We’ve all heard of Yiddish, right? But have you heard of another Jewish language, Ladino? It’s the language historically spoken by Jews whose ancestors once lived in Spain and Portugal and is classified as endangered by UNESCO. It was also our most recent addition to the uTalk app, with the help of digital archive Ladino 21. Find out more about the language from the personal experience of one of our two Ladino recording artists, Rachel Bortnick, below.
Rachel Amado Bortnick, 81, grew up in the Sephardic Jewish community of Izmir, Turkey, where Ladino was her first language.
In 1958, she won a scholarship to attend a university in America and her father advised her to try and get to know some other Jews there who might help her settle in.
But she had a rude awakening when she discovered that the Jews she met didn’t know her language and had never even heard of Sephardic Jews.
“The first Jewish family I met asked me if I spoke Yiddish. When I said I didn’t, they said to me, ‘Surely your parents speak Yiddish?’ I said no and they asked, ‘What kind of Jew are you?’” Rachel said.
She experienced a sense of cultural isolation, she said, that after her marriage to US citizen and Ashkenazi Jew Bernard Bortnick, led her to bring up her three children as English speakers.
“I felt such a foreigner when I first arrived; I was so scared and I didn’t want my children to feel the same way,” she said. “I was also not aware of what was happening to the language. I thought that Turkey is still there and the Sephardic people and language are still here.”
However, as news began to spread about the dwindling number of Ladino speakers, Rachel became a prominent campaigner for both the language and Sephardic Jewish culture.
In 1989, she featured in a documentary titled, ‘Trees Cry For Rain,’ which was named after a Ladino folksong and described the vanishing Ladino language and culture.
In 1999, she founded LadinoKomunita—an online community for Ladino speakers which she still moderates today. The forum has more than 1600 members from countries that include Israel, the US, Turkey, Greece, France, Bulgaria, and Spain—plus another 35 more.
And, in 2008, she delighted Spanish audiences by speaking to them in Ladino as part of a lecture tour of 11 cities in Spain.
“They all thought I had stepped out of the pages of a history book and came up to me afterwards to tell me how much they loved it!” she said—referencing the fact that Ladino is considered to be very similar to Medieval Castilian Spanish.
For the talks, she said, she deliberately avoided using Ladino words that originally came from Hebrew and Turkish, as these would have been unfamiliar to her audience. She believes the Arabic words have only entered Ladino via Turkish.
She is also very aware of the differences in pronunciation between Ladino Spanish and modern Spanish and, when she has a conversation with Spanish speakers, tailors her pronunciation accordingly.
She said, “One taxi driver in Spain was very surprised and asked me where I learnt such perfect Spanish. I told him in Turkey; my ancestors were from Spain.”