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

Judeo-Spanish As A Language of Communication, Folklore And Cultural Identity

By David Romey

Proceedings of a Conference in NYC April 5, 1981

In 1978, the feature-length film, "Song of the Sephardi", had its world premiere in Seattle, Washington. It dealt with the theme of the Sephardi, his past and his present. Featuring the Sephardic communities of Seattle and Jerusalem, it focused principally on the Sephardic communities of Seattle. In the Pacific Northwest, Seattle is home to the third largest Sephardic community in the United States. One hundred seventy-five miles to the south of Seattle, in Oregon, the city of Portland has a small Sephardic community, less than fifty families. It keeps close ties of friendship and family to its sister community to the north. On the west coast, Los Angeles has the second largest Sephardic community. The largest and the most important Sephardic community in the United States is in the city of New York.

From an economic secular point of view, the Sephardic communities in the West are thriving. From the ethnic cultural point of view, the conditions of these communities today shows the evidence of cultural erosion in their language and in their folklore, which America, directly and indirectly, has had on them.

Dr. David Raphael, producer of "Song of the Sephardi", filmed his story in Seattle because there he found a community that had preserved much of its ethnic cultural identity on the immediate level of its daily activities, more so than in many other communities in the country. The use of Judeo-Spanish as a conversational language, the frequent interpolation of proverbs in conversation, the canticas, the romanzas sung on many festive occasions -- all these living facets of culture fascinated Dr. Raphael and convinced him that it was time to.

To this day, the people in the Seattle community speak Judeo-Spanish, not as fluently nor as extensively as they did some twenty years ago -- but, nevertheless, they use the language and feel comfortable with it. The first generation born in this country from parents who came from Turkey and the Isle of Rhodes learned the language at home. In almost every case, it was the first language the child learned. Since the public schools and social contacts outside the home stressed the importance of English, for the second generation, Judeo-Spanish took on a lesser importance. It became the language used in the company of grandparents, a knowledge of Spanish more passive than active. The use of Judeo-Spanish by the third generation was even further diluted. In most cases what has been left can be described at best as a vague knowledge of the language.

The Sephardic community in the Northwest is not yet so structured and stratified that the generations are completely isolated. In the mix that makes up these communities, enough Judeo-Spanish is used in conversation, in the liturgy, in the frequently quoted proverbs, in the increasing interest of the young searching their cultural and linguistic roots, and in the use of expressions for which there seem to be no adequate English equivalency, that one must conclude that Judeo-Spanish is still functioning as a language of communication. When we realize that the Sephardic communities of the Northwest have been separated from Spain for nearly five centuries, we cannot fail to be impressed by this evidence of linguistic loyalty.

For Spaniards who come upon this fact through research or contact with Sephardim, it is a discovery that fills them with both pride and humility. One such Spaniard was Dr. Angel Pulido. While on a cruise in the Mediterranean, he heard a couple talking to each other. To his ears the conversation had the timbre of Spanish and yet it was different. He approached the couple, excused his intrusion and explained his curiosity. The couple was Sephardic, from the Balkan area. Dr. Pulido was fascinated by the knowledge that a thousand miles from Spain there was a large group of Spanish speaking Jews who, through the use of this old Spanish, had never completely severed its cultural ties with Spain. It was a discovery that excited him. He spent much time researching his discovery, and in 1905, he wrote a book, a sympathetic one, to which he gave the title: Espanoles sin Patria (Spaniards without a country). As a Spanish senator, he used his political influence to make Spain officially aware of its moral obligation to the descendants of the Jews whom it had expelled in 1492.

Interest and scholarly research on the Sephardim, their language and folklore has been on the increase in Spain since that work appeared. The establishment of the Instituto Arias Montano, in 1940, and its serial publication Sefarad has given a tremendous surge to the study of Sephardic themes.

Two years ago, Juan Carlos of Spain became the first monarch of that nation to pay an official visit to the Madrid synagogue. Spanish television covered that historic event. One year before the king's visit, his wife, Queen Sofia, had been studying Jewish history with Rabbi Benito Garzon.

