Ladino in Los Angeles: from communication to culture
for L.A. Sephardim
by Max Modiano Daniel
The native tongue for the vast majority of early Sephardic immigrants to Los Angeles was Ladino, also known as Judeo-Spanish, Judezmo, or Spanyol. Although they emigrated from the Eastern Mediterranean in the early years of the 20th century, their ancestors had been expelled from the Iberian Peninsula about 400 years earlier and had carried with them the legacy of the Spanish and Portuguese languages. Passed down through generations of Sephardic Jews living in tight-knit communities throughout the Ottoman Empire, the societies and cultural influences that surrounded them enriched the Ladino language, contributing Arabic, Italian, Greek, Turkish, and French elements. The languages of Jewish intellectual life, Hebrew and Aramaic, also influenced this communal vernacular. Ladino, a language and culture born in diaspora, found in Los Angeles new challenges and new opportunities for its use.
There is some anecdotal evidence to suggest that language helped the earliest Sephardic arrivals adjust to their new environment in Southern California. One story describes a newly arrived Sephardic immigrant who was surprised by how many Jews there were in California, basing his assumption on the prevalence of spoken Spanish - the immigrant never having known non-Jews who spoke the language. Another story recounted by Al Azus - a Chicago native born to Turkish-born parents, who later moved to LA - notes his ability to foster good relations with his Latino employees because of his childhood exposure to Ladino. But there is very little evidence that this shared "Spanishness" resulted in formal organizational collaboration between the Sephardic and Latinx Angelenos.
There is far more evidence that Ladino served as an internal tool within the Sephardic community, fostering communication among the immigrant generation, and later, serving as a medium for cultivating a shared Sephardic culture and history. Institutional records, like Ahavat Shalom’s 1912 constitution and the minutes for the Comunidad or the Ladies Auxiliary of the Paz y Progreso society, were typed or written in Ladino, the latter two in Latin script instead of in the traditional Hebrew one(handwritten Ladino with Hebrew characters is also known as solitreo). The minutes of the Ladies’ Auxiliary, from the 30s and 40s, reveal the influence of English - words like “meeting,” “luncheon,” “intertenment” and “prize” - and since the women were mostly from Italian-occupied Rhodes, there was a heavy Italian influence. Whereas in modern Spanish, “that” or “what” would be spelled que, the Rhodesli women spelled it che. Not only spelling, but Italian vocabulary also seeped in. The verb “to thank” - ringraziare - appears throughout. Likewise, from 1920 until 1940, the minute books of the Sephardic Community were recorded in Ladino.
The language was also used to communicate news and local events to the community, as we know from the short-lived newsletter published by the Sephardic Hebrew Center (SHC), El Mesajero. This publication - the only Ladino periodical in the United States published outside of New York and New Jersey - announced local social, religious, and fundraising events, as well as provided information about goings-on in Rhodes and elsewhere in the Rhodesli diaspora like Seattle, New York, the Congo, or Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia). Although this experiment in Ladino journalism on the West Coast was short-lived (it only published about two dozen issues between 1933 and 1935), it reveals that the language was very much a part of the lives of Sephardim in Los Angeles.
From the 1940s onward, perhaps due to the renewed patriotic wave spurred on by World War II, growing familiarity with English, the growth of a native-born generation unfamiliar with the language, and the gradual embrace of French or Arabic-speaking immigrant Jews, Ladino retreated from its previously pragmatic roles in the Sephardic community.
The ledger of the Comunidad Sephardi de Los Angeles includes notes and minutes of the group's founding meeting in 1920, handwritten in Ladino in Latin script. English words appear with increasing frequency as the meeting minutes continue through the 1920s. STTI Archives.
Cover of El Mesajero, Jan. 21, 1935. STTI Archives
Whereas the Comunidad’s 1920 constitution (written in English) professed a desire to “to cultivate the Hebrew and Spanish tongues,” this phrase would disappear from later revisions of the document. Instead, Ladino was most often found in phrases, idioms, and certain words that found their way into community publications or through special events like concerts or religious services organized by communal leaders. For example, in the 1960s the Sephardic Hebrew Center's bulletin, The Sephardic Star, commented on how the paras (money) was held in the good hands of the newly elected financial secretary, Morris Angel. Many issues of The Sephardic Star included a Ladino column, often penned by Rebecca Amato Levy, under the headline “Ya Hablo El Bovo”(“So Says The Fool”).
As these columns suggest, Ladino shifted from a shared vernacular language - used by Sephardic Jews in their meetings and day-to-day lives - to a shared cultural touchstone that L.A. Sephardim used to constellate their identities. Ladino culture and language was celebrated as the unique heritage of local Sephardim that bound
the community together and differentiated them from their Ashkenazi brethren. Throughout the 70s, 80s, and 90s, for example, the Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel (STTI) continued to incorporate Ladino into its cultural activities, hosting musical events featuring Ladino songs along with Jewish musical styles, and at both STTI and the Sephardic Hebrew Center, certain prayers and parts of religious services were recited in Ladino, especially on the High Holidays when the congregations often printed special supplementary booklets with Ladino texts.
One of the more interesting uses of Ladino in Los Angeles was the bilingual English-Ladino 1977 “Guide to Social Service Programs for Sephardic Aged,” published by the Los Angeles Sephardic Home for the Aged (LASHA). Its existence suggests that even by the late 70s, some of the elderly Sephardim in Los Angeles had a better facility in understanding Ladino than English despite decades since emigrating.
Ladino in Los Angeles continues to echo through the present, even if it has ceased to be a spoken vernacular. Musical groups like Kantigas Muestras and the Raphael Ortasse Sephardice Ensemble perform ballads, romanceros, and other types of songs in that language, and since 2011 UCLA has hosted an annual Judeo-Spanish symposium organized by ucLadino, a student-run group. By gathering together to speak, sing and perform in Ladino, these groups, like the Ladino-speaking Jews who first came to LA from the Eastern Mediterranean and the Balkans in the first decades of the 20th century, contribute to the linguistic diversity of Spanish Los Angeles.
High Holiday celebrations at STTI in 1976 included this booklet of religious poetry in Ladino. STTI Archives.
Kantingas Muestras performs "La Rosa Enflorese (los Bilbiliokos)" at UCLAdino, 2018.