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

Yom Kippur in the “White City”: Kol Nidre at the Chicago World’s Fair

Last time, we spent Rosh Hashanah with soldiers in 1918 France. Now we meet other Jews observing the holidays far from home: Ottoman Jews staffing the Turkish Village at the 1893 World’s Fair.

This description of their Yom Kippur servicespublished in 1901 but probably written earlier—reflects the exoticism that pervaded writings about the fair. 


Entrance to the Turkish Village on the midway of the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Most of the village closed for Yom Kippur.


YOM KIPPUR ON THE MIDWAY
By Isidor Lewi

About four-fifths of the inhabitants of the Turkish village on the Midway Plaisance at the Chicago Exposition were Jews. Merchants, clerks, actors, servants, musicians, and even the dancing girls, were of the Mosaic faith, though their looks and garb would lead one to believe them Mohammedans. That their Judaism was not of the passive character was demonstrated by the closed booths, shops, and curio places, by the silence in the otherwise noisy theaters and the general Sabbath day air which pervaded the “Streets of Constantinople” on Yom Kippur—the Day of Atonement.

A more unique observance of the day never occurred in this country, and to the few Americans who had the good fortune to be present it presented a picture of rare beauty and solemnity.

The Turkish mosque was so arranged that it could be used as a Jewish house of worship also—the paraphernalia was all there and the Moslem is liberal enough to allow religious service other than his own to take place in his houses of worship—a point which he thinks the Western people would do well to ponder.

It was in this gorgeously equipped and dimly lighted mosque that the oriental Jews assembled on Tuesday evening, September 19, 1893, and read the Kol Nidra service. A screen of carved wood was placed across one corner of the mosque, and behind this the women, robed in white, with Continue reading