Latin American Studies Sephardic Culture
Ilan Stavans, Devin Naar
  • LAST REVIEWED: 23 March 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 March 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766581-0264


Following the expulsion decree issued in Spain in 1492, and fleeing persecutions by the Spanish and subsequently Portuguese Inquisitions, Sephardic Jews (Sepharad being the Hebrew term ascribed to the Iberian Peninsula since the Middle Ages) fled across the Mediterranean, where many settled in the lands of the Ottoman Empire. Until the 20th century, Sephardic Jews in the Ottoman Empire (and successor states such as Greece, Turkey, Bulgaria, etc.) kept their ancestral traditions and continued to speak a Spanish-based language—referred to as Judeo-Spanish, Judezmo, Spaniolit, and other names, serving as the primary vernacular of Sephardic Jews who trace their origins to the Iberian Peninsula in the 15th and 16th centuries—that incorporated linguistic elements not only from Hebrew, but also Turkish, Greek, and Arabic, as well as from the languages of European prestige, French and Italian. A wide-spanning oral culture as well as religious and secular literature (written in the Hebrew alphabet) developed in Ladino—declared by UNESCO an “endangered language” in 2002—and accompanied Sephardic Jews who left the crumbling Ottoman Empire during the 20th century and settled around the globe, notably in the United States and elsewhere in the Americas. There, they constituted a minority within the American Jewish community, encountered other Spanish-speaking populations, and increasingly adapted to American life. Today Ladino is a severely endangered language, spoken only by older generations. The multifaceted identities and experiences of Sephardic Jews challenge the boundaries of categories such as “Jewish,” “Latino,” and “Hispanic.” This article aims to direct the reader to key sources regarding the history, language, and culture of Ladino-speaking Jews. Since Sephardic history includes Conversos and Crypto-Jews, a heated controversy persists around who is a Jew and what methods were used to shape that identity from the 14th century to the present day, in Spain, the Americas (including the American Southwest), and elsewhere. The debates, including one rotating around Judith Neulamder, have been featured in ethnographic studies by scholars like Janet Jacobs and Seth Kunin, among others.

General Overview

The following works offer broad surveys and introductions suitable for the undergraduate class. These works fall into two broad, overlapping categories: those works that view the experience of Ladino-speaking Jews as part of the Spanish world and those that see it crystalizing in the Eastern Mediterranean world of the Ottoman Empire. Gerber 1992 provides a broad introduction that explores the medieval Iberian Jewish experience and the trajectories of Jews after 1492 to the Eastern Mediterranean as well as to Europe and the Americas. Jacobs 2002 looks at Crypto-Jewish identity in the context of ethnic minorities. Díaz Más 1992 emphasizes the cultural continuities between Jews in medieval Spain and their descendants across the Mediterranean. Now a classic albeit dated study, Benardete 1952 also emphasizes the Hispanic connections within the Sephardic Jewish experience. Kunin 2009 builds a bridge between the Crypto-Jews in the American Southwest and their Spanish roots. Toledano 2010 looks at the roots of Sephardic Judaism. Benbassa and Rodrigue 2000 offers the most recent and comprehensive historical introduction regarding the Ladino cultural environment that flourished in the lands of the Ottoman Empire from the 15th to the 20th centuries. Cohen and Stein 2014 provide a rich collection of primary sources pertaining to the history and culture of Ladino-speaking Jews in the Ottoman Empire.

  • Benardete, Maír José. Hispanic Culture and Character of the Sephardic Jews. New York: Hispanic Institute in the United States, 1952.

    A Ladino-speaking Jew born in the Ottoman Empire, Benardete came to the United States, became a professor of Spanish at Hunter College, and established a Sephardic Studies Section within the Hispanic Studies Institute at Columbia University in the 1930s. Here Benardete highlights Hispanic elements within the Sephardic experience.

  • Benbassa, Esther, and Aron Rodrigue. Sephardi Jewry: A History of the Judeo-Spanish Community, 14th-20th Centuries. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000.

    An essential introduction to the Ladino-speaking communities of the Eastern Mediterranean over five centuries, the book explores communal, social, economic, and cultural life; Westernization and modern political ideologies; the dissolution of this world through migrations to Europe and the Americas and the Holocaust.

  • Cohen, Julia Phillips, and Sarah Abrevaya Stein, eds. Sephardi Lives: A Documentary History, 1700–1950. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 2014.

    Contains translations of more than 150 primary sources from Ladino and more than a dozen other languages that deal with the daily lives, cultural worlds, and political transformations of Ladino centers in the Balkans and Middle East.

  • Díaz Más, Paloma. Sephardim: The Jews from Spain. Translated by George K. Zucker. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1992.

    Introduction to Sephardic language and culture with special emphasis on the various kinds of Ladino oral traditions and folkways in addition to literature.

  • Gerber, Jane. The Jews of Spain: A History of the Sephardic Experience. New York: The Free Press, 1992.

    Overview of Sephardic Jewish history from medieval era to the 20th century. Themes include Jews in Muslim Spain; the reconquista, the expulsion, and the Inquisition; the creation of Sephardic diasporas; Jewish life in the lands of Islam in the Eastern Mediterranean; the Holocaust; and new Sephardic communities in the postwar period.

  • Jacobs, Janet Liebman. Hidden Heritage: The Legacy of the Crypto-Jews. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2002.

    DOI: 10.1525/california/9780520233461.001.0001

    Looks at secret religious practices and the persistence of Jewish identity among Crypto-Jews as it relates to the debate on ethnic minorities.

  • Kunin, Seth D. Juggling Identities: Identity and Authenticity among the Crypto-Jews. New York: Columbia University Press, 2009.

    DOI: 10.7312/kuni14218

    Kunin establishes a link between Crypto-Jews in the American Southwest and their Spanish ancestors, looking to put to rest the controversy about their origin.

  • Toledano, Haim Henry. The Sephardic Legacy: Unique Features and Achievements. Scranton, PA: University of Scranton Press, 2010.

    Explores the historical roots of Sephardic Judaism, analyzing biblical exegesis and Hebrew philology, and studying Sephardic philosophy and poetry.

  • Zohar, Zion, ed. Sephardic and Mizrahi Jewry: From the Golden Age of Spain to Modern Times. New York: New York University Press, 2005.

    A collection of introductory essays regarding the history, philosophy, biblical commentaries, kabbalistic approaches, languages, and musical customs of Sephardic Jews from medieval Spain until the 20th century, in the Ottoman Empire, North Africa, and the Middle East.

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