Gifts of Language

Gifts of Language
Multilingualism and Turkish-Sephardic Culture

By Bension Varon 1

Bloomington: XLibris, 2016. 177 pp. Print. ISBN: 978-1524512569

Reviewed by David Navarro 2

Multiculturalism, and more specifically multilingualism, traits common in many individuals in today’s world, serve as the central focus of Varon’s monograph. In this study, the author introduces the reader to a personal voyage where the Turkish, Judeo-Spanish, French and English languages become the main protagonists. Each of the seven chapters and the final appendices portray Varon’s unique multilingual experience. His love for languages was forged in his early days in Istanbul, maintained in his encounter with the West in his youth, and further developed in his adult life in the United States.

Chapter One, ‘‘Istanbul’s Multiculturalism: Roots and Evolution,” opens with a general introduction to this urban center’s historic role as a cultural and linguistic melting pot “where one could live as one pleased, with little pressure to integrate” (14). An example of the city’s linguistic mosaic can be seen in the various names it has received throughout history: Byzantium, during the Roman rule; Constantinople, as the capital of the Roman/Byzantine Empire after the split of the Roman Empire in 285 AD, and Istanbul from the Ottoman conquest in 1453 until today. Over the centuries Istanbul became a crossroads of religious, ethnic, commercial and cultural diversity. The city emerged as a shelter for minorities fleeing persecution, such as the Jews expelled from Portugal and Spain in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries and subsequent modern influxes of foreign refugees in the centuries that followed, thereby increasing the city’s distinctively mixed demographics.

In the second chapter, ‘‘My Cosmopolitan Istanbul: Environment and Life,” Varon describes his personal memories of the city in which he grew up and in which he was exposed to a vibrancy of cultural and linguistic exchanges. To do so, the author first focuses on his family’s interactions beginning in their Jewish neighborhood of ‘la Kula’ [the Tower] and expanded upon through their relations with non-Jewish residents and other ethnic groups in the city. This eclectic scenario, reflected in the city’s demographics through its newspapers, local cemeteries and international schools, immersed Varon in an environment where multilingualism became “a feature of social life” (32).

In chapter three Varon turns to his parents’ cultural and linguistic background, shifting the scene from Istanbul to Çanakkale. The enclave of this coastal town, due to its strategic geographical location, permitted its development as an important cosmopolitan center for merchant activities, attracting the interest of European powers since the Crimean War (1853-1856). Under these circumstances, linguistic diversity became a commonality among the inhabitants of the city. Varon’s parents’ Sephardic heritage was shared by their common language of communication, Judeo-Spanish, incorporating Turkish as well as French. Varon’s parents carried their enriched Sephardic identity to Istanbul in 1915 where they settled and took part in the extensive diversity that city offered. The author outlines features which shaped the Sephardic world and culture around him during his early years growing up in Istanbul: family bonds, tradition, social concerns, cleanliness, cuisine, humor, and above all the opportunity of embracing customs other than their own, forging a unique multicultural identity.

The next three chapters are devoted to Varon’s multi-language acquisition in such a diverse setting. In chapter four the author focuses on his two mother tongues, Judeo-Spanish and Turkish. The use of Judeo-Spanish as the ‘lingua franca’ (61) spoken at home, the monosyllabic structure of the Turkish language which permitted the acquisition of multiple terms simultaneously, and the significant adoption of Turkish words into Judeo-Spanish facilitated Varon’s development of bilingual skills from an early age on. His full competence in Judeo-Spanish permitted him to cherish it during his adulthood and to take part in various activities to preserve the language. These include his contributions to the Istanbul-based newspaper El Amaneser, the internet correspondence circle Ladinokomunita, his participation in the Washington area social organization, Las Vijitas de Alhad (Sunday gatherings), and his review of the Judeo-Spanish translation of Homer’s Odyssey by Sephardi-Israeli scholars Moshe Ha’Elyon and Avner Perez. In regards to the Turkish language, Varon was still a child during the formative years of the modern state of Turkey. Despite his Jewish background, Varon’s experiences led him to interact and socialize with Turkish friends, incorporating Turkish language and culture as part of his own identity, and forging a strong nationalistic sentiment blended with his Sephardic heritage.

