July 19, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

Never Too Late for Ladino

Part I

Since Abraham’s journey to Egypt, his descendants have been a nation of travelers — sometimes by choice — too often by necessity. Travel requires courage and also the ability to communicate, even on the most basic level. This made Jews into polyglots. Early exposure to more than one language and culture, not only increases critical thinking, it also makes learning additional languages easier.

In ancient Israel, Hebrew and Aramaic were the main languages. The Israelites learned others from neighboring and distant nations as well as trading partners along the ancient spice and silk routes. In Israel today, Jews in elementary school study English, if they haven’t already learned it via television and the internet or their parents who made aliyah.

Jews have always been a polyglot people, who probably speak more languages than any other ethnic, religious or national group. The common denominator is Hebrew, the language of the Bible, also known as “the Holy Tongue — Lashon Hakodesh” that every Jewish father is obliged to teach his son (to the greatest extent possible), so that he can join the community in prayer when he reaches adulthood and is called to the Torah as a bar mitzvah. Hebrew also served as the language of commerce between Jews living in different parts of the world, and was the genesis of banking.

Jews have continued to face extinction since the destruction of the First and Second Temples, followed by exile and the Roman desolation of the land. Captives were taken to Rome to be enslaved by the Empire or sold to slaveholders. Survivors fled to wherever they could find refuge and worked to re-establish their lives. Often faith and language were the only things they could hold on to, and this they did.

Strengthened by their religious convictions and traditions, they maintained Jewish life in the Diaspora for two thousand years until the modern state of Israel was officially voted into existence by the United Nations. Most Jews still live in the Diaspora but visit and support Israel. Israel also helps Jews and non-Jews in the rest of the world whenever disaster strikes.

Prior to the miraculous event in 1948, Jews were compelled to adopt the languages of the lands in which they settled, while continually praying for the return of their ancient homeland in the language of the Bible. Modern Hebrew became the official language of the reborn state. It would continue to bond new olim with other Jews who came and would continue to come there. Today’s generations are privileged witnesses to the ingathering of the exiles of Israel and the scattered people of Judah, as Isaiah the prophet prophesied.

Although Hebrew has connected Jews for thousands of years, during the Middle Ages, two distinct languages were spoken by Jews in Europe. Yiddish — whose linguistic origins are in Europe and Ladino — originated in the Iberian peninsula. Ladino was basically Castilian Spanish. Both languages were laced with Hebrew words. Trade and/or persecution brought Yiddish from Germany to eastern Europe. Ladino was propelled beyond Spain, and later Portugal, largely by the royal expulsions. In 1492, after a century of forced conversions, they began targeting Jews and Muslims who refused to convert. Jews from the Iberian Peninsula joined existing Jewish communities in Turkey, Arabic lands, Greece, France, Italy and farther north. Language is fluid and absorbent, so acquired words and expressions from its surroundings.

My interest in Sephardic and Mizrachi Jewry grew out of seminars at Columbia University and CUNY, taught by expert scholars and sponsored by the Maurice Amado Foundation. However, it originated in Whippany, New Jersey. When I was invited to read my poems at a Hadassah conference for creative Jewish women, I learned about Sephardic music at a concert performed by several co-presenters. These were Flory Yagoda (1924-2021) and her daughters, Betty and Lori.

Flory was born in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia. Of its 82,000 Jews, only 15% survived the Holocaust. After liberation, Flory met and married Harry Jagoda, an American GI who brought her to America. They had four children, two sons and two daughters. One daughter, Betty, moved to New Jersey, and currently resides in Verona. She often accompanied Flory in her performances of Sephardic songs.

As a guitarist who also played the accordion, Flory Jagoda lived to the age of 97 and was at the forefront of popularizing the music she learned as a child from her beloved nona, Berta Altarac. Ladino was the language spoken at home. The languages she spoke outside were Bosnian and Serbo-Croatian. When her beloved stepfather died, she set down all the Ladino songs she had learned to preserve them for posterity. Forty-twomembers of her family were murdered in a mass shooting during the war and she commemorated them by composing songs about them and the Sephardic culture. Her “Oche Kondelikas — Eight little Candles” has become a classic Chanukah song. The last song she wrote was in collaboration with her daughter, Lori, “Luz y Paz — Light and Peace.”Flory’s achievements were honored by the National Endowment for the Arts, which named her a National Heritage Fellow.


Barbara Wind is a writer, speaker and Holocaust related independent scholar, curator and consultant.

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