Hazzan Ike Azose greets Regina Amira and Jack Altabef, members of “Los Ladineros.”
A Celebration 500 Years in the Making
On December 5th, the University of Washington and the city of Seattle joined communities around the world in celebrating the first ever International Ladino Day, a celebration the Sephardic community has been awaiting for more than 500 years. Over 300 people from the Sephardic and university communities gathered at the University of Washington Hillel to hear stories, songs, and short lectures about Ladino and Sephardic culture.
Ladino, or Judeo-Spanish, is the language that developed when the Jews who were exiled from Spain in 1492 relocated to various parts of the world, particularly the Ottoman Empire and North Africa, and integrated elements of the local languages into the Spanish they had taken with them into exile. Ladino, therefore, is a hybrid language that represents not only the Iberian origins of the Sephardic Jews, but also their ability to thrive during their 500-year exile. It is not only a spoken language, but also a language of tremendous cultural importance.
The first Sephardic immigrants to Seattle brought Ladino with them at the turn of the 20th century, but, although Seattle now boasts one of the largest Sephardic communities in the United States, Ladino is a language very much in danger of extinction here and around the world. Since there is really only one generation of native speakers left worldwide, Ladino will cease to be a spoken language in the near future, and so it is critical to preserve the language now while a speech community still exists. The first International Ladino Day was called for by the Israeli National Authority for Ladino in an effort to celebrate Ladino as not only a historical Jewish language, but also a living language still being spoken around the world.
I am not Sephardic; I am not even Jewish, and yet the first ever International Ladino Day was very meaningful for me, not only academically, but personally as well. I am a graduate student in Hispanic Studies, and, though I only “discovered” Ladino earlier this year, I quickly recognized the uniqueness of Ladino, only to be disappointed by the realization that it was a dying language with little hope of revival. I thus decided to use my thesis work to contribute to the preservation of the Seattle dialect of Ladino.
Working with Professor Devin Naar, Chair of the Sephardic Studies Program, and Ty Alhadeff, the new Sephardic Studies coordinator, along with various members of the Sephardic community to organize the event, I had a specific vision in mind: to bring together people from diverse backgrounds to celebrate their different experiences with Ladino while also educating those who, like me just a few months ago, were unaware of the existence of Ladino or its speech community here in Seattle.
The evening began with a welcome from Professor Naar, who praised the collaborative efforts of the community in putting the event together and thanked the sponsors of the event, the Sephardic Studies Program of the Stroum Center for Jewish Studies, the Division of Spanish and Portuguese Studies at the University of Washington, and Congregation Ezra Bessaroth, Sephardic Bikur Holim, and the Seattle Sephardic Brotherhood.