after I met some of them in the middle years of my life, they remained a people apart, Jews who were not REAL JEWS, because they spoke Ladino (another mystery) instead of Yiddish.

In the winter of 1984 I began to collect information for a series of lectures that I eventually delivered, in Spanish, in Medellín, Colombia, in 1987. Much of my research and writing was initiated in the reference room of Baker Library and in the Spanish section of the stacks. It was in those stacks that I happened upon a wonderful collection of Sephardic literature. There is enough information on those shelves about the Sephardim and their language to answer most of a scholar's needs.

The first of the works to which I was attracted and to which I frequently return is a dissertation written by a young cleric, Damián Alonso Garcia, when he was a doctoral candidate at El Institute Católico de Paris. Its title is Literatura oral del ladino entre los sefardíes de oriente a través del romancero (Madrid: 1970).

In his 'Presentación' the author tells us that when he was around fifteen years old he came across a fascicule of some one hundred pages entitled 'Judíos españoles' (Spanish Jews). He found this simple title intriguing because in his studies of Spanish history there had been passing references to a learned Jewish community that had flourished during the Middle Ages, had left the country and, he had supposed, had disappeared through the course of time.

I quote, in part, how this little tract affected young Damián: 'To read those enchanted stories, in a sweet and singing Ladino . . . was for me the summit of emotion . . . a people, I thought, of which Spain had rid itself. . . so badly mistreated . . . in spite of which [it] continues to be faithful to its language, its customs, and its civilization.' He continues, 'Now there are thousands of those Spaniards without a country who have returned to their dear Spain, singing in an archaic, ingenuous but gentle and sweet Spanish...those stories that once upon a time their ancestors took with them into exile, which for generations afterwards their descendants had saved, like cloth-wrapped gold in the "treasure chests of the mind," as one says in good Ladino.' 1

I found this sensitivity to the Sephardim and to Ladino typical of the other works I studied, and since there is so much unanimity among the scholars, I shall limit my references to Sr. Damián Alonso's thesis and to an earlier work, Los israelitas españoles y el idioma castellano, by Angel Pulido y Fernandez (Madrid: 1904).

Ladino is, as the young Damián described it, an archaic language. It is largely fifteenth-century Spanish that lost direct contact with the parent language, thus acquiring elements of another language or languages, depending on the country or countries in which the exiles ultimately settled. In the past four hundred years there has been enough contact between the exiled communities so that those who speak Ladino have maintained a language that has a common grammatical structure and basic vocabulary for all speakers. The same can be said of Yiddish speakers, who also have a language, a literature, and a grammar in common. However, the Sephardim have been able to pass on to their descendants their mother tongue, whereas we Ashkenazis (Yiddish speakers) began to lose our mother tongue with the first-born generation in the United States. Yiddish is, according to some authorities, eleventh-century German, adulterated by the language(s) spoken in whatever country a Jewish community settled. Lucy S. Dawidowicz, writing about the 1940 census in Commentary, says, 'Only 3 per cent of those who gave Yiddish as the language spoken at home in their earliest childhood were third generation.' 2

As I continued to study the literature of the Sephardim and the scholarly commentaries on their works, there grew an image of them in my mind, an image of their place and their significance in Spanish history. Besides making outstanding original contributions in literature, philosophy, and science, the Sephardim were the major translators into Spanish of Arabic works on medicine, mathematics, and the sciences. Here I translate directly from page 233 in the Damián Alonso Garcia work: 'Spain is the only country of the Diaspora in which the Jews were completely integrated and in which their genius gave of itself everything of which it was capable, influencing, as I have mentioned several times, in a very decisive manner, Castilian development and the Spanish Golden Age ... It is also very significant that only in Spain did they create a lively architecture, with original ornamental motifs, even in harmony with Islamic art. Hence it is not strange that when they were expelled they felt just as Spanish as the Christians.' The Diaspora to which he refers dates from the fall of Jerusalem to the Romans, in 70 A.D.

