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  • Isabelle Kim-Sherman

In Conversation: Ladino, Yiddish, and Jewish-American Identity

Names carry a special weight for Dr. Devin Naar, professor of Sephardic Studies at the University of Washington. When I spoke with him in mid-October following a colloquium he gave, one of the first things we discussed was the politics of naming (or rather, re-naming) conventions seen in Sephardic Jewish immigrants to the United States in the early 20th century. There exists a common myth that European immigrants to the United States had their names anglicized by customs officers on Ellis Island—Konovaloff becomes Conway, Rossellini becomes Russel, Mailloux becomes Mayhew. However, Dr. Naar referenced A Rosenberg By Any Other Name by Kirsten Lise Fermaglich, which suggests otherwise. The officers who were processing immigrants on Ellis Island were not interested in assimilating newcomers into American culture. They were only interested in collecting data. The decision to assume new names came entirely from the immigrant families themselves.

“There's a phenomenon of Ashkenazi Jews anglicizing their names so that they can try to skirt anti-Semitism in social and professional contexts,” Dr. Naar explained. “What you see taking place among Jews from the Ottoman Empire is you have some people anglicizing their names… but then you have other Sephardic Jews Ashkenazi-fying their names, which demonstrates what they thought about the relative status and opportunities that might be available.” While in some cases Sephardic immigrants would change their name from “Abravaya” to “Abbey” in order to assimilate with the Anglophone mainstream, others might change “Benrubi” to “Rubin” to advance socially in Ashkenazi spheres.

Dr. Naar’s colloquium heavily featured the highly complex relationship between Ashkenazi and Sephardic immigrants in New York City, and more specifically the roles that both communities played in labor movements and socialist groups. The Yiddish labor movement was the earlier established of the two, with Ashkenazi Jewish immigrants from central and eastern Europe bringing socialist ideas from the General Jewish Labor Bund to the United States in the late-19th and early-20th centuries. By the time Sephardic Jewish immigrants began organizing politically, the Yiddish labor movement had expanded to occupy the niche of Jewish labor organizing, leaving Sephardic socialists to decide whether to assimilate with their Ashkenazi comrades or to cast aside their Judaism altogether.

Adding to the tension between the two Jewish-American communities was the question of language and race relations. Yiddish and Ladino, the respective Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jewish diaspora languages, are each derived from their highly ethnically distinct surroundings.

“Language became a very important marker of racial difference in that early period of the 20th century,” said Dr. Naar about the Ladino and Yiddish communities, though these specific points of conflict were present between other immigrant communities as well. “What you see playing out is an aversion to marriage across the community boundaries. You even have stories of a Yiddish-speaking Jew marrying a Ladino-speaking Jew, and one or both sides will sit Shiva.”

As the generations passed, both Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews began to assimilate with mainstream American culture and tensions between the two groups began to lose their edge. Dr. Naar attributes this easing of tension in large part to linguistic assimilation. “The American-born generation is being spoken to in Ladino or Yiddish, but more likely to respond in English, and speak with their friends in English.” Furthermore, as Ashkenazi Jews began to move up in the social hierarchy, Dr. Naar’s research suggests that “if a Sephardic Jewish person could succeed in marrying an Ashkenazi person, especially if they were American born, that was seen as a way to move up.”

However, remnants of those early tensions still remain today. Dr. Naar and I talked about feelings of competition or a “zero-sum” mentality between Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews in America, and he said that while that mentality “does not exist in the consciousness of Jews of a Yiddish-speaking background, it does exist in the consciousness of those of a Ladino speaking background, who know that their heritage is not well incorporated into the story of American Jews.”

Indeed, when challenged to come up with any examples of Sephardic-heritage Jewish-American authors or fictional characters, I could only come up with two. André Aciman, the author of Call Me by Your Name, also wrote a memoir called Out of Egypt in which he described his family’s history and Ladino-speaking heritage in Alexandria. Leigh Bardugo, herself of Moroccan Jewish descent, featured a protagonist of Sephardic descent in her fantasy series Ninth House. In stark contrast, we discussed the comparative plethora of Ashkenazi cultural icons and influences in mainstream American culture.

