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Brush Up Your Ladino

Gloria Ascher, the daughter of Sephardic Jewish immigrants from Turkey, grew up speaking an endangered language, Ladino. Her own mother took it for granted. “To her it was a kitchen language,” she told the Jewish newspaper the Forward. “Her generation was taught that French was the language of civilization.” For little Gloria, however, Ladino was a special treasure. And now that she is all grown up, Ascher, an associate professor of German at Tufts, also teaches the beloved language of her childhood. In fact, she is the only college professor in the United States who offers regular courses in Ladino, according to the Forward.

Ladino originated on the Iberian peninsula and spread when the Sephardic Jews who spoke it were expelled from Spain in 1492. For centuries, the language, which sounds very much like Spanish despite its many different elements, flourished, especially in Turkey, Greece, North Africa, and the Balkans. It was not only spoken but written, commonly with the Hebrew alphabet, and carried forward a rich tradition of folklore and song. But Ladino has declined in recent decades, so much so that a panel at a Jewish studies conference last December was entitled, albeit tongue-in-cheek, “Is Ladino Dead Yet?” To allow more people to communicate, Hebrew letters have been replaced by a largely phonetic alphabet using Roman letters. The last stronghold of the language is Israel, home to some 100,000 speakers.

Or maybe there are two last strongholds. Ascher’s classes have gained momentum: her first introductory class in 2000 attracted just 12 students, but more than 20 showed up last spring. She has also begun to teach second- and third-semester classes. Are more recruits on the way? As they say in Ladino, karas vemos, korasones no konosemos. (We see faces, but we do not know their hearts.)

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