As for the Sephardic contribution to Spanish literature, this is what Sr. Damián Alonso says on page 21: `Cervantes, in the fourth book of "La Galatea," interposes a conversation of Love and Beauty between the sensible Tirsi and the coldhearted Lenio. The sense of this conversation is entirely Platonic and derives from León Hebreo to the very last words, in a way that enables us to state that there is nothing original to be found in them. The Marcela scene in "Don Quijote," in front of the shepherds and Don Quijote, reminds us of "La Galatea," thus equally inspired by León Hebreo. And all this love of Don Quijote which he professes in such Platonic terms, is this not also inspired largely by the "Dialogues of Love" by León Hebreo?'

During my lecture series in Colombia, I was fortunate indeed to meet Manuel Mejía Vallejo, one of that country's outstanding poets. He had just returned from Spain, where he had had a long conference with the head of the Spanish Royal Academy. I was thrilled to hear that they spent a great deal of time reading and discussing a current newspaper that is published in Ladino.

I hesitantly stated that I sensed rhythms and images in the poetry of Federico Garcia Lorca that reminded me of the Ladino material I had found in Baker Library. He not only concurred with my observation about the relationship, but he was also enormously impressed by my description of the wealth of material available in a Yankee college in the frozen north. In the end he cited other poets and writers, including himself, to whom the Ladino rhythms, forms, and images became indigenous Hispanic characteristics. When one remembers that there has been a considerable Jewish presence in the Iberian Peninsula since biblical times (Jonah took ship around 8 B.C. to Tarshish, where he wished to visit his coreligionists instead of obeying the Lord's command to preach in Nineveh), one should not be surprised at the strength and influence of that presence.

Conversely, it should not be surprising that the memory of Spain is firmly anchored in the souls of the Sephardim. The following translation of parts of a letter to Sr. Pulido from Enrique Bejarano, Director of the Spanish Israelite School for Children in Bucharest, Rumania, is only a hint of the Sephardic attachment to Spain. He writes, in 1904: `Endowed with a pure soul, a generous heart, you, along with other friends of Spain, wish to encourage close relationships with my brothers who were unjustly exiled from that sweet land of friendly skies over four hundred years ago . . . Still today we silently suffer this sad refrain filled with yearning:

I suffer Señor [God]
I suffer thy wrath;
I lost my love,
My dear Spain.

. . the majority of those Jews speak Spanish more or less smoothly. They even preserve the characteristics of their native land; the airs of an hidalgo; a natural calmness and purity; the penetrating glance; the Spanish or Portuguese charm; lastly, the inherited habits which their grandparents bred into them with such care, and let us add by saying, a solidarity and a reciprocating affection.' 3

Until I read Sr. Pulido's book I had never known that Spain offered asylum to the Jews expelled from Russia in 1881 by Czar Alexander III. Many applied at the Spanish ministries in Saint Petersburg and Constantinople for asylum in Spain. On 15 June 1881 the two ministries received the following telegram: `His Majesty charges me to tell V.E. that His Majesty along with the Government shall receive the Hebrews leaving Russia, opening to them the doors of their ancient fatherland.' 4 Two days later Spain extended the offer to all Jews refused asylum by Germany and the Balkan States. (One day I shall take a holiday from Ladino and search for evidence of Sephardic efforts to return to Spain after their expulsion.)

For the moment, I wish to make a few more comments about Ladino, the language. First, I am convinced that it is a language and not a jargon. I always thought that it was strange that most of the Yiddish speakers that I knew, including members of my parents' generation, used to refer to their own language, which already had a considerable body of literature, as a jargon, but used to identify Ladino as the language of the Sephardim without any idea that there was a very long history of Ladino literature.

