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Aya Bach / hwNovember 29, 2012

Karen Gerson is trying to preserve a dying language. As a journalist and singer, she fosters Ladino, the language of her Sephardic ancestors. And on the Sabbath, she also makes a great Turkish mocha.

Karen Gerson with an issue of El Amaneser in 2012
Image: Aya Bach

When we meet Karen Gerson Sarhon in her editorial office, she's devouring a quick midday take-away while she works. There's a lot to do, as her crowded desk between heavily laden bookcases and piles of newspapers indicates.

Nevertheless, it's time for a cup of mocha. It's an opportunity to have a chat about how it's made properly. The secret is patience, says Gerson, it needs to boil slowly. Then the coffee grounds become creamy and something plain becomes a pure delight.

She must know, because she learned how to make mocha from her mother, who learned it from her mother, and so on and so forth. Gerson's family, with the very un-Turkish sounding name, has lived in Turkey for more than 500 years. Over the centuries, the family has adopted many aspects of Turkish culture.

Sign of hope

But another piece of culture, belonging to her family and sense of self-understanding, is just as important to her. "I am a Turkish-Sephardic Jew. I'm very clear about that."

How does that translate into everyday life? Above all, that she fosters the Ladino language. The language developed when Spanish Jews, the Sephardim, were forced out of the country in 1492 and fled to the Ottoman Empire. They are Gerson's ancestors.

"If I speak Ladino with Spanish people today, they understand it well," Gerson says. "But Ladino has incorporated lots of Turkish words, as well as Greek, French, and Italian. And there is something that makes it a Jewish language. The entire religious terminology comes from Hebrew."

Until 50 or 60 years ago, Ladino was the everyday and family language of Sephardim in Turkey. Today, fewer and fewer people still speak the language. In order to preserve it as a part of cultural heritage, Karen Gerson Sarhon works at the Jewish weekly newspaper Salom as editor-in-chief of a monthly supplement in Ladino.

Karen Gerson's office packed with newspapers and books on Sephardic culture
Karen Gerson's office is packed with newspapers and books on Sephardic cultureImage: Aya Bach

The title "El Amaneser" is illuminated in white on red on the cover. "It means 'daybreak.' A sign of hope," Gerson explains and quotes a Sephardic saying: "Kuando muncho eskurese es para amaneser" - when it is very dark, morning will soon dawn.

Oral tradition

Actually, the Sephardic language needs illuminating. Even during her own childhood, she explains, it was one language among many others. Like in many Jewish families, Ladino was always spoken alongside French, "but we children answered our parents in Turkish to rebel against them."

Nevertheless, she later began to explore the language more closely. Her university studies in Istanbul and Reading, England, where completed with a Masters thesis on Ladino. Back then, it was quite an exotic subject: "The hardest part was finding any sources."

The Sephardic culture was exclusively passed on verbally - and through women. That had worked for over 500 years, until Gerson's youth. But she herself, born in 1958, has failed to pass the language on to her own daughter. The tradition has somehow got stuck.

Karen Gerson on the beach in Istanbul in 2012
As a journalist and singer, Gerson is keeping the Ladino language aliveImage: Aya Bach

"Even when our mother was young," she explains, "we were a homogeneous society. We didn't have much contact with people from outside. You would always meet Jewish neighbors nearby. Today we are strewn across all of Istanbul. That changes the way you deal with people enormously." On a day-to-day basis, practically only Turkish is spoken. 

'Ottoman Balkan music'

But the changes also have positive sides: "We have contact with people from all parts of society; our community has become much more open. However, Gerson is not prepared to stand-by and witness the loss of her language. Though the chances are better for her second great passion, Sephardic music.

"It is a very old culture. Everything that we know about it was passed on by women, the mothers." Not that the Sephardic men were unmusical - they passed down religious music in the synagogue. Everyday culture was a female domain. However, Gerson has three male comrades-in-arms who campaign with her on behalf of Sephardic folk music.

Since 1978, they've been touring together around the world as Los Pasharos Sefaradis, (The Sephardic Birds). Their music is also well received by Muslims, since the Sephardim borrowed from their musical surroundings over the course of time. "It is Ottoman Balkan music," she says. "It sounds totally oriental. You can't hear the muezzins five times a day without being influenced by it."

Authentic music

In the meantime, there are scores of bands playing Sephardic music, most of them with rock or pop, jazz or flamenco influences. Under the World Music genre, it has become quite popular. But Gerson feels it is important to make authentic folk music.

"We've recorded music that old people have sung. We documented it and now we're playing it." The Pasharos had their largest audience in Hamburg where they played for a 5,000-person crowd. "That was great!"

We're treated to a sample of music. It's a love song that Karen and her partner Izzet Bana still sing with as much passion as if it were the very first time. But when the "Pasharos Sefaradis" meet, they speak Turkish with one another - why not Ladino?

Karen Gerson makes a Turkish mocha for her guests
Karen Gerson makes a great Turkish mocha for her guestsImage: Aya Bach

"We mostly speak Turkish actually," Gerson says, "but we often allow Ladino sayings to flow into the mix." Is that not contrary to their commitment to Sephardic culture and language? "The language culture is dying out anyway. We can collect and archive documents in order to preserve the cultural heritage for future generations. We can't do any more than that."

Mediterranean influence

But Karen Gerson is sure that one thing will never disappear from Turkish-Jewish culture: "No matter what happens, Friday evening, the beginning of the Sabbath belongs to the family. On any other night the family can be somewhere else. But on Fridays they all come and eat together."

Gerson cooks Sephardic food herself. Kosher or not, that's not important - the main thing is that it tastes good. And that, says Gerson, is something Sephardic Jews can simply do better than their Ashkenazi brothers and sisters from German-speaking regions or Eastern Europe. "We have a Mediterranean eating culture with olive oil and vegetables. We've always made excellent food from it."

The high point of the meal is, however, a real Turkish mocha. It's prepared with love and patience. Just like generations of Turkish mothers, grandmothers and great-grandmothers did before Gerson.