Starting in the 8th century, Jews flocked to what is now Spain, drawn by the comparatively tolerant religious climate created by the region’s Muslim rulers. They spoke a dialect of Old Spanish that was influenced by Hebrew, and without the threat of persecution they faced in most Christian countries at that time, their communities thrived.
However, once Europeans took back the Iberian Peninsula, all of that changed for the worse. 1492 was not just the year that “Columbus sailed the ocean blue.” It is also the year that King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella issued the Alhambra Decree, forcing all the Jews in Spain to either convert or leave the country.
Some did convert (or at least pretended to), but many left, scattering across Europe and North Africa to form Sephardic Jewish communities. They took their language, which came to be called Ladino or Judeo-Spanish, with them.
Once widespread throughout Europe, Ladino is now in trouble. It has anywhere from 200,000 to less than 100,000 speakers, and many of them are elderly. Sephardic Jewish families have largely replaced it with local languages and dialects or with Hebrew.
As should be obvious, the Holocaust was a tremendous factor in the language’s decline. Entire communities of people were killed, and afterwards many others sought refuge in Israel. In many cases, their children and grandchildren grew up speaking Hebrew instead of Ladino. A language can only survive if families can teach it to their children, and the Holocaust made that vastly more difficult.
Still, in the US, one group has found a way to keep the language alive: through song. The Kol Sephardic Choir was founded in 1992 by retired NASA engineer Raphael Ortasse. The Los Angeles-based group meets regularly to sing traditional songs in Ladino. They have already released one album, Las Romanzas y Cantigas de Sefarad, and they’re working on another one to be released later this year.
Choir member Elizabeth Martinez told Fox News that participating has helped her get in touch with a part of her heritage she was once unfamiliar with:
“The choir’s mission is to preserve the Ladino language and we need to hand it down to people in the United States who perhaps know or don’t know that they have Sephardic roots. In my case, I didn’t know and it’s pretty important that this culture survive through music and that we pass it on from generation to generation to keep it alive.”
UNESCO classifies the language as “seriously endangered.” With few children learning it today, it’s encouraging to think that it will at least live on in song.
Here’s a video of the choir: