Naming Other Jews: Looking at Yiddish Speakers Through Ladino

Nesi Altaras

“El Gran Rabinato de Konstantinopla otoriza ala komunidad delos Israelitas Ashkenazis (אשכנזים) a tener un rabino de sus rito, un konsilyo de administrasyon, un cemaat bashi i un siyo partikular por la dicha komunidad."

“Konvensiyon entre el Gran Rabinato i La Komunidad delos Ashkenazis,” El Tiempo, June 30th, 1890, Istanbul.

Beginning in the nineteenth century, speakers of Ladino and Yiddish began to encounter each other in new places and ways. With the onset of late 19th century pogroms in Russia and Romania, many Ashkenazim became refugees in the Ottoman port cities of Istanbul, Izmir, and Salonika. Others came to these cities in search of economic opportunities. They arrived in an environment where Ladino-speaking Sephardim were in control of Jewish affairs, despite the presence of other, smaller Jewish populations. At the same time, Sephardic immigrants to the US found themselves in an inverse environment, in which the established Jews were Yiddish speakers and being Jewish meant speaking Yiddish. The speakers of these two major Jewish languages also crossed paths in Palestine, where Ladino- and Arabic-speaking Sephardim were the locals, embedded in Ottoman society, and most of the Yiddish speakers were relative newcomers. Ashkenazim and Sephardim also encountered each other in Austria, Bulgaria, Bosnia, and France.

The two language communities often exhibited curiosity and sometimes mistrust towards one another. They negotiated their relative social positions as settled versus newly arriving Jews. In Ottoman cities, this negotiation involved established Ladino speakers interacting with mostly refugee Yiddish speakers. We can trace their attitudes toward these Yiddish-speaking Jews in the various Ladino words they used to name the “new” Jewish others. As Bourdieu notes, naming is power. 1 1 Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1987). By recognizing (or misrecognizing), groups exercise power over one another. I use Ladino’s lexicon as an archive to excavate the power dynamics between the Jews speaking different languages, particularly the disdain felt by the already established towards the newly arrived.

The quote above, from one of Istanbul’s longest running Ladino newspapers, illustrates the power dynamic in the Ottoman capital. The piece relays an agreement made between the Istanbul Chief Rabbinate (primus inter pares of the Empire) and a collective it refers to as the Community of the Ashkenazis (La Komunidad delos Ashkenazis). In this agreement, the rabbinate recognizes the Ashkenazi community that had already existed in the city for decades. The powerful position of the institution is apparent in every article of the agreement. The first, quoted above, authorizes the Ashkenazis to have their own rabbi, administrative council, and communal leader. In fact, the Ashkenazi community had already institutionalized to some extent; they had a council that countersigned this agreement with the Chief Rabbinate in the first place. However, the external recognition from the Chief Rabbinate gave them important sanction since it was the Chief Rabbinate that represented all Jews in the eyes of the state, integrating Ashkenazi institutions into the Ottoman Jewish framework. The konvensiyon also formalized the unequal power position between the budding Ashkenazi institutions and the Chief Rabbinate, which agreed to allocate funds from the gabela (kosher meat tax), an increasingly controversial method of communal fundraising, for the Ashkenazis as a distinct community. 2 2 Dina Danon, The Jews of Ottoman Izmir: A Modern History (Stanford: Stanford UP, 2020). At the same time, the rabbinate solidified its position as overseer: per article 9, it was the final decision maker in cases of internal disagreement. In exchange for these powers, the rabbinate did forfeit the power to levy new taxes on the Ashkenazis (article 7).

The agreement unites the newly arrived under the title of Israelitas Ashkenazis sin distinksyon de nasyonalidad, domisiyados en Konstantinopla (Ashkenazi Jews without differentiating nationality, domiciled in Constantinople). Some might have been Ottoman citizens migrating from other parts of the empire, while others might have been Russians, Romanians, or perhaps stateless. These distinctions did not matter in the eyes of the rabbinate, as was likely also true for the elites of the Ladino-speaking community at large.

