When Bryan Kirschen was growing up in Fresh Meadows, Queens, he was interested in languages — so much so that, as a student at a specialized public high school, he studied Hebrew, Spanish and ancient Greek. He continued his linguistics studies at Binghamton University, where he triple-majored in Hebrew, Spanish and Arabic and earned a master’s degree in Spanish literature. When he encountered the Ladino language as a student at Middlebury College, he was smitten.
“A professor described Ladino as exotic, near-extinct, and a mix of other languages she knew I had already studied,” recalled Kirschen. “The more I studied the language, the more interested I became in helping preserve it for future generations.”
As Kirschen was earning additional advanced linguistics degrees from Stony Brook and UCLA, he also found ways to help spread the word about Ladino and perpetuate its legacy. As a Ph.D. student in Los Angeles, he taught weekly workshops and classes in Ladino at the Skirball Cultural Center to college students and community members. In 2012, he flew to Bosnia to help produce a documentary, “Saved by Language,” about the Sephardic community in Sarajevo that was devastated by the Holocaust and, in particular, one man, Moris Albahari, who survived the war thanks to his mother tongue.
“I’m proud of the film because I believe it spreads a message of hope and inspiration, and shows the significance of how language — in this case, Ladino — played an important role in the protagonist of the documentary’s survival,” said Kirschen. He helps further publicize the language as a program organizer for both the International Day of Ladino Celebration as well as International Mother Language Day.
After spending years as a student, Kirschen recently returned to Binghamton, this time as a professor. He particularly enjoys teaching a freshmen course on Judeo-Spanish languages and cultures. “I want to help preserve Ladino for younger generations, and that compels me to run programming and hold lectures to ensure that it continues to flourish and inspire people to appreciate its beauty and complexity,” he said. “I hope that my work inspires younger generations to help preserve the Judeo-Spanish languages, especially outside of the classroom setting.”
World traveler: Kirschen has visited 25 countries — and always brings along a book on the dialect spoken at his next destination.