Ladino Literature Revival

The magic and zest of Ladino---the Judeo-Spanish Dialect--enliven the novels of Rosa Nissan.

The following is a review Mexican novel written in Spanish laced liberally with Ladino–the language of Sephardic Jews.  The article also offers a glimpse into the wonderful world of Ladino literature. This article originally appeared in the
and is reprinted with permission.

Ma, ¿qué escrivites [But, what did you write?]” poet Myriam Moscona wondered when “Novia Que Te Vea,” [“My girlfriend as I see you”]–Rosa Nissán’s autobiographical novel, a title translated poetically as Like a Bride–was released in Mexico in 1992.

Singing further praise to a storyteller of a shared ethnic background, she added:

¿Ande tupates tanta historia, tanta memoria, tanta palavrica de las muestras? ¿Dí que queres arrevivir ista lingua casi muerta que conocites por la banda de tus padres y abuelos? ¿Quén te ambezó a dezir las cosas como las dices? ¿Escrivana salites?

In translation, these queries might seem mundane:

Old ancient book, orange backgroundBut, what have you written? Where have you found so much history, so much memory, so many of these words that are close to our hearts? Do you want to revive this almost-defunct tongue that you became acquainted with through your parents and grandparents? What urged you to say things the way you do? Have you turned out to be a writer?

Yet in the original, the utterance has magic and zest. It is in a modified form of Ladino, the Judeo-Spanish dialect with roots in the Iberian Peninsula that probably date back to the 13th century, if not earlier. Moscona and Nissán, as Sephardic Jews from Mexico, came of age listening to it. The jargon appears somewhat prominently in Nissán’s oeuvre, especially in Like a Bride.

“¿Escrivana salites [Did you end up a writer]?” is the correct question to ask Nissán. Although she is unquestionably a novelist–in addition to Like a Bride, she is the author of a sequel (Like a Mother) being published in English simultaneously, as well as a travelogue and a collection of stories–her quest for a voice came about rather circuitously.

With no way to articulate the plethora of tales inside her, Nissán enrolled in a creative writing course with Elena Poniatowska, one of Mexico’s most prominent women authors. This delayed encounter with her artistic self is not atypical in her ethnic group where, as she herself explains lucidly in her fiction, the education of women until recently was, if not forbidden, at least delegated to the status of non-essential. It was Poniatowska, a non-Jew, who first recognized Nissán’s energy and encouraged her to pursue her literary exercises, which turned into full-fledged narratives about Sephardic idiosyncrasies, filled with humorous and linguistic puns. As in the case of many artists, her imaginative formulations might have represented an attempt by Nissán to distance herself from her community. But it is clear that her pilgrimage enriched her. The result is unique in the shelf of Mexican letters and, equally, in the tradition of Jewish fiction in Spanish.

That uniqueness is twofold: First, I know of no other Bildungsroman where the main character is a Sephardic female whose odyssey is contemplated from adolescence to maturity; and second, the insertion of Ladino into segments of the plot makes this book a rarity. To understand these reasons, I offer the following context.

To begin, it is illustrative to consider the question of why it was Eastern Europe in the 18th century and not Spain in the 16th that was the birthplace of what we consider today “modern Jewish fiction.” With the French Revolution came the emergence of the bourgeoisie as a major class; the novel, as an artistic artifact, served as a thermometer of its angst. Ironically, Don Quixote, published in two parts in 1605 and 1615, is perhaps the first novel to implement a reflection on actual change–both internal and external–in human nature. Its protagonist, Alonso Quijano, transforms himself from a loquacious hidalgo to a fool and then back to a sensible old man. But Cervantes’s masterpiece stands alone as a door opener in Spain. The majority of groundbreaking novels, such as those written by Daniel Defoe and Denis Diderot, were produced elsewhere in Europe.

By the dawn of the 17th century, the Jewish and Muslim populations of the peninsula had already been expelled. 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.

Fiction was not, in any significant way, an instrument with which to reflect on the communal angst. Paloma Díaz-Mas, in his authoritative “Los Sefaradíes: Historia, lengua y cultura” (1986), inventories the literature of Judeo-Hispanic authors; about a forth of her catalogue is devoted to the “adopted genres” of journalism, narrative, theater, and “autograph” poetry. It is intriguing, though, that among the romansos (novels) she lists, almost all are described as aranjados (imitations), none of which are traceable before 1900. In other words, while a distinct Judeo-Hispanic ethos is apparent in the Middle Ages, its role in modernity is that of an addition, not of a source.

Nissán’s Like a Bride is not included in Díaz-Mas’s register, probably because Hispanic America never became a center of Sephardic culture. In fact, to my knowledge, the number of published Sephardic narratives in the region is minuscule. Hence, Nissán, 61, is a rara avis [rare bird]: To employ an oxymoron, she is an aranjado novelist with an original voice, one that is modern, Jewish and muy mexicana [very Mexican]. Although at times over-sentimentalized, the inner world she describes is not at all in conflict with the Jews I remember growing up in Mexico during the 1960s and 1970s. The cadence of speech is captured astonishingly well in the novel; so too are the various Spanish dialects, each used by a different type of people. Indeed, just browsing through Nissán’s pages makes me shiver with uncomfortable nostalgia for a milieu that formed me and that, with a dramatically different approach, I tried to evoke in On Borrowed Words.

Of Nissán as a person I have little to say, since our paths have not yet crossed. Instead, I offer a quote from Poniatowska that illuminates the fashion in which her education and worldview are in symmetry:

“I’ve never met a person as natural and spontaneous. Rosa Nissán adapts herself to life the way a plant adapts itself to the soil or the sun. Her reaction is immediate. Her suffering and joy overwhelm her entirely. But there is reason for it, for Rosita is a total woman, rotund, her embrace wide, as wide as the patterns her legs create when she dances around. [Her] parents carry their Jewishness in their bone marrow, and they always enlighten Nissán’s path with their seven-handed candelabra. She never sees any star other than the Star of David. Suddenly, though, she and her milieu were turned into star dust. [But Nissán] has returned to herself, no longer her parents’ child, a child of Jews, the byproduct of schools for Jews only, and of the Centro Deportivo Israelita [Jewish Sports Center], of an isolated community. She remains the same star of Jerico, but her petals are fleshier, wiser, more vigorous. They have been expanded to embrace us all.”

A writer she indeed became, and one full of pathos. Poniatowska addresses her as Rosita; I prefer Rosica. The former is Mexican; the latter Sephardic. Either way, to the question “Ma, ¿qué escrivites [But, what did you write]?” she vigorously answers to her Spanish-language readers: “unas palavericas, como quisho el Dió” (A few God-granted words.)

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