The most common Sephardi phrase for Ashkenazim reveals this dismissive posture: Lehli/Lehlia. As with many Ladino adjectives, this word incorporates the Turkish suffix -li, which creates an adjective from a place name (e.g. Rodosli, Edirneli, Izmirli). Hispanicizing the word, it is gendered feminine using -a (Lehlia) or pluralized using -s (Lehlis, Lehlias). But where is Leh? Named after the legendary Lech, Lehistan was the Turkish word for Poland. Though modern Turkish has switched to Polonya, Ladino preserves the older form. However, Lehli referred to all Ashkenazim, whether they were Polish, Hungarian, Romanian, Russian, or German. 3 3 In Argentina, the term Polaca/Polaco (Polish) was similarly used in Modern Spanish to refer to all Jews, though by non-Jewish Argentines. More specifically, Polaca referred to sex workers - revealing the association between Ashkenazi Jewish women and sex work, one that existed in Ottoman Istanbul as well. In fact, the sex work and human trafficking network connected Buenos Aires and Istanbul in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. On the this verbiage see Mir Yarfitz, Impure Migration: Jews and Sex Work in Golden Age Argentina (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2019), 47. On the interconnected network see Rifat Bali, Jews and Prostitution in Constantinople, 1854-1922, (Isis Press, 2010). The grouping of Ashkenazim from all these countries under Lehlis signals a certain dismissiveness on the part of the Sephardim, all the more so because the word had — and continues to have — a negative connotation and is only used to describe others, not oneself.

Lehli does not appear in the Ladino press, likely because of its status as a derogatory term, unfit to be used in serious matters. A recent Twitter exchange between two Ashkenazim operating in Ladino-speaking environments shows that this connotation persists. Istanbul Ashkenazi rabbi Mendy Chitrik offered that “In Istanbul [Lehli] was used as a derogatory term word towards the Ashkenazim,” to which the Ladino linguist Dr. Bryan Kirschen responded, “I remember years ago I was told by Ladino-speaking Sephardim not to call myself a “lehli” because, to them, it was a negative term!”

The konvensiyon also intervened in intracommunal Ashkenazi debates about involvement in the sex trade. In Istanbul, Ashkenazim had an outsized presence in the sex trade, both as sex workers and as pimps. Their presence caught the attention of Bertha Poppenheim, an Austrian Jewish feminist, who reported from Istanbul (in German) in 1911 “that the market in Constantinople is ninety percent Jewish women, that almost all traffickers are Jews.” 4 4 Bertha Pappenheim, “A European Jewish Feminist Decries the White Slave Trade in The Ottoman Empire [1911]” translated by Lela Gibson, in Sephardi Lives: A Documentary History, 1700-1950, ed. Julia Phillips Cohen and Sarah Abrevaya Stein (Stanford: Stanford UP, 2014), 229. She also lamented Jewish involvement in the sex trade and human trafficking in Salonika. While her figures are demonstrably exaggerated, her observation of Jewish predominance in the sex trade was echoed by other contemporary observers. 5 5 Rifat Bali, “Yirminci Yüzyılın Başlarında İstanbul’un Fuhuş Aleminde Yahudilerin Yeri” in Rifat Bali, Devlet’in Yahudileri ve “Öteki” Yahudi (Istanbul: Iletisim, 2004), 323-368. Local Sephardim often avoided social contact with newly arriving Ashkenazim since “it was common knowledge that all Ashkenazim earned their living as pimps or white slavers.” 6 6 Teveth, 1987 quoted in Rifat Bali, Jews and Prostitution in Constantinople, 1854-1922, (Istanbul: Isis Press, 2010), 12. This association led to Ladino speakers to use the feminine lehlia to mean “prostitute,” a definition that appears in a few dictionaries. 7 7 Rifat Bali, “Yirminci Yüzyılın Başlarında İstanbul’un Fuhuş Aleminde Yahudilerin Yeri” in Rifat Bali, Devlet’in Yahudileri ve “Öteki” Yahudi (Istanbul: Iletisim, 2004), 360.

