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Digitized Ladino Library Introduction

by Isaac Jerusalmi,
Professor of Bible and Semitic Languages, Hebrew Union College, Cincinnati, Ohio

At the request of Professor Aron Rodrigue, I am pleased to write this Introduction to the Digitized Ladino Library project initiated by Stanford University. As natives of Istanbul, he and I share the same Eastern Sephardic background of Ladino speakers whose number has been on a steady decline since the end of World War II. The suffering and destruction inflicted on the Jewish people spared no one. Particularly harsh was the situation of East Mediterranean Jewry, whose cultural heritage was severely damaged, with Salonika almost wiped off the map, and its rabbinical academies and libraries decimated.

The purpose of this Digitized Ladino Library is to place on the Internet a corpus of Ladino printed books, or even a few manuscripts, for easy access by scholars as well as students of Ladino throughout the world. I had already worked on a number of Ladino books in the past and I was delighted when Professor Rodrigue wished to include these books in this new series.

For the reader, here is a brief description of my contribution to this project:

1. Kanunnâme de Penas is the Ladino translation by Judge Yehezkel Gabbay of the first Ottoman Legal Code adopted in 1860, in the aftermath of the Hatt-i Hümayun promulgated in 1839. The text is presented in square Hebrew characters, as well as in Romanized form with a full glossary of all legal Turkish terms. The underlying Ottoman-Turkish text in the Arabic script and its transliteration into Modern Turkish characters, is in preparation.

2. Poezias Ebraikas de Rosh ha-Shana i Yom Kippur is a popular compilation in Ladino by Rabbi Reuven Eliyahu Yisrael of piyyutim chanted during the High Holidays. Rabbi Yisrael was born in Rhodes, spent his life in Kraiova, Rumania, and returned to Rhodes as its last Chief Rabbi. His Ladino is saturated with Gallicisms made fashionable by those educated in the schools of the Alliance Israélite Universelle, yet universally derided by those who had not been exposed to it. He even provides a brief glossary for those with no knowledge of French!

3. From Ottoman Turkish to Ladino features a unique Ladino pamphlet on morality by the same Judge Yehezkel Gabbay, known up to now only as the founder of the Djurnal Yisraelit. In this project of translation, Judge Gabbay was inspired by his illustrious colleague, the former Ottoman Ambassador to Austria, Mehmet Sâdik Rif'at Pasha, whose Risâle-i Ahlâk or "Pamphlet on Morality" represented, to my knowledge, the first departure from the traditional Muslim custom of discussing morality on the twin foundations of the Qur'ân and the Hadith exclusively. Apparently, these two enlightened individuals, already in the middle of the nineteenth century, were appalled by the inadequacy of the rote method used in the medreses and the yeshivoth. With this modest pamphlet as a catalyst, they hoped to unleash enlightenment among their respective co-religionists. Rif'at Pasha's shunning of any reference to shari'a was matched by Gabbay's equally amazing silence on halakha. While Rif'at Pasha's endeavor was short-lived due to his premature death, Yehezkel Gabbay did get into trouble with the rabbinic establishment in Istanbul.

Similar to what happened with the Kanunnâme, Gabbay's Ladino had to be forced to express Turkish concepts. Even when Gabbay must turn to Turkish, he may prefer a word different from the one he has been struggling with, such as his use of dalkaukluk to translate arsizlik (p. 12). But when he picks the Hebrew enoshiyyuth for the Ottoman-Turkish ünsiyyet, he clearly shows that he is no light-weight (p. 23).

4. The Selihoth of the Sepharadim, originally self-published by Joseph Alschech in Vienna in 1865, is, to my knowledge, the first bilingual, Hebrew-Ladino Sephardic Selihoth book produced by Eastern Sepharadim. Its methodology is the traditional verbum e verbo or palavra por palavra approach used by Jews since the days of the Septuagint in Alexandria and continued in the various Targumim throughout the ages. When recently this characteristic of Ladino texts was compared to the artificial literality of interlinear Greek and Latin classics, the erroneous and misleading conclusion was reached that its sole aim was pedagogical, i.e. to teach Hebrew to children!

Yet, reacting to the same literality, Jerome observed that, verborum ordo mysterium est, "the order of the words is the mystery." And well before him, Rabbi Akiba was known for insisting that the entire minutia in Holy Scripture serve to convey a hidden meaning worth unlocking.

Alschech's language rests on well-known Hebrew paradigms; he needs no French words to impress the pious. Its flow is steady and pleasing because those who use it can follow mentally the underlying Hebrew text they have learned since childhood. Pushing the metaphor, one can say that after five centuries of isolation, Ladino became a Semitic language with a Spanish vocabulary. In sentence construction, too, the fuller syntax of Spanish gave way to the simpler paratax of Semitic languages, where the basic declarative sentence of Hebrew is the norm as reflected in the King James Bible that has shaped the English language so well.

5. Initially, The Song of Songs in the Targumic Tradition was intended as a textbook for the study of the Aramaic Targum of the Song of Songs. Then, it became apparent that the Ladino version of this Targum in Roman characters, entitled Paraphrasis Caldaica, Amsterdam 1664, along with Avraham Asa's, Constantinople 1744 Romanized Ladino version, as well as my own 1992 modern Ladino version, could be a welcome addition.

By the time the layout of these five texts, i.e. the Aramaic Targum, my English translation, the Paraphrasis of 1664, Asa's version of 1744, and my 1992 revised Ladino version, was finalized, a rare bonanza crossed my path when I found yet another Ladino version in fully vocalized, square Hebrew letters! It had been included in Rabbi Abraham Laniado's mystical commentary on the Song of Songs, entitled Nequdoth ha-Kasef, Venice 1619, itself copied from an earlier, Salonika 1600, Ladino version.

Finally, for this to be a balanced study tool what was missing was a text in the Rashi script. This I found in Israel Hayyim's Vienna 1814 edition for which yet another Romanization was provided. In the Remarks on the Ladino Versions, each component is briefly evaluated, followed by a comparative Ladino-English Glossary of Select Lexical Items.

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