Englewood resident Enrique Levy left his native Cuba some 50 years ago. What he did not leave behind was his love for Ladino, a language he describes as "muy hermozo" (very beautiful).
"I can’t describe it . It’s more than just beautiful sounds," he said. "It can convey entire moods, like Yiddish."
Ladino, otherwise known as Judeo-Spanish, is the spoken and written Hispanic language of Jews of Spanish origin. According to the Website of the Foundation for the Advancement of Sephardic Studies and Culture, Ladino did not become a specifically Jewish language until after the expulsion from Spain in 1492.
"It’s not just translation," said Levy. "It’s full of ‘old sayings,’" using few words to make larger statements. He noted that he once heard a lecturer in Israel describe Ladino as "the psychiatrist of its people conveying the essence of life."
Enrique Levy, founder of the Ladino Club at the JCC on the Palisades, recently attended an Israeli gathering of Ladino speakers.
Levy, who founded the Ladino Club at the JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly some six years ago, says, "I was selfish. I wanted people I could speak with in Ladino." Nevertheless, since there aren’t very many people left who speak the language, "I switched emphasis." Now he said, at his once-a-month meetings, he brings in written materials including poetry, essays, and liturgical texts that he reads and translates, as well as musical pieces and, when he can find them, DVDs. The group usually attracts about 10 members.
"We don’t do as well in the winter months," he said. "Most of those who come are elderly and they don’t come out."
Levy, who calls himself a "freelance teacher" at the JCC on the Palisades, began his association with the organization in 199′, when the JCC sponsored a major event commemorating the 500th anniversary of the expulsion of Jews from Spain. A member of the Sephardic Minyan at Cong. Ahavath Torah in Englewood, he said he is proud of the well-attended group, which has been in existence for some 15 years and boasts well-attended daily, as well as Shabbat, services.
Levy spoke with the Standard after returning from a gathering of the LadinoKomunita in Israel. Describing the group as a "virtual community" of about 850 members who communicate and share resources over the Internet, he noted that, to date, there have been 17,000 messages in Ladino, including poetry and writings. The trip to Israel, organized by members of the group, brought together hundreds of Ladino speakers for programs on Ladino culture with all lectures delivered in Ladino.
According to the group’s Website, www.sephardicstudies.org/komunita.html, "News of the death of Judeo-Spanish (Ladino) have been greatly exaggerated. This beautiful Sephardic language is not only used daily, but it is the only acceptable language of communication in our virtual community called Ladinokomunita. The members of this Internet chat group, who may reside hundreds and thousands of miles from each other on earth, have discussions with each other daily via e-mail in the language they all understand. In other words, here, Ladino (Judeo-Spanish) is indeed very much alive!"
Levy explained that while, in Israel, there is a good deal of interest in Ladino at the university level, the language is taught here only at Tufts University in Massachusetts and at the University of Pennsylvania.
"There are some small little grains of interest," he said, noting that an increasing number of young students are joining the LadinoKomunita.
Levy, who will soon lead a tour to Cuba for the third time "We bring the Jewish community medicine and give them support," he said noted that the people who attend the JCC Ladino Club, hailing from local towns and from as far away as Long Island, "meet and have fun."
"Some of them are nostalgic and say, ‘I remember my grandmother saying that,’" he noted, adding that participants don’t have to know Ladino to attend meetings. "Everything is translated," he said. "We use Ladino texts for the flavor of the language."
For information on the Ladino Club at the JCC, call Lynn at (201) 569-7900.