Izmir, 1904: Ladino instruction and the Ladino press – “Is it true that what we speak is a European language?”

Formal photo portrait of a man, perhaps in his 30s, wearing a suit and tie of the sort fashionable around 1900.

Rafael Cohen of Izmir, a language teacher and newspaper writer, circa 1900.

Rafael Cohen, a Turkish Sephardic Jew in Smyrna (now Izmir), sent letters about Jewish life in his city to the Spanish senator Ángel Pulido in the early 1900s. According to Pulido, Cohen was a language teacher who also worked for the Turkish Jewish newspaper El Messeret. Excerpts of his letters appear in Pulido’s second book about Sephardic Jews, published in 1905, whose title we could translate as Spaniards without a Country and the Sephardic Race.

Cohen writes that some Turkish Sephardim found it hard to believe that their language (Judeo-Spanish, also called Ladino, Judezmo, etc., which they wrote in the Hebrew alphabet) was a form of Spanish. But when he would hand them a newspaper from Spain, they generally found that even with their limited knowledge of the Latin alphabet, they could understand what they were reading.

In a letter dated September 8, 1904, he recalls:

Recently, one of them said to me, “Is it true that what we speak is a European language? Isn’t what we speak Judezmo?” I responded by handing him an issue of El Liberal. He laughed and began reading it and replied with great amazement, “This is one Spanish and ours is another…” Who could help feeling heartbroken at that reaction? I laughed ruefully and my heart ached at seeing a people, my people, speaking the most beautiful language without knowing, or rather without realizing, what they were speaking…

Cohen, something of a language purist, was one of the era’s Sephardim who advocated making Continue reading

The Jew who told Immigration he was Muslim, and the Ladino newspaper that helped him (1911)

American immigrant stories often start with the person’s life in the U.S., but gloss over the process of being admitted as an immigrant. Getting through the immigrant processing centers was stressful. There were language barriers, crowds, slow-moving lines, stringent medical and financial restrictions, and official questions that forced immigrants to guess what answers the officers wanted. Often, they guessed wrong.

Today we’ll look at the personal experiences of some specific would-be immigrants, as reported in 1911 and 1912 by the U.S. Jewish newspaper La America.

La America (New York), June 9, 1911, featuring the story of immigrant Gabriel Capelouto. Note the Yiddish text in the left column. This Ladino-language paper briefly experimented with front-page Yiddish content to raise Ashkenazic Jews’ awareness of their Ottoman neighbors.

When La America first wrote about Gabriel Capelouto of Bodrum, Turkey, he had been detained at Ellis Island for several weeks and was about to be deported. Capelouto had made the long journey from Turkey to Argentina. There he boarded a ship for New York (without his wife, Sinoru, or their two children) en route to Atlanta, where his wife’s brother, Reuben Galanti, was waiting for him. That’s when things started to go wrong.

In Buenos Aires, people warned Capelouto to expect prejudice in the United States. They told him the U.S. government would turn him away if they learned he was a Jew. Acting on that Continue reading