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For love of Ladino

 
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Englewood resident Enrique Levy left his native Cuba some 50 years ago. What he did not leave behind was his love for Ladino, a language he describes as "muy hermozo" (very beautiful).

"I can't describe it…. It's more than just beautiful sounds," he said. "It can convey entire moods, like Yiddish."

Ladino, otherwise known as Judeo-Spanish, is the spoken and written Hispanic language of Jews of Spanish origin. According to the Website of the Foundation for the Advancement of Sephardic Studies and Culture, Ladino did not become a specifically Jewish language until after the expulsion from Spain in 1492.

"It's not just translation," said Levy. "It's full of 'old sayings,'" using few words to make larger statements. He noted that he once heard a lecturer in Israel describe Ladino as "the psychiatrist of its people … conveying the essence of life."


Enrique Levy, founder of the Ladino Club at the JCC on the Palisades, recently attended an Israeli gathering of Ladino speakers.

Levy, who founded the Ladino Club at the JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly some six years ago, says, "I was selfish. I wanted people I could speak with in Ladino." Nevertheless, since there aren't very many people left who speak the language, "I switched emphasis." Now he said, at his once-a-month meetings, he brings in written materials — including poetry, essays, and liturgical texts — that he reads and translates, as well as musical pieces and, when he can find them, DVDs. The group usually attracts about 10 members.

"We don't do as well in the winter months," he said. "Most of those who come are elderly and they don't come out."

Levy, who calls himself a "freelance teacher" at the JCC on the Palisades, began his association with the organization in 199', when the JCC sponsored a major event commemorating the 500th anniversary of the expulsion of Jews from Spain. A member of the Sephardic Minyan at Cong. Ahavath Torah in Englewood, he said he is proud of the well-attended group, which has been in existence for some 15 years and boasts well-attended daily, as well as Shabbat, services.

Levy spoke with the Standard after returning from a gathering of the LadinoKomunita in Israel. Describing the group as a "virtual community" of about 850 members who communicate and share resources over the Internet, he noted that, to date, there have been 17,000 messages in Ladino, including poetry and writings. The trip to Israel, organized by members of the group, brought together hundreds of Ladino speakers for programs on Ladino culture — with all lectures delivered in Ladino.

According to the group's Website, http://www.sephardicstudies.org/komunita.html, "News of the death of Judeo-Spanish (Ladino) have been greatly exaggerated. This beautiful Sephardic language is not only used daily, but it is the only acceptable language of communication in our virtual community called Ladinokomunita. The members of this Internet chat group, who may reside hundreds and thousands of miles from each other on earth, have discussions with each other daily via e-mail in the language they all understand. In other words, here, Ladino (Judeo-Spanish) is indeed very much alive!"

Levy explained that while, in Israel, there is a good deal of interest in Ladino at the university level, the language is taught here only at Tufts University in Massachusetts and at the University of Pennsylvania.

"There are some small little grains of interest," he said, noting that an increasing number of young students are joining the LadinoKomunita.

Levy, who will soon lead a tour to Cuba for the third time — "We bring the Jewish community medicine and give them support," he said — noted that the people who attend the JCC Ladino Club, hailing from local towns and from as far away as Long Island, "meet and have fun."

"Some of them are nostalgic and say, 'I remember my grandmother saying that,'" he noted, adding that participants don't have to know Ladino to attend meetings. "Everything is translated," he said. "We use Ladino texts for the flavor of the language."

For information on the Ladino Club at the JCC, call Lynn at (201) 569-7900.

 
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Stay tuned for the return of comments

Ron Shanbrom posted 10 Apr 2009 at 09:38 PM

I have been searching for Enrique “Henry” Levy for some time, but I just now came across this article. When Henry was brought to the US from Cuba he lived in a Jewish foster home with me, operated by the Jewish Family Service in Cleveland, OH. I was going to call the Ladino Club at the JCC but the area code listed appears to be incomplete—there is no “01” area code. “01” is a country code. I would greatly appreciate it if you could either send me either the correct area code or have him contact me at the email address above. I left the group home in 1962 and haven’t seen or heard from him since. However, I just received an email from a woman that used to be married to one of the children of the woman that ran the group home and she told me that she had seen Henry when he was in Cleveland with his children a few years ago.

Jeff Sondhelm posted 04 Oct 2010 at 05:29 AM

Ron, 
  I suspect the area code is 201.  Good luck in reconnecting

 

A rabbi hasn’t walked into the bar ... yet

It’s not every day that a liquor license comes up for sale in Teaneck. (State licensing laws limit the number of licenses in a formula based on a town’s population.)

So when Jonathan Gellis heard that the owner of Vinny O’s in Teaneck was looking to sell the establishment, including the license, after 28 years behind the bar, he realized that only one of the more than 20 kosher restaurants in Teaneck could sell alcohol.

That seemed to be an opportunity.

Mr. Gellis is a stockbroker by day. He’s used to working in a regulated business — and the alcohol business in New Jersey is highly regulated.

Mr. Gellis grew up in Teaneck; his parents moved the family here from Brooklyn in 1975, back when the town had only one kosher restaurant. His four children attend Yeshivat Noam and the Frisch School, and he serves on the board of both institutions. He also is president of Congregation Keter Torah.

 

The converso’s dilemma

Local group goes to New Mexico to learn about crypto-Jews

Imagine that you were raised as a Catholic. Then one day — perhaps as a beloved parent or grandparent lay dying and leaned over to whisper something in your ear — you learned that your family once was Jewish. Your ancestors were converted forcibly some 500 years ago.

For those people all over the world who have had that experience, the next step is not entirely clear. Do they jump in with both feet and vigorously pursue their new Jewish identities, or do they simply go about their business, choosing to do nothing with this new information? These dilemmas, and more, were the subject of a recent Road Scholar program in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

The topic — “New Mexico’s Conversos and Crypto-Jews” — continues to fascinate both Jews and non-Jews, as evidenced by the religious identity of the attendees. Among those participating in this month’s session — there are 10 such programs held each year — were five residents from our area, including this author.

 

How to learn Hebrew

Confronting American Jews’ linguistic illiteracy, many programs offer help

Can you read a Hebrew newspaper or order a meal in an Israel restaurant? If you’re like the vast majority of American Jews, the answer is no.

“Half of Jews (52%), including 60% of Jews by religion and 24% of Jews of no religion, say they know the Hebrew alphabet,” according to last October’s “Portrait of Jewish Americans,” the famous study released by the Pew Research Center.

“But far fewer (13% of Jews overall, including 16% of Jews by religion and 4% of Jews of no religion) say they understand most or all of the words when they read Hebrew,” the report continues.

Alarmed by this finding, the World Zionist Organization, the Israeli Education Ministry, and several partner organizations recently launched the Hebrew Language Council of North America to help more Jews become conversant in the language of their literature, lore, and land — as well as the language of their peers in Israel.

 

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Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech the previous August, during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. In Washington, a far-reaching civil rights bill that would desegregate public facilities had been introduced to Congress by President Lyndon Johnson — but quickly stalled and was then filibustered for months.

 

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