Sephiha, Haim Vidal

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SEPHIHA, HAIM VIDAL (1923– ), Judeo-Spanish linguist and activist. Sephiha was born in Brussels to a Sephardi family from Istanbul. During the German occupation of Belgium, he was arrested in 1943 and deported to Auschwitz in September. He survived the death camp, where his father perished. After liberation, he resumed his studies in natural sciences, graduating in 1948 and working as a chemical engineer; however, he eventually decided to study and defend the linguistic and cultural heritage of his community. As a student and assistant teacher of Hispanic linguistics at the Sorbonne in Paris, in 1967 he started to give lectures and workshops on Judeo-Spanish at the National Institute of Oriental Languages (inalco). His understanding of the language is based on a clear distinction between its two fundamental modalities. Whereas he reserves the term "Ladino" for the old "liturgical language" in which the Sephardi Jews rendered sacred Hebrew texts into a "calqued" Judeo-Castilian, he describes the vernacular as a versatile "language of fusion" built up from different medieval Iberian dialects and integrating elements from Hebrew and the modern linguistic environment. In 1970, Sephiha presented his doctoral thesis, a comparative study of two 16th-century Ladino translations of Deuteronomy and, in 1979, he obtained a professor's degree for his theoretical analysis of the Ladino language. His chair at the University of Paris-viii, which he has held since 1981, was transformed three years later into an inalco chair in Judeo-Spanish studies, the first university chair ever dedicated to this subject. Sephiha, who retired in 1991, was instrumental in securing academic acceptance and public support for the "agonizing language" he spoke and taught. Besides his scientific and popular publications, from 1972 he launched several calls for revival of the language and in 1979 founded the "Association Vidas Largas for the Defense and Promotion of the Judeo-Spanish Language and Culture," which organizes educational work in Sephardi communities as well as the rescue of literary, musical, and architectural treasures. Judeo-Spanish has since been included among the recognized minority languages of France. In 2003, Sephiha inaugurated at the Auschwitz site a memorial in honor of the 160,000 Judeo-Spanish victims of the Holocaust.

Among his writings are Le Ladino (judéo-espagnol calque): Deutéronome, versions de Constantinople (1547) et de Ferrare (1553) (1973), L'agonie des Judéo-Espagnols (1977), Le Ladino (judéo-espagnol calque): Structure et évolution d'une langue liturgique (1982), and Le judéo-espagnol (1986).


W. Busse and M.C. Varol (eds.), Hommageà Haïm Vidal Sephiha (1986); "The Instruction of Judeo-Spanish in Europe," in: Shofar, 19:4 (2001), 58–70.

[Carsten Wilke (2nd ed.)]