A beautiful moment in Ladino’s twilight hour

By Ross Perlin, March 13, 2008

In the age of networks, the diaspora claims a few last-minute triumphs. Meeting Olga Borovaya was one of these.

Then a student at a large California university, I had worked all the standard part-time jobs: scrubbing cafeteria floors, researching trivia for a professor obsessed with arcane psychological disorders, contributing anonymously to a third-rate encyclopedia on the Balkans. I was ready to give up and accept penury, when a friend told me I should try being a reader.

On the first day, I sat in a dark carpeted room in a wing of the university library that I’d never seen before, where the decimal organisation of tomes gives way to carrels of the patient and the obsessed. A librarian guided Olga into a chair, without a word to me, and almost twisted away the last strips of light that were coming through the rusting blinds.

I am a researcher of Ladino literature from Moscow, Olga said to me. I am blind. You can read me books. Can you read Ladino? Do you know Spanish at least?

However strange it is to run your fingers over patterns of dots to read language, it is also strange to read aloud, day after day, the words of a language and a world of which you know nothing. I recited to Olga mementoes of pre-war Salonika, the long-lost Ladino dailies of Plovdiv and Istanbul, the records of the last Ladino-speaking congregations of Belgrade and Sarajevo. Again and again, Olga returned to Aleksander Ben Ghiat and his Ladino translation of Gulliver’s Travels.

Ben Ghiat, born in the Ottoman Empire and a graduate of the progressive, Francophone Alliance Israelité Universelle, sought to bring a belated haskalah, or enlightenment, to Sephardic Jewry. Ladino was his language and that of his fellow intellectuals; the work of translating key texts from Western European languages was central to their movement. Ben Ghiat was a belles-lettrist and a serial launcher of newspapers, including El Verdad (The Truth), El Telegrafo (The Telegraph), and El Meseret (Joy) — here portions of his Gulliver appeared in 1897.

This world of Ladino literature, Olga told me from her chair in the corner, is no less beautiful for its now dying. Everywhere Jews had their own languages behind the impenetrable shield of the holy alephbeys — in Bukhara and Baku, Tetouan and Trabzond, Cochin and Kiev. As these languages die, we wander in a desert of Hebrew and English.

Once the language of an entire civilisation, Ladino is now spoken by a population that could fill a few neighbourhoods in a major city — the number of Jews in metropolitan Baltimore, for instance. Today, to find a child who is being raised in the language represents a miracle. As of recently, a Turkish Jewish publication called Shalom still printed one of its pages in Ladino, authored by Silvio Ovadya in Istanbul. A tireless man in Brussels called Moise Rahmani was still editing a quarterly called Los Muestros: La boz de los sefardim (Our Own: The Voice of the Sephardim), which sometimes used the language.

Olga and I were not being sentimental. Read, she commanded, when she was satisfied that my thumb was resting on the right line, on the appropriate page. We would not wonder at a Russian Jew and an American Jew combing through the stillborn canon of Ladino culture, sunken in a California library, where the language of the marranos, and perhaps of Columbus, reached us in undersea murmurs.

The Grand Academy of Lagado, Gulliver tells us, has a scheme for entirely abolishing all words whatsoever, urged as a great advantage in point of health, as well as brevity. For it is plain, he continues, that every word we speak is, in some degree, a diminution of our lungs by corrosion, and, consequently, contributes to the shortening of our lives.

The wise men of Lagado begin to carry with them whatever objects they need to express themselves. I have often beheld two of those sages, writes Gulliver, almost sinking under the weight of their packs, like pedlars among us, to hold conversation for an hour together. Only the women, in conjunction with the vulgar and illiterate — writes Swift, translates Ben Ghiat — thwart the spread of this universal, yet bankrupt, language. They wish the liberty to speak with their tongues, after the manner of their forefathers.

We too, in the likely twilight of diaspora, sometimes wish nothing more.

Ross Perlin is currently researching a film about endangered languages. This column won the Unpublished Journalist category of the Bermant Prize, awarded last week at Jewish Book Week

Last updated: 9:54am, June 3 2008