Ladino Literature

Literature in Judeo-Spanish, the language of Sephardic Jews

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Judeo-Spanish, the language of Jews of Spanish origin has produced a wealth of literature--both religious and secular. This article provides a glimpse into this rich literary tradition of Sephardic Jewry.

After the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, the Ladino language--a rich blend of Hebrew and Spanish--moved to new countries, like Greece and Turkey, where Jewish refugees found new homes. As Ladino moved, a literature of its own came into being, reflecting the Diaspora experience of living as a Jew in a foreign land, and using words and stories to preserve a heritage that was not always appreciated by the wider world. 

Varieties of Ladino Literature

There are three major categories of Ladino literature: translations of sacred texts, such as the Hebrew Bible, the High Holiday prayerbook and the Passover Haggadah; rabbinic literature, including commentaries on Jewish texts and Jewish law; and folk tales, fables, proverbs, poems, and short stories, which are attracting more and more attention from collectors and scholars, and which are increasingly available in English.

Scholar Ilan Stavans, writing in The Forward newspaper, observes that because the Jews of the Iberian Peninsula were expelled, fiction took a backseat to other kinds of writing. "For this and other reasons, Sephardic literature for years focused on the liturgical and philosophical. The poetry of Shmuel HaNagid, Shlomo ibn Gabirol, and Yehuda Halevi are highlights, as are the treatises by Halevi, Moses Maimonides, and Hasdai Crescas."

old leather booksThe best-known example of rabbinic literature in Ladino is Me'am Loez, the 18th- and 19th-century commentary on the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible). The period of Me'am Loez was the first major flowering of Ladino, and a second productive period occurred in the early 20th century, when journalism and pamphleteering gave many writers a chance to be published. Unfortunately, the Holocaust ended this flowering, and the number of Ladino speakers was far smaller in 1945, making Ladino a language in danger of extinction. 

Fables & folktales

In recent years, however, efforts to preserve the oral tradition of Ladino stories have led to a new wealth of work. Today's treasures of Ladino are certainly not limited to translations of the prayers or commentaries on them. Ladino's fantastical stories--sometimes called fables or folktales--often have Jewish themes, with biblical figures and legendary characters. They sometimes offer interpretations on traditional aspects of Jewish wisdom, such as the need to be satisfied with what one has. They tend to share a sweet sense of humor, an interest in Jewish ideas, and a determination to look at a common situation in a new way.

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Aviya Kushner

Aviya Kushner is a Lecturer of Creative Writing at Columbia College of Chicago. She is the author of And There Was Evening, And There Was Morning.