The association between sex work, trafficking, and Ashkenazim in late Ottoman port cities created an even larger gulf between the local Sephardim, whose elites were rapidly adopting bourgeois culture and modes of thinking, and the growing Ashkenazi population. In response, Ashkenazi elites went to extreme measures to distance themselves from the large population involved in the sex trade, expelling these people from the Yuksekkaldirim and Schneidertempel Ashkenazi synagogues. This expulsion led to the creation of Or Hadash, a synagogue in the same area, founded in 1897 by and in service of Ashkenazim involved in the sex trade. The leadership of Or Hadash was made up entirely of foreign-born Ashkenazim, and the congregation consisted of some 200 foreign families who derived their livelihood from the sex trade. The president of this synagogue, Michael Moses Salamonovitz (aka Michael Pasha), was a Galician involved in trafficking, who was rumored to be working for Ottoman intelligence. This synagogue was so associated with the sex trade that it was popularly known in Ladino as el Kal de los Pezevengos (the synagogue of pimps). But even the separation of religious space was not enough for the “proper” Ashkenazim of the city, who succeeded in briefly shuttering Or Hadash in the early 1900s. However, as the konvensiyon set out, the (Sephardi) Chief Rabbi of the city, Moshe Levi, overruled Ashkenazi leadership, and the synagogue was reopened with the stipulation that it would be surrounded by high walls.

Perhaps it was this linkage to the sex trade that inspired the phrase lehli suzyo/lehlia suzya (dirty Lehli). This set phrase is so common that it is the first thing that comes to mind for many speakers of Ladino today at the mention of the word Lehli. Linguist Marie-Christine Varol-Bornes even uses it as an example of the grammatical phenomenon in which Ladino speakers switch the place of the noun and adjective, saying instead suzyo lehli. The phrase even exceeds the bounds of its original meaning: as Varol-Bornes notes, suzyo lehli has become a way of saying “very dirty.”

Vuzvuz, another Ladino term for Ashkenazim, is a derisive or even silly variation on such negative associations. Derived from the Yiddish speakers who kept asking “vos” or “vuz” (meaning “what”), vuzvuz puts emphasis on language differences between Jews. While Lehli emphasizes national origin, this term highlights Yiddish speakership as the marker of difference. Its intention and use is above all comedic.

While Lehli was the exonym of choice in Istanbul, it appears that vuzvuz, though still used in Turkey, was even more popular among the Sephardim of Palestine. In his memoir, the Orientalist Raphael Patai recalls the local Sephardim of Jerusalem calling the Ashkenazi Jews vuzvuz. Perhaps this is why vuzvuz is generally pluralized as vuvuzim, and only rarely as vuvuzes. While the Hebrew plural suffix -im is used on many words in Ladino alongside the Hispanic plural -s, it often (though not exclusively) appears in Hebrew-origin words like hahamim (rabbis) or haverim (friends). The -im pluralization of vuzvuz supports the idea that this word was more common among Ladino speakers in Palestine. In fact, vuzvuzim became so popular in Palestine that it passed into modern Hebrew as a colloquial term referring negatively to Yiddish speakers. Vuzvuz has even reached English, according to one compiler of “words from the fringes of English, with a focus on slang, jargon.”

Another word of similar meaning is tudesko (sometimes tedesko or todesko), once again referring to origin — this time German — as a designation for all Ashkenazim. While out of favor in Istanbul, tudesko was more popular in Salonika according to Varol-Bornes, and we also see it in the memoirs of Elias Canetti, a Sephardi writer from Ruschuk, Bulgaria. 8 8 Varol-Bornes, Le judéo-espagnol vernaculaire d’Istanbul, 141-142; Elias Canetti, ““A Spanish Attitude”: Elias Canetti’s Childhood Reminiscences of Bulgaria {1905–1911},” translated by Joachim Neugroschel, in Sephardi Lives: A Documentary History, 1700-1950, ed. Julia Phillips Cohen and Sarah Abrevaya Stein (Stanford, Stanford UP, 2014), 80. The word is constructed using the suffix -esko, used to make fun of various languages and national identities, such as turkesko (Turkish, comical) and gregesko (Greek, comical). Perresko and aznesko (dog-ish and donkey-ish, respectively) highlight the versatility of this form. In Canetti’s recollection of his childhood between 1905 and 1911, todesco (as he spells it) was the opposite of “Es de buena famiglia—he’s from a good family.” 9 9 Canetti, “Childhood Reminiscences of Bulgaria,” 80. He explains:

With naive arrogance, the Sephardim looked down on other Jews; a word always charged with scorn was Todesco, meaning a German or Ashkenazi Jew. It would have been unthinkable to marry a Todesca, a Jewish woman of that background, and among the many families that I heard about or knew as a child in Ruschuk, I cannot recall a single case of such a mixed marriage.