The American Sephardi who travels to Israel, Istanbul, Greece, France or Switzerland, and who knows only English and Ladino, can converse with his correligionists in the one language they all have in common, Judeo-Spanish. Even with Spaniards in Madrid, the Sephardi can carry on an easy conversation using his Judeo-Spanish.

In the summer of '79, Spanish Television ran a program on Saturday nights called "La Clave". The program was Spanish TV's special showcase with a large budget and aired in prime time. The moderator introduced a film that dealt with a theme that a panel would later discuss. The panel usually included a historian, a philosopher, an economist, a sociologist, a psychologist, a theologian, a playwright or literary critic and a special guest who was in some way involved with the theme under discussion. The night of September 9, the panel of "La Clave", discussed the Spanish Inquisition. On the panel that night were a Jesuit priest and Spain's best playwright, Antonio Gala. Because the theme dealt with the Inquisition, the moderator and the producers thought it appropriate to have on the panel a descendant of the people who were victims of the Inquisition's zeal. The choice was to be a Sephardi who spoke Ladino. The man "La Clave" invited to Madrid was Avram Leyon, the editor of the newspaper "Shalom" of Istanbul. The discussion was spirited and heated at times. Mr. Leyon was very much in the direct line of the conversation. He spoke a polished Judeo-Spanish as fluently as the others spoke Castilian. At no time was there any pause in the discussion nor any indication of any lack of communication.

The prestigious Madrid daily, the ABC, in its October 2, 1980 issue, carried an article titled "El habla Espanola".(1) The writer, Sr. Arauz de Robles, had just returned from a visit to Istanbul, where he had made his first personal encounter with the Sephardic Jews of that city. He was so impressed that he wrote: "And today, as I arrive from Istanbul, I still carry in my ears the sounds of the Sephardic speech. This fact, of the Sefarditas, is one which is surprising and disturbing because of the responsibility it places on us." One marvels, he went on to say, that the Sefarditas conserve the Spanish language five centuries after their violent expulsion from the Peninsula, even though it is full of archaisms, neologism, gallicisms and anglicisms. Spain, he concludes, should establish schools in Istanbul "para la defensa de nuestra lengua", (for the defense of our language), similar to the schools established there by France. What he found even more surprising was "esa pasion del sefardita por la mano que le hirio, por la Castilla que los expulso violentamente". That attachment of the Sephardi to the hand that wounded him, to the Castile that had violently expelled him, defies logic, he added. The only possible explanation, for the writer, is a relationship with Castile like that of the woman of whom Amado Nervo wrote, "Quien te vio, no te pudo nunca mas olvidar" (He who saw you could never ever forget you).

In most of the Sephardic communities of this country where Judeo-Spanish is spoken, one can still hear what has remained of the folklore. What has been lost in some communities has been retained in others, but each one has less to offer the collector than it had years ago. It is the attrition of time, memory and advanced technology.

Let me illustrate this with reference to the Sephardic communities of the Northwest. Emma Adatto Schlesinger was the first Sephardi to collect romanzas in the Seattle community. In her Master's thesis, 1935, (2) she had a corpus of ballads each of which could be found in collections from other communities in various parts of the world. That was as expected. Whatever ballads of the people had heard that they brought to their new land. There are no "new" or "undiscovered" ballads in the Northwest Sephardic community.

In the formative years of the Seattle community there were many occasions for social gatherings in which much of the entertainment was the singing of the romanzas and canticas. These were frequent in this gregarious community. So long as the community was close knit, the families small, and housework requiring the attention and presence of the mothers in the home, the environment which favored the retention of the romanzas was fairly well preserved. With the advent of the radio, the car, the telephone and television; with families expanding and entering into new endeavors and outside interests, the new socio-economic structure of the community disrupted the pattern in which the romanza could survive. It is easy to visualize a mother doing the family laundry in a stream, as it was done in the old country, in an activity that lasted most of the day, singing the romanzas to the accompaniment of her work. But picture the modern mother who uses an automatic washing machine to do her laundry singing a romanza in the full three minutes it takes her to fill the machine before the telephone rings to call her away to a luncheon engagement.

