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February 22, 2012

Rare Judeo-Spanish memoir gives a voice to the people of a lost culture

Historians Aron Rodrigue and Sarah Abrevaya Stein bring the history of Ottoman Jews to life in a text published by Stanford University Press.

By CORRIE GOLDMAN, the humanities at Stanford

Undated studio photograph of Sa'adi Besalel a-Levi, with his second wife, Esther, dressed in clothing distinctive to Salonican Jewry. (Photo: Courtesy of Silvio Levy and the Levy family)

"The fanatics felt assured that I would soon die, either because of their deep conviction in the power of the extraordinary excommunication that they had organized with such pomp or because of the anxiety I had after the loss of my business."

These words come from an exceptional artifact, the memoir of a man who lived in a society that would be annihilated during the Holocaust just 40 years after his death in 1903. Sa'adi Besalel a-Levi, born in 1820, was a resident of Ottoman Salonica, a bustling port town in what is today Greece. The city was an unusual combination of East and West in the 19th century, and an even more rare example of a predominantly Jewish center.

Penned in the years before the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, this memoir serves as a precious time capsule of a globe on the cusp of change. It also survives as a rare firsthand account of Ottoman Sephardic Jews, most of whom originated from the Iberian Peninsula.

Sa'adi was a prominent journalist and publisher, but he was also a muckraker who publicly questioned and rebelled against the strict rabbinical authority that ruled the Jews of Salonica. In 1874 Sa'adi was excommunicated for his outspoken ways. Emotionally devastated, he set out to document the injustices he suffered under what he described as tyrannical rule. More important, he wanted to explain and defend himself. The product was a memoir that Sa'adi hoped would exonerate his name after his death, but instead remained inaccessible in its entirety until now.

Stanford historian and director of the Stanford Humanities Center Aron Rodrigue came across a listing for the memoir manuscript while looking for another document at the National Library of Israel in Jerusalem. Rodrigue, whose research centers on Sephardic Jewish history and culture, immediately recognized Sa'adi's name. Sa'adi's son had released several excerpts of the text in the early 20th century, and Rodrigue saw the scholarly value in publishing the full text.

Built into the memoir, Rodrigue said, is "an ethnographic look into the mores, the customs, the ways of life of the community, as he is fleshing it out around his own story. The real thrill of this is to find a member of that community and restore a voice to the local culture."

Sarah Abrevaya Stein is a Stanford PhD grad and a professor of history at UCLA. Together, she and Rodrigue set about the work of editing and contextualizing Sa'adi's story. The resulting publication, A Jewish Voice from Ottoman Salonica: The Ladino Memoir of Sa'adi Besalel a-Levi (Stanford University Press, 2012), includes an in-depth introduction in which the scholars put Sa'adi's story into a historical framework.

Stein said that scholars of the Mediterranean Jewish world have always assumed there were no memoirs written in the 19th century in the indigenous Jewish language of Ladino, a Judeo-Spanish tongue written in Hebrew characters. "To find not just the first, but any memoir written in the mother tongue of this community is quite extraordinary," she said.

A learning opportunity

Sa'adi's story is the earliest known memoir written in the now near extinct Ladino language, making the document especially significant to historians.

Stein pointed out the importance of the document as a valuable teaching tool: "Original documentation from the period makes a world come alive in a way that historical scholarship doesn't necessarily."

Isaac Jerusalmi, professor emeritus of Bible and Semitic languages at Hebrew Union College, used his erudition in the translation and transliteration of the text, working with Rodrigue and Stein, who use Ladino extensively in their research.

Jerusalmi, who taught Aramaic, Arabic, Syriac and Hebrew in a career spanning half a century, delved into the origins of each word and, in the course of doing so, created a massive glossary to help readers better understand Sa'adi's narrative. "He [Jerusalmi] was interested in the words and what was being used and how," said Rodrigue, who together with Stein was also interested in putting Sa'adi's story into its context, which is particularly important in a case where the author is presenting a self-defense.

Passionate rebel challenges authority and fanatics

A printer by trade, Sa'adi had two passions, singing and fighting for reform. Written after his excommunication, Sa'adi's memoir cites numerous examples of what he identified as the corrupt, fanatical and self-serving behavior of the ruling rabbinical authority.

In one incident after being dragged to "the governor's mansion to be flogged for singing in Turkish," Sa'adi likens the "heavy-handed tactics" of the religious leaders to slavery.

Sa'adi sets up his defense by recounting stories of the superstitions, corruption and arbitrary rules that he claims have come to pervade the Salonica way of life over the past 50 years.

"He's writing an apologia for himself and attacking these people, but we basically treat it the way we would treat any such text as historians," said Rodrigue. "We have other material that either corroborates it or does not, and we can make the text speak for itself, but we can also put it in its time and its place but also recast the time and the place by what he says."

Detailed account leaves questions

In documenting his own life experience, Sa'adi also captured a nuanced snapshot of the people around him.

"All of these other things just pop into his account, giving you a sense of the city – people meeting each other on the street and in houses and through commerce and in cafes and things like that. And so, their lived intersections are pretty amazing," Stein said.

At one point Sa'adi describes learning music from a Muslim and a Jewish master. Rodrigue said this account is significant in understanding how the two cultures influenced one another.

At several points in the story Sa'adi refers to hidden doors that enabled someone to make a quick getaway. Rodrigue said neither he nor Stein had ever seen similar references in other descriptions of Salonica, though they guess the inconspicuous exits had something to do with a secret commerce network.

Stein said the concept of activities taking place out of sight is "almost a parable about studying history, that you can only see what the sources teach you to see and you can't see everything."

As detailed as Sa'adi's accounts are, Rodrigue noted there are many details about daily living that Sa'adi did not mention. He wondered, for instance, "How many people lived in his house? What did they eat? When did they start getting dressed more in European-style clothing?"

Restoring the voice of a marginalized group

As Rodrigue explained, most historians of Jews have until recently been mostly interested in studying European Jewish communities.

Sa'adi's story helps to document the lesser-studied story of the Sephardic Jews, one that is more distant, more Middle Eastern. With the publication of Sa'adi's memoir, Rodrigue said he and Stein hoped to "restore some of the multiple voices that have not been really grappled with or really integrated into much more complex narratives that make up the history of Jews."

Rodrigue added, "There is a kind of truism in the dictum, 'The past is a foreign country.' And this memoir is a way to make it less foreign."

High-resolution scans of the original text of the memoir written in the Ladino cursive is available online at

For more news about the humanities at Stanford, visit the Human Experience:



Corrie Goldman, Stanford Humanities Outreach Officer: (650) 724-8156, [email protected]

Dan Stober, Stanford News Service: (650) 721-6965, [email protected]

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