Ladino Language Lives On Through Song

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:

Kol Sephardic Choir: O Dio Mio

3 replies
  1. Joseph B
    Joseph B says:

    It’s great that attention is being brought to Ladino (as to all endangered lgs).


    How can you write an article about Ladino and NOT mention the Holocaust? How infuriating. Did I miss it in my several incredulous re-readings? Is it supposed to be so glaringly and horribly obvious that it doesn’t merit being mentioned in an article related to Ladino’s endangerment? For the uninformed reader, this article implies (accidentally I hope) that the reason for the severe endangerment of Ladino is the result of the persecution and 1492 explusion of Spanish Jewry.

    A bit of history and common sense tells you that, despite the persecution, that expulsion practically CREATED Ladino, resulting in a pretty thriving diaspora of Ladino-speaking Sephardic Jews across Europe and elsewhere in the Mediterranean region who were cut off for centuries from peninsular Spanish. It’s exactly one week before the Jewish day of remembrance for the victims and heros of the Holocaust – let’s please remember them, and not re-erase the history of the majority of these people who were murdered.

    And please THINK before writing an article on such topics.

    • Alison Kroulek
      Alison Kroulek says:

      Hi Joseph,

      I’m deeply, truly sorry if I made you feel that your history was being “re-erased.” That was not ever my intention.

      I also didn’t mean to imply (and I don’t think I did) that the expulsion caused the decline of Ladino, rather that it had created it. We’re on the same page, there. I had intended to convey that the reason it’s so seriously endangered right now is that children aren’t speaking it (though, as you note, the horror of the Holocaust played a significant role in this, by destroying the communities in which they would have learned it).

      And yes, the Holocaust is a “glaringly and horribly obvious” fact of human history, one which I have no desire to minimize, ignore, or erase.

      I’ve added a paragraph to the post which I hope clarifies this. Thank you for your feedback, and I hope you’ll accept my apology for any offense I gave you.


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