La presse judÉo-espagnole, support et vecteur de la modernitÉ [The Judeo-Spanish Press as Medium and Vehicle of Modernity]

Sánchez, Rosa & Marie-Christine Bornes Varol, Eds., Istanbul: Libra Kitap:79, 2013. ISBN 978-605-4326-78-5.

Reviewed by Ralph Tarica

Modern-day descendants of Ladino speakers, particularly in the United States, are likely to have no more than a vague awareness that their grandparents and great-grandparents in the old Ottoman Empire bought and read newspapers written in their own language, Judeo-Spanish (Ladino), printed for the most part in 'Rashi' characters. That tradition carried over when they emigrated to the New World. It may seem curious to some today that our immigrant forebears read Ladino-language newspapers published in New York City well into the 1940s, as well as in other countries. Access to this material is extremely rare in this country (to the best of my knowledge not even the Library of Congress has old Judeo-Spanish journals in its collections). Much of it has been salvaged in various European and Israeli archives, and fortunately so, for this body of journalistic writing constitutes a very rich field for revealing the intellectual life of secular Sephardic writers in Judeo-Spanish and their reading public.

This book, based on a 2011 colloquium in Paris devoted to the subject, brings together a number of articles – in English, French, Spanish and even Ladino -- regarding the Judeo-Spanish press, from its beginnings in the mid-19th century to today. As the title indicates, the focus here is on how this press served to introduce Ladino readers in Turkey, Greece and throughout the Ottoman Empire to the new social, political and cultural ideas of Western modernity. The two co-editors, both well-known and highly respected scholars in Judeo-Spanish studies, provide an invaluable introduction to the subject of the Judeo-Spanish press in general and situate these articles in three related areas of interest.

The first relates to the medium of the newspapers itself. Annie Bellaïche Cohen looks at one of the first, El Verdadero Progreso Israelita, begun in Paris in 1864, while Susy Gross's study concerns one of the most recent, El Tiempo, which ceased publication in 1967, in Tel Aviv. In either case it is noteworthy that the integration of Jewish immigrants into their new land became a major focus for the press. Articles by Paloma Díaz-Mas and Julie Scolnik study how network ties were established for news gathering and distribution.

A second area concerns the role of the press in introducing readers to innovations and modernity. Hélène Guillon investigates how Bezalel Saadi Levy and his son Sam used their important journals in Salonika to educate public opinion (Sam's journal, Journal de Salonique, came out in French). Elena Romero and Aitor García Moreno consider how new fashions spread on the basis of the social model for the use of tobacco and cigarettes. David Bunis examines how ideas about language found in articles by Rafael Uziel in 1845-46 and Joseph Jacob Calvo, in El Nasyonal of Vienna, in 1866, reflect theories that were just beginning to appear in the new field of linguistics. Rosa Sánchez and Cristina Martínez Gálvez look at two new literary genres that begin appearing in the early 20th century: comic parodies of letters to the editor and humorous dialogues.

A third area regards the lives of several of the journalists and the ties that bound them to the general intellectual sphere of the Ottoman world. Dov Cohen, writing in Ladino, reconstructs the intellectual journey of one of the first journalists writing in Judeo-Spanish, Rafael Uziel. Michael Studemund-Halévy traces various influences on the writings of Baruh Mitrani. Marie Christine Bornes Varol considers how an Ottoman rabbi like Hayim Bejarano was also a polyglot who collaborated on newspapers written in Judeo-Spanish, Spanish, Rumanian and Hebrew and maintained a correspondence with a wide variety of contemporary European Jewish and non-Jewish intellectuals.

From an economic perspective, these journals were generally speaking very fragile enterprises, often run by a single man who served as reporter, editorialist, fund-raiser and publisher, often obliged to move about throughout the Ottoman Empire to establish new contacts and seek financial support. Names of subscribers could often be found on several lists of supporters. Failures and new start-overs were frequent; very few such journals lasted more than a very few years. Several of the journalists, notably Alexander Ben Guiat and Eliya Carmona, also tried their hand at fiction and translating stories for a local Jewish audience, either published in their journals or printed as separate fascicules. Detective work is often required to follow the adventures of certain of the journals and their editors, and indeed the biographies uncovered in several of these articles (notably for Rafael Uziel, Ezra Benveniste, Baruh Mitrani and Hayim Bejarano) will undoubtedly constitute major new contributions to the field.

Another area of special interest is the extent to which Jewish intellectuals in the Ottoman Empire – the new enlightened class of Sephardic maskilim -- shared many of the concerns of their Turkish colleagues, such as the question of censorship, nationalism (Zionism in the case of the Jews) or the purity of their language. Turkish was about to rid itself of non-Turkish elements at the same time that Jewish writers were considering a return to 'pure' Castilian, and in both cases arguments were being proposed to write their language using Latin characters.

A review of such a wide-ranging body of articles as this can only suggest what readers will find of interest. There is a useful index for names and places, and the Bibliography provides a very rich source for future readings. What readers are likely to find most valuable, however, is the story of devoted journalists writing in Judeo-Spanish at a given historical moment -- writers who served the intellectual needs of readers who were increasingly ready to enter the modern world. As one letter to the editor notes: "Es grasias a estos esforsos ke devemos tanto progreso en el Oriente” (p. 294). From a linguistic point of view, ironically, it is hard to avoid noting that the result has been almost too successful, as Judeo-Spanish continues to fade as a spoken language and printed publications in that language have dwindled to a very precious few indeed. We can hope that studies such as those in this book may contribute to a significant revival movement.

Ralph Tarica is Professor Emeritus at the University of Maryland and one of the prime movers of the Vijitas de Alhad.

Copyright by Sephardic Horizons, all rights reserved. ISSN Number 2158-1800