The Americanization of a Hispanic Group:
The Sephardic Experience in the United States

Judeo-Spanish As A Language of Liturgy and Religious Identification

By David F. Altabe

Proceedings of a Conference in NYC April 5, 1981

The permissibility of the use of the vernacular language in the liturgy is a matter that has been debated time and time again in the course of Jewish history by rabbis and lay leaders alike. The Talmud states clearly, however, in Berahot 15, (a) that it is allowable. In referring to the recitation of the Shema, it says, "Shema behol lashon sheatah shomea," -- Hear (and by definition, we take this to mean also 'understand') in all (or any) language you understand. If this is said of the Shema, a prayer taken directly from the Pentateuch, and not one composed by rabbis or poets, how much more permissible would it be than to recite others in the vernacular. We know that this was indeed done, for many of our prayers including Kaddish are not in Hebrew, but in Aramaic, the spoken language of the day in Talmudic times.

It is curious to note, however, the resistance against allowing this to become general practice since the diaspora. We know of no Jewish prayers ever recited in Greek or Latin, both of which were in common use among the Jews of the Roman Empire. The fact that it is permissible does not mean that it is advisable. We can well imagine what would have happened to the unity of the Jewish people had Hebrew not only been replaced as the language of communication with family and friends, but also as athe language with which ones speaks to God. As the language of the Synagogue and the study of our sacred texts, Hebrew has remained eternal in time, and universal among all Jewish communities. Though Maimomides in his Mishneh Torah, when discussing the laws of the reading of the Shema, reiterates the sanction given to the vernacular in the Talmud quoted above, (1) the rabbis of Spain prohibited the use of Spanish in the Synagogue.

According to Michael Molho, this insistence upon the "lashon hakodesh" the holy language, is clearly seen in the rabbinical literature of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Even the reading of the Book of Esther in translation by the women gave rise to controversy, and was condemned by many rabbis. (2) The Haggada, which was read at home, is another matter on the other hand. From the archaic Spanish of the text, one can safely assume that it dates from the thirteenth or fourteenth century if not earlier. Strange as it may seem, Spanish did not come to be a language of prayer among the Jews until after the expulsion in 1492. We can only conjecture why. The responsa of Rabbi Samuel Aboab, who officiated in Italy in the seventeenth century, reveals that there existed in Salonica religious leaders who conducted prayers in Judeo-Spanish to accommodate the needs of many of the congregants who were former conversos, recently returned to the fold of Judaism, and hence not familiar with the Holy tongue. Indeed, the Ladino translation of the Shulhan Aruh of Yosef Caro that was published first in Salonica in 1568, and twice again in Venice in 1602 and in 1712 under the title Meza del alma, was printed in Hebrew characters with vowel signs in order to make it easy for the neophyte to learn to read Hebrew as he studied the laws of Judaism. The author of the Me'am Lo'ez, Yacov Huli, states in his introduction to this encyclopedic work of Biblical exegesis which first appeared in 1730 in Constantinople, that many people "do not understand the holy tongue, and that even those who do know the words, do not understand what they are saying, and from day to day, there are fewer and fewer readers, and the Law and the Customs of Judaism are being forgotten." (3) One of the reasons given for the large number of people who did not know how to read Hebrew, according to Molho, is the fact that those who had converted to Catholicism in order to save their lives, as almost one third of the Jewish population of Spain did during the riots of 1391 and their aftermath, had lost all contact with Judaism after 1492. Now that they were able to find their way back to their former brethren, they had to begin life anew as Jews.

It is my conjecture that still another reason exists for the increased number of prayers in Ladino that found their way into the liturgy during the seventeenth century and afterwards. It is that the Spanish spoken by the Sephardim of the Ottoman Empire was now a Jewish language and not just a language spoken by Jews living in a Spanish speaking milieu.

