BU professor helps launch American Ladino League

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

Bryan Kirschen’s Binghamton University biography offers only a glimpse of his many activities and interests. It notes that he is not only chairman of the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures (where he teaches Spanish and linguistics), he is also affiliated faculty with the Judaic Studies Department and the university’s Translation Research and Instruction Program. His involvement in these departments hasn’t stopped Kirschen from becoming involved in initiatives outside the university, though, including recently helping to launch the American Ladino League.

One might expect Kirschen to come from Sephardic roots. The opposite is actually true. “Though I am from an Ashkenazi family, my interest in Sephardic studies and, in particular, Ladino, began some 15 years ago when I was a graduate student of Hispanic linguistics,” he said in an e-mail interview. “Having studied Spanish as well as Hebrew, focusing my research on Ladino was a natural decision. I also recognized that I could use my platform in academia to educate others about the language and partner with speakers of Ladino so that they may share their voices with larger audiences of students and communities.”

Kirschen explained that there are several different ways to refer to the language of Spanish Jews: “Speakers traditionally referred to their language as a type of Spanish (e.g., Spanyol, Muestro Spanyol) or Jewish (e.g., Judezmo, Judio), but hybrid terms like ‘Judeo-Spanish’ or even ‘Ladino’ are commonplace today. Ladino is also the name of the calque variety of the language, used to translate certain sacred and religious texts out of Hebrew or Aramaic, but many today simply use the term to refer to their spoken varieties as well. Despite such nuances, I tend to use whichever term the speaker or speech community with whom I am working or speaking use; most often, this is Ladino.”

Part of the impetus for the American Ladino League was the increased interest in the study of Ladino during the pandemic. “Since the onset of the pandemic, we have seen a sharp increase in the number of people demonstrating interest in learning Ladino,” he said. “While some are interested in learning how to speak and read the language, others are interested in learning about Ladino. During this time, in-person events became virtual and, after a learning curve and a digital pivot, many began to connect through online platforms. In particular, Zoom facilitated a great deal of contact between students and educators, as well as Ladino speakers themselves looking to connect and use their language. The launch of the American Ladino League comes at a time when many programs are back in person while others are still taking place online.”

He sees the league’s website as a way to help those who are interested in Ladino continue their studies. “Our goal is to keep this momentum going and provide additional opportunities for users of Ladino to continue utilizing the language,” he noted. “In particular, we aim to provide accessible, consultatory, collaborative and financial support for innovative approaches to teaching Judeo-Spanish across generations and on multiple platforms. We hope to become an online hub for Ladino studies in the United States, and help provide learners, speakers and educators with the materials and resources needed for their respective goals. For those interested in learning more and joining our newsletter, our website is https://americanladinoleague.org/.”

The league is not his only Ladino related activity. “During the pandemic, I have taught a variety of workshops to learners of Ladino, from beginner to advanced, as well as heritage speakers of the language,” he added. “I have partnered with organizations like the Sephardic Jewish Brotherhood of America, the Sephardic Adventure Camp, as well as The Workers Circle, while also providing additional offerings through my Ladino Linguist platform. I also launched the Documenting Judeo-Spanish platform (https://documentingjudeospanish.com/), funded by Binghamton University and the Harpur College Faculty Research Grant, to digitize a variety of documents written in Solitreo – cursive Sephardi script. This website features a couple dozen unique documents from throughout the world and provides an interactive approach in teaching visitors how to decipher content. Most people who are able to speak Ladino today write the language in Latin characters (romanization), but for hundreds of years, writers used different varieties of the Hebrew alphabet in their correspondence and texts.”

One part of his work took place at Binghamton University. “Professor Dina Danon (Judaic studies and history) and I co-directed the Ladino Collaboratory (“the Ladino Lab”) from 2020-2023,” he said. “During this time, we held weekly workshops during the academic year, teaching students and select faculty members and alumni how to speak and read Ladino. In regard to the latter, we read a variety of periodicals from around the world, printed in Ladino in both Meruba and Rashi characters. Additionally, we also spearheaded the Ladino Apprenticeship Program. This initiative paired more than a dozen Binghamton University students with speakers of Ladino in an effort to enhance and contextualize their learning not only of the language, but also Sephardi culture and history.”

Kirschen also offers courses at the university in related subjects. “This fall, I offered an advanced undergraduate seminar at Binghamton University on the language of Sephardi Jews; the course was taught in Spanish and students even transcribed a variety of documents in Solitreo throughout the semester,” he noted. “There is currently a small exhibit on Judeo-Spanish at Binghamton University’s Bartle Library, which has been on display since the start of the fall semester and will be available until the end of spring 2024.”

His work extends beyond the university and the Internet. “We just held the seventh annual New York Ladino Day at the Center for Jewish History in Lower Manhattan,” he said. “The co-curator and founder of this New York City event, Prof. Jane Mushabac (CUNY), partnered with the American Sephardi Federation on this endeavor back in 2018, and I have been working with them since 2019. Since that time, we have featured a variety of programming, including talks in and about Ladino. Speakers, learners, educators, activists, rabbis, authors, musicians and actors have all participated in these events. ‘Ladino Day’ as a concept began back in 2013 and has been celebrated at different points and times throughout the world. Such celebrations are important not only to highlight the range of content in and about the language, but also the very presence and innovation of the language today.”