Sephardi Lives: A Documentary History, 1700-1950
by Cohen, Julia Phillips and Sarah Abrevaya Stein, eds.

Stanford: Stanford UP, 2014. ISBN: 978-0-8047-9143-4.

Reviewed by Ralph Tarica

Contemporary Sephardic Jews are likely to know little about the histories of their recent ancestors in the Ottoman Empire, beyond some anecdote or other passed down by a previous family generation. This is not surprising, given that most Sephardic Jews today are now separated from those ancestors by one or more generations living in their new homeland, whether the United States or Israel, Argentina, France, South Africa and so on. And yet, the Ladino-speaking Jews of the region from which they all came, stretching from Greece and western Turkey northward into the Balkans and as far south as the Near and Middle East, led lives that were deeply affected by the vast transformational changes and nationalistic turmoil that took place in the area from the 19th century onward, even as they lived side by side in more-or-less relative harmony with the other inhabitants of the area.

A book such as Sephardi Lives offers us an extremely engaging glimpse into the private, social and cultural existences of our forebears and, like an archeological dig, uncovers fascinating details which together weave the rich tapestry of Sephardic life in the Ottoman Empire and beyond. Essentially this is a very broad-ranging source book of materials, gathered from other published research but also from various archives, long-extinct newspapers and even private family correspondence. A great deal of work has been devoted here to locating and foregrounding representative texts. Both of the book editors are academics who continue in the mold set by the Sephardic historian Aron Rodrigue, to whom the book is dedicated. There are 153 items, some barely a page in length, some as long as 5 or 6 pages. They have been organized into several thematic sections: everyday life, violence and societal transformation, movements and ideologies, World War II, the diaspora and emigré circles, and the emergence of Sephardi studies. Within each section items are arranged chronologically, with the earliest from 1700 and the most recent from the mid-20th century.

In reality, as the editors themselves point out, these divisions merely serve as a convenient organizational tool, and one could just as easily think of others. Merely as an example, we find various eyewitness accounts of violent events: of earthquakes and fires in Part I, of the massacre of Armenians in Istanbul in Part II, memories of a Nazi death march in Part IV, and so on. The individual items spill into each other to form a panoramic mirror of individual and societal experiences and concerns, from ordinary life to extra-ordinary events, from religious questions to intellectual activism. From Salonika, for example, we find a court record of a case in 1700 dealing with a Jewish slave who fled his Muslim master; a memoir tells of a Jewish woman in the 1820s who sews uniforms for Ottoman soldiers; an editorial in 1900 condemns Jewish women for singing in cafés on the Sabbath. In Istanbul: a woman in 1871 writes a handbook of etiquette for Sephardic girls; in 1922 an anti-Semitic Turkish government minister explains why he boycotts Jews at a peace treaty; a man in 1943 writes to his brother expressing his distress after the Turkish government imposed an onerous tax on the Jews. In Izmir: a man in 1878 brings a divorce suit against his wife for consorting with non-Jews; in 1904 a Sephardic lawyer writes of his hostility to the notion that the Jews should reconcile with Spain. In Rhodes, in 1840, four Jewish eyewitnesses recount the suffering of their Jewish compatriots resulting from a blood libel case instigated by the local Greeks; a wealthy Rodisli businessman in 1951 then living in London writes to a friend about his son’s skills in tennis at Oxford University. In Jerusalem in 1895, a Hebrew newspaper reports on the fate of a Bulgarian Jewish farming settlement west of Jerusalem; a Bulgarian writes a Socialist manifesto in Ladino in 1911. In Cairo in 1906, the scholar Abraham Galante writes an article in a Ladino newspaper proposing the resettlement of Jews in the Sudan. In 1943-45 Monastir, a woman, the partisan fighter Jamila Kolonomos, writes of her wartime experiences. In New York in 1937, the Sephardic scholar Meir Benardete corresponds with a Yiddish scholar comparing the presence of sung poetry in their respective liturgies. There are letters and documents from America, Mexico, France, and so on, including materials of every imaginable sort. What is particularly noteworthy is the inclusion of items written by or concerning Sephardi women.

And what do all these disparate elements have in common? They provide glimpses into the past, as the editors point out in their very useful introduction, that reveal the Sephardi Jewish engagement with the modern world. Each of the items has been translated into English by a specialist, from their original language -- Ladino, French, Hebrew, Turkish and a host of others – introduced by a brief and highly informative paragraph.  Indeed, the wealth of knowledge contained in this source material could very well serve as the basis for a history of Sephardic culture and society in the old Ottoman Empire.  The items individually are very likely to engage the interest of readers, particularly those who are descended from that society and who may feel an endearing kinship with the people depicted in these documents and who have long since disappeared. Several maps and an Index contribute further to the usefulness of the book.

Ralph Tarica is professor emeritus of the University of Maryland

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