Aki Yerushalayim: The Digital Revival of a Fascinating Ladino Magazine

Aki Yerushalayim (1979-2016, 2019 to present) is the oldest and arguably most authoritative all-Ladino magazine in the world. Making sense of its sociopolitical and community impact requires us to venture into the changing role of Sephardim since the inauguration of the modern State of Israel.

Issue 105 of Aki Yerushalayim, published online in September 2021

As explained by Prof. Shmuel Refael in his anthology ‘Un Grito en el Silencio’ (‘A Scream in the Silence’, Tirocino, 2008), it took decades for the descendants of the Sephardim in Israel to be considered part of the national narrative. The turning point was arguably the election of Yitzhak Navon (1921-2015) as the fifth president of Israel. In 1978 he became the first Sephardi Jew to serve in that office, which he did until 1983. In 1979 Navon was appointed the first chairman of the board of Aki Yerushalayim, whose first issue was launched that very year. The magazine was published by the cultural organisation Sefarad, in cooperation with the National Authority for Ladino (1996), of which Navon also became the first chairman in 1997. The editorial committee of Aki Yerushalayim featured three emblematic Sephardic authors: Moshe Shaul (editor-in-chief), Mordehay Arbell and Zelda Ovadia.

Its 2-3 yearly issues contained articles about Sephardic personalities, history, literature and various organisations, as well as sections on topics such as food, philately, upcoming cultural events, poetry, short stories, books and CD reviews. More importantly, it featured three iconic and unique rubrics: ‘El kantoniko de haketía’ (‘Haketía Corner’, devoted to the vernacular linguistic variety spoken by the Sephardim that settled in northern Morocco) ‘El kantoniko de solitreo’ (‘Solitreo Corner’, featuring texts written in the cursive script used by Sephardim in the Ottoman empire) and ‘El kantoniko de letras Rashi’ (‘Rashi Corner’ devoted to the semi-cursive Sephardic script). Other than its content, a further significant contribution of Aki Yerushalayim to the Sephardic language and culture was the standardisation of Ladino in the Latin script by, of and for Sephardim across the world, courtesy of the pronunciation table elaborated by Moshe Shaul and adopted almost unanimously in subsequent Ladino publications.

However, due to budgetary constraints, low subscription renewals and the advanced age of its readers and editors, in 2016, the adventure of Aki Yerushalayim seemed to come to an end. The announcement of Aki Yerushalayim’ supposed final issue (99-100) was met with dismay from the global community of Ladino lovers (most of whom were Sephardim, though not all). To date, I still remember reading at that time numerous poignant testimonies of regret and nostalgia from dozens of members on the Ladino email list Ladinokomunita (Rachel Amado Bortnick, 1999- ). Yet as the motto of the Turkish Ladino-only newspaper El Amaneser reminds us, “kuando muncho eskurese es para amaneser” (“when it’s dark out, that’s because dawn in coming”), an adage whose truth has stood the test of time for the global community of Ladino speakers.

In 2019 and upon the initiative of Haim Carmi, a new generation of Ladino scholars and activists took upon themselves the challenge of restoring Aki Yerushalyim and assuming its editorial board, which nowadays includes the following activists: Aldo Sevi (editor-in-chief), Nava Cohen, Esther Rute Cediel, David Atias, Orit Salinas and Hedva Perahia. Now exclusively published in digital version, Aki Yerushalayim continues to feature the above-mentioned sections and kantonikos, as well as a new website ( containing old and new issues (though this is still a work in progress).

As a Ladino scholar and CEO of Ladino 21 who specialises in revitalising this language by digital means, I have had the opportunity to interview and converse with most of Aki Yerushalayim’s current editorial board members. In my daily interactions with them, I have the fortune of witnessing their relentless passion and selfless devotion to Ladino.

Based on the above, I am confident that the future of the most authoritative all-Ladino magazine in the world is in the safest and warmest hands, and would like to take advantage of this post to acknowledge and celebrate everybody that has made possible the existence and continuation of Aki Yerushalayim, all of which has granted this publication a place of honour in our Jewish Languages Bookshelf.

Dr. Carlos Yebra Lopez
Spanish and Portuguese Post-doc/Lecturer
Department of Spanish and Portuguese Languages and Literature
New York University

Italian Judeo-Spanish

MS. Canonici Oriental 6: A Judeo-Spanish Copy of an Italian Bestseller

Sometime before 1580, somebody transliterated a Spanish translation of Ludovico Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso into Hebrew letters (aljamiado). This took place somewhere in the Ottoman Empire, probably in Anatolia. At some point later on, four folios were added to the transliteration containing an epitaph for a woman composed in Patras (present day Greece) in 1580.

MS. Canonici Or. 6 © Bodleian Libraries

The question is ‒ why would somebody go to the trouble of doing this? The Orlando Furioso was one of the undisputed bestsellers in Renaissance Europe. An Italian epic romance in verse, it was first published in 1516, and then again in a revised edition in 1521 as well as in a revised and enlarged edition in 1532. Soon it had been translated into several European languages ‒ French, Spanish (1549), English (1591) and German. The first Spanish translation, by Jerónimo de Urrea, was reprinted ten times in the first 34 years. Two complete translations more would be published before the end of the sixteenth century.

The volume took as its main characters Orlando (Roland) and the other paladins of Charlemagne’s court at war with the Saracen army that had invaded France. The work in its final version comprised forty-six cantos (forty-five in the Spanish translation) with 4,842 stanzas (4,902 in the Spanish translation), which makes for an astonishing 38,736 (39,216) lines in total. The appetite for chivalric romance in the sixteenth century was clearly limitless.