The singing of the romanzas which was disappearing in the thirties when Emma made her collection, and in the fifties when I continued with this work, is almost nonexistent today. One has to go to the Kline Galland Home, where the aging grandmothers and great aunts live, to hear more than one romanza. There is time in the Home to reminisce, to think about the days of one's youth. These memories are enmeshed with the romanzas.

Emma and I were very fortunate to have heard as many romanzas as we did then, when they were closer to their "natural" state and before they went "out of style", so to speak. Even then it took much coaxing to overcome the "no puedo cantar", "no me acodro", "no tengo boz" (I can't sing, I don't remember, I don't have any voice).

Romanzas are of a dichotomous nature in the sense that they partake of constancy and change at the same time. They are constant in thematic material, in melody and in the sequence in which the narrative develops. They differ in small details, choice of words and/or retention of archaic phrases. Memory is not always as faithful and as reliant as one wishes it to be. The result is an abundance of variant versions. In one of the romanzas in Emma's collection, the ballad sets the story in the king's palace. The introductory verses read:

Tres valcones van bolando
por el palacio del rey

In the version of the same romanza which I collected some fifteen years later, the introduction reads:

Tres palombas van bolando
por el palacio del ray

Then the ballad continues the story inside the palace where the king is playing a game of chess with an adversary. The outcome of the game would decide whether the king keeps his daughter or she goes away with el moro Franco who, in the Spanish versions, is called Rico Franco. Emma's version reads:

El rey no la da a dinguna
ni a oro ni a bien
sino que la da al guego
al guego de achipres.

While the version which I recorded reads:

No la dava el rey su padre
ni a oro ni a bien
sino que la dava al guego
al guego de achiprez.

The variation, in this instance, is the more archaic expression, "el fey sub padre".

In the sound track of "Song of the Sephardi" there are a few of the more tuneful of the romanzars and canticas artfully arranged for an amplified orchestral accompaniment. But where can one now hear the simple rendition of a romanaza sung alone and without any musical accompaniment such as "Tres palombas van bolando", "El rey que muncho madruga", "Ande vos vax caballero", "Asentada esta lareina" or "Irme quero la mi madre"? The presentation of romanzas on records that can be purchased here and in Spain is an art form. As professional as it is, it lacks the haunting beauty and the evocation of emotion which the romanza simply sung by a mother or a grandmother had.

References (proverbs), by contrast, are very much alive today. Proverbs, as Henry Besso says in his article in Studies in Sephardic Culture (4)

"...we know they are often among the pleasantest and most characteristic ornaments of the national literature;
and those who are familiar with the Spanish proverbs -- which abound so much more in Spain than in any
other country of Christendom -- will be ready to agree with Juan Valdes, the wise author of El Dialogo de la lengua,
when he says that we must go to the old national proverbs, because "in our proverbs one sees the purity of the
Castillian language."

The refran enters into a conversation with ease, and can be heard frequently. The widespread use of proverbs in English, Spanish, Turkish, French and other languages makes their Judeo-Spanish counterparts seem appropriate in any conversation. Sometimes the proverbs complement each other; and , at other times, they seem to contradict or to neutralize each other. Remarking on the belief that human nature once set does not readily change as in the saying "As the twig is bent, so grows the tree", one hears in Judeo-Spanish, "De los ocho hasta los ochenta". Once habits have set in at the age of eight, they will last until the age of eighty. And then, as if to emphasize this idea, is the all embracing proverb which says, "De la faja hasta la mortaja". From the time one is dressed in swaddling clothes until the time when he is laid to rest in his shroud, he does not change.

