A Jewish Voice from Ottoman Salonica: the Ladino Memoir of Sa’adi Besalel a-Levi

Aron Rodrigue and Sarah Stein, editors, with translation, transliteration and glossary by Isaac Jerusalmi (Stanford University Press, 2011)

Friday, March 23, 2012

Composed over a nine-year period (1881-1890)—with numerous additions made until 1902, when the author was 82 years old and one year from his death—the first Ladino memoir ever written outlived wars; the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in which it was conceived; a major fire in 1917; and the Holocaust, during which Jewish texts and libraries, as well as Jewish bodies, were targeted by the Nazis for annihilation.  The document passed through four generations of the memoirist’s family, traveling from Salonica to Paris, from Paris to Rio de Janeiro and, finally, to Jerusalem. It somehow eluded destruction or disappearance despite the dissolution of the Salonican Jewish community and the dispersal of the author’s descendants over multiple countries and continents.

Written by Sa’adi Besalel a-Levi (1820-1903) and penned in soletreo [the handwritten, cursive form of Ladino] with the help of at least one scribe, the memoir is significant in part because of its author’s importance to the world of Ladino letters and Ottoman Jewish society. Sa’adi–as he was known by contemporaries—and his sons produced Salonica’s most influential Ladino and French-language newspapers.  He was also a careful chronicler of his city, Salonica, which was thriving and rapidly changing in the late 19th century, when Jews (mostly Ladino speakers) constituted the majority of the population. 

Sa’adi’s work depicts a city so dense that someone firing a gun at a stray cat in one domicile could shock a pregnant neighbor into labor. His was a city of hidden doors and myriad markets, thick with cafés and bars.  He wrote with empathy for the pain women underwent on the eves of their marriages, when they were subject to rigorous depilation at the hands of a Jewish servant in the Turkish bath; of the relationships between brothers and sisters, sons and mothers; of the ever-present threats of disease, earthquakes and fire; and of the Ottoman music world, in which he participated as a master of Ottoman Turkish music.  Sa’adi was among those who challenged the rabbinical taxation system on kosher meat, a familiar point of tension between the rabbinic elite and breakaway factions such as the Hasidim in Eastern Europe. He suffered excommunication (herem) as a result, and his memoir is rife with lacerating critiques of Salonica’s religious establishment.

Scholarly interest in Salonica has grown over the years, leading to many worthy publications. But A Jewish Voice from Ottoman Salonica restores what is frequently forgotten: the unique and idiosyncratic voice of Salonica’s Jews in their own language. Their voice depicts lived Jewish realities in a once principally Jewish city, where the presence of Jews was erased by the Holocaust, occulted in its aftermath, and can now be discerned only through rare echoes of the past such as Sa’adi’s memoir.

Aron Rodrigue, Professor of History; Charles Michael Professor in Jewish History and Culture, Stanford University; Director and Anthony P. Meier Family Professor in the Humanities, Stanford Humanities Center.
Sarah Abrevaya Stein, Professor of History; Maurice Amado Chair in Sephardic Studies, University of California, Los Angeles.

The Ladino Memoir of Sa’adi Besalel a-Levi

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