[lg policy] Reviving Ladino, a language on the brink of extinction

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at GMAIL.COM
Fri Mar 14 16:55:30 UTC 2014

[image: Salomon and Esther Naar]

Salomon, Devin Naar's great uncle, and his wife Esther perished in
Auschwitz along with their two children, Benjamin and Rachel. They were
captured in Salonica by the Nazis. This is the only photo of Salomon and
Esther that survived.
The Lost Branch
Reviving a language on the brink of extinction
By Lily Katz

It was not until his great uncle handed him a stack of old letters, 12
years ago, that Devin Naar, now an assistant history professor at UW, was
able to begin filling in the gaps of his family's history. Naar had known
since he was a boy that he had relatives living in Greece during World War
II. What he did not know was the fate that befell them.

His uncle's letters proved to be the key to unlocking the mystery of this
lost branch of his family's past, but they were written in Ladino, the
centuries-old Judeo-Spanish language of the Sephardic Jews. "It was in
deciphering those letters that I was able to really get a picture of what
happened to the Jewish community of Salonica [Greece] during the war and
the murder of my relatives during the Holocaust," says Naar, who holds the
UW's Marsha & Jay Glazer Chair in Jewish Studies housed in the Henry M.
Jackson School of International Studies.

Inspired by his discovery, the professor is now leading a project dedicated
to keeping the Sephardic language and culture alive. Ladino was originally
spoken by the Jews expelled from Spain in 1492. When they migrated
elsewhere, especially to what was then the Ottoman Empire, the language
became a rich mixture of antiquated Spanish, Hebrew, Arabic, Turkish, Greek
and other languages. As most Ladino-speaking Jews assimilated into other
cultures or perished during the Holocaust, Ladino nearly died out.
[image: Meam Loez]

Cover or *Meam Loez*, published in Salonica, 1826. A key work of Ladino
literature, this was one of the only books from Rabbi Naar's library that
survived, and was on of the first Ladino books Devin Naar ever saw.
Growing up, Naar didn't know much about the language, or just how
endangered it is. Born and raised in New Jersey, he had picked up a few
Ladino words from his grandfather, but was nowhere near fluent. But when he
got hold of the family letters, he became fixed on decoding them. While his
friends at Washington University in St. Louis would spend their Saturday
nights going to parties, Naar would spend his teaching himself Ladino--a
challenging task. When written, Ladino looks like Hebrew; when spoken, it
sounds like Spanish. For example, the Spanish word for god is "dios," while
the Ladino word (spelled with Hebrew characters) is pronounced "dio," an
homage to monotheism.

After college, Naar spent a year in Salonica--the picturesque seaport city
from which many of the mysterious letters had come--as a Fulbright Scholar,
studying the city's history and immersing himself in the languages, culture
and hometown of his relatives. Following his travels, he received his Ph.D.
in history from Stanford University in 2011. Under the tutelage of Aron
Rodrigue--one of the few scholars of the Sephardic world--Naar won an award
for his dissertation on the Jewish community of Salonica.

In the beginning, Naar could only make out the dates on the letters. But as
he learned more Ladino, he was able to put them together piece by piece.
Written between 1938 and 1950, many of the letters were correspondence
between Naar's relatives who had immigrated to the United States in 1924
and those who had remained in Salonica. The correspondence starts
cheerfully, recounting the children's piano and violin lessons, and one
cousin's preparation for his bar mitzvah. But as the clouds of World War II
gathered, the letters took on a more ominous tone. Ultimately, they weave
together the tragic story of Naar's relatives who had remained in Greece
and were unable to obtain visas out of the country. Those written after the
war by a family friend divulge the fate of the cousin who had been
preparing for his bar mitzvah; he was sent to the gas chambers instead. The
letters depict the dramatic final meeting between Naar's cousin and great
uncle at Auschwitz before they were both executed. They reveal that Naar's
relatives had been in one of the last convoys sent from Salonica to the
Auschwitz concentration camp in 1943. The only reason they survived that
long is because of his great-uncle's job distributing food to the sick and
elderly as they boarded earlier trains that transported most of Salonica's
Jews to their deaths in the gas chambers. Before the 1940s, Salonica was
home to about 60,000 Ladino-speaking Jews, comprising nearly half of the
city's population. But with the onset of the war, some escaped to other
countries, and 50,000 perished in Auschwitz. Only about 1,000 Jews remain
in Salonica today.

"It was a real revelation. I couldn't stop there," says Naar. "I now have
some precious knowledge about my relatives but that's just one family of
this entire world that, over the course of a few months, disappeared.
Seventy years later, that world continues to be almost invisible."
[image: cigar ad]

An ad for cigarettes made by the Turco American tobacco company from Devin
Naar's collection of Ladino artifacts.
After patching together his own family's history, Naar was determined to
help other Sephardic Jews do the same. In 2012, he launched Seattle
Sephardic Treasures, part of the larger UW Sephardic Studies Program
coordinated by the professor to preserve Sephardic traditions and culture.

