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A Jewish Voice from Ottoman Salonica: The Ladino Memoir of Sa'adi Besalel a-Levi

A Jewish Voice from Ottoman Salonica: The Ladino Memoir of Sa'adi Besalel a-Levi

by Aron Rodrigue (Editor), Sarah Abrevaya Stein (Editor), Isaac Jerusalmi (Translator)

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This book, a vivid first-hand account of a lost Jewish world, represents the translation of the first Ladino-language memoir known to be written: its author was a leading journalist and publisher in the Ottoman city of Salonica.


This book, a vivid first-hand account of a lost Jewish world, represents the translation of the first Ladino-language memoir known to be written: its author was a leading journalist and publisher in the Ottoman city of Salonica.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"What an intellectual treat is this poignant epitaph for a lost civilization! . . . The editors and translators add to their odyssey of the manuscript their own biographical contributions to the academic revival and scholarly study of this lost Sephardi civilization, a welcome but sad memorial for a dried-up tributary of the Jewish stream. . . . Essential."
Yale University - Francesca Trivellato
"We must be grateful to the two editors and the translator of this memoir for bringing a rare document back to life. Surviving the near-annihilation and dispersion of the Jews of Salonica over the last hundred years, this precious historical source offers a passionate portrait of the struggle between traditionalist and modernizing forces within the late-nineteenth-century Sephardic world. It is a gripping read and will advance the scholarly agenda of Sephardic studies."
New York University - Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett
"How marvelous to have the first known memoir in Ladino so beautifully translated and explicated. Sa'adi, an Ottoman Jew, astute observer, and person of diverse accomplishments, lived through the better part of the long 19th century. His invaluable memoir, completed before the cataclysmic events of World War I and collapse of the Ottoman Empire, documents a world already in flux. The beauty of this memoir is the vividness with which Sa'adi conveys the very experience of change as someone who not only witnessed it but also lived and felt it. The reader can hear his voice and visualize what he describes in such telling detail. This is a book to read for the sheer pleasure of it and an accessible way to engage students new to the history of Ottoman Jews."
Nina Caputo
"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."
University of Washington - Reşat Kasaba
"Sa'adi Besalel a-Levi was a man who found himself at the threshold of momentous changes that would all but swallow everything that was familiar to him in the early decades of the twentieth century. Yet, rather than meditating nostalgically about a world that was fast disappearing, Sa'adi embraced change with enthusiasm. He hoped that the future that was dawning would be free of the shackles of tradition that held him and the Jewish community of Salonica back. His unusual conviction about the power of progress, his efforts to make intellectual sense of the transformations that surround him, his repeated clashes with those who held power over him, and his repeated disappointments make this an exceptionally engaging book. Aron Rodrigue, Sarah Abrevaya Stein, and Isaac Jerusalmi have done a marvelous job of translating, editing, and making accessible this uniquely valuable source. Their work enriches our understanding of the life of the Jewish communities in and around Salonica and beyond in the second half of the nineteenth century in a profound way."
Association of Jewish Libraries - Harvey Sukenic
"This work, with its rare look at the struggle between traditional society and modernizing trends in a nineteenth century Sephardic community, adds to our understanding of the beginnings of modernity in a Sephardic mode."

Product Details

Stanford University Press
Publication date:
Stanford Studies in Jewish History and C Series
Product dimensions:
6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.20(d)

Read an Excerpt

A Jewish Voice from Ottoman Salonica

The Ladino Memoir of Sa'adi Besalel a-Levi


Copyright © 2012 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8047-7166-5

