(New York Jewish Week) — The sixth annual New York Ladino Day — which aims to celebrate and elevate Ladino culture in New York and throughout the world — will take place this Sunday at the Center for Jewish History in Manhattan.
For the first time since the pandemic, the program will be conducted in person, though a livestream option is also available. This year’s theme is “Kontar i Kantar” — “Storytelling and Singing” — and will include a performance from Tony- and Grammy-nominated Broadway singer Shoshana Bean and a conversation with Michael Frank, author of “One Hundred Saturdays: Stella Levi and the Search for a Lost World,” as well as additional music-oriented speakers and performances.
“Music is certainly one of the domains in which the language is doing well and generating new interest and new music,” said Bryan Kirschen, a professor of Hispanic Linguistics at Binghamton University and one of the event’s organizers. (Kirschen was one of the New York Jewish Week’s “36 Under 36” in 2017.)
Ladino, or Judeo-Spanish, was once the primary language spoken by Jews on the Iberian Peninsula. After the Jews’ expulsion in 1492, they brought language with them throughout the Ottoman Empire — Turkey, North Africa and the Balkans. Today, the estimated number of Ladino speakers around the world — mostly Sephardic Jews — ranges between 60,000 to 300,000, from fluent speakers to descendants who are familiar with some words.
Sephardic Jews were the first Jewish immigrants in New York, founding Congregation Shearith Israel in 1654, the oldest Jewish congregation in the United States. (It’s still in operation today at 2 West 70th St., where it has been since 1897.) Sephardic Jews remained the only active Jewish community in New York until the wave of German Jewish immigration in the early 19th century, followed by the mass immigration of Eastern European Jews that began at the tail-end of the 19th century.
Soon enough, Ashkenazi Jews quickly outnumbered New York’s Sephardic community, though Sephardic and Ladino culture continues to thrive today. Today, the main hubs for Sephardic and Ladino culture and education are the American Sephardi Federation and the Kehilla Kedosha Synagogue and Museum, a Greek Romaniote synagogue on the Lower East Side, said Kirschen, and there are large Sephardic synagogues in Canarsie, Brooklyn and Forest Hills, Queens that still conduct services in Ladino.
Ladino, said Kirschen, remains “a very living, in some ways thriving language, interestingly enough, particularly since the pandemic.”
Ahead of Sunday’s celebration — which is co-curated by Jane Mushabac, a professor emerita of English at City University of New York and a Ladino scholar and writer — the New York Jewish Week caught up with Kirschen to discuss the program, his personal interest in Ladino, and how Ashkenazi Jews can help uplift Ladino language and culture.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
New York Jewish Week: How did you become interested in Ladino culture? Are you from a Sephardic family?
I’m from an Ashkenazi, Yiddish-speaking family. So I’m not Sephardic. But for the past 15 years or so, I’ve been doing my best to learn as much about and embrace Sephardic culture as I can, and learn as much as I can about Ladino as well. My own interest stems from learning languages — I’m a Spanish professor at Binghamton University and I have also studied Hebrew for numerous years. So when I first came across Ladino as this Judeo-Spanish language, it interested me for a number of reasons. Once I started to meet actual speakers, it became so much more than just about the language — it became about celebrating and promoting the culture, the history, the connections, of course the food and the music.
What is the origin story of New York Ladino Day?
The idea of Ladino Day came about in 2013 — to have a day when communities around the world would celebrate all that remains. Originally, the day was selected to be during Hanukkah. But because there is no real central organization that governs the language — though there are different institutions, particularly in Israel, that try to foster the language and help promote it — Ladino Day grew in many different directions.
These days, some communities celebrate in January, some in February, some still in December. The National Authority of Ladino in Israel has their own International Day of Ladino in March. But the important thing is that communities all around the world are committed to celebrating it in their own ways.
As far as New York goes, the American Sephardi Federation at the Center for Jewish History in Manhattan started holding a Ladino Day six years ago under the direction of my collaborator, Jane Mushabac, who is Sephardic from a Ladino-speaking family. I had been separately organizing Judeo-Spanish celebrations at a synagogue in Forest Hills, Queens, so the following year we joined forces and started co-curating the program together and have been doing that ever since.
