Fading food, lost language

Fading food, lost language

“Liparidas!”… Remembering the word, her face instantly lights up with joy. She travels back to her childhood in Ortaköy, a neighborhood once densely populated by Jews in Istanbul. One could apparently see that she feels the taste, too. This is one of the highlights of the delightful documentary by Deniz Alphan shown at the special screening section of the 36th Istanbul Film Festival this year. The documentary, “A Fading Language, A Fading Cuisine,” is about the Ladino language and Sephardic food culture in Turkey, and their cultural evolution due to the changing conditions of the past century. 

Eliza Pinhas is one of the narrators of the documentary talking about the nearly extinct Ladino language and disappearing Sephardic food. She talks about her happy childhood memories, and liparidas, a dried fish delicacy, is one taste she remembers fondly from her long-gone days in Ortaköy. She recalls that her mother and her friends would take a short break from household work just to have a little feast of liparidas wrapped in lettuce leaves. It was as normal as having a coffee break. Eliza is unfortunately one of the few remaining people who speaks Ladino as a mother tongue. 

As the documentary reveals, Ladino is a fading language, no longer the mother tongue of young Jews in Turkey or even in Israel. The original Castilian Spanish the Sephardic Jews used to speak changed over the centuries with many loan words from the various languages the Jews encountered in their new land after the expulsion from the Spain in 1492. The destination of most Jews was the Ottoman lands, especially the Balkans, Thrace and Aegean regions and inevitably Istanbul, the capital of the Ottoman Empire. However, Ottoman Jewry did not start with the Iberian new comers, as there were already several Jewish communities in the multi-ethnic and multi-religious empire, such as the Greek-speaking Romaniots, or the Byzantine Jews, and the Ashkenazis that were expelled from Poland previously, or the Mizrahis that came to Anatolia directly from Jerusalem which would soon become a part of Ottoman territory after the arrival of the Sephardim. 

Over the past centuries, Sephardic culture became the dominant one among Ottoman Jewry, and Judeo-Spanish or Ladino became synonymous with Jewishness. But of course it was prone to change. As said, the loanwords and at times even the sentence structure were heavily influenced by other languages. Ladino became a mixed language, often frowned upon by the elite. Claudia Roden (yes, the queen of Jewish cookery is also in the documentary) said her grandmother called the private language she spoke with her daughter Castilian to differentiate it with Ladino which she considered a degraded Spanish mix. A typical example is a sentence noted by the late Salamon Bicerano, the former editor of the Ladino page of the Şalom newspaper. He recalls hearing this from two chatting ladies on the ferry to the Prince’s Islands: 

“Kuando el vapor esta yanaşayando ala iskele de Büyuüada, va yamar al hamal ketaşideye mi bavules.” This translates as “When the boat is approaching the jetty at Büyükada, get a porter to carry my luggage.” 
One can easily say that this sentence is totally incomprehensible to a Spaniard today, but totally understandable by a Turk who is familiar with Latin languages. Mary Altabev refers to Ladino as a soup language in her book on the topic, “Judeo-Spanish in the Turkish social context: Language death, swan song, revival or new arrival?”

Ladino is indeed like a soup of many ingredients, or like a salad as stated by Karen Gerson Şarhon, director of the Ottoman-Turkish Sephardic Cultural Center. Well, that soup or salad has had many new ingredients; just like Sephardic cuisine did, like the later entry of tomatoes. It is hard to think of any Spanish, Turkish and Sephardic cuisine without the tomato today, but back in 1492, it was unheard of – yet to be discovered by Cristopher Columbus who was setting sail on his expedition that would end with the European discovery of the Americas at exactly the same time as Jews were starting their journey toward Ottoman lands. This is a story of more than five centuries, and this documentary provides us a glimpse of this past and taste of a fading culture. Very well done, Deniz, I’m proud to have a pinch of salt in this wonderful delightful soup you cooked!


Contributors to the documentary are (in order of appearance) Professor İlber Ortaylı, Aylin Öney Tan (yes, that is me), Karen Gerson Şarhon, Mario Levi, Eliza Pinhas, Yossi Yusuf Pinhas, Mari Benmayor, Gila Benmayor, Soli Özel, Claudia Roden, Yalçın Türkoğlu and Mehmet Tanrıkulu.  

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