On the 17th of March, it will be 25 years since the Knesset adopted a law that would lead to the establishment of two national authorities: the authority for Yiddish culture (נאַציאָנאַלע אינסטאַנצ פֿאַר ייִדישער קולטור) and the authority for Ladino culture (Autoridad Nasionala del Ladino).

We have been in touch with Prof. Tamar Alexander, chairwoman of the Autoridad Nasionala del Ladino since 2015, to find out more about the history of this Authority, its current activities and the main challenges ahead.

Prof. Alexander, can you take us back to the early 1990s? What was the political background that led to adoption of the Knesset law establishing those two authorities?

This legislation is an expression of the significant change that has taken place in the state’s attitude toward ethnic group communities. When the state was founded, the prevailing approach, as led by David Ben-Gurion, was aimed at creating a uniform, monolithic culture, and an Israeli culture with only a single language — Hebrew. This approach failed socially as well as politically. In the 1970s, a process of change began toward a cultural mosaic recognizing the importance of ethnic groups and ethnic languages. This led to the establishment of the Ladino Authority as well as the Yiddish authority.

In the law adopted by the Knesset in 1996, conserving, documenting and cataloguing of Ladino treasures is mentioned as one of the Authority’s goals. Another one is to deepen the knowledge of Ladino culture and to promote, assist and encourage modern works in Ladino.

Could you share some of the Authority’s recent projects and activities with us?

The Authority provides the funding for a Ladino course in each of the universities in Israel, offers prizes for outstanding students on a competitive basis, and supports the publication of books and various projects. For the public, the Authority supports 15 community interest groups that operate voluntarily all over the country. Each group comprises from 200 to 2,000 lovers of Ladino. They organize lectures, tours, meetings, and artistic performances. For example, every year the Haifa group arranges three days of activity in Ladino at the Dead Sea called Dias de Leche i Miél (Days of Milk and Honey). Every year some 5,000 people attend these meetings.

We, of the Authority, in cooperation with the Ben-Zvi Institute, organize evening gatherings, each time devoted to the culture of a different community: for example, we held an evening on the Haketia speaking communities of northern Morocco as well as one on the Jews of Bulgaria and the female partisans who fought in Macedonia, Greece, and the former Yugoslavia. Some 400 to 600 people attended each event.

In the first 25 years of its existence, the Authority has achieved a lot and breathed new life into Sephardi language and culture.

What will be the Authority’s main challenges in the years ahead?

Since the new administration has begun operation in 2015, we have set ourselves a number of new goals:

  1. To reach the younger generation, the children and grandchildren of Ladino speakers. Almost all speakers of the language in Israel are of advanced age. Toward attaining our goal, we produced two CDs of children’s songs. Classical Hebrew songs that were translated into Ladino by Prof. Shmuel Refael. We call the CD “Yeladino”, meaning the “Children of Ladino“. “Yeladino 2”, which has just become available, contains 20 songs. This time we added to the traditional Ladino orthography in Hebrew letters also Ladino in Latin letters as prepared for us by Moshe Shaul. We also published two books of folk Ladino stories adapted for children, edited by me. One book about Makeda the simpeltons’ town, the other praise stories about the great Sephardic sages like Maimonides and Nahmanides. The books are bilingual: Hebrew and Ladino. 
  2. A second goal is to reach the general Israeli public rather than to remain within the limited circle of lovers of Ladino. We are interested in having all Israelis becoming familiar with our culture. To that end, for example, we organized year after year a Ladino performance as part of the Habima Festival; 1,000 people came to each performance. 
  3. Another aim: to nurture the cultures of specific Ladino-speaking communities. For that goal, as noted, we organized a series of meetings with a different community being featured each time.
  4. A fourth goal is to become more closely connected with Sephardic communities throughout the world. To achieve this, at the initiative of Dr. Eliezer Papo, we established the Shadarim Project, that is, representatives of the Ladino Authority all over the world. Each of them is a Ladino activist in his or her community. We have Shadarim from Europe, the US, South America and the Balkan countries.

Last year, the Israel National Academy of Ladino was established. It will operate as an independent branch of the National Authority.

We are sure that the Ladino culture will continue to flourish. We are not sure that it will continue to be a spoken language outside of the academia.