Whether they called it "espanyol" or "Ladino" "Judezmo" "gidyo" or "Judeo-espanyol," the language was "el espanyol muestro" to the Sephardim of the polyglot Ottoman Empire. It was the mother tongue and the means of communication, written and oral, among the thousands of Jews of Spanish origin and other Jews who assimilated into their culture. The language distinguished Jew from Turk, Greek, Armenian, Bulgarian, Serb, Slav, Syrian, or Arab in this pluralistic society in which each ethnic group was allowed to retain its identity through the use of its own language and the free practice of its religion. In a time when all education took place in the church, the Islamic "medres," or the Jewish "meldar," the language of instruction was the language of the people of the faith they represented. A Sephardi learned through the medium of Judeo-Spanish. His books were printed in Hebrew characters, either of the square merubbah type or Rashi, and those of the Greek Orthodox faith were in the Greek alphabet, just as those of the Slavs were in the Cyrillic, the Catholic in the Roman, and the Turk in Arabic script. A Jew spoke Judeo-Spanish, unless he were a Romaniot, in which case he spoke Judeo-Greek. Non-Jews doing business with Sephardim, especially in Salonica, may have found it advantageous to learn the language, just as Jews learned the languages of their neighbors, but one's identity was rooted in the language of one's ethnic origin. Turkish was learned by those who had dealings with the government, certainly not by the masses, and it is to the credit of the Ottoman rulers that it was never imposed upon their subjects by force. It was only with the demise of the Empire and the emergence of the national states in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth that the Jew was obliged to learn Turkish, Greek, Bulgarian, or Slavic.

Thus, whether a Sephardi chanted a prayer in Hebrew or in his Spanish, he had the sense of addressing the Almighty in a language that was, in his heart, a Jewish language. One may wonder why the Askenazi Jews of Eastern European and Russia did not also turn to Yiddish as a means of communion with the Divinity. In their hearts I am sure they did, but to my knowledge, Hebrew was the only language used in the liturgy. Yiddish, the "mama loshon" of the Askenazim distinguished them from their Polish and Russian speaking neighbors, just as Judeo-Spanish set the Sephardi apart form the Turk, the Greek, the Armenian, and the others. There are many factors to be considered, however, before one can begin to offer an explanation for the reason why Yiddish did not also become a language of prayer.

For one thing, the problem of absorption of large numbers of conversos did not exist among the Ashkenazim. Another is the way of life imposed upon the Ashkenazi by the intolerance, and limited economic opportunities offered to them in the often hostile environment in which they lived. From the description of life in the shtetl that one sees in the novels of Sholom Alehem and other writers, we gather that there was little a man could do to earn a livelihood, and hence, much of his time was spent in study and prayer. It is possible that he may have acquired a greater knowledge of Hebrew than the average Sephardi, who left school shortly after Bar Mitzvah to begin apprenticeship in some menial trade or hawk wares in the marketplace, or in some "butica" shop. By and large, the market stalls of the small towns of Eastern Europe were managed by the Ashkenazi women who labored all day while bringing up her family, so that her husband might be free to study. This situation would have been unthinkable to a proud Sephardic male, but it was the economic and social pressures that determined the cultural attitudes in each case.

Still another factor should be borne in mind. While many prayers were composed and translated into Ladino in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, these were not published in prayerbooks until 1876. This date coincides with int influences of the Enlightenment reaching the Ottoman Empire from diverse sources. I am referring here to the general wave of Western European culture imported into Turkey by government leaders attempting to modernize conditions in their decaying realm. The most significant rays reached the Sephardim via the efforts of the Alliance Israelite Universelle which opened schools throughout North Africa and the Near East in which French was the language of instruction and students were taught trades and the rudiments of modern western civilization. The Jewish Enlightenment know as the Haskalah was also felt in the intellectual circles of the Sephardim. The same society that published the prayerbook in Salonica which contained Judeo-Spanish translations, that is the Etz ha-Haim, was also responsible for the publication in 1894 of Abraham Mapu's Ahavat Zion, a novel of Jewish life in the Holy Land in Biblical times which was condemned by the opponents of the Jewish Enlightenment. It is inconceivable that the ultra-conservative groups that dominated the religious life of Jews in Poland and Russia would have permitted the printing and circulation of prayerbooks containing prayers in Yiddish. The threat of assimilation and outright rejection of religion by Ashkenazi intellectuals of the Haskalah was too great to allow for comprise.