Chapter One

Personal Information

[1a] I, who am mentioned below, am the descendant born in the year 1820 of a certain sinyor Besalel a-Levi Ashkenazi. He was a young man dressed according to the Ashkenazi style. As an educated man, he was received as a shaliah or traveling fund-raiser, even though he was not needy, neither was he on a fund-raising mission. In those days out-of-town guests were granted hospitality. His host was sinyor Rav Modiano, may he rest in paradise. During his stay at the rav's house, he had talks with him and was asked about the reason of his coming to Salonica. He replied, saying that he hadn't come for any fund-raising, but that as an artisan versed in printing, he was looking for a place to establish himself. The sinyor rav helped this handsome young man open a printing press where he printed a number of books written by local scholars, among which I still have in my possession one entitled Meoré Or, printed by him personally in 1752. It was also the sinyor rav who helped him get married in our city. He had two sons, one called Avraam and the other Yeuda a-Levi Ashkenazi. His son Avraam died, leaving no descendants, but my grandfather Yeuda lived to around ninety years old. I was fortunate to know him way beyond my own father who did not get to live to attain half his age. My sinyor grandfather had two sons. The oldest was Sa'adi, who died relatively young without any progeny. Therefore my father inherited the printing press. My father, too, died at the age of thirty-six or thirty-seven, leaving his wife with four daughters, with me barely five to six years old. My father lived to marry just one daughter. That same year, he passed away, leaving behind my mother five months pregnant. In time she gave birth to a baby boy whom she named Chelebon, who came down with kidney disease. He died at the age of eighteen, three days after surgery. In those days the science of medicine was not as advanced, and there were no qualified doctors in our city, except for one Dr. Parsakaki. He did the surgery in his own way, causing his death.

I was named after my father's brother, who died in the pestilence of 1814 and left me as an inheritance his ring with his name engraved on it. My sinyora mother placed it on my finger when I was fifteen years old. I have worn it every day since then, even today as I am writing this story. I, too, will leave it as an inheritance after me [1b] to one of my sons liable to honor my full name in keeping with our family's custom of not naming a newborn after a living person.

Chapter Two

The Cause of My Father's Death

My father was an observant Jew. In those days all the Jews kept their religious obligations, such as Tora study sessions on the eve of Shavu'oth, Selihoth, Osha'na Rabba, or the Seventh Day of Passover.

One Shavu'oth eve, he went after dinner to attend a study session according to the custom of all the Jews when they all went to their synagogues and no one stayed home. That time of the year, nights were shorter, dawn broke early around six thirty, some people would come back home to eat the enchusa with some rice pudding, then go to sleep until 1 or 2 p.m. Others went touring the parks, while lower-class people with wicker baskets filled with cheese pies, rice pudding, raki, and hard-boiled eggs went with their families to parks on the outskirts of the city to eat, get drunk, and fall asleep on the grass. Most of them returned home sick.

After the prayers, my sinyor father and one of his employees from his print shop went to the seashore to get some fresh air. At that time there were neither steamships nor regular mail service. Captains were in charge of incoming mail, which they then distributed to the appropriate recipients.

[2a] While on the seashore, my sinyor father saw a boat coming from Smyrna, and his printing business dealt mostly with publishing books by scholars from Smyrna. Approaching the deck of the boat, he saw scattered mail addressed to businessmen, and among them was a letter addressed to sinyor Rav Gatenyo, who was the contact man and correspondent for scholars in Smyrna. My sinyor father picked up that letter for his employee to deliver it, thinking that some urgent matter of interest to him dealing with a book might be involved and that it might not be delivered in time. Because of the holiday, he also thought it appropriate to have a Greek unseal the letter so that the rabbi could read it immediately. He did just that and sent him the letter with his employee, who first went home to have a meal. But as usual, he fell asleep and slept until the evening. When he woke up, he had forgotten all about the letter he had in his pocket. The following night, this employee went to a different study session. In the morning he followed the same routine, ate and slept until the evening. The day after Shavu'oth, he came to the print shop to resume his work. My father asked him if he had delivered the letter to its recipient. The employee slapped his forehead saying that he had forgotten all about it. My father told the employee to take it immediately to the rabbi, with apologies, adding that it arrived on Shavu'oth and that is why it had been unsealed, to spare him the trouble of finding some gentile to do it on that day.

While this employee went to deliver the letter to the haham, my father sat down to have a light lunch. He had a slice of cheese pie left over from Shavu'oth, a piece of fresh cheese, a few delicious cookies, and some cherries. Just as he had finished his lunch, the employee came back, but he had not told the haham the entire story for fear of assuming blame. The sinyor haham asked, "Where did you get this letter?" He answered, "My sinyor boss ham Besalel gave it to me as is." [2b] In his answer the sinyor haham said that with this action, he had transgressed the negative command of ribbi Yeuda Hasid. When my sinyor father, who was meticulous in his religious observance, heard the name of Ribbi Yeuda Hasid, he thought that this Ribbi Yeuda Hasid was the Angel of Death, who was coming to kill him with a drawn out sword in his hand. On a full stomach and out of great fear, my father became ill; he had to go to bed with shivers, and within nine days he passed away, [on] the night of June 23, 1826.

