Episode 42: Ode to Ladino (Transcript)

Episode 42: Ode to Ladino

[Theme music]

Nahanni Rous: Hi, it’s Nahanni Rous and this is Can We Talk?, the podcast of the Jewish Women’s Archive, where gender, history, and Jewish culture meet. Women are often the keepers and conveyers of culture, especially culture as intimate as language. In this episode, we meet a woman on a mission to preserve her language and culture... through song.

[Theme music fades into song]
[Berta Aguardo: "Rios korientes, de los mis ohos..."]

Nahanni: This is a love song in Ladino, a language historically spoken by Sephardic Jews in communities that once thrived around the Mediterranean. Now there are only about 100,000 Ladino speakers scattered throughout the world.

Nahanni: This recording was made in the 1980s, one of hundreds created by archivists in an attempt to preserve Ladino. In Turkey, most Ladino speakers are aging, or moving out of the country. The singer you’re hearing now, Berta Aguado, grew up in a Turkish town called Canakkale, on the Aegean Sea. 

Nahanni: "The rivers that flow from my eyes," she sings. "The water flows, but the sand remains. My love burns my heart." It’s a sad song. But if you listen closely, you can hear that the language is closely related to Spanish. That’s because it was born when thousands of Jews escaped the Spanish Inquisition by moving to the Ottoman Empire... more than 500 years ago. 

Karen Sarhon: A language is not just something you buy from the supermarket, you know. Give me a kilo of French or a kilo of English, that’s not it. 

Nahanni: Karen Sarhon has dedicated her career to keeping Ladino alive.

Karen: A language incorporates a whole treasury of what people think and how people think and how people live. It’s a whole living thing!

Nahanni: And for Karen...the language is very much alive. She edits a monthly Ladino-language supplement in Turkey’s Jewish newspaper. She runs a Sephardic research center in Istanbul, translating and archiving Ladino texts for the next generation. And for more than 40 years, she performed as part of Los Pasharos Sefaradis, a band that sings Ladino songs.

["Luna Sefardi" by Kantikas plays]

Nahanni: Freelance journalist Durrie Bouscaren spoke with Karen in Istanbul. We’ll let them take it from here. 

[Music plays]

Durrie Bouscaren: Karen Sarhon comes from a long line of Ladino speakers, but she didn’t grow up speaking it. Like a lot of Jewish families living in Turkey in the 1960s, her parents thought that if she was going to get ahead in life, she needed to speak French. So...they only spoke French to her.

Karen: Until I was five. Then I was sent to school, couldn’t understand anything anybody was saying in Turkish. So my parents were told to speak Turkish at home as well, so there were three languages at home: French, Ladino, and Turkish.
Durrie: Karen’s parents spoke Ladino, or Judeo-Spanish, to each other. "Our Spanish," her mom would say. When Karen was in college, she performed with a theater group at a local Jewish youth center. Most of her friends there spoke Judeo-Spanish at home, including JoJo, her acting partner who always forgot his lines. So he’d improvise, and Karen would have to improvise too, in Ladino. 

Karen: so he will always make up lines, and you have to be able to manipulate the language well enough to be able to answer him. Otherwise you will you stand there you know, looking like a total cucumber. So I really opened my ears whenever I was home with my mom and her friends. How do they speak, what kind of expressions they use, what kind of proverbs and idioms they use. And so I then, if I really thought, if I found something really funny I would go that night and say "JoJo, my mom was saying this! And how about if we put it, if you say this and I reply this" and he’ll say "yes yes let’s do it, let’s do it..."

Durrie: She fell in love with Judeo-Spanish. The way it sounds. The way it borrows words from other languages.

Karen: Escularicha, for example is an earring, and it’s Greek. The fork was invented in the 1500s, 1530-something when the Jews had already left Spain, so we have the word for spoon and knife in Spanish, kuchyo and kuchara, but we didn’t have the word for fork because it hadn’t been invented yet. So they couldn’t very well phone and ask, ok what do you call this instrument. And they took the Greek word, which is peeruni. And in Ladino it’s "peeron." We have very picturesque proverbs, let us say. For example: "The cucumbers rose to beat up the gardener."

Durrie: That’s the kind of thing you’d say to your kids, when they think they know more than their parents.

Karen: But humor is so much a part of our culture. So much a part of our culture. And you find it in every kind of conversation you have, with older people especially. And especially in Judeo-Spanish. That’s what hurts me most. That if we lose this language we lose this huge treasury of humor. 

[Ladino song plays]

Durrie: In grad school, Karen started studying Judeo-Spanish and its roots. She wanted to understand how this community retained its language for five hundred years... when almost everyone around them was speaking Turkish. The ancestors of Ladino speaking Jews in Turkey originally came from Spain during the Spanish Inquisition. In 1492, Jews faced expulsion, torture, or death if they refused to convert to Catholicism. So, about 40,000 of them immigrated to the Ottoman Empire. 