Both languages, eleventh-century German and fifteenth-century Spanish, in their time suffered phonetic distortions through the use of Hebraic characters in the transliteration of the languages. Semitic alphabets do not readily lend themselves as phonic equivalents to the Latin alphabet. For this paper I shall use Ladino as the model for this problem. For example, in a letter to Sr. Pulido from a Juan B. Sitges (1904) I quote: 'The surprising thing is that those Jews who speak Castilian do not read it when it is written or printed in contemporary characters, but to do it tin order to read it) it is necessary for it to be in "rabbinic" characters (Hebraic), in which form it appears in several newspapers.' 5

I offer here a few examples of the difficulties of preserving a mother tongue at a distance from the source, which is hard enough with a common alphabet (for example, Canadian French versus European French), but one can readily see by the following what can happen in transliteration. In one of the letters received by Sr. Pulido from a Sephardic friend we find the following: 'Si jamás yo tubiese algo . . .' 'Tubiese' is the first person imperfect subjunctive of the verb 'tener,' which should be spelled 'tuviese.' The problem here is that the pronunciation of bs and vs in Spanish is hardly distinguishable, one from the other, with one general exception. At the beginning of a word the b is hard, as in the American word 'baseball.' In the middle of a word the b and the v are softened greatly. The nearest Hebrew equivalent to the 'b as in baseball' sound is the 'beth,' which never varies. The Hebrew 'double vahv,' or v sound, never varies and is pronounced like an English v and can never be substituted for the Spanish b or v. Therefore the writer of this letter must transliterate by using the latin b, hence 'tubiese.'

Similarly, the phrase 'our father' in Ashkenazi Hebrew is pronounced 'ahveenu.' The Ladino-Spanish vocabulary listing gives me 'abinu,' from which spelling I must assume a Sephardic pronunciation using the 'beth,' or hard b. Finally, I am slightly puzzled by the Ladino spelling for 'almuerzo' (lunch). It is 'almorço.' I don't think that I could justify my clumsy attempts to reproduce the 'ue' sound in rabbinic letters well enough to make it a standard phonetic device. There is no letter in the Hebrew alphabet that will reproduce the Castilian zed, hence the substitution of the F with cedilla. Modern Hebrew is based on Sephardic usage, making it tough for old time Ashkenazim like me.

By the late nineteenth century, Ladino had become quite adulterated by other languages. Many educated Sephardim, other than the above-mentioned Enrique Bejarano, constantly appealed for assistance in the preservation of 'Castilian in exile' from individual Spanish friends. From my limited reading I assume that all they ever received was a few grammars and some reading material. So far I have Not seen anything definitive about cultural assistance to the Spanish-hungry Sephardim from the Spanish government, or any arm of that government.

However, Sr. Pulido, in a chapter intitled 'The French Language among the Jews of the Middle East,' is sounding the alarm over the efforts of France (through the Alliance Française) to fill the vacuum left by Spanish official neglect. Within this chapter Sr. Pulido includes a complete article that appeared in Le monde illutrstré of 11 April 1903, sent to him by a Sephardic friend. The article, entitled 'La Langue Française en Orient, Oeuvre scolaire de l'Alliance israélite,' enumerates a number of schools funded by the Alliance. One of these, the school for boys in Tiberias (1897), originally founded for the teaching of Torah, gradually introduced a little science in the Hebrew lessons, then a little history, and one day-apropos of a history lesson-a certain instructor told the students about France, its history and its language; the latter, according to him, the preferred 'civilized' language in Europe. From this beginning, the very Sephardim who had vociferously fought the secularization of their Talmud school themselves began to demand French lessons for their children. All religious instruction continued in Hebrew.

In 1900 a similar school for girls was opened in Tiberias, giving the Alliance 320 students out of a total Sephardic population of 4, 000. In the area from the sea of Marmora to the edges of Palestine, the Alliance developed twenty-eight separate groups with a student total of 6,000. But if one wishes to include similar schools in Morocco, Algeria, Tunis, Tripoli, Egypt, and European Turkey, and from Bulgaria and Persia, the number had risen, in 1904, to 12 schools with 30,000 students. The annual cost was I,200,000 francs (quite a sum for those days), paid out of the coffers of the Alliance. 6

'This vast venture in education, from which we derive considerable benefit as a moral influence, does not even cost one hundredth part of our national budget.' 7 How far did this influence extend? These schools were also attended by Muslim, Greek Orthodox, and sometimes Druse. Considering these circumstances in the first years of this century, the fidelity of the Sephardic Jew to his 'precious Sepharad' (Spain) is all the more amazing.

