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Ladino Lives On

Ladino Lives OnA centuries-old Jewish tongue is finding new life on the lips of undergraduates at Tufts, thanks to the efforts of Associate Professor Gloria Ascher.

Medford/Somerville, Mass. [02.05.06] Many Jews expelled from Spain in 1492 carried with them Ladino, a language blending elements of Hebrew and Spanish. While it flourished in small pockets across Europe where the Jewish populations resettled, the language has declined in recent decades. But Tufts' Gloria Ascher is determined to keep it alive through her teaching.

"Ascher may be doing more to stave off the tongue's demise than anyone in the country today," according to an article in Forward, a major Jewish news publication. The newspaper added that the largest Ladino-speaking population currently resides in Israel and numbers 100,000.

Ascher, an associate professor of German in the Department of German, Russian and Asian Languages and Literature at Tufts, is the only college professor in the United States offering regular courses in modern Ladino, according to Forward.

Though Ascher—the child of Turkish immigrants—was exposed to Ladino at home growing up in 1940s in the Bronx and enjoyed speaking the language, her mother harbored disdain for the native tongue.

"She didn’t think much of the language," Ascher recalled to Forward. "To her, it was a kitchen language. Her generation was taught that French was the language of civilization. If you wanted to do high things, you did French. If you wanted just to have fun, you did Ladino."

Ascher's enthusiasm for Ladino developed into an academic focus when she connected with Matilda Kon-Sarano, an Israeli poet and Ladino scholar and activist. Ascher told Forward that their meeting was like "an instant friendship."

The class, which launched in the spring of 2000, has attracted a diverse array of students.

"You get Jews who know Spanish, people with Sephardic backgrounds, Christians and even some Muslims," she explained to Forward. "[In the fall] I had 21 or 22. I started out the first time with 12, which I was delighted to have. I thought it would be three."

One of the course requirements is a major project, which in the past has been completed in the form of a song, a meal or in other creative ways, the Forward reported.

Ultimately, what's important to Ascher is that Ladino finds new life through her students.

"They’re really contributing to the tradition," she told Forward. "They’re passing it on."

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