Varon’s linguistic competence in languages and their role in the enhancement of his multilingual skills is explored in chapter five, “Minor Languages: Hebrew and Greek.” As the liturgical language of the Jewish faith, Hebrew had not generally been the spoken language of communication among Jews until the Zionist settlement of Palestine, when it became the official language. In contrast, Yiddish, Judeo-Spanish and Judeo-Arabic were the tools of communication based on the ethnic and geographical origin of the Jewish speakers. In Varon’s case, his competence in Hebrew was initially connected to his religious education and underwent a decline when he abstained from taking more lessons in the language during his first year in college, focusing instead on French and English. However, Varon’s interest in his family tree and the discovery of various documents pertaining to his ancestry served as a nexus that connected him with Hebrew years later. In addition, Varon’s upbringing in multicultural Istanbul permitted him and his family to interact with a large Greek-speaking community leading him to learn Greek “inadvertently” (80). Being the largest minority group in the city, the Greek community primarily held occupations in the service and maintenance sectors. Their socio-economic role placed them in constant contact with other minority groups including the Sephardim, leading to the development of commonalities and culturally shared features. Basic daily transactions such as ordering new clothing or grocery shopping served as conduits for embracing a language considered foreign to the Sephardic Jews.

Varon’s linguistic experiences with Western “pillar” languages, French and English, are discussed in chapter six, where the author describes the importance these languages played in his adulthood and his career successes. Turkish interest for Western culture in the second half of the nineteenth-century generated admiration for France, a strong European power and best ally of the Ottoman Empire since the first “Capitulations” granted in 1535. French education, culture and language had a profound impact in the Ottoman domains altering, among other things, the Sephardim’s already multilingual lifestyle. Varon’s experience with French language and culture began with his first French language lessons at the Jewish high school and his interaction with other students educated at the Alliance Israélite schools. He maintained his competence in French during his adulthood due to his long exposure not only to the language but to French culture and customs that became a frequent frame of reference in the author’s life (96). In a similar way, the English language, once foreign to the author and his family, eventually became his strongest linguistic tool. Varon’s scholarly education received at Istanbul’s American institution, Robert College, provided him with the necessary competence to excel in the language. English opened the gate for his successful professional career, from his first job with the language translating training manuals into Turkish for the Turkish army, to his American experience beginning in 1960 when he joined the World Bank. From that time on Varon made English his first language in daily life affairs replacing his native Judeo-Spanish and Turkish (106).

In the final chapter, ‘‘Putting Multiculturalism Together,” Varon evaluates his comparable degrees of competence in Judeo-Spanish, Turkish, French and English. In this chapter Varon identifies himself as an active “multilingual equilingual” (109). His connection with his Sephardic roots in Istanbul kept his command of Judeo-Spanish and Turkish languages from suffering any attrition despite not being used in his daily life, while his career at the World Bank, communicating in French and English, permitted him to diversify his linguistic horizons interacting with other languages.

The last pages of the book are composed of two appendices that contain a historic overview on the future of Judeo-Spanish, and some samples of Turkish-Sephardic humor. Declared as a severely endangered language by UNESCO, the language has suffered a constant decrease in the number of its speakers since the Shoah, leaving an estimated 100,000 Judeo-Spanish speakers (131). Despite these pessimistic figures, there has been intensive activity to promote the survival of the language through numerous public, private and academic institutions, and the efforts of many individuals in many countries, including the United States. Most of their efforts have been in continuing and expanding the teaching, research and preservation of Judeo-Spanish rather than its revival in an era of globalization. The book concludes with one last appendix containing various anecdotes of Turkish-Sephardic humor recollected by the author through family and folklore. The stories serve as an example of the richness of Judeo-Spanish blended with other influences from Turkish and French.

Varon’s book shares his vivid encounter with multilingualism with his readers, illustrating the importance of language acquisition and the vibrancy of cultural and linguistic exchanges expressed through his personal experiences. The journey, starting in Istanbul’s Sephardic community with Judeo-Spanish and stretching out over his many experiences in the world beyond, serves as a unique lesson for the importance of language acquisition and exchanges in the shaping of one’s cultural and linguistic identity in today’s global society.

1 Bension Varon is a retired economist with wide interests as a writer, including history, genealogy and biography. His extensive publications include Cultures in Counterpoint: Memoirs of a Sephardic Turkish-American (2009) and Fighting Fascism and Surviving Buchenwald: The Life and Memoir of Hans Bargas (2015).

2 David Navarro is Assistant Professor of Medieval Iberian Literature at Texas State University, San Marcos, Texas.

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