A desire to preserve Ladino, a Jewish language that has a colorful history, drew hundreds of participants to a recent conference here.
Based on 16th-century Spanish, Ladino is spoken by an estimated 200,000 people around the world, half of them in Israel.
The two-day conference under the auspices of the U.N. Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization was believed to be the first of its kind.
At least 250 Ladino speakers attended the symposium, in which some 30 specialists from 13 countries formulated a proposal for keeping the language and its culture alive.
When they were expelled from Spain in 1492, Sephardic Jews took their language with them, and it has been enriched through contact with the languages of the various lands where they resettled.
The event’s organizers fear that the number of Ladino speakers will diminish rapidly if steps are not taken to save it.
During the symposium, participants discussed the language’s heritage and the songs, proverbs, tales and cuisine associated with Ladino culture.
They also spoke about the importance of education for preserving Judeo Espagnol, as the language is called in Ladino.
Organizing the event took years.
“There were many stumbling blocks along the way,” said the Israeli ambassador to UNESCO, Yitzhak Eldan.
“Our main achievement was that despite the hostile atmosphere” in UNESCO toward Israel, “we managed to bring together 11 countries to support this project and to have it passed at UNESCO’s general assembly last November. That was the first time the subject was raised officially at UNESCO,” Eldan said.
Yusuf Altintash, publisher of Shalom, a newspaper in Ladino and Turkish, spoke about the situation of Ladino in Turkey, where, he says, 99 percent of the nation’s approximately 20,000 Jews have ancestors who came from Spain.
Erika Perahia-Zemour, director of the Jewish Museum in Salonika, Greece, said she does not speak Ladino. But that was apparently an exercise in humility — because she then launched into a fluent and moving speech in the language.
There were also representatives from other members of the UNESCO: Bulgaria, the Dominican Republic, France, Germany, Israel, Italy, Portugal, Romania and Spain. Specialists from the United States and Serbia, which are not members of UNESCO, attended as well.
A proposal drafted at the end of the conference called for training Ladino teachers and for preparing textbooks, a comprehensive dictionary and grammar books.
The proposal also called for the publication of books, newspapers and magazines in the language, and even the establishment of a Ladino publishing house.
The proposal suggested that Ladino tales, songs and proverbs be recorded and catalogued.
The event was co-organized by Jean Carasso, who publishes La Lettre Sepharade, a Paris-based newspaper in Ladino and French, and Moshe Shaul, the deputy chairman of Israel’s National Authority for Ladino Culture.
“UNESCO now has an interest in nurturing dying languages,” Shaul said. The symposium’s participants hope that this will involve a “recognition by UNESCO that this is an important heritage that must be protected. We hope that UNESCO will also provide financial, or at least moral, support.”
Of the few academic institutions where Ladino is taught, Israel offers the most courses — at four universities, in adult education classes and in one high school in Jerusalem.
There also is an Internet chat group conducted solely in Ladino, at http://groups.yahoo.com/group/ladinokomunita.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.