O poor father! How tragic that you lost your life at its peak because you feared the words of a man who compiled a book of all the negative commandments, such as: No Israelite may marry a Kohen; no hen that crows like a rooster may be spared; it must be slaughtered; no young man bearing his future father-in-law's name may marry this man's daughter; no two future father-in-laws bearing identical names can allow the marriage of their children; no goose may be slaughtered in the months of Teveth and Shevat, etc. etc.

This prohibition on slaughtering geese in Teveth and Shevat, when geese are fattened, favored the ritual slaughterers who set aside the head, the dewlap, and the neck for themselves, based on the principle that the ritual slaughterer must consume part of the flesh. As of this writing this strange custom has not yet been revoked, simply because ritual slaughterers love to eat those fatty meals.

In conclusion, due to some fearful prohibitions imposed by our ancestors over such shallow matters, people died as victims of the fear created by fanaticism. I will relate many similar cases below.

Chapter Three

Personal Information and My Sinyora Mother's Death

[3a] My sinyora mother used to tell me that her family was a descendant from a sinyor Morpurgo, who came from Italy and settled in Salonica. He had an only daughter who was married to a certain sinyor Avraam Kovo, who had daughters that died, with my mother as the only survivor. He called her Djantil. Yet, because he lost his other daughters and she was the only "cherished" survivor, they called her Merkada. By training, she was a skilled seamstress of a la franka–style shirts, a trade she inherited from her mother, who in turn learned it from her sinyora vava, a trade she had brought from Italy. In an age when there were no sewing machines, all the work was done by hand. All the consulates in Salonica and other high-placed personalities, as well as all the business people, wore her shirts, the outcome of her handiwork. At my father's death I was a five- to six-year-old little boy, our printing house was run by its employees, and revenues were insuf- ficient for the upkeep of five children. It was through sheer hard work, the fruit of her hands, that six souls survived. By herself she managed to marry her three daughters, but I was not lucky enough to get married during my mother's lifetime.

In those days key businessmen and consuls sent their respective kavases [bodyguards] to fetch her. The European quarter, however, had none of those fancy stores it has today, but was rather isolated, with their mansions protected by fierce dogs against evildoers. Those dogs were as ferocious as lions; during the day, they had to chain and cage them. One day, the wife of Musyu Rika sent for her—he was at the top of the Masonic order—but one of the dogs of her house was not yet restrained, but was roaming around in the courtyard. As she was stepping through the gate, accompanied by the kavas, my mother was confronted by this barking dog, [3b] was terrified, and started to have shivers that recurred for many months, as if she had malaria. The doctors prescribed that she drink azarado wine. This azarado wine was old wine fortified with a dose of iron filings that was exposed to the sun for a few days. She had to drink three cups a day from this wine for forty consecutive days. When this cure was over, this tropical disease recurred. Finally, she, too, died from this disease on September 15, 1837. That is when my brother and I were on our own.

Chapter Four

The Fear of Fanaticism

From my childhood I remember until today the rabbanim who have passed away, starting with the death of Rav Romano, may he rest in peace, in 1827. Then, the "Seven Honorable Citizens" of the Jewish community appointed as rabbanim the Rav h"r [Hayyim Shabetai Ben Shabetai] Nehama [d. 1828], the Rav h"r Yaakov [bar Avraam] Menashe [d. 1831], and h"r Moshe Beraha [d. 1835], head of the ritual slaughterers. When these three passed away, they appointed another three rabbanim h"r Avraam Soriano [d. 1836], h"r Shaul Molho (1835) [c. 1766–1849], and h"r Behor Matalon [d. 1847]. And when these three passed away, they appointed h"r Hanania Saporta (1854) [d. 1857] and the Rav h"r Asher Kovo [1801–74]. When the latter two died, they appointed the Rav h"r Avraam Gatenyo (1876) [c. 1791–1880], h"r Mair Nahmias [1804–87], and h"r Shemuel Arditi [c. 1811–87]. When these three passed away, they appointed as acting chief rabbi the Rav h"r Yakovachi Kovo [c. 1824–1907]. However, the most powerful and respected of all these was the Rav h"r Shaul Molho, who was so feared among the people that some believed his curses caused death. By sheer luck, it had already been reported that his curses had caused some cases of death, even before he became a rav. [4a] Even as a ritual slaughterer, he was already worshipped by second-and third-class folks as if he were one of the prophets.

