A’Levi, Sa’adi ben Betsalel. A Jewish Voice from Ottoman Salonica: The Ladino Memoir of Sa’adi Besalel a-Levi.
Edited and with an introduction by Aron Rodrigue and Sarah Abrevaya Stein; translation, transliteration and glossary by Isaac Jerusalmi. Stanford Studies in Jewish History and Culture. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2012.
Reviewed by Ralph Tarica
To the growing body of writing in Ladino slowly being unearthed from dusty library shelves and privately held archives can now be added a memoir, very likely the first private journal in Ladino meant to be published.
When he began writing his memoir in 1881, Sa’adi was keenly aware of the fact that his own lifetime (1820-1903) encompassed an enormous transition between two very different periods. In his Preface he announces the particular angle he will stress: “our ancestors suffered in the olden days due to their ignorance and fanaticism” – the agents of which, as it soon becomes clear, are the often despotic Jewish city leaders, including the theocratic chief rabbis, whose edicts were implemented by the Ottoman administration well into the latter part of the century. His memoir illustrates both how he became an exemplar of that suffering and how he rebelled against the traditionalist elite that he believed was stifling the Jewish community in Salonikaand preventing it from progressing into the modern world.
Sa’adi rails constantly against rabbinical leaders for abusing their power over the people. As he writes, “people died as victims of the fear created by fanaticism” (p. 8)--although, paradoxically, for this (almost) modern man, he seems himself to have actually believed that a rabbi’s curse could kill someone. He denounced the rabbis’power to inflict physical punishment--lashing of the feet, for example--and, in the case of one adulterous woman, outright torture that created an embarrassing international incident for the Jewish community. Above all he fought against their power to cast edicts of excommunication (enheremar in Ladino) for the slightest motive.
Excommunication meant being boycotted by other Jews in every aspect of social life, not least of which was the loss of one’s customers. Given Sa’adi’s numerous offspring (although, curiously, he rarely speaks about his family), he was obliged to earn a steady income. By trade he was a printer, having inherited a printing press from his grandfather and father. Besides producing books in Hebrew, Ladino and Judeo-Greek, in 1875 he launched one of the first Ladino newspapers ever to appear, La Epoka, to be continued after his death by his son Sam Levy, until 1911. He also had a good voice, studied singing under a Turkish teacher, and supplemented his income by performing at various religious and social events, both as composer and singer of music in the Turkish style. This got him into trouble with one chief rabbi who despised Turkish music and forbade him from chanting the Hebrew liturgy in that style (although Sa’adi ultimately won that battle).
More importantly, in 1874, his son Hayyim was falsely accused of smoking on the Sabbath and Sa’adi was determined to stand up for him before the rabbis–for which he was given an excommunication sentence of 31 years, was dragged through the streets along with his son by a fanatical Jewish mob and saved only by the intervention of the philanthropist Moïse Allatini. This of course only fired up Sa’adi’s sense of rebellion all the more. He would side with Allatini and other progressive forces in the city, including railroad-builder Baron Hirsch, in promoting the creation of the secular French schools of the Alliance Israélite Universelle, at the expense of the traditional Hebrew talmud torah schools which he thought of as a hotbed of backwardness and physical punishment. But he thought of his personal ordeal as a public service: “thanks to me, the population of Salonica was saved from this leprosy still prevalent at that time” (p. 111).
Sa’adi often added the name Ashkenazi to his full name–Sa’adi Betsalel Ashkenazi a-Levi–as a way of giving notice to all that his cultural heritage was Ashkenazi as well as Sephardic. While it is well known today that Salonikawas a majority Jewish, Judeo-Spanish-speaking city well into the 20th century, the makeup of that Jewish population may come as something of a surprise to a modern reader. There were already Jews inSalonika–both Greek and Ashkenazi--before the arrival of Jews from Spain at the end of the 15th century. After the Spanish Jews settled in, a continuing migration brought Jews from western Europe–the so-called Frankos, arriving from Livorno, Italy, Holland--and elsewhere. While most of them were absorbed into the Sephardic, Spanish-speaking majority, many retained an awareness of their particular origins, conducted their religious services in their own synagogues, and laid the ground for some important social-class distinctions.
Sa’adi’s encounters with these diverse social classes and the various gevirim, hahamim, dayanim, printers, musicians and many others that we meet along the way, as well as the interactions of the Jews with the local Greeks, Turks and Ottoman guards and administrators, provide the backdrop against which his own obsessive drama is played out. We get the picture of a Salonika in which, despite its various quarters for Jews, Greeks, Turks and Europeans, people mixed freely and got along remarkably well together (the book includes maps of the city reconstituting the neighborhoods as they once existed). He comments at length on the clothing fashions of the day, associating style with the evolution of the social class system. He describes wedding customs, eating habits, the medical practice of applying leeches, the effects of earthquakes and fires, the causes of the war between Turkey and Russia, and much more. In short, he gives us a full panoply of sociological and historical observations, as seen by a very literate witness of, and participant in, his own social and historical moment.
The editors of this work,1 both well-known historians with Sephardic roots, have included a lengthy Introduction. Here we find an invaluable analysis of the memoir itself which expands upon the events recounted in it to give a global look at this once-great Jewish society, since annihilated by the most evil impulses of the 20th century. The English translation of the memoir itself, consisting of 148 pages including explanatory footnotes, is followed by a transcription into Latin characters of the original manuscript in Soletreo,2 with an appended glossary. Readers may find this to be another good reason to want to read this book, for the work done by Isaac Jerusalmi is truly amazing. Here we have a lengthy prose work written in the vernacular Judeo-Spanish of the 19th century, long since abandoned by the majority of the descendants of the Spanish Jews of the Ottoman Empire. Anyone who has tried to decipher Soletreo handwriting will immediately recognize the tremendous accomplishment this in itself represents. For persons who can read Ladino, much of the pleasure will undoubtedly be derived from reading the authentic original with the option of falling back on the excellent English translation for a fuller understanding.
1. Readers can find a very interesting “podcast” interview with the editors in the March 4, 2012 edition of TabletMag.com.
2. The story of how the manuscript was found, and the search for Saadi’s living descendants, add an interesting personal dimension to the book.