The work itself originally had been published well after the expulsions of the Jews from the Iberian Peninsula, and the Spanish translation even more so. Still, several generations after the 1492 Expulsion, Jews of Sephardi origin continued reading the same works as their Christian contemporaries; this phenomenon took place not only in the West, but also, as our work shows, in the Eastern Mediterranean. For, indeed, it was in the Ottoman Empire that the manuscript under discussion herein was produced, according to Malachi Beit-Arié. Adolph Neubauer, the Hebraica Curator who produced the Catalogue of Hebrew Manuscripts in the Bodleian Library, thought the work was written in transliterated Italian and had been written somewhere in the Italian peninsula. This is a plausible guess, but does not stand up to a closer examination of the manuscript. Laura Minervini, an Italian scholar, studied it more recently and wrote about it.

It is very unlikely that an Italian Jew would want to read the Orlando Furioso in Spanish. Furthermore, a Sephardi descendant of those expelled from Iberia residing in the Italian lands would not need to read the work in Hebrew letters, in the unlikely case that they could not read the Latin alphabet.

The work offers a fascinating view into a world where Jews in the Ottoman Empire kept up with the reading preferences of their contemporaries in the Hispanic world, yet found it more congenial to read them in the Hebrew alphabet. Curiously, the work was transliterated following the source word for word, with no attempt to “judaise” the original’s Christian phrasing, as is often the case for similar works. The very world described in the Orlando Furioso, a world of valiant Christian and Muslim knights (some of them women), ladies, sorcerers, flying steeds, enchanted castles and exotic lands would seem totally alien to traditional Jewish culture, and yet somebody clearly saw it as worth the effort to produce this transliteration. Thirty-six of the Spanish translation’s forty-five cantos were transliterated, with the only apparent difference between the two being the suppression of thirty-eight of the seventy-two stanzas added by Urrea to Canto 34 (35 in the Italian original), eulogising the great figures of Spanish history.

The Spanish Orlando Furioso in Hebrew letters (aljamiado) gives us a glimpse of a world of which very little has remained, where the descendants of Jewish exiles from the Iberian Peninsula read a widely successful Italian chivalric romance in a Spanish translation written in Hebrew letters, comprising thousands of stanzas relating the wildly improbable adventures of knights and ladies. For all these reasons and specificities, it throws light on a fascinating corner of Jewish life.

Dr César Merchán-Hamann
Fellow Librarian & Director of the Leopold Muller Memorial Library, Bodleian Libraries; Victor Blank Curator of Hebraica & Judaica, Bodleian Library

Inauguration of The Jewish Languages Bookshelf

We are honoured to launch today The Jewish Languages Bookshelf, an online blog series of short articles on specific manuscripts, printed books, notes, documents and ephemera written in any of the multitude of Judeo-languages from late antiquity until today. This new series of brief and accessible yet scholarly articles is a publication of the Oxford School of Rare Jewish Languages (OSRJL), recently created by the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies. As of October 2021, the OSRJL offers free, online classes in twelve different rare Jewish languages, some still spoken today, others known only from texts, and most of them threatened by extinction.

For the past two thousand years in all the communities of the Diaspora, Jews spoke the vernacular languages of their non-Jewish neighbours while using their ancestral Hebrew and Aramaic for education, religion and literature. With time, these spoken vernaculars acquired linguistic specificity and began shaping Jewish culture and identity. While originally means of communicating with the world outside Jewish communities, these languages eventually became the means of expressing emotions and daily concerns within Jewish families themselves.

These “mothers-tongues”—reputed to convey frivolous messages such as magic recipes; wedding songs; lullabies; tales and stories of knights, princesses and dragons; or special, simplified adaptations of Biblical accounts for the supposedly less educated women and children—were nonetheless often committed to writing. The vernacular sounds of home and street seeped through the walls of synagogues, institutions of learning and printing houses to penetrate the learned spheres of liturgy, education and literary creation.

Manuscripts, books, almanacs, newspapers, magazines, tracts and written notes on a variety of mundane and intellectual subjects written in Judeo-languages, usually in Hebrew letters, became inseparable companions of the Jews throughout their history. The Jewish Languages Bookshelf celebrates these writings and their roles in shaping Jewish life. The editors are delighted to share with our readers the insights and discoveries of little-known writings, and invite the growing community of scholars of Judeo-languages to contribute to The Bookshelf. We are proud to open the series with a glimpse at the Judeo-language treasures of the Bodleian Library, Oxford, as detailed by Dr César Merchán-Hamann.

Professor Judith Olszowy-Schlanger
President, OCHJS; Director, Centre for Hebrew & Jewish Studies; Professor of Hebrew Manuscript Studies, EPHE, PSL; Fellow, Corpus Christi College

The Jewish Languages Bookshelf

This blog, known as The Bookshelf, accompanies the newly founded Oxford School of Rare Jewish Languages (OSRJL), created at the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies (OCHJS), University of Oxford, in collaboration with the Institut des Langues Rares (ILARA) at EPHE, Paris. The aim of the blog is to publish, on a regular basis, short and illustrated, scholarly but accessible articles on manuscripts, printed books, newspapers or documents in one of the numerous vernacular Jewish languages spoken and written by Jews from the Middle Ages until today.