When did Ladino literature emerge? According to Dr. Olga Borovaya
, author of The Beginnings of Ladino Literature: Moses Almosnino and his Readers
(Indiana University Press, 2017), the history of Ladino writing may have a much earlier start date than scholars have previously thought. Borovaya makes her argument by focusing on the 16th-century vernacular literature of Moses Almosnino, a writer who was famous not only among Ottoman Sephardim, but also Jews and Christians throughout Europe.
According to Borovaya, most scholars of Ladino literature of have placed the birth of genre in the 18th century, largely due to a false belief that works of high-culture were not composed in Ladino. She works against the assumption that Ladino was only used in popular, “folksy” writing, and the flawed categorization of high register Sephardi literature—like that of Moses Almosnino—as “Spanish” or “Castilian.” This tendency, Borovaya argues, wrongly implies that texts aimed at an educated audience were never written in the Ladino.
Through in depth discussions of Almosnino’s epistles, chronicles, and travelogues, Borovaya convincingly shows that his vernacular literature belongs to the Ladino corpus. His work was widely read among Sephardi intellectuals from the 16th to 20th centuries, meaning that Ladino was indeed a language educated used in material written for the educated elite, and not just the popular masses. Ladino, Borovaya tells us, was similar to other languages (including Yiddish) in that it had multiple functional styles.
Dr. Olga Borovaya is a Visiting Scholar at the Taube Center for Jewish Studies at Stanford University. She is the author of Modern Ladino Culture: Press, Belles Lettres, and Theater in the Late Ottoman Empire (IUP).
Robin Buller is a PhD Candidate in History at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.