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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Family Papers

A Sephardic Journey Through the Twentieth Century

Sarah Abrevaya Stein

Farrar, Straus and Giroux



Does every generation believe it exists at a moment of transition? Looking around him, Sa’adi Besalel Ashkenazi a-Levi saw a world that scarcely resembled the one into which he was born. Young women and men dressed differently from their parents, maintained a looser relationship to religion. New train tracks connected his city, Ottoman Salonica, to Belgrade, and from there to all of Europe. His children, like so many Jewish youth, spoke languages a previous generation did not know. They were moving far from home, assuming new jobs, attempting to realize their own utopian dreams.

Sa’adi’s city, Ottoman Salonica, was among the few cities in the modern world to have a Jewish plurality, if not a Jewish majority. Jews numbered between 60,000 and 100,000 of Salonica’s residents in the nineteenth century, when roughly 50 percent of the city’s residents were Jews.1 The majority of Salonica’s Jews were Sephardic, descendants of Jews expelled from medieval Iberia (“Sepharad” in Hebrew) in the late fifteenth century. Pushed from their homes, these expelled women, men, and children scattered northward to France and the Spanish Netherlands, and southward to Morocco. The largest number, however, moved east to the Ottoman Empire, an expanding state that would, at its height, reach across southeastern Europe, through the eastern Mediterranean and North Africa, and eastward to the border of what is today Iran. To the Ottoman lands the Iberian Jewish exiles brought their religion, their memories, their cultural practices, and their craft, including printing, which was the a-Levi family trade. So, too, did the exiles transport their tongue—a Judeo-Spanish language they sometimes called muestro espanyol, which today is known as Ladino.2 Over the course of 450 years, Jews became an integral part of the Ottoman imperial social mosaic. They were particularly influential in cities like Salonica, where they constituted a large enough group to conduct affairs in their own language.

When Sa’adi commissioned a scribe to transcribe his memoir, Salonica was the third most important port in the Ottoman Empire and a link between Europe and the Levant. The cosmopolitan city, home to Jews, Muslims, Dönme (descendants of Jews who followed the self-proclaimed messiah Shabbetay Sevi into Islam after he converted in 1666), and Greek Orthodox and other Christians, boasted more than fifty synagogues. The Sabbath was celebrated on three different days by Salonica’s multisectarian residents. Still, to its early-twentieth-century Jewish residents, the city was hailed as a Jewish capital, the “Jerusalem of the Balkans.”3 So at ease were Jews in the city that they could be found praying on the quay, obstructing the path of pedestrians.4

A Jewish industrial-class, working-class, and middle-class workforce fueled Salonica’s economy. Jews were prominent among both the stevedores who manned the port and the women and men, girls and boys who dried tobacco and shaped bricks in the city’s factories. Jews owned many of the shops, cafés, and bars that lined Salonica’s streets, and were teachers in the city’s schools.5 The city’s most popular newspapers were also edited, printed, and written by Jews, including Sa’adi and his sons. Indeed, the a-Levi family introduced printing to Salonica, in much the same fashion as Sephardic Jews introduced printing to the Ottoman Empire.6

Ottoman Salonica, c. 1860s

Like most of Salonica’s nineteenth-century Jews, Sa’adi counted Ladino as his mother tongue. It was the language in which he spoke to his wife and children, wrote his memoir, and published some of his newspapers and the ephemera that earned him a living. Still, his family line was the product of intersecting Jewish worlds that merged in Salonica, reaching back to Iberia as well as to Amsterdam and Italy. As culturally Sephardic as the family came to be—and as influential to the shaping of modern Judeo-Spanish letters—the a-Levi line braided Sephardic (Iberian Jewish) and Ashkenazic (European Jewish) heritage. The family’s Ashkenazi lineage was for a time preserved and even flaunted by the family through select customs and through their use of the surname Ashkenazi, a name common among Jews in the Balkans and Turkey, which in many cases signaled a non-Sephardic inheritance. Sa’adi’s father, Besalel a-Levi Ashkenazi, his grandfather Rabbi Yeuda a-Levi Ashkenazi, and his Amsterdam-born great-grandfather, Besalel a-Levi Ashkenazi, went by this name, as did Sa’adi himself.7 The next generation would not emulate this practice, probably out of a desire to simplify and Westernize their family names.

Sa’adi was losing his vision in the early 1880s when he began composing his memoir. The work suggests that he was sanguine about many of the changes that were transforming Jewish Salonica. The city had only recently spilled over its medieval walls, and its sea walls had been freshly demolished in favor of a waterfront promenade. New, wealthy districts were being built on Salonica’s eastern edge, and within the city, water, electricity, paved streets, and tramlines were updating the urban landscape.8 Sa’adi didn’t dwell on these developments in his memoir. Nor did he seem terribly bothered that his children’s generation did not cling to the laws and mores of the past, that they embraced new political movements and fashions, or that women and men were both increasingly defiant about traditional gender roles. None of this fundamentally seemed to disturb Sa’adi—or, at least, this is not what comes through in his memoir. For Sa’adi was something of a freethinker. What he could not abide was obstructionism on the part of the city’s Jewish religious elite. Though religiously observant himself, Sa’adi believed that Salonica’s rabbis were fearful leaders threatened by modernity.

Sa’adi battled with Salonica’s religious elite throughout his life. He triggered their ire with words, both sung and written. By vocation Sa’adi was a printer and editor, by avocation an accomplished composer and singer. Like his grandfather Rabbi Yeuda a-Levi Ashkenazi, Sa’adi was a virtuoso of Ottoman Jewish music. His training had come at the feet of two Ottoman musical masters—one Muslim, the other Jewish—who taught him the full Ottoman and Jewish repertoires. Sa’adi also practiced and performed with the maftirim choirs of Salonica. Composed of Jewish, Sufi, and Muslim musicians, the maftirim performed mystical texts from a variety of traditions, blending their melodies and composition into a unique (and today almost lost) art form. The kind of musical blending that Sa’adi excelled at was quintessentially Ottoman, reflective of the cultural melding that was inextricable from Salonica’s multiethnic, multisectarian, multilingual environment.9 Music brought Jews and non-Jews together, allowing them to share a cultural voice. No wonder it proved an irritant to a rabbinical leadership that wished to fortify the boundaries around Judaism.

While still in his teenage years, Sa’adi was commissioned by the head of one of Salonica’s greatest yeshivas to sing at the wedding of his son. For the occasion, Sa’adi composed a melody based on a secular Turkish song, to which he set the kaddish, a traditional Jewish hymn of prayer to God. The day of the nuptials, the grand synagogue was packed—filled, in Sa’adi’s words, with “the entire aristocracy of Salonica.” Enter the groom, enveloped in turban and robes. Sa’adi intoned the words of the kaddish, sending his newly composed secular melody echoing throughout the sacred building. His voice had “the purity of crystal, a nuanced and captivating sweetness.”10 The crowd was overwhelmed. All except one. “When [Rabbi Shaul] went home accompanied by eight to ten of his friends, he removed his cape and sat on his elevated cushion for some rest.” Asked if he had enjoyed Sa’adi’s performance, “the sinyor rav hit the roof … saying ‘What a wicked person to sing a Turkish melody in the synagogue!’”11 To this antimodernist fearful of losing influence and control, the blurring of musical boundaries, a celebrated tradition in the Ottoman world, seemed threatening. In Rabbi Shaul’s eyes, Sa’adi was less a budding maestro than a firebrand. It was not the only time Sa’adi was threatened with excommunication (or even corporal punishment) for singing “à la turka.”

Copyright © 2019 by Sarah Abrevaya Stein