Lost Language of Ladino Revived in Spain

Medieval Spanish Jews spoke Ladino, or Judeo-Spanish, for centuries. Now a small group is trying to revive Ladino, with assistance from the Spanish government.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Yiddish is not the only language of the Jewish Diaspora.

When Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492, many took their own version of Spanish with them - Ladino. The Holocaust nearly wiped out Ladino. But now, as Jerome Socolovsky reports from Madrid, there are new efforts to preserve it.

JEROME SOCOLOVSKY: Ninety-four-year-old Angela Pipano(ph) was born in Salonika, a Greek city now known as Thessalonica. When she was a child it had a large Jewish community made up of descendents of those who had fled the Spanish inquisition.

Ms. ANGELA PIPANO: (Speaking foreign language)

SOCOLOVSKY: There was just one Jewish woman in all Salonika who could speak another language. All the rest of them, our mothers, spoke only Ladino, she says. Sitting in her Madrid apartment, Pipano struggles to remember her native tongue. She repeatedly lapses into Spanish. It's hard for her because the two languages are so similar.

Ms. PIPANO: (Speaking foreign language)

SOCOLOVSKY: You know, I remember, I do remember things from back then, she says. Like the great Salonika fire of 1917, and of course the Holocaust, which devastated Salonika's Jewish community along with many other Ladino-speaking communities in the Balkans.

Pipano and her husband fled into the mountains, then to Palestine under the British mandate, and finally back to their ancestral home in Spain. Today there are an estimated 200,000 people who understand at least some Ladino. That's according to the National Ladino Culture Authority in Israel, where most of them live. But there has been a resurgence of interest elsewhere, including in Spain, or Sepharad(ph), as it's called in Ladino.

(Soundbite of song)

SOCOLOVSKY: The singer is Viviana Rascel Barakan(ph). She and her mother Matilda broadcast a weekly Ladino program for Spanish National Radio's overseas service. Matilda learned the language from her grandmother, who was born on the Greek island of Rhodes.

Ms. MATILDA BARAKAN(ph): (Ladino spoken)

SOCOLOVSKY: We want to show that this is not a dead language, she says in Ladino after a recent taping session. In killing the people who spoke it in the Second World War, they killed a big part of the culture. That's why we have the obligation to carry it on.

The mother/daughter show has been on the air for 20 years. But now the Cervantes Institute, the government agency that promotes Spanish abroad, is setting up a special department to help preserve Ladino. Jorge Urrutia, a director of the institute, says Judeo Espanol, as it's formally known, is a link back to the Spanish that was spoken in medieval times.

Mr. JORGE URRUTIA (Director, Cervantes Institute): (Foreign language spoken)

SOCOLOVSKY: Judeo Espanol is a language that has survived 500 years, spanning cultures, geography and the vicissitudes of history. Naturally, the Cervantes Institute had to do something, he says. The institute has been sponsoring Ladino readings and seminars at its branches in Tel Aviv, Istanbul and Sofia. Now Ladino will be a focus of a new Cervantes Institute in Thessalonica that will be located next to the city's Sephardic museum. The hope is not that people will start speaking Ladino but rather that the language will survive through a resurgence of interest in Ladino poetry and music.

(Soundbite of music)

SOCOLOVSKY: For NPR News, I'm Jerome Socolovsky in Madrid.

(Soundbite of music)

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