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.

One fable features the travails of a rock-cutter who lives on a mountain. The story delves into his life in exile, his problems with luck and work and poverty. Finally, he becomes the mountain itself, and he realizes it's better to be the rock-cutter than the rock.

Another story, called "Pearls and Diamonds," is about several girls and their father. Each girl says that she loved her father as much as pearls, or diamonds, or rubies. One girl, however, says that she loves her father as much as salt. The father is quite insulted to be compared to salt. Then, a prince invites the father to a meal at which he is served food that is unsalted. "This is terrible!" he says. Soon, he learns that his daughter was wiser than he imagined--and that salt, a cheap flavor, is actually quite valuable.

Many Ladino tales feature Ejoha--also called Joha--a folk character who is at times a fool, a wise fool, or a sneaky trickster. In 2001, the Jewish Publication Society published the first English translation of Ladino folk tales, collected by Matilda Koén-Sarano. The anthology includes nearly 300 stories, which Koén-Saranospent 21 years finding, editing, and translating. Folktales of Joha, Jewish Trickster: The Misadventures of the Guileful Sephardic Prankster, is an excellent introduction to the character of Joha--and to the tradition of humor and wisdom found throughout Ladino writing. The Joha stories came from 17 countries, including the United States, and they show how the oral tradition of storytelling moved throughout the Jewish Diaspora.

As for verse, Ladino poetry can sometimes be found in Israeli literary magazines. Major names include Margalit Matityahu, Avner Peretz, and Victor Perera, who is originally from Guatemala and has also written a memoir. Rita Gabbai Simantov, of Athens, worked as a Cultural Officer in the Israeli Embassy, and toward the end of her career in 1994, began publishing Ladino poetry. Sara Benveniste Benrey, a poet and playwright, began publishing in the 1980s, and has since written comedies, sketches, and poems.

Ladino Literature Today

In Israel, Europe, and the United States, writers are struggling to keep Ladino literature alive. The Jerusalem Book Fair sometimes features a booth with books from writers who use Ladino in their poetry, and it's not uncommon to hear some Ladino phrases in songs played by singer-songwriters.

Today, Ladino doesn't always stand alone. Instead, it finds itself threaded into Spanish or Hebrew work. A well-known example is Like a Bride  byRosa Nissán, a Mexican novel about a Sephardic Jewish girl who grows up in Mexico in the 1960s. The novel includes a lot of Ladino, and it has been made into a movie--bringing Ladino to the big screen. (An English version, translated by Dick Gerdes, is available from the University of New Mexico Press.) Nissán has also written a sequel, titled Like a Mother, a travelogue, and a collection of short stories.

Because more scholars and lovers of Ladino have been collecting fables and folk stories, and because more students are enrolling in Ladino classes, the availability of Ladino work in translation should increase. For those who want a perspective on Jewish life in exile that is different from the dominant Ashkenazic portrayal, and for those who want to understand Sephardic culture, exploring Ladino literature through an anthology of folk tales, a novel, or a proverb collection can offer a new window on the story of the Jewish people. 

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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.