I must add that when I spoke of this paper with a good friend and mentor on all things Spanish, he told me that the descendants of those Arabs who were expelled from Spain by Philip III between 1609 and 1614 also express their longing for Spain in their literature and also identify themselves as Spanish. This says a great deal for the feeling of loyalty to ancestral Spain on the part of Arabs and Jews through the centuries.

The following is a translation from a statement by Rabbi Benito Garzón, then the rabbi of the new synagogue in Madrid. The statement was made shortly after 14 December 1968, the day on which the Jewish community in Spain received official recognition as a practicing religious body in that country. In the same document the edict of expulsion of 31 March 1492 was abrogated.

Since the pure Spanish scion of Judaism has again taken root in a land which was the beacon of the Diaspora, the intellectuals of the South American communities pause [here] in Madrid and come here to verify those traditions of which they are the repositories. In a word, our role is to be a counterweight to the various forms of a Judaism traumatized by history, and now the mission of Sephardism is to demonstrate that it is good to be a Jew . . . Each week there are Spaniards who, claiming Jewish origins, come to attend services on Friday night, moved by a curiosity that they were Not able to anticipate just a few years ago. 8

To that Damián Alonso adds, 'Spain thus repudiated a past filled with anguish for the children of Israel and again opens its arms to re-embrace them inside the national memory.' 9

In closing I must add that I did not have to look very deeply into Sephardic history to discover cover that we Ashkenazim were unwittingly defined by their singular history up to the years of the Holocaust. I somehow doubt that the rest of the world is even aware of its own identity as having been formed by two major events, the expulsion of 1492 and the 'Final Solution' of the concentration camps.


1. Damían Alonso Garcia, Literatura oral del ladino entre los sefardíes de oriente a través del romancero (Madrid: 1970). xv-xvi. All translations in this paper were done by the author.

2. Lucy S. Dawidowicz, 'Yiddish: Past, Present & Perfect.' Commentary (May 1962), 378.

3. Quote in Angel Pulido y Fernández, Los israelites españoles y el idioma castellano (Madrid Sucesores de Rivadeneyra, 1904), 35-37. The poem reminds me of the following lines, which 1 have translated from the Hebrew Bible (Psalm 137):

By the rivers of Babylon,
There we sat down, and wept, indeed
When we remember Zion . . .

If I forget thee, O Jerusalem,
May my right hand fail me!
May my tongue cleave to my palate,
If I do not remember thee.

4. Pulido, Los Isrealitas, 210. Pulido does not disclose the identity of V.E. I assume this abbreviation means 'vuestra excelencia' (your excellency)

5. Ibid., 128

6. Ibid., 213 ff:

7. Ibid., 223.

8. Alonso Garcia, Literatura oral, 237-238.

9. Ibid., 238.

Bibliographic Note

My respect and love for good dictionaries comes from an early childhood in a neighborhood in which I heard only Yiddish, Russian, and Italian. I heard my first words in English on my very first day in school. Since then I have experienced many painful, and often embarrassing, moments that taught me not to have blind faith in word-for-word translations or in word for word definitions in the average bilingual dictionary. My advice to all serious foreign-language students is to shift to a monolingual dictionary within the first year of a foreign-language course if at all possible.