The psychology of the opportunist is accurately described in the refran, "Dejame entrar, me hacere luar". Just let me in, I shall be able to find and make ample room for myself. To the retiring person or friend who may fear that he is imposing on one's hospitality, one might spontaneously quote the refran, "El que bien se quere, en poco luar cabe". The sense is that one who is liked is always welcome. For those whose motives are suspect, the refran is very precise, "Ni tu miel, ni tu fiel".

There are many short expressions in Judeo-Spanish that having been heard so frequently, have become almost automatic responses to some situations. Even the teenagers of the Sephardic community use them as glibly and correctly as their elders. When one sneezes, the response is "Bivas" (May you live). On hearing the second sneeze, should there be one, "Crescas" (may you grow). When one drops a utensil and it breaks, the response that is automatically triggered is "kapara", a borrowing from the Hebrew. When a person stumbles and falls, the immediate cry of concern is "Horas buenas", to say, in effect, may it be a lucky hour when fortune is favorable and nothing bad may happen as a result of the fall. Other such phrases heard with regularity as the occasion arises, phrases which the young use as well as the old are "Buenas tadres", "Buenas noches", Buenas semanas", "Purim alegre", Pesah alegre" and "Mued alegre".

Lenny LaMarche writes an entertaining column in The Clarion, a newsletter published for the members of the Ezra Bessaroth synagogue in Seattle. Its charm comes from the sprinkling of Judeo-Spanish expressions in her column that remind us of what our parents said and how they said it. Many expressions of this type suffer mortally in translation. They remain as they were in the language the parents used at home: "Hijo bueno", "mashala", "Guay de mi", and "Asi biva yo".

Fanny Roberts has been devoted in the time she spends collecting linguistic and folklore materials to be kept in the archives of the University of Washington, in Seattle. A few years ago that University sponsored evening classes in Ladino, Judeo-Spanish. They were taught by Bension Maimon. And when Dr. Raphael was a graduate student at the University, due to his and his wife's efforts, the student body designated one week of the spring quarter as Sephardic Week. A full agenda of activities on Sephardic themes was scheduled for that week: lectures, films, coffee hours, exhibits and seminars. Everyday of the week the Daily, the university newspaper, carried an article on a Sephardic theme written by faculty members and other scholars in the area. The attendance of students and the community at large at these functions was better than had been anticipated. A renewed interest is evident among the younger members to identity with the community, to know more about the language and its folklore and to be able to appreciate what has been handed down to them from father to son, from mother to daughter all the way back to Spain.

For the exiles of 1492, the language they had grown up with was the only wealth that they could take with them that could not be taxed, restricted in any way or confiscated. The legacy of the generations was compressed into this language. By using it, the Sephardi kept intact the ties that bound him to the dead interred in Spanish soil; to parents, poets and scholars; to a past both glorious and tragic. A language which had been sanctified through religion and martyrdom, a language resplendent in metaphor and folklore was the one complete treasure that he could bequeath equally to each of his heirs. And it withstood the stress of time.


  1. Santiago Arauz de Robles, "El Habla Espanola". ABC, Madrid. October, 1980.
  2. Emma Adatto, A Study of the Linguistic Characteristics of the Seattle Sefardi Folklore. M.A. Thesis. University of Washington. Seattle, Wash. 1935
  3. Ramon Menendez Pidal published an early article on the Judeo-Spanish romances in which he quotes Moises Abravanel of Salonika, on the difficulty of collecting romanzas, "Me encuentro a veces con viejas mujeres, a las cuales les demando de cantar romances; ellas me responden que es moqueria que les hago, pues ahora no cantan mucho sino nuevas canciones amorosas. Ramon Mendez Pidal, "Catalogo del Romancero Judio-Espanol, Cultura Espanol, 1906-07.
  4. Henry V. Besso, "Judeo-Spanish Proverbs: An Analysis and Bibliography", Studies in Sephardic Culture. The David N. Barocas Memorial Volume. Marc D. Angel, ed. Sepher-Hermon Press, Inc. New York, 1980.


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