The distance we see in Canetti’s Ruschuk is also present in a proverb recorded among the Sephardim in Salonika: Ni ajo dulse, ni tudesko bueno (neither garlic [is] sweet, nor an Ashkenazi [good]). 10 10 Varol-Bornes, Le judéo-espagnol vernaculaire d’Istanbul, 142, also rendered “Ni ajo bueno, ni tudesko bueno.” The proverb is in line with Canetti’s story and very well might have been used to discourage “mixed marriages,” as he calls them. 11 11 Discussion of such relationships is even more plentiful in Ladino and Yiddish presses of New York at around the same time. See “Can A Sephardi-Ashkenazi Romance Survive? A Russian Jewish Woman In New York Seeks Advice (1916)” in Sephardi Lives: A Documentary History, 1700-1950, ed. Julia Phillips Cohen and Sarah Abrevaya Stein (Stanford, Stanford UP, 2014), 347-348. To further make fun of tudeskos, some Salonikans even transformed the word into kueshkos (cheapskates). 12 12 Varol-Bornes, Le judéo-espagnol vernaculaire d’Istanbul, 142. Even in Istanbul, where Varol-Bornes says tudesko was out of use, Sephardim used the same suffix to describe Ashkenazi-inflected Hebrew as mashemehesko. According to Varol-Bornes, this is a play on ma shemha? (what’s your name?) 13 13 Varol-Bornes, Le judéo-espagnol vernaculaire d’Istanbul, 142. In taking a common question and turning it into a derisive term, mashemehesko resembles vuzvuz.

In recounting the various terms Ladino speakers invented for their Yiddish-speaking coreligionists, I have focused on encounters between the two groups in Ottoman lands, cities where the Sephardim were the settled and powerful while the Ashkenazim were recently arrived, often refugees, and often associated with sex work. The power dynamic was switched in cities like New York, where it was the Ladino speakers who were looked down on, often discussed pejoratively as “Orientals,” and whose Jewishness was questioned by the more established Ashkenazim. This power differential was noted by the Ladino press of the city. Reporting the recent 1920 census figures, New York-based La Amerika of New York mentioned the Jewish population of the city, largely made up of “Ashkenazis, ke son los patrones de la sivdad” (Ashkenazis, who are the owners of the city), before explaining that Jews in the city are present in all fields. 14 14 “Los Djudios en New York,” La Amerika, November 5th, 1920, New York.

The naming of others is often a practice in power, and the Ladino speakers’ gaze at Ashkenazim who came to the Ottoman Empire is only one case of this. As I recount various Ladino words describing Yiddish speakers, you can notice that they vary from place to place, change meaning, get borrowed into other languages, or fall out of favor. Ladino, like Yiddish, is a living Jewish language whose speakers keep building upon a deep well of meaning. Just as I question the power Ottoman Sephardim exercised—by deed or by language—over the newly arrived, Yiddishists could excavate their language to critically examine how Yiddish speakers view other, non-Yiddish-speaking Jews in their own regions of dominance, such as the United States. This linguistic power dynamic looks different from a contemporary vantage point because United States global hegemony, among other factors, has led “Jewish” to connote “Ashkenazi” in locations around the globe. Looking at how Yiddish speakers have named other Jews could help undo the erasure of Sephardim and Ladino from the story of American — and global — Jewry, making space for histories from around the Mediterranean and Jewish languages in all their forms.

Altaras, Nesi. “Naming Other Jews: Looking at Yiddish Speakers Through Ladino.” In geveb, April 2022:
Altaras, Nesi. “Naming Other Jews: Looking at Yiddish Speakers Through Ladino.” In geveb (April 2022): Accessed May 26, 2022.


Nesi Altaras

Nesi Altaras is an editor of Avlaremoz and holds an MA in Political Science. His writing in English, Turkish, and Ladino has been published in various outlets. He currently lives in Montreal. He can be reached on Twitter @nesialtaras.