Ladino, the hidden Jewish culture in Istanbul

In his house, he has a tall closet full of CDs and another one with many books of poems and liturgy, all in the Ladino language. Izzet Abi (69) is a Sephardic Jew from Istanbul, and he simply cannot get enough of his culture. Together with his friends, he invests time and effort to keep this disappearing language alive.

Text and photos by Geert Braam

Ladino, also called the Judea-Spanish language, was used among Sephardic Jews. The language has its roots in Spain, Ladino is actually the same as Cervantes Spanish, an older kind of the Spain language nowadays. During the Spanish Reconquista in 1492, when the Moorish empire was eliminated by the catholic armies, Spanish muslims and Jews had to convert to Christianity, or leave to other areas in Europe. The Ottoman Empire welcomed the banned Jews, so that’s why a small Jewish minority in Turkey still speak Ladino.

Izzet Abi, sitting in his chair in his house on the Asian side of Istanbul, tells how he got in touch with the Ladino language and culture. “I grew up with Ladino, my parents spoke it. As a child, I listened to my first songs on gramophone,” he remembers. “The language was mostly spoken in the ghetto around the Neveshalom synagogue in the European part of Istanbul. Right now, there is a museum of our history.”

Izzet Abi (69) is a Sephardic Jew from Istanbul.

Spreading the culture According to Abi, the Ladino music culture was influenced by other music genres. He explains: “A part of our songs has its roots in the Roman empire, while other songs and poems are shaped from cantigas – medieval Spanish music – and Turkish traditional songs.”

In Abi’s twenties, he produced and performed a Ladino musical together with three other friends. He saw the audience liked it. “After that musical, we formed a different group: Los pasharos sefardis, what was really loved. We performed all over the world, from the USA, Germany to Greece and Israel,” tells Abi.

After this successful project, Abi joined other Judea-Spanish music groups. One of them is called The Stars of Istanbul. “Les Estreykas d’Estambul this year celebrate their 50th anniversary, now we are busy rehearsing for our performance in February,” declares the musician.

More meaningful, less spoken

The experienced Ladino speaker appreciates the language is more meaningful. “When I talk with friends who don’t speak Turkish, Ladino is a good way to explain them what I really mean”, he declares. Abi even introduces the Judea-Spanish culture to younger generations: “when I teach songs to children, I do that with body gestures. So they get to know the meaning of what they sing.”

Other Jews and Turkish media report that the Judea-Spanish language is disappearing. The reason behind it is the decreasing interest of young people, according to Abi: “They say it’s not a real language because there are words in it from other countries. But I think the people don’t like it, they don’t understand Ladino.” Abi is not convinced Ladino and its culture are dying, despite of other opinions. By music festivals, courses and a monthly Ladino newspaper called El Amanezer, which is read by about 2000 Turks, the language is still surviving. “Five years ago, people said it will disappear. But we do good things now to keep the language alive.”