By any rational yardstick, the legacy of medieval Spanish Jewry should long ago have met its demise. The community, Europe's largest and most influential at the time, was expelled in 1492 and scattered to the wind, spreading throughout the Middle East, the Balkans and North Africa. Few cultures could possibly hope to survive such a catastrophic and collective trauma, as its adherents were forced to rebuild their lives in foreign lands.
Nonetheless, defying all the odds, Spanish Jewry's unique cultural, linguistic and religious traditions continue to live on – and it behooves Israel and the Jewish people to do more to cultivate and nourish this critical part of our people's heritage.
I caught a glimpse of this precious patrimony firsthand at the Seder this year, when I joined my daughter-in-law and her family, part of which is of Turkish-Jewish background, for the annual retelling of the exodus from Egypt.
Suddenly, and without much warning, I was exposed to new songs, different tunes and even selections that were read in Ladino, or Judeo-Spanish, an emotive dialect that mixes Old Spanish with Hebrew and Aramaic terms.
Having grown up with the familiar Ashkenazi customs and melodies, it was an enlightening peek into another proud Jewish set of traditions, one that is no less authentic or legitimate than our own. Indeed, with a little bit of imagination, it wasn't difficult to conjure an image of exiled Spanish Jews sitting around a Seder table in Izmir, Naples or Sarajevo in the 16th or 17th century and reciting some of the same incantations. In many ways, the story of Ladino mirrors that of the Jewish people over the past six centuries, having survived expulsion, assimilation and mass murder.
Like Yiddish, the lingua franca of many Ashkenazi Jews down through the generations, Ladino served as a cultural canvas, one used by many Sephardi Jews to compose poetry, elucidate the Torah, and grapple with questions of philosophical and mystical significance as well as investigate history, mathematics and astronomy.
Perhaps the most famous work in Ladino is the Me'am Lo'ez, a commentary on the Bible combining Talmudic, Midrashic and halachic expositions that was initiated by Rabbi Yaakov Culi in 1730 in Constantinople and continued by others after his death. The book, which has been translated into Hebrew and English, has gained wide popularity among Sephardim and Ashkenazim alike.
For hundreds of years, up until the Holocaust, Ladino served as the primary language spoken by many Sephardi Jews throughout the Mediterranean region. But the murder of large numbers of Ladino-speaking Jews, in places such as Greece and Bosnia by the Germans and their henchmen in World War II, imperiled the language's future and wellbeing.
Estimates as to the number of Ladino speakers in the world today vary from just tens of thousands to as many as 200,000. But as NBC News noted in a report two months ago, "What is not in dispute is that most native Ladino speakers are elderly, and most of their children grew up learning different languages." In other words, this rich language and culture is in danger of dying out if greater efforts are not made to preserve it.
Fortunately, a number of efforts are underway to prevent that from happening. Earlier this year, the second annual International Ladino Day was held at the Center for Jewish History in New York. Organized by the American Sephardi Federation and others, it included a festival devoted to Ladino music and culture. Similar events have been held in other cities.
Israel's Culture Ministry has a national authority for Ladino culture, which was established by the Knesset in 1996. It awards scholarships to encourage students of the language, sponsors translations and produces books and CDs with Ladino stories and songs.
Scholars such as Dr. Eliezer Papo of Ben-Gurion University and Prof. David Bunis, who heads the Ladino studies program at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, have been laboring for years to raise greater awareness about it by teaching courses and writing articles and books.
And intrepid students can even find instructional videos on YouTube to learn Ladino.
But for various reasons, the language has not gotten its due, receiving far less attention, resources and funding than similar programs aimed at reviving Yiddish. It is time for this to change and for Sephardi and Ladino culture and traditions to be salvaged and strengthened with the same ardor being invested in preserving Ashkenazi Jewish heritage.
American-Jewish organizations along with the Israeli government should be doing more to keep Ladino and its heritage alive and well – because Ladino and all that it embodies are part and parcel of our people's long and winding journey on the historical stage. To allow it to wither away or become fossilized would be an affront to Jewish history and an irreplaceable cultural loss.
More than seven decades ago, the Nazis dealt Ladino and its legacy a life-threatening blow. Through indifference and apathy, we must not allow it to prove fatal.