Published: May 3, 2017 By

The second annual Mediterranean Summer Skills Seminar – an innovative program organized by the CU Mediterranean Studies Group – will be held May 22-26 at the University of Colorado Boulder.

Participants in this year’s seminar, titled “Reading Ladino/Judezmo,” will have a crash course in reading manuscripts produced by Spanish-Jewish exiles in the late-medieval to modern Mediterranean period.


Brian Catlos

In 1492, the Catholic monarchs of Castile and Aragon issued the Alhambra Decree, which ordered Jews to convert to Catholicism or face exile. The 40,000 or so Jews who were forced to abandon their homeland scattered across the Mediterranean and other parts of Europe.

Ladino, or Judezmo, is the Old Spanish spoken by Jews at the time of the expulsion, traditionally written in Hebrew letters. It became the primary language written and spoken by Sephardic Jews in the Ottoman Empire.

“It’s an important and somewhat little-known aspect of Jewish history, but it also sheds light onto dynamics of cultural, linguistic and literary development that happened in the Mediterranean,” explains Brian Catlos, co-director of the Mediterranean seminar and professor of religious studies at CU.

Studying this period, he adds, can be illuminating particularly in “how people adopted the languages of others, in this case Jews who were speaking vernacular Spanish, and sometimes meshed them with their own linguistic and literary traditions.”

“In exile, they maintained discrete Jewish communities that identified with their Spanish or Sephardic past,” says Catlos. 

He adds, “As a result of their continued community and cultural cohesiveness, they maintained their language.”

Today, there is still a Ladino-speaking Jewish community in Istanbul, and the newspaper Şalom, still publishes part of each issue in that language.

The instructor of this year’s skills seminar is David Bunis, a professor of linguistics at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and the world’s leading scholar of Judezmo.

Over the course of five days, 22 graduate students, faculty and post-doctoral scholars from across the country – including two faculty members and two graduate students from CU  – will gain hands-on experience collaborating with other academics, developing technical skills and engaging in scholarly discourse. At the end of the week participants receive a certificate of completion.

The program follows last year’s Skill Seminar on “Reading Aljamiado” – the Old Spanish written in Arabic characters that was the literary language of the Moriscos – Muslims forcibly converted to Christianity in the 1500s and exiled in 1609–14. The cost of the Skills Seminar is paid for entirely through participants’ fees, making it a rare example of a self-funding humanities initiative, Catlos said..

The Skills Seminar will kick off on May 22 at 6:30 p.m. at Chautauqua Historical Park with “The Language of Exile” – a colloquium featuring Bunis, Catlos, and women’s studies Professor Janet Jacobs, who will together provide a brief introduction to Hispano-Jewish society and culture, and to Ladino literature. The  event is free and open to the public, but admission is by ticket only, and these must be reserved on or before May 15. Donations go to funding Mediterranean-studies programming at CU Boulder.