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Salonica Stories

The earliest known Ladino memoir, now in translation, sheds light on both Ottoman Jewry and one controversial man’s conflicts with the community

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The preface page of Sa'adi’s soletreo manuscript.(Department of Manuscripts, National Library of Israel)

In the 19th century, Sa’adi Besalel a-Levi was an esteemed (if controversial) journalist, publisher, singer