The first incident that caused a universal fear of him was the quarrel of the hahamim against the gevirim and the Rav Nehama, who was the chief rabbi of the community at a time when this rav and the gevirin agreed to raise by one para the price of a quart of wine over the amount fixed previously.

H"r Shaul was responsible for stirring up all the hahamim and a segment of the population. They dispatched the mighty h"r Yaakov Djenyo [c. 1769–c.1869/75]17 to drop their idea of raising by one para the gabela of a quart of wine. The community and the rav [Nehama] insisted stubbornly and refused to give in. Again, the other side rejected their answer, threatening the community with strong language. Now, the gevirim and the rav [Nehama] ordered that h"r Yaakov Djenyo be shackled and incarcerated.

Then, h"r Shaul and his colleagues became furious and issued a heralded proclamation in the markets and businesses, with the well-known words, "whoever is for the Lord, come to me" (Exodus 32:26). The people closed their stores and gathered at the great Talmud Tora; the hahamim opened the Holy Ark, kindled some candles, and, having invited shofar blowers, pronounced an all-inclusive excommunication.

The gevirim were livid! They rushed to the governor, submitting a note for the banishment of three to four hahamim, with h"r Shaul at their head, along with three of his colleagues. Just about that time, the very wealthy banker from Constantinople, Chilibi Yeoshua Adjiman, happened to be in Salonica. He had previously befriended h"r Shaul by hosting his son, h"r Behor Molho, in his house in Istanbul. He advised the pasha and the wealthy, saying, "If you persist with your ideas of banishment, I will ask the pasha to send to Constantinople three people from among the wealthy, along with the hahamim [4b] to be judged there to see who is right." When the gevirim heard this from Chilibi Yeoshua, they changed their minds.

They then went to the pasha to request the cancellation of the petition. He answered that he was unable to do so, because he had already informed Constantinople about it, and besides he had in the process incurred many expenses. In an impasse, the gevirim had to pay a fine of two hundred thousand grushes. They emptied the coffers of the community and had also to borrow Turkish money from the widows at 20 percent interest so that they could withdraw their petition. On top of all this came the unfortunate death of the Rav h"r Nehama, who had enjoyed his new rabbinic position for only thirty-one days!

This was the first scary blow to the entire population that resulted from haham h"r Shaul Molho's curse.

Then, the community set aside the wine gabela to pay the salaries of the rabbanim and dayyanim, etc. etc.

My readers should not imagine for a moment that haham h"r Shaul was a tall and imposing individual. Quite the contrary, he had a lean and short body that barely measured one meter and twenty-five cms. [4'1"], yet his voice, aggressiveness, and determination were those of a twenty-year-old lion that entered the rabbinate without being invited. He was particularly influential with the low-class people whom he adjudicated over as he pleased, and even though he was not a great scholar, he was fair and equitable. He had four sons, all of them talmide hahamim, but the oldest, whose name was h"r Behor Molho, emanated an impressive authority, superior to that of his sinyor father. He was tall as a pine tree and well-built. He looked like an angel in the eyes of all those who approached him, his demeanor commanding respect. He never uttered the word "excommunication," even for the guilty. That is how he endeared himself to everybody.

[5a] In spite of all these fine qualities, he unfortunately died prematurely at the age of forty-four. The cause of his death was the terror he experienced as a witness at the death of Chilibi Behor Karmona. That same night, he happened to be a guest at Chilibi Karmona's home, when the emissaries of Sultan Mahmud suddenly showed up with a decree in their hands, carrying also a golden noose, which they thrust around his neck and strangled him. Clearly his witnessing this frightening scene affected his heart and made him suffer for a long time. Finally, this caused his death; he was mourned bitterly by the entire population of Salonica.

