Ladino and Jewish Identity in Turkey, Then and Now

In Rodosto (Tekirdağ), a city on the shores of the Sea of Marmara, my paternal grandfather, Nesim, lived life in Ladino. Like most Jews in Turkey in the early twentieth century, his household was so devoid of Turkish that when my grandmother, Gülten, moved to Rodosto from Adana — a major southern city — she had to learn Ladino to speak to the head of the house: her new mother-in-law, Estrula. In spite of my grandmother’s necessary adjustment, by the time my father was born, Turkish had become the primary language of the shrinking Jewish community of Tekirdağ. My father spoke Turkish at home, overhearing only the most essential words in Ladino from his grandmother.
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Nesi Altaras - Nearly 140 kilometers east, my maternal grandfather, Eliezer, grew up in Kuledibi (literally “by the tower”) — the most Jewish area of Istanbul and home to the famous Neve Shalom synagogue. Going to Jewish elementary school and playing with his friends on the streets around the Galata Tower — La Kula in Ladino — Eliezer spoke Ladino to friends, neighbors, and family. But when Eliezer’s sister was born, he sought to ban Ladino at his home. He wanted his sister to speak Turkish without a Jewish accent; she would face less discrimination and become a “real” Turkish citizen. 

My family’s rejection of Ladino was part of a critical moment for the broader Jewish community in Turkey — and a moment shaped by the nationalist and racist policies of Turkey’s single-party state. After a 1930s tour of Edirne and Çanakkale, two of Turkey’s western cities, notorious Turkish fascist Nihal Atsız complained that Jews were flouting their obligation to the new republic by defiantly continuing to speak their own language — Ladino. While he couched his views in particularly racist terms, Atsız’s idea that citizens of Turkey — all legally deemed to be Turks — must speak the national language at all times was also the position of the state. 

The Turkish Republic, formed in 1923 after the Ottoman Empire dissolved, was founded on a contract of Turkishness with two components: being a nominal Sunni Muslim, and speaking Turkish at home. For Christians and Jews, only linguistic assimilation was possible. Under the promise of equal citizenship, all minorities living in Turkey were expected to abandon their language, whether Ladino, Armenian, Circassian, Kurdish, or Greek, in favor of Turkish. 

Of the various tools the Republic used to promote Turkish, one of the most effective was mandating Turkish instruction in minority schools. The Jewish school that my grandfather Eliezer attended had originally carried out instruction in French, but quickly had to switch to Turkish to accommodate new state mandates. In some areas, use of “other” languages even prompted violence.

But perhaps the most visible effort to assimilate minorities into the new state was the years-long Citizen Speak Turkish campaign. Through sponsorship of public events, newspaper articles, and posters, the state endeavored to convince the entire population that to be a citizen of Turkey meant speaking Turkish. Posters declared that “should our fellow citizens falter and speak ‘foreign’ languages, we must remind them to speak Turkish.”

Genocide-surviving Armenians were suspicious of the promise of equality; Greeks, most of whom had been deported, were too proud of their own language. But Jewish elites, harboring a fear of being the state’s next target, were more than ready to become what was known as “Turks believing in Judaism” (musevi Türk vatandaşları) as opposed to just Jews (yahudi). Some Jewish leaders even became public advocates for linguistic assimilation, speaking Turkish at home and imploring other Jews to do the same — not only privately, but in their synagogue sermons and in the local Jewish newspapers. Ironically, these assimilationist agendas were by necessity promoted in French and Ladino so that they would be legible to the broader Jewish community.

The idea that Ladino was “backwards” or too “Oriental” was not new: By the 1880s, especially middle class Jews across the Ottoman Empire began to adopt French in their quest for modernity and European status (as was the case in my grandfather Eliezer’s Jewish school). The shift toward Turkish, already gaining traction by the 1908 Young Turk Revolution, may have been motivated by a number of possibilities: Some Jews were pursuing economic gain that closeness with the government, via a shared language, would provide. Others were perhaps motivated by fear, or by a genuine belief that Turkish should be their new mother tongue. Sometimes these last two factors could even coexist. 

This assimilationism was so internalized over the first decades of the republic that all of my grandparents, Ladino speakers themselves, decided not to teach their language to their children. Many felt that they had no other choice. Some even sought to prevent their own parents from speaking Ladino to the next generation. The ban on Ladino that my grandfather Eliezer attempted to enforce was not completely successful, as the household included two women — Eliezer’s mother and grandmother — who spoke very little Turkish. Yet by the late 1960s and 70s, when my parents were born, families usually lived without Ladino-speaking grandparents and could easily institute Turkish as the home language.


Yazının devamı için: Jewish Studies