Greater Seattle Sephardic community celebrates International Ladino Day

Young and old seek to retain ancient Sephardic history and culture.

By Melanie Eng

University of Washington Newslab student  / Special to the Mercer Island Reporter

Hundreds of Sephardic Jews from Seattle and the Eastside celebrated the world’s first International Ladino Day at the University of Washington Hillel house last Thursday, Dec. 5.

The event featured songs and poetry readings by members of the Sephardic community, presentations from professors in UW’s newly minted Sephardic Studies program and, of course, plenty of traditional nosh — think baklava and other sweets.

Sephardic Jews trace their origins back to pre-Inquisition Iberia and the Spanish diaspora throughout modern-day Turkey and Greece (“Sepharadad” means “Spain” in modern Hebrew). They spoke Ladino, a Romance language that combines medieval Spanish with Hebrew.

International Ladino Day was created last month to honor the endangered language and traditions of this cultural minority group. Each year, the globally recognized holiday will fall on the last night of Hanukkah.

UW Jewish Studies Professor Devin Naar, who hosted the event, said it’s something “we’ve been awaiting for more than 500 years.

“This is the first time we’ve ever celebrated the Ladino legacy,” he said. “And what better spot to do it than in Seattle — one of the largest, most robust Sephardic communities in the world, and one of the last places on Earth where people still speak the language.”

There was much singing and storytelling.

One group told the story of the first Sephardic Jews in Seattle: two young men who came from Marmara, Turkey, in 1904 “wearing prayer shawls under their shirts, carrying only prayer books and one change of underwear.”

Now, Seattle’s Sephardic community is the third largest worldwide, after Israel and New York.

Mercer Island native Esther Kahn, 91, was part of the first generation of Sephardic Jews born in Seattle. Her parents migrated from Turkey in the early 1900s and raised Kahn speaking Ladino as her first language. She said she attended Thursday’s event to hear traditional music and to connect with fellow Ladino speakers.

“I just wanted to celebrate this day with other members of my community,” she said.

Notable presenters included self-described “proverb collector” Lela Abravanel, who imparted wisdom both somber (“he who cannot have what he wants, must want what he has”) and comical (“I looked in the mirror and saw no one better than myself”) from her collection of 600 Ladino proverbs. UW student Ashley Bobman, 19, shared original Ladino poetry written in Hebrew.

Bobman, a Mercer Island High School graduate, said it’s important for young Sephardic Jews to help keep their heritage alive. She said most of her friends have no idea what the words “Sephardic” or “Ladino” even mean – and that’s a problem.

“Our numbers decline and our language disappears as our generations age,” she said.

According to Naar, the last living native speakers of Ladino are now well into their golden years and haven’t passed the language on to younger generations.

But he said events like Thursday’s – which united members of the Sephardic diaspora to celebrate shared traditions and speak socially in the language – have the power to bring Ladino back from the brink of extinction.

“If Ladino is going to have a future, it will have to start with live interactions like these,” he said, referring to everyone who stayed after the event to chat in Ladino over plates of pastries.

“It will have to start with storytelling, real conversations and jokes,” he said.

The event was made possible through the collaboration of several UW and community organizations: the Sephardic Studies Program and the Stroum Center for Jewish Studies at the University of Washington; the Division of Spanish & Portuguese Studies at the University of Washington; Sephardic Bikur Holim; Congregation Ezra Bessaroth; and the Seattle Sephardic Brotherhood.

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Melanie Eng is a student in the University of Washington Department of Communication News Laboratory.