The Earliest Known Memoir in Ladino Reveals the Struggles of a Nineteenth Century Ottoman Jewish Community

Nina Caputo on Rodrigue and Stein’s A Jewish Voice from Ottoman Salonica

A. Rodrigue and S.A. Stein (eds.), A Jewish Voice from Ottoman Salonica: The Ladino Memoir of Sa’adi Basalel a-Levi, Stanford University Press, 2012, 432pp., $27.95.

The modern memoir typically follows a narrative arc similar to the one Augustine applied in his Confessions, tracing the protagonist’s struggles to overcome internal weakness or external challenges that impede their effort to live a good and moral life. In most cases, the narrator ultimately remains a fundamentally flawed person, albeit one who derives life lessons to provide an example for others. At its best, the memoir offers a window onto the author’s motivations, emotions, and endeavors, all the while demonstrating that, although the particulars of life’s struggle vary, the fact that life is a struggle is universal. As James Olney has observed, the drive to narrate the development of the self is fundamentally linked to memory. The reader—whether an anonymous spectator to a relative stranger’s life or an intimate addressee to whom the personages and locations are close at hand—becomes a voyeur who, for a time, occupies the narrative time and space inhabited by another. Reading a good memoir can therefore produce the experience of an intense, sometimes disturbing, intimacy with the author.

The publication of memoirs has exploded during the past quarter century. The documentary nature of historical memoirs—the perception that these texts afford direct and unrestricted access to the emotional and material experiences of people who lived in a very different world—is appealing to contemporary readers. These qualities also make memoirs, and especially memoirs of ordinary lives, immensely valuable for historians as research and pedagogical tools.

A Jewish Voice from Ottoman Salonica: The Ladino Memoir of Sa’adi Besalel a-Levi adds a new voice to an already rich body of historical Jewish autobiographical narratives in mass circulation. Sa’adi’s memoir maps the history of the Jewish community of Salonica spanning much of the nineteenth century, along with the distinct experiences of its author, a prominent Jewish printer and musician. Sa’adi began composing this work in 1881, as he declares in his preface, “to inform future generations how much times have changed within half a century.” Reflecting on his youth and years of professional struggle, the author interweaves momentous events in the history of Salonica—including plagues, political turmoil, fires, and earthquakes—with personal and benchmark events in his own life such as childhood traumas, professional challenges and victories, marriage, parenthood, and personal conflicts. The result is an autobiographical text that self-consciously addresses larger themes relating to the confrontation between traditional rabbinic leadership of the Jewish community and a growing number of members of this community who were drawn to the opportunities opened by modern technology, international politics and culture, and loyalty to the imperial government in Istanbul.

Sa’adi’s memoir stands at the intersection between traditional memoir, which offers an account of the circumstances of the author’s life as a product of a unique time and place, and autobiography, a genre described by Olney as a narrative “not of events of the past but … [of] memories of those events.” Sa’adi plotted his memoir as a heroic tale of the successful effort to break free from a retrograde conservative religious fanaticism. Sa’adi situates himself at the epicenter of the struggle to loosen the grasp of a despotic rabbinic ruling class that benefitted from exorbitant taxes and fees for protection and services. His professional endeavors, first as a printer of newspapers and books in Ladino, French, and Hebrew, and then as a singer, stand at the crux of this challenge to the established structures of Jewish leadership and authority. Running afoul of the rabbis’ decisions, capricious or otherwise, could cost an individual dearly. And Sa’adi repeatedly suffered under the weight of this authoritarian structure.

Because his repertoire as a performer included modern arrangements of traditional Jewish liturgical works and translations of such works into Turkish (“a la turka”) as well as original Turkish music, Sa’adi found himself in a continuous cycle of offending and begging the forgiveness of a community notable who bristled against modernizing or innovating Jewish ritual and liturgy. Sa’adi’s reluctant deference was necessary in order to avoid both the herem, or ban of excommunication from the Jewish community, and corporal punishment (in the form of lashes) as the payment for release from the ban. His career as a printer was similarly troubled when he tangled with a group of powerful thuggish rabbis who targeted Sa’adi and his family for challenging their corrupt taxation schemes. Eventually, however, he circumvented the oppressive political and religious structure by maneuvering around these obstacles to find more powerful allies outside the community who supported and protected his printing enterprise.

To provide a full picture of the contours, rhythms, and transformations of Jewish life in nineteenth century Salonica, Sa’adi also describes marriage ritual, educational traditions, the complex process of selecting and appointing leaders, levying taxes from members of the Jewish community, as well as culinary and eating habits and customs of dress. His description of the customs of daily life is purposefully ethnographical, drawing attention to class and generational differences. For example, his description of an ordinary home emphasizes the modesty of daily life: “A typical house had a tiny curtain on the windows, five to six rudimentary chairs, and a small, framed mirror, barely sufficient to reflect one’s face.” The sparse nature of common living conditions is made more vivid by the comparison it invites with his description of the relative luxury of an elite household.

In similar fashion, the description of typical attire and changing fashions draws attention to differences of class and age: “Men’s clothing falls into four categories. Some wore a fur cap, a man’s robe, and loose robe. Others, who were the majority in Salonica, wore a round cap. Middle-class men wore a turban in the style of a round cap with a fez underneath. Lower-class individuals wore a twisted turban.” Because the author seems to represent change within the Jewish community of Salonica as difficult but inevitable, his narrative is virtually devoid of nostalgia, making such details fresh, exciting, and deeply engaging.

Salonica has until very recently remained fairly marginal in the landscape of modern Jewish historiography. The thorough introduction by Aron Rodrigue and Sarah Abrevaya Stein, the two foremost scholars of modern Sephardic history and culture today, provides a cogent and accessible historical context for Sa’adi’s memoir. To make the memoir comprehensible to specialists and lay readers alike the introduction carefully fills in details that the author failed to delineate (whether because he assumed that his reader would already possess a first-hand knowledge of local politics and personages or because he felt such details were irrelevant to his story), while illustrating the inherent fascination that the history of Salonican Jewry holds. The history of Salonica itself embodies the radical economic, demographic, and cultural changes that were taking place over the course of the nineteenth century across Europe. Comprising nearly half of the city’s population, the Jewish community represented a cross-section of the great religious, cultural, linguistic, and socio-economic diversity characteristic of an imperial port city. The introduction provides much crucial information about the demographic makeup of the Jewish community of Salonica, Jewish immigration and settlement patterns, and the intricacies of Ottoman imperial governance.

Rodrigue and Stein’s appreciation of the Ladino press amplifies Sa’adi’s status as an arbiter of the religious, literary, and political culture that thrived in Salonica. The editors’ effort to extend their fascination with Sa’adi and his world to their reader is facilitated by the fact that Isaac Jerusalmi’s fluid translation of the Ladino text preserves a compelling informal and familiar narrative voice. Moreover, since the volume includes a transliterated version of the Ladino text and also directs the reader to a high-resolution scan of the original manuscript, the editors pose a welcome challenge to students of Judaism to engage more actively with the world this memoir represents.

As Rodrigue and Stein indicate, this is not a great piece of writing. Nor is it a memoir that offers deep insights into the human condition. What it provides is a very idiosyncratic and personalized snapshot of a world that the author recognized to be vanishing—for better and for worse. Like all snapshots, this text reproduces the author’s vantage point while also capturing random peripheral details that entered the frame, whether accidentally or by design. It is an important contribution to the corpus of texts illustrating how communities and individuals experienced the transition from life in a traditional Jewish community to citizenship in the modern nation-state.