The theme for this year’s program is “Kontar i Kantar.” How is this year’s theme different from years’ past?
Last year, we did “Salud y Vida,” which is a common expression for “health and life” and which was fitting for the time. Like most of the world, we had to pivot for the last two years and hold the program online. That afforded different opportunities — we were able to bring in speakers from around the world in a way that was much more doable, and we were able to open up our program to the world. Normally, we like to focus on New York talent and language, but the previous few years doing online events we were featuring different voices from the Sephardic world, so many new connections were made.
Because of that experience, this year’s program will be back in person at the Center for Jewish History, but with a hybrid option. The theme is “Kontar i Kantar,” “Storytelling and Singing.” It will both acknowledge how important music has been to Ladino, and celebrate how, in recent years, there have been so many initiatives for people to get together to share their stories in or about Ladino and to sing in Ladino.
Most Jews in New York have an Ashkenazi background. What role or responsibility do you think Ashkenazi Jews have in honoring and preserving Ladino culture?
Yes, the numbers [of Ashkenazi versus Sephardi Jews] don’t match up. Still, Sephardim from Turkey and areas of the former Ottoman Empire brought tens of thousands of Sephardic, Ladino-speaking Jews to New York City at the start of the 20th century, but as a minority — as a minority within the Jews, as a minority-speaking language, etc. So as someone who is Ashkenazi, I understand the enormous responsibility that I have to represent this language in a positive and genuine way to others and to work with and uplift speakers of Ladino.
Like Yiddish, thousands upon thousands of Ladino speakers were killed in the Holocaust, and those who didn’t experience the same fate often gave up their Ladino to assimilate. So many speakers today, who are typically in their 70s, 80s or 90s — or maybe younger generations who know some words here and there like foods, terms of kin — haven’t historically been so proud of using their Ladino. So aside from research and teaching, I’m really passionate about encouraging speakers and semi-speakers to use their language and to take pride in their language and ideally, to give them a platform to do so.
Bonus question: What are some common misconceptions about Ladino?
Ladino is not a dead language — that’s something I’m very vocal about. There are all sorts of ways to classify and categorize languages, but as long as they are living, breathing, speakers and semi-speakers, the language is living. So Ladino is a living language, despite all the obstacles. There are speakers and there are amazing resources out there willing to share their language and their story with people.
“Kontar i Kantar: The 6th Annual New York Ladino Day” will take place at the Center for Jewish History (15 West 16th St.) on Sunday at 2:00 p.m. A livestream option is available. Buy tickets and find more information here.
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Phyllis Pollock died at home Sunday September 3, 2023 in Winnipeg, after a courageous lifetime battle with cancer.
Phyllis was a mother of four: Gary (Laura), daughter Randi, Steven (deceased in 2010) (Karen), and Robert. Phyllis also had two grandchildren: Lauren and Quinn.
Born in Fort Frances, Ontario on February 7, 1939, Phyllis was an only child to Ruby and Alex Lerman. After graduating high school, Phyllis moved to Winnipeg where she married and later divorced Danny Pollock, the father of her children. She moved to Beverly Hills in 1971, where she raised her children.
Phyllis had a busy social life and lucrative real estate career that spanned over 50 years, including new home sales with CoastCo. Phyllis was the original sales agent for three buildings in Santa Monica, oceanfront: Sea Colony I, Sea Colony II, and Sea Colony. She was known as the Sea Colony Queen. She worked side by side with her daughter Randi for about 25 years – handling over 600 transactions, including sales and leases within the three phases of Sea Colony alone.
Phyllis had more energy than most people half her age. She loved entertaining, working in the real estate field, meeting new and interesting people everyday no matter where she went, and thrived on making new lifelong friends. Phyllis eventually moved to the Sea Colony in Santa Monica where she lived for many years before moving to Palm Desert, then Winnipeg.
