Istanbul Jews fight to save their ancestral tongue
If there's one thing Dora Beraha regrets in her twilight years, it is not passing on the 500-year-old language of Istanbul's Jews, Ladino, now on the point of extinction.
"After us, will there still be people who speak this language?" says 90-year-old Beraha.
"Surely, very few. It is possible that it will disappear."
Ladino is a unique mix of medieval Castilian and Hebrew, with sprinklings of Turkish, Arabic and Greek, that emerged when Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492, with many ending up in the Ottoman Empire.
Turkey now has the largest community of Jews in the Middle East outside of Israel, around 15,000, some of whom are belatedly fighting an uphill battle to preserve the language before it disappears.
Ladino was passed down through the generations, peaking in popularity in the 19th century, but increasingly fell out of use in favor of French among Jews in the later Ottoman period.
Beraha made a conscious decision to avoid teaching Ladino to her children, wanting them to assimilate as much as possible. "We wanted them to succeed," she says.
Turkey's neutrality during the World War II spared Ladino-speakers the decimation of Jewish communities in other parts of the region, but today the remaining practitioners are mostly advanced in age.
According to UNESCO, more than 100,000 people still speak Ladino around the world, mostly in Israel where tens of thousands of Jews from the former Ottoman Empire have immigrated to in recent decades.
Technically, "Ladino" refers to a different language used by Spanish rabbis to teach Hebrew texts, but it has become the common name for Judeo-Spanish, which is also known as Judesmo and Spanyolit.
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