The fact that some translations into Judeo-Spanish existed did not bring about a very widespread use of the language in the Synagogue. Indeed, only a relatively small portion of the service was ever chanted in Judeo-Spanish, the majority of the prayers being recited as they are universally in Orthodox synagogues, in Hebrew. Indeed, there was even resistance to the expansion of the use of Judeo-Spanish in the liturgy. We read for example in the Messeret, a popular newspaper of Izmir of the early twentieth century, edited by one of the most prolific writers and translators of the time, Alexander Ben Guiat, an editorial by him dated August 24, 1919 in which he criticizes one of the Synagogues for organizing a choir to sing the piyutim of the High Holidays in "Judezmo." I use this term because this is what he calls the language. He announces that the Congregation Geveret, called in Spanish "La Siniora" because it was founded by a wealthy benefactress, "estan aprontando un coro, el cual, mientres los tres moadim en las oraciones, los piyutim seran cantados en judezmo, en lugar ke siempre hast agora, lo fueron y lo deben ser en lashon hakodesh." He goes on to say that, whereas there may be a section or two of the selihot that were translated into judezmo, this does not indicate that all the piyutim can be translated or should be. The proof he offers, is that if this were so, Russian Jews would have translated them into Russian, Italian Jews into Italian, English Jews into English, etc. They should be sung in the language in which they were inspired, the official language of the Jewish religion, Hebrew. Two weeks later, he writes, after discussing the matter with the lay leaders of the congregations, that the decision to use judezmo in the liturgy was motivated by the need to attract people to attend the services. More and more people are staying away from the services because they don't understand Hebrew, they lamented. Their plan was to first have the Hazan chant the prayer in Hebrew, and then have the choir sing the translation in Spanish. This remedy was approved by Ben Guiat.

Nor is it to be supposed that all prayerbooks contained material in Judeo-Spanish. The Mahzor of Rosh ha-Shanah published in Salonica in 1894 does not contain piyutim in the vernacular though it was published by the Etz ha-Haim society, the very same communal and educational organization that Molho cites as having published the first prayerbook to contain Judeo-Spanish.

Now let us turn our attention to what has happened in the third diaspora, that is, the emigration of the Sephardim to America. In the early days, we can safely say that the first generation of Sephardim to reach these shores brought with them the language and customs of their forefathers, and that their synagogues differed but slightly from those they left behind. Since few came as families, unlike the Russian Jews fleeing progroms who came as entire communities in some cases, there were not many Sephardic rabbis to serve as spiritual leaders of the new arrivals. As was the custom in Turkey and the Balkans, those who had a pleasant voice and could read better than the rest, perhaps because of a more extended religious training or inclination, rose to the reader's desk. The congregants, most of whom had left their homeland as single young men and women, had little more than a basic knowledge of the liturgy. We can assume that they would have felt most comfortable chanting prayers in the language that reminded them of home and the parents they left behind, that is of course, Judeo-Spanish. The need to work, to earn a living, to establish themselves in their new country, to raise children, and to provide them with the security and opportunity the new land had to offer, forced many of them to work on the Sabbath, and to abandon, some to a greater extent than others, the religious practices they had been taught. Their children received, in most cases, even less religious training than they had had. Many of them were sent to Ashkenazi Talmud Torahs to learn what little was demanded of them in training for their Bar Mitzvah. The pressures of the melting pot upon this second generation prior to World War II made them wish to shed traces of their past as thoroughly as possible, at least in the public eye. The language their parents spoke may have been remembered, but it was not the language of their home. Their children, if they study Spanish in school, may still communicate to some extent with the grandparents in Judeo-Spanish, but most of the time, it is English that is used. The elders who came here speaking not only Judeo-Spanish but also in many cases French, Greek, Italian, and /or Turkish, and who needed to learn English to survive were not as limited linguistically as their more academically educated children and grandchildren. There is no denying that Judeo-Spanish has been replaced by English as the medium of communication among younger family members. The sociological forces that determine language usage are too strong to reverse this universal trend. The same is happening in Israel, in favor of Hebrew; in Turkey, in favor of Turkish, and so on.