Second Act of the Fear of Fanaticism

When Rav [Shaul] was inaugurated in 1835, sons of the wealthy emerged in a state of ignorance from the Talmud Tora since no [modern] schools existed. These well-to-do fathers never trained their sons for a profession. And so, they would spend their time going from coffeehouse to coffeehouse and from picnic to picnic on allowances they received from their parents. All they knew was eating and drinking, playing cards at home during the winter and in picnic areas during the summer. Organized in small groups, they would go for months of merrymaking at summer resorts such as Orundjik and Sedes. They also agreed to take turns for food to be sent from their homes; breakfast in the morning, lunch at noon, and dinner at night; that is how they spent their time. They slept during the day, woke up around 3–4 p.m., and went hunting. One of these smart alecks observed that they were shooting small birds, grilling them, and then eating them, and could not stand the sight of this sin. [5b] He went directly to Rav h"r Shaul to tell him all about it. When the sinyor rav heard the full story, he took speedy action.

He immediately dispatched his beadle to the marketplace to announce that every adult Jew should come to the Old Sicily (fishermen's) synagogue, had some candles lit inside the synagogue, and with the Holy Ark open, he excommunicated this entire group by blowing the shofar. However, there was a young man in this group named Y. F., who, upon learning about this excommunication, went to his consul to clear his name. The consul and this young man's parents went to see the pasha for a satisfactory explanation. The Vali dispatched two kavases to bring Rav h"r Shaul. He in turn informed the "Seven Honorable Citizens" and the gevirim, who responded immediately. One of the gevirim brought an exquisitely adorned horse from his stable. They helped the sinyor rav climb onto the horse, all of them holding the sinyor rav on both sides for his very first ride on a horse. When the people got wind of this event, they ran immediately to take part in this scene. About two thousand people gathered and accompanied him all the way to the Vali's mansion. The Vali took a look from his bay window and saw an approaching horde of Jews. With fewer than twenty kavases in his mansion, he became uneasy and inquired about this commotion. At that time they had neither gendarmes nor police. He then looked from his balcony and saw a large crowd of men and a miserable looking person with a robe hanging longer than himself dismounting from a horse. The prominent people of the community held him on both sides and brought him upstairs. The pasha came out to welcome him, shook hands with him, took him to the reception room, and seated him in an armchair. The consul, as well as all those who were present there, rose up and reverently greeted the sinyor rav, who didn't know one word of Turkish. With his hand he asked someone from the Community to act as an interpreter. They asked the Vali why he had summoned the sinyor rav. The Vali answered that the consul was a plaintiff because one of his subjects had been excommunicated. [6a] The sinyor rav responded that he had not excommunicated anyone, except for carrying out the ruling of a previous rav. He then pulled out of his bosom a small book composed by the sinyor grandfather of said young man who contended that he had excommunicated him. In this book he writes that "any one who eats non-ritually slaughtered fowl deserves excommunication." Therefore [said the sinyor rav], "this was not my decision except that I was following what his own sinyor grandfather named R. Sh. P. had written." When they heard this, the entire audience was dumbfounded. The Vali thought it appropriate that sinyor Y. F. should get up, kiss the rav's hand, and apologize to him. The consul, too, fully agreed with this idea. All the relatives of sinyor Y. F. also kissed his hand. As the Vali himself wished to have the rav bless him, the sinyor rav fulfilled his wish and blessed him. Following this episode, refreshments were served; the rav was offered a glass of sour cherry syrup. But thinking that it might be wine, he declined, saying that he doesn't drink anything red. He was then offered a glass of white lemonade. As the delegation was leaving, the Jews, who were impatiently waiting downstairs, heard the news that the sinyor rav had been exonerated and broke into a joyous shout, saying, "Long live our Sultan; long live our Pasha Efendi." When the rav was climbing his horse to return home, they started to sing unanimously, "This is a day of redemption. This is a day of redemption." Now when the Vali heard this loud singing, he turned to his assistants, saying, "Are you aware how much the Jews love their leaders?" In the meantime the rav returned home with those accompanying him.

In spite of this bizarre scene, sinyor Y. F. lived just about a month! This was the second "blow" that deeply scared everybody.


Excerpted from A Jewish Voice from Ottoman Salonica Copyright © 2012 by Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission of STANFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

At Stanford University, Aron Rodrigue is Charles Michael Professor in Jewish History and Culture, Anthony P. Meier Family Professor in the Humanities, and Director of the Stanford Humanities Center. Sarah Abrevaya Stein is Professor of History and Maurice Amado Chair in Sephardic Studies at UCLA.

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