In Search of a Lost Ladino

In Search of a Lost Ladino
Marcel Cohen

I bought this book because I wanted to read the original Ladino which is quite similar to Spanish., and as a Spanish speaker I was quite curious about the structure of the language and its similarity to Spanish. However, there is something else to this book that makes it a fascinating book, a kind of elegy for the language itself.

Ladino as Cohen says is a dead language and when he speaks it he “speaks a dead language”. But it is more than a language he is talking about, but a memory of his family and more: the memories caught up in the history his language and the language caught up in history. To be Ladino, is not only to speak it, but is also to have lived a certain history that is now gone. And in this sense the elegy takes its full strength as it describes the people of the Ladino barrios in Salonika and else where, their trades, their food, their clothing. The structure of the book is in little chapters that are almost prose poems to an idea or a memory of something lost. It gives one a fleeting glimpse, and almost dream like look at what has been lost. Its as if Cohen is remembering not to forget, but can’t leave the labyrinth of sadness that permeates the book and is unable to structure an over arching narrative.

As you read the book you often have a sense of grief, a grief stretches back to Spain and the city of Cuenca when the programs first began some 700 years ago. The grief reemerges in the Ottoman empire when Sultans turn on the Jews or the Malamukes roam through the streets and attack Jews at will. Thus the grief is not only the loss of the language and the community in Salonika during the Holocaust, but a lingering pain of hundreds of years of hope and diaspora. It makes for a beautiful and sad book.

2 thoughts on “In Search of a Lost Ladino

  1. I did not read up to now your recent discovery, “In Search of a Lost Ladino.” After reading your presentation though, it seems to me that either you or its author may not quite understand everything there is to know about Judeo-Spanish, Sefardim and their mind*, although some points are entirely correct.

    Among and along those points, central to my Balkan-Sefardi (with a touch of Romaniote) mind are:
    – the Ottoman Empire as a combination of both saviour and oppressor of Jews.
    – the “Salonika and elsewhere” concept for myself, a Jew who is “from elsewhere”…

    Kon karinyo,


    * be it the collective mind of the Sefardom or the million individual ones…

  2. You are quite correct that there is more to the story and both of the points you raise. The book, though, is only 40 pages long and is more a set of fractured memories mixing his personal experience with those of the Ladino, rather than a clear Ladino history.

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