The project is an archive of old Ladino books and documents that have been
unearthed from basements and bookshelves from families in Seattle as well
as others across the country. While it is still a work in progress, Naar
has already collected more than 600 books with the help of local community
members, students and faculty. The online database will contain everything
from religious texts and diaries to newspapers and wedding invitations.

Joel Benoliel, '67, '71, a member of the UW's Sephardic Studies Committee
and Costco's senior vice president and chief legal officer, calls Naar a
valuable asset and a liaison between the University and local Sephardic
community. "I've been a resident of the Seattle area all my life, and
Devin's work is the most exciting thing in my 50 years of being connected
with the University," he says.

The project took off when Naar moved to Seattle to teach at the UW in 2011.
Uniquely, Seattle is home to a substantial population of Sephardic Jews,
and the city has two Sephardic synagogues. Just a fraction (about 5
percent) of Jews who immigrated to the U.S. between the 1880s and the 1920s
were Ladino-speaking Sephardic Jews, many of whom chose Seattle as their
final destination to take advantage of the city's coastal industries.

>>From the first fish vendors at Pike Place Market to the patrons of Benaroya
Hall, Sephardic Jews have made a significant imprint on Seattle, which Naar
calls a microcosm of the Sephardic-American world.

"When I arrived, people started bringing me Ladino books and letters that
they couldn't read themselves," he says. "Then they started bringing me
more things--a stack of documents here, a pile of books there."

Inspired by the community's interest, Naar made an explicit call for Ladino
documents. The response was overwhelming. Seattle Sephardic Treasures has
now collected more Ladino books than are housed in the Library of Congress
or Harvard University. Eventually, Naar hopes to upload audio
recordings--some of which are more than 70 years old--to provide students,
scholars and community members with an online resource for learning Ladino.

The project has three target audiences: university students, scholars and
the community. "One of the really exciting things about the Sephardic
Studies Program is that, at the university level, it can bring together
many different programs and disciplines," says Naar.

Al Maimon, a member of the UW's Sephardic Studies Committee and a former
professor at the Foster School of Business, says it was thrilling to meet
someone so young who is concerned about preserving the culture. He calls
Naar his kindred spirit.

"Before Devin came to town, the Sephardic studies dimension of the program
was ad hoc," says Maimon, who has contributed several heirlooms to the
project. "When he arrived, that fundamentally changed. In Seattle, we have
a living, breathing expression of Sephardic tradition. We're custodians of
a treasure. This isn't just for us; it's for the whole fabric of the Jewish

Maimon believes that today's Seattle Sephardic community is unprecedented.
"There are few Sephardic communities that are as active, from a social,
cultural and religious point of view," he says. The challenge, he adds, is
to reassimilate the traditions so families can pass them on to future

"Saving a language is saving a culture," says Wendy Marcus, '76, music
director at Seattle's Temple Beth Am, a large reform temple in North
Seattle. "At the rate we're losing languages today, it's nothing short of a
mission on Devin's part, and I applaud that mission."

With the support and funding of the community, Naar has been able to do
much more than collect dusty books. He has brought Sephardic musicians,
photographers and guest speakers to the UW's new Stroum Center for Jewish
Studies, which, under the leadership of Professor Noam Pianko, is home to
the Sephardic Studies Program. Naar has also organized a symposium with the
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. More than 1,600
students, faculty and community members have attended these events since
last year.

Joel Benoliel, and his wife, Maureen, '74, are part of the Sephardic
Studies Program Founders Circle--a group of families that has committed to
supporting the Stroum Center--and helped provide the seed money for the
program along with Lela and Harley Franco, '74. "With funds being cut from
everywhere in the University, we need to make sure we can continue funding
our programs that are so fabulous," says Lela Franco, chair of the
Sephardic Studies Committee. In addition to the Benoliels and Francos, the
other members of the Founders Circle are The Isaac Alhadeff Foundation, Eli
and Rebecca Almo, and Richard and Barrie Galanti.

"The people who have contributed to this project have made it possible;
that's the bottom line," says Naar. "Without the support, enthusiasm and
interest of our local community, Sephardic Studies would not be an

The ultimate goal, he adds, is for the UW to become the nation's center for
Sephardic studies--a model for communities around the country. "I think it's
an important time to think about the future of Sephardic life, both in
Seattle and in the United States," Naar says. "The last generation of
native Ladino speakers is on the way out, and a very rich and treasured
past is slipping further and further into the distance."

*--Lily Katz is a junior studying journalism and in the Law, Societies and
Justice program at the UW.*


 Harold F. Schiffman

Professor Emeritus of
 Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305

Phone:  (215) 898-7475
Fax:  (215) 573-2138

Email:  haroldfs at gmail.com

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