Karen: They all came from different areas of the Iberian peninsula, and they all spoke different dialects. So there wasn’t one kind of language that you could associate with the Jews, no. Ok, they spoke the Spanish of the particular area they were from. Like Catalan, or Gayego, or whatever... other dialects with other names. Dorogonez or whatever. But when they came to the Ottoman Empire, they settled down and the most popular of all these dialects was Castillian Spanish. So Castillian Spanish is the basis. And all those people who came, they all kind of joined the big, heh heh, how do you say... the big pan! And it all kind of got mixed up and became the Judeo-Spanish that we know today.
Durrie: For centuries, the Ladino-speaking community flourished: a tiny little island in the middle of an empire.

Karen: People seem to have all these very kind of utopian, image of these Jews tenaciously preserving their language. No. I mean the same kind of Jews went to Holland, the same kind of Jews went to England. Nobody preserved the language because it was not done. Basically, basically, it was able to survive because of the very special rule of the Ottoman Empire towards its minorities. Every minority had their own administration and their own internal affairs administration. And the only obligation they had towards the empire authorities was to pay the taxes. 

Durrie: There’s another reason that Judeo-Spanish was preserved for so many generations. And it starts with the women. While Ladino-speaking men often learned Turkish, Greek, or Arabic for business and public life, women generally stayed back home, raised the kids, and spoke to them in Ladino. 

Karen: Their numbers were quite high. So in fact people didn’t need to learn another language. Especially the women. They were kept very much close... we’re talking about middle ages, you know. The only time that women did come in to other contact with members of other ethnic groups, let us say, would be the wash day. When women took their washing to the river, or to wherever there was this washing to be done. And there they came with their food and their songs and all the folkloric elements, and they mingled. That’s how they mingled, that’s how they learned each other’s languages, that’s how they learned each other’s recipes. And then you have a lot of songs, the melodies that they borrowed. If there were any popular Greek songs for example, pat! There were immediately Judeo-Spanish lyrics written and sung. If there were very popular Turkish songs around, ooh, people would love them. And then psh psh, they wrote lyrics and that’s it they became Sephardic. And that’s it! They became Sephardic. 

["Ven Kanaryo" plays]

Karen: When I was writing my thesis in the 1980s, I interviewed, I had interviewed an old woman, 84-years-old. She didn’t speak a word of Turkish. So I was really surprised, and I said you’ve lived your whole life in Turkey, how come you don’t speak Turkish. And she had told me as an aside, whisper said "oh I’m not one of those bad women who need Turkish lovers to know Turkish."

Durrie: She says at the beginning of the twentieth century, it was actually taboo for Sephardic women to speak Turkish. The idea was that they might marry outside of the community.

Karen: I thought that was interesting, an interesting comment on her part. But I guess that was how they were able to keep their ethnic identity going, I guess. 
In order to ensure that kind of thing. In order to ensure that there was no assimilation going to take place. Then of course what do you do? You shut the women up. Inside the house, inside the community. You have all these taboos coming up.

Durrie: That practice, of keeping women in the home, prevented them, and their children, from learning Turkish. It wasn’t until the 1800s, when Jewish women in Turkey started attending schools set up by a French organization, that they had the opportunity to learn another language. This, Karen says, was undoubtedly a positive step.

Karen: And so you can imagine that with the acquisition of French there was so much gain. But, on the other hand, the price we paid for that was an estrangement from Ladino, which was left as the language of the uneducated. 

Durrie: Karen says that speaking Judeo-Spanish, or even speaking Turkish with a Ladino accent, became a sign that you had little formal education, or that your family was lower class. So people stopped speaking it at home. And this is when the number of truly fluent Ladino speakers in Turkey really started to decline. 
The irony, that the suppression of women is what helped preserve this language she loves, this language of her heritage, it isn’t lost on Karen.
Karen: We’re talking about the preservation of a whole culture, but this is the only way. There was no other way. And as soon as women opened up, as soon as women started to go out of the house and into, you know... other... a career, into other communities, into other places. Then of course everything, the close-knit society is just... pssht... loose again. [snaps]
Durrie: This history doesn’t sit comfortably with her. She winces a bit, talking about it.
Karen: There’s always a price to pay for any kind of improvement or any kind of change, there’s always a price to pay. 

Durrie: And that price, Karen says, is that in Turkey, there are now just a couple thousand Ladino speakers left.

Karen: And as the years go by, maybe I’m getting older... I feel more and more terrible that it’s going to end someday. Ok, maybe not immediately because we’re working really hard. 

Durrie: She worries about that moment. And what it means. 

Karen: Our modern youth have got some identity problems. We never used to have any identity... we were very sure we were Turkish Jews, and we were very, very sure about what we were. I don’t know if it’s really necessary to have a very strong ethnic identity anymore in this global world. But still it makes one more sure of oneself. If you have a strong identity of who you are, what you are, a framework you can put yourself into and know for sure what you are.

Durrie: What does it mean to lose a language? 

Karen: It means you’re losing part of your soul. I don’t want to be so dramatic. But, you know... it sounds very dramatic. But you’re losing a big part of your identity. 