Even in media that celebrates the ethnic and cultural diversity of Judaism, that Judaism is overwhelmingly Ashkenazi. Dr. Naar cited Adam Sandler’s 2023 comedy-drama "You Are So Not Invited To My Bat Mitzvah," a film in which Judaism is taken for granted. “What [Sandler] does is he completely normalizes Jewishness. All the characters are Jewish. And the school is Jewish, and the people that go to the school also go to Hebrew school, go to synagogue. It's this entire Jewish universe, and it is a multiracial Jewish universe. So, there are people of all different backgrounds, but the articulations of Jewishness are all Ashkenazi.”

From that example, we moved into a discussion of the label “Jew of Color” and the complexities within. A Jew of Color could be a Sephardic or otherwise non-Ashkenazi Jew, for whom the “Jewish” and the “of Color” identities are one and the same, or they could be a mixed-race Ashkenazi Jew. While the two subgroups share the experience of being outside the dominant expectations of American Judaism, Dr. Naar noted that “a Jew of Color who is conversant in Ashkenazi Judaism and Yiddish culture has a shorter distance to travel in order to make their Judaism understood by the Jewish establishment. If you’re Sephardic, if you’re Mizrachi, every time you [express your Judaism], it becomes a statement.”

Our conversation turned, as it had begun, back to names. Dr. Naar sees his Sephardic name as part of the reason why he developed such an interest in Sephardic culture, as well as in the study of Ladino. “If I had my Ashkenazi names, I might not have pursued my path of study. My Ashkenazi surnames are Grossman, Deckelbaum, Katz. There's no question that those are Jewish names.”

I asked him about his hopes for a Ladino revival similar to the Yiddish revival seen in past decades—a resurgence of interest from both within and outside the Jewish community for Yiddish stories, music, and history. “I think we're in a phase right now where there's elements of excavation,” he said. “People are trying to find out, ‘what is this all about?’ Even the people themselves whose grandparents spoke Ladino, they don't know enough to know where to begin.” Dr. Naar and other Ladino scholars have been working to amass and develop primary source materials for people to use in their own study of the language. However, many within the Sephardic community feel that Ladino is not a language worth learning. “Among some Sephardic families, if there's going to be another Jewish language, it should be Hebrew…and if you're going to learn a variety of Spanish, well, why not just learn ‘real Spanish.’ You learn Ladino—what are you going to do with it?”

For generations, Ladino has been seen by some in both Sephardic and Ashkenazi communities as a “bastardized” language. Dr. Naar identified some of the historical criticisms of Ladino. “It has some Hebrew, it has Turkish, it has Greek. This is not a real language. It's so stuck in late 19th and 20th century ideologies of linguistic purity. The legacies and echoes of that have been internalized among Sephardic communities.”

However, Dr. Naar feels that this conception of Ladino is fundamentally untrue. Ladino, as a language built of Spanish, Hebrew, Turkish, and Arabic, serves as a very clear reminder of the shared history of those languages. “And it just so happens that today, it can have some very important utility to think about the possibilities of connection, coalition, and solidarity between say, Jews, Muslims, and Latino people. That's a good trio to have in mind.”

Dr. Naar told me about a lecture he gave in which he used the term mashallah, which is found both in Arabic and in Ladino. After his talk, he received a letter criticizing his use of a “Muslim” word in the context of a Jewish Studies program. The writer of the letter worried that his use of mashallah would give an impression of “sameness” between Jews and Muslims. In response, Dr. Naar argued for the value of that exact sameness. “Jews and Muslims, through a term like mashallah, have something in common. And I think those kinds of commonalities are desperately needed right now.”

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