Nevertheless, over one third of the Sephardic congregations in the United States continue to use Judeo-Spanish in the liturgy of Shabbat and Jewish holidays. Just last month, I sent questionnaires to the 36 Sephardic congregations in the United States listed in the International Directory of Sephardic Congregations contained in the back of the 1980/81 Diary published by Congregation Shearith Israel. Two were returned marked by the Post Office as "moved - left no forwarding address." I received nineteen responses. Of these, five synagogues reported that no Judeo-Spanish is used in the liturgy. These include Congregation Shearith Israel, in which Judeo-Spanish was never the language of the majority of the congregants, Touro Synagogue of Newport, Rhode Island, which since the nineteenth century is an Ashkenazi congregation, although the Nusach Sefarad is used. Congregation Shaare Zion of Brooklyn is mostly Syrian, and the Sephardi Congregation of Mapleton is mostly Greek. We would not expect such congregations to be using Judeo-Spanish. A rather sad report was the one received from Moshe Habib, the spiritual leader of the Sephardic Congregation of Syracuse. He replied that prayers are occasionally begun in Judeo-Spanish, but that no one remembers them well enough to complete them.

What is significant is that fourteen congregations still make extensive use of Judeo-Spanish in the Liturgy of Shabbat and all the holidays. Congregation Bikur Holim of Seattle, led by Rabbi Solomon Maimon, has collaborated in the film "The Song of the Sephardi", in which there are scenes showing the congregation chanting in Judeo-Spanish. Quite recently, an audio-tape of prayers and an accompanying booklet have been published and are being actively sold by the congregation. The Sephardic Temple of Cedarhurst led by Rabbi Arnold Marans, as Ashkenazi rabbi, had also published a booklet of the prayers chanted in Judeo-Spanish during the High Holy Days. By the way, it is not unusual for a Sephardic congregation to have an Ashkenazi rabbi, and it is commendable that so many of them have contributed to the retention of Judeo-Spanish in the liturgy of their congregations. The same may be said of Moroccan rabbis to whom Judeo-Spanish is not native. I am thinking here of my good friends Rabbi Glicksman of Congregation Etz Ahaim of Highland Park, New Jersey and Rabbi Greenwald of Temple Torah Israel in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, both of whom are Ashkenazim, and of Rabbi Murciano of the Sephardic Jewish Center of Forest Hills, and of course, my own personal friend and rabbi, Asher Abittan of the Sephardic Congregation of Long Beach who are Moroccan.

The geographical distribution of the Sephardic congregations in which Judeo-Spanish is still in use is vast indeed. From New York to Los Angeles, from Seattle to Miami Beach, they cross the nation in wide diagonal lines. There are Sephardic congregations also in Montgomery, Alabama, Atlanta, Georgia and Indianapolis, Indiana where one can stop in on an ordinary Shabbat and hear the Berih Shemei or Ein Kelohenu sung in Judeo-Spanish.

How does one account for the survival of the language in the liturgy when linguists and philologists have been predicting its demise since the turn of the century! Here, too, one can only wonder. If I may project my own observation, I would venture to say that it fills a void that can not be breeched by Hebrew or English. The latter is, of course, the language of daily speech, hence devoid of the mystery, and the centuries old identification with our people that are sometimes required to inspire religiosity. Hebrew is, of course, the eternal and universal language of the Jew, whatever his hyphenated ethnicity, but unfortunately, too few Sephardim understand it sufficiently to consider it their own. What is more, it does not convey what is distinctly Sephardic. One can pray in Hebrew in any congregation, when one attends a Sephardic congregation, one seeks a link with the past, a reaffirmation of one's peculiar Sephardic identity. As I have observed in my own congregation, especially among those of my own generation, there is an aura of sanctity to prayers chanted in Judeo-Spanish, the language once used to address a beloved parent or grandparent who is perhaps departed and residing in the hereafter, close to God. It is the language in which they used to pray, and their daily speech was filled with references to our dependency upon the Almighty as reflected in such expressions as El Dio que te traiga mazal, con la ayuda del Dio, El Dio que te pague, Bendicho el Dio, Beraha y salud, and, when things went wrong, Ah Dio santo.

Charles V once said that one should speak French to the ladies, Italian to one's friends, German to one's servants, but when addressing God, one should use Spanish. In the case of Judeo-Spanish, this appears to be a practice that is still very much alive among the people.


1. Maimonides, Mishneh Torah: Milhot Keriyat Shema Ch. II, par. 10

2. Michael Molho, Literatura sefardita de oriente (Madrid: Instituto Arias Montano, 1960), p. 199

3. Me'Am Lo'Ez, David Gonzalo Maeso and Pascual, Pascual Recuero, ed. (Madrid: Ed. Gredos, 1964), p. 146

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