["Los Bibilicos (Kantikas para siempre)" plays] 

Durrie: Karen didn’t want to lose this identity. In the 1980s, she and a group of friends who also spoke Ladino decided to start a band. They sang in Judeo-Spanish... They called themselves Los Pasharos Sefaradis: The Sephardic Birds.

Karen: So we decided to perform the music of this part of the world, the music that had become after we left Spain. That had become the music of our community. And a lot of it is under the influence of Turkish classical music. I mean you cannot sing a song like "Los Biblicos," which means "The Nightingales," from the Turkish word bulbul. So if any Spanish person says this is a Spanish Sephardic song, don’t believe them, it’s not at all. It’s a song, that was composed here in Turkey or in the Ottoman Empire. You cannot sing it with this [sings] haaa hee hoo hee... you have to sing [sings] los biiiiblicos caaantan... 

["Los Bibilicos (Kantikas para siempre)" plays]

Durrie: They decided that they weren’t going to settle for singing the songs that had already been published. They wanted to find the songs that were almost forgotten. With an old cassette recorder, they went to their parents, their neighbors, their aunts... and asked them to sing.

Karen: Somebody would say my mother or my grandmother knows this song. Oh let’s go and record.

Durrie: Sometimes it would be just a fragment of a song, two or three lines. 

Karen: That’s what people remembered. But so me, some sometimes they went on for pages long. Because you ask somebody else, they’d say "oh yes." And then they would add two stanzas, three stanzas, and you would sing it to some other old guy or old woman and she’d say "oh yeah, yeah, yeah! I know, I know," and then another... she would... five more stanzas for the same melody, you know. 

Durrie: They made recordings kind of like this one.

[Recording plays]
Durrie: Karen and her bandmates built a whole collection. And they learned those songs, and performed together for forty years throughout Turkey, but also in Israel, and the United States.

["Dos Amantes Tengo Mama" plays] 

Karen: And it was amazing, amazing. Again, amazing!! It’s become a classic. It’s like a generation that was lost, you know. People all living in the same area. I mean we’re all dispersed now. Everybody lives everywhere. But at that particular time, the whole of the population was Jewish. Everybody was Jewish. The shoemaker was Jewish, the shoe shiner was Jewish, the fisherman was Jewish. Everybody was Jewish. And everybody would be speaking Judeo-Spanish. So that was the nostalgia for those times. And the music is beautiful.

[Live performance of Rika Kuriyel plays]

Durrie: In 2003, just months after synagogues in Istanbul were bombed in a series of coordinated attacks, Karen founded the Ottoman-Turkish Sephardic Culture Research Center in Istanbul.. It wasn’t the first time the Jewish community had been targeted in Turkey. But together, the bombings were the most deadly attacks in modern memory, killing dozens. Today, Karen’s center translates books and historical documents, publishes Ladino inserts in the newspaper, and teaches the next generation of Ladino speakers. It’s the culmination of her life’s work. Her face lights up when she takes me into a room stacked with copies of her paper, and opens one. 

[Paper rustling]

Karen: And here you have, sorry...

Durrie: The bylines are from all over the world: Sydney, Jerusalem, Chile. Everyone is writing in Ladino. It’s a way to stay connected, even in the diaspora.

Karen: Because I have so many articles, I have recruited a lot of writers... so everybody sends me their writings so sometimes I find it difficult to fit everything into one page. 

Durrie: It’s a physical manifestation of everything she’s worked for. 

Karen: It was a dream of mine. We opened the center. And there was nothing. It was like a center with zero, nothing, and I had to build everything from scratch. With very little money. But still a lot of good will, and strong will.
Durrie: It’s projects like this that give Karen hope. It’s embedded in the center’s slogan...
Karen: The logo is "When it gets really really dark, it means dawn is breaking."

Durrie: For Can We Talk?, I’m Durrie Bouscaren.

["Ventanas Altas Tyenes Tu, (Kantikas para siempre)" plays]
Nahanni: You can hear Karen Sarhon and Los Pasharos Sefaradis on Spotify and at SephardicCenter.wordpress.com. Thank you for joining us for Can We Talk?, the podcast of the Jewish Women’s Archive. Also thanks to Dr. Avner Perez’s archive of Judeo-Spanish recordings at The Center of Folktales and Folklore at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, and to Los Pasharos Sefaradis. Sarah Ventre edited this episode. Our team also includes Judith Rosenbaum and Becky Long. Our theme music is by Girls in Trouble. You can find Can We Talk? online at jwa.org/canwetalk, and anywhere you get your podcasts. Please take a moment to review us on iTunes, and share your favorite episodes with your friends so that others can find us. If you’d like to help us produce more episodes of Can We Talk?, please go to jwa.org/donate to make a contribution.

I’m your host, Nahanni Rous. Until next time.

[Music fades]


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Jewish Women's Archive. "Episode 42: Ode to Ladino (Transcript)." (Viewed on May 24, 2024) <http://jwa.org/podcasts/canwetalk/episode-42-ode-ladino/transcript>.