The following is a random example of how difficult it is to achieve perfect alignment of primary concepts in meaning between an English word and its alleged foreign equivalent. In my 1974 edition of the New Revised Velázquez Spanish and English Dictionary I chanced on the word 'clapper' in the English-to-Spanish half of the book:

Clapper 1. Palmoteador, el que palmea o palmotea.
(Handclapper, he who slaps or claps)
2. Badajo de campana. (Bell striker)
In my Funk & Wagnalls Standard College Dictionary (1968 edition) appears:
Clapper 1. The tongue of a bell.
2. Something that claps or clacks, as one of a pair of bones.

If the Primary definitions of a simple word are skewed, what can one believe about more complex ideas? The answer for me was, of course, the Reference Room and the stacks in Baker. The resources there were the best I could ever have for my writing needs, but my subject matter made far greater demands, I also needed cultural information beyond the graphic and performing arts.

It was a great surprise for me to stumble across a collection of books on the Sephardic Jews, their history in and out of Spain, and their language, Ladino. Happily I chose the Damián Alonso Garcia book for my first taste of this material and so I suggest this book as an introductory study to anyone interested, as a general review of most aspects of Sephardic history, literature, and language. The fair-sized Ladino vocabulary to be found at the back of this book has definitions of many of the puzzling words in Ladino poetry.

Alonso's book led me to other, more specialized, works such as Cantos de boda judeo-españolas (Madrid:1971) by Manuel Alvar López and Endechas judeo-españolas (Granada: 1953), also by Manuel Alvar López. I owe much to the latter two books for my enlarged understanding and appreciation of the works of Federico Garcia Lorca.

Phonétique et phonogie du judeo-espagnol de Bucarest (The Hague and Paris: 1971) by Marius Sala, is obviously very specialized, but I should think that anyone raised in a multilingual household would find it very fascinating. The Àngel Pulido y Fernández work from which I have quoted at some length, Los israelitas españoles y el idioma castellano is very engaging because of its anecdotal style. This work should be accessible to most students of Spanish.

The cultural information I wanted was selected from a vast collection of nineteenth-and twentieth-century Spanish and Latin American sources, among which were a number of small tracts on México: La rasa cósmica, by José Vasconcelos (Paris: 192?); Análisis del ser del mexicano, by Emilio Uranga (México : 1952), Variaciones sobre tema mexicano (México: 1952), by Luis Cernuda; and the very fascinating El Laberinto de la soledad (various editions) by Octavio Paz.

I have learned from my experiences with other languages that I have to move as quickly as possible into the literature of a language in order to be able to use any dictionary properly. As a matter of fact, that was how my father learned English as an adult.

I found the staff in the Reference Room to be most helpful because they are so knowledgeable. For me, writing is as demanding and unrelenting an activity as working on a painting; therefore, I need a lot of security and confidence in my sources, so I thank the staff for always pointing me in the right direction.

Throughout my research sessions for my lecture series I leaned rather heavily on my friends in the Spanish and Portuguese Department of the College for esoteric and specialized information. I have not had to depend on them so much since Luis Villar joined the reference staff at Baker; he has been invaluable for precise and succinct solutions to linguistic problems beyond the scope of most grammars.

Suggestions for Further Reading

Alvar Lopez, Manuel. Poesia tradicional de los judios españoles. México: Porrua, 1996. Later editions are also available.

Benedete, Mair José. Hispanismo de los defardíes levantinos. Tr. Manuel Aguilar. Madrid: Aguilar, 1963.

Cantera Ortiz de Urbina, Jesús. Los sefardíes. Madrid: Publicaciones Españolas, 1958.

Luria, Max Aron. A Study of the Monastir Dialect ofJudeo-Spanish Based on Oral Material Collected in Monastir, Yugoslavia. New York and Paris: 1930.

Malino, Frances, The Sephardic Jews of Bordeaux : Assimilation and Emancipation in Revolutionary and Napoleonic France. University: University of Alabama Press, 1978.

Papo, Joseph M. Sephardim in Twentieth Century America: In Search of Unity: San Jose, Calif.: Pele Yoetz Books; Berkeley, Calif.; Judah L. Magnes Museum 1987.