After battling breast cancer four times in approximately 20 years, she developed metastatic Stage 4 lung cancer. Her long-time domestic partner of 27 years, Joseph Wilder, K.C., was the love of her life. They were never far apart. They traveled the world and went on many adventures during their relationship. During her treatment, Phyllis would say how much she missed work and seeing her clients. Joey demonstrated amazing strength, love, care, and compassion for Phyllis as her condition progressed. He was her rock and was by her side 24/7, making sure she had the best possible care. Joey’s son David was always there to support Phyllis and to make her smile. Joey’s other children, Sheri, Kenny, Joshua and wife Davina, were also a part of her life. His kids would Facetime Phyllis and include her during any of their important functions. Phyllis loved Joey’s children as if they were her own.
Thank you to all of her friends and family who were there to support her during these difficult times. Phyllis is now, finally, pain free and in a better place. She was loved dearly and will be greatly missed. Interment took place in Los Angeles.
Gwen Centre Creative Living Centre celebrates 35th anniversary
By BERNIE BELLAN Over 100 individuals gathered at the Gwen Secter Centre on Tuesday evening, July 18 – under the big top that serves as the venue for the summer series of outdoor concerts that is now in its third year at the centre.
The occasion was the celebration of the Gwen Secter Centre’s 35th anniversary. It was also an opportunity to honour the memory of Sophie Shinewald, who passed away at the age of 106 in 2019, but who, as recently as 2018, was still a regular attendee at the Gwen Secter Centre.
As Gwen Secter Executive Director Becky Chisick noted in her remarks to the audience, Sophie had been volunteering at the Gwen Secter Centre for years – answering the phone among other duties. Becky remarked that Sophie’s son, Ed Shinewald, had the phone number for the Gwen Secter Centre stored in his phone as “Mum’s work.”
Remarks were also delivered by Raquel Dancho, Member of Parliament for Kildonan-St. Paul, who was the only representative of any level of government in attendance. (How times have changed: I remember well the steadfast support the former Member of the Legislature for St. John’s, Gord Mackintosh, showed the Gwen Secter Centre when it was perilously close to being closed down. And, of course, for years, the area in which the Gwen Secter Centre is situated was represented by the late Saul Cherniack.)
Sophie Shinewald’s granddaughter, Alix (who flew in from Chicago), represented the Shinewald family at the event. (Her brother, Benjamin, who lives in Ottawa, wasn’t able to attend, but he sent a pre-recorded audio message that was played for the audience.)
Musical entertainment for the evening was provided by a group of talented singers, led by Julia Kroft. Following the concert, attendees headed inside to partake of a sumptuous assortment of pastries, all prepared by the Gwen Secter culinary staff. (And, despite my asking whether I could take a doggy bag home, I was turned down.)
Palestinian gunmen kill 4 Israelis in West Bank gas station
This is a developing story.
(JTA) — Palestinian gunmen killed four people and wounded four in a terror attack at a gas station near the West Bank settlement of Eli, the Israeli army reported.
An Israeli civilian returning fire at the scene of the attack on Tuesday killed one of the attackers, who emerged from a vehicle, and two others fled.
Kan, Israel’s public broadcaster, said one of those wounded was in serious condition. The gunmen, while in the vehicle, shot at a guard post at the entry to the settlement, and then continued to the gas station which is also the site of a snack bar. A nearby yeshiva went into lockdown.
Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant announced plans to convene a briefing with top security officials within hours of the attack. Kan reported that there were celebrations of the killing in major West Bank cities and in the Gaza Strip, initiated by terrorist groups Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Hamas said the shooting attack Tuesday was triggered by the Jenin raid.
The shooting comes as tensions intensify in the West Bank. A day earlier, Israeli troops raiding the city of Jenin to arrest accused terrorists killed five people.
The Biden administration spoke out over the weekend against Israel’s plans to build 4,000 new housing units for Jewish settlers in the West Bank. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also finalized plans to transfer West Bank building decisions to Bezalel Smotrich, the extremist who is the finance minister. Smotrich has said he wants to limit Palestinian building and expand settlement building.
Kan reported that the dead terrorist was a resident of a village, Urif, close to Huwara, the Palestinian town where terrorists killed two Israeli brothers driving through in February. Settlers retaliated by raiding the village and burning cars and buildings.
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