Studies of Jewish Life in Bulgaria

Studies of Jewish Life in Bulgaria

From the 16th to the 20th century
By Zvi Keren

Tel Aviv: Contento Now,  2016 ISBN 978-9655505085

Reviewed by Steven F. Sage*

Zvi Keren (1935-2015), author of the articles in Studies of Jewish Life in Bulgaria, departed this life while the book was in the production stage. In these pages he has bequeathed a dual monument: to the past of a community now all but gone from the Balkan scene, and to his own life as a multifaceted scholar. Keren grounded his work solidly in facts drawn innovatively from a multitude of diverse sources. The facts show how the Jews of Bulgaria, increasingly Sephardic in idiom and outlook during the 16th to 20th centuries covered herein, were not always happily assimilated as some might have it. This was no halcyon Gan Eden, yet neither was it an unmitigated hell on earth. Each article testifies to Zvi Keren’s courageous fidelity in adducing facts, even when those facts tell of conflicts within the Jewish community and in its confrontations with Muslim and Christian cohabitants of the land we now call Bulgaria.

The first substantive article is partly autobiographical: “What is a Tedesco Looking for in Sephardic Shrines?” Keren introduces himself as a half-Ashkenazi, half-Sephardi historian, fluent in Bulgarian, Hebrew, and Judeo-Spanish (among other languages), who undertook early in his career to glean whatever he could from what still survived of the inscriptions on tombstones around the country. His task was a salvage operation of photographing and study. The Communist rulers of Bulgaria did not regard Jewish (or Muslim Turkish) cemeteries as hallowed ground. Wanton destruction occurred, and continued after 1989. Much of what Keren recorded for posterity has since been removed, desecrated, pulverized. Ironically then, it is first via his mission to preserve inscriptions memorializing the dead that the author brings us to the life of Sephardic Jewry in Bulgaria over half a millennium. Along the way he takes the reader through epigraphy, iconography, poetry, and drama, since no bit of evidence from any genre remained off limits from his purview.

Zvi Keren defied the stultifying parochialism enforced by certain entrenched academic careerists who insist that a proper scholar should work within a narrowly confined category of evidence. In an orchestra, that would be like expecting the conductor to extract performance only from the woodwinds while ignoring the percussion, strings, brass, and other instruments. Maestro Keren conducted instead the entire philharmonic. His breadth within this volume shows next in an article chronicling the Jews of Nikopol from heyday to decline, spanning the 16th to 20th centuries.

He placed Nikopol, a port town on the Danube, within its geopolitical and economic contexts, tracing the trade routes and outlining the strategic geography. Jews settled there because it became a secure bastion of the Ottoman power, situated on a riparian artery leading to sources of wealth and markets abroad. As of the mid-16th century, the Jewish community constituted only half a percent of the total population, but the Jewish impact on the life of Nikopol was disproportionately large. Jews engaged in the salt trade, money lending, tax collection, and other commercial endeavors. The archived records of legal cases, tax and inheritance disputes provide an insight into the dealings of Nikopol’s Sephardic Jews with the Ottoman authorities, the Romaniote Jewish inhabitants, and Greek-speaking gentiles. Jewish spiritual life in Nikopol is reviewed in Keren’s biographic piece on the prominent rabbi Joseph Qaro. Born in Spain, Qaro settled in Nikopol, opened a yeshiva, made the town a center of Kabbalistic study, but eventually moved his sojourn to the holy land. Keren concludes by reviewing the decline of Nikopol and its eclipse by other, rising urban centers.

As Nikopol declined Vidin arose, upriver along the Danube. Again Keren is precise regarding the economic geography. Those unfamiliar with the region are advised to follow his narrative on the clear map accompanying this text. For the life of Vidin’s diverse Jewish community – Sephardi, Ashkenazi, and Romaniote – Keren draws on cases adjudicated in rabbinical courts. But Jews had to deal with Muslims as well, and here the author has consulted Sharia proceedings and Ottoman records. Working from general description to particular examples, he takes the reader through the interplay of economic life, communal relations, and political events in two well documented articles, concluding with the Nazi-inspired oppression by the Bulgarian state during the Second World War. That episode built on earlier currents. Antisemitism had always been a dark factor, lurking in the background, sometimes dominating in the foreground over the five centuries recounted here.

Moving south from the Danube port cities, Keren focuses on the towns of Kazanlǔk and Eski-Zagra during the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878. This was the conflict that gave rise to the modern Bulgarian state. Es bueno para los Djidios? In a word: No. The war brought disaster, as pogroms ensued in the wake of the Russian army. Christian Bulgarian civilians joined Cossacks and other Russian soldiers in an orgy of rape, robbery, and murder. Some localities were spared but the Jews in Kazanlǔk and Eski-Zagra were not. Many survived only by abandoning their homes and fleeing, as refugees. Keren reconstructs the pillage from reports, letters, and literature. Yet it has all been glossed over in the historiography of nationalistic Bulgaria, whose rulers prefer to imagine their country as some idealized multi-kulti paradise where envy and religious hatred of Jews were always unknown.

Jews in Ruse on the Danube were among the lucky ones who made it through, unscathed by Bulgaria’s birth pang pogroms. It is to Ruse that Keren turns his attention in a micro-historical study of educational policy during 1885, early in the life of the newly independent state. A dispute within Ruse’s Jewish community concerned who would control the school founded by the Alliance Israélite Universelle. To reconstruct events in Ruse, Keren went to the Alliance archives in Paris. Alliance schools were intended to educate Jewish youths as cultured, French-speaking Europeans. But a host of communal issues complicated the issue: religious vs. secular training, education for girls as well as boys, disparities of wealth among the Jewish families, and the sub-ethnic Sephardi – Ashkenazi divide. Keren delves into communal dynamics as he details the arbitration process which eventually sorted out the question of who would govern the Ruse Alliance school.

Having taken us to Ruse, Keren immerses us there in his translated selections from a primary source. Rabbi Avraham Rosanes kept a handwritten Hebrew language journal during the middle years of the 19th century. He traveled widely, upriver to Vienna and south to the Holy Land. Rosanes dealt with the affluent, the poor, and the ruling Turkish authorities. He was an educator, a Kabbalist, and a genuinely pious Jew, a man whose eye on eternity transcended his immediate milieu. Keren provides an introduction and then lets the rabbi speak for himself across the gulf of time.

Sections of photographs and facsimile inscriptions crown this book. Translations of key documents are also provided by the author. The narrative tone is that of a patient professor as the facts he piles up steadily accrue, ultimately to be summarized for their lasting significance. One never gets the feeling of any strident agenda. He demolishes pious lies but never with rancor. And Keren’s prose is accessible to the educated public in welcome contrast to the p.c. party-line, jargon-laden obfuscations of so many academic historians of recent decades. They often beam their writing only to colleague clones fettered within an intellectual capsule, hermetically sealed. Here instead is learned History writ large in the grand old style. Has Zvi Keren overstepped some invisible specialist turf boundaries in the field? He sure has, and expertly at that, to the shame of the turgid specialists and militant ideologues. Audacious aspiring doctoral candidates should be encouraged to make Keren their model, to observe, to take joy in study both broad and deep, and strive to equal and surpass the example he has set.

A grant from the American Research Center in Sofia Foundation helped make possible the publication of this elegant volume. As noted, the selected articles in Studies of Jewish Life in Bulgaria were compiled at the end of their author’s mortal span. This work is all the more remarkable for being nearly free of error. Nearly. In a very few instances the volume might have been proofread with just a bit greater care: e.g., tributaries of the Osam and Vit rivers do not “flow into central Bulgaria” since these waters issue from the mountains of central Bulgaria and flow northward to the Danube. On occasion Keren might have updated a place name so as to orient those readers who are unfamiliar with Ottoman-era toponyms, e.g., informing the uninitiated that Ruse is the modern form of Rusçuk, and that Eski-Zagra is now Stara Zagora. And in rare places a superfluous word escaped the copy editor.

Yet it is a mark of the quality of this collection that a reviewer’s obligatory critique must be confined to such trivial quibbles. Here we have not a mere tome but a time machine. Buckle your seat belt and ‘Bon Voyage’! Studies of Jewish Life in Bulgaria is a requisite for anyone daring to visit those bygone centuries when Sephardi merchants plied the roads and rivers of the Ottoman domains in southeastern Europe, when responsas by rabbis in Bulgaria circulated throughout Jewry worldwide, and when Jewish-accented Spanish vied for linguistic predominance on Balkan city streets. It was a time and a space between Madre España and Eretz Israel.

* Steven F. Sage has served as an American diplomat in Bulgaria and as a researcher on Bulgarian matters for the Jewish Claims Conference and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.

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