Just before the Jewish holiday of Passover, the initiative of a Buber Fellow, Ilil Baum, brought together some twenty Ladino speakers to “meet” online and speak, sing, and tell stories in their mother tongue. Ladino, also referred to as Judeo-Spanish, Judezmo, and Spanyolit by its speakers, is an endangered language. According to pessimistic estimates, there are only about 20,000 living competent speakers, and the more optimistic sources believe that there are some 250,000–400,000 speakers, all of whom are Sephardic Jews residing mainly in Israel, the US, and Turkey.
Whichever estimate we want to believe, the majority of Ladino speakers are in their seventies and eighties, with very few fluent speakers under the age of sixty. Baum’s open class is a first in a series of virtual meetings with the title Zoomeando en Ladino (‘Zooming’ in Ladino) that is meant to ease the acute sense of isolation of the elderly during the COVID-19 crisis. One of the participants, a 70-year-old women, admitted that she normally has no one to speak to in her mother tongue. The class included enthusiastic Ladino speakers whose Sephardic origins are from Turkey, Greece, Bulgaria, and Israel, and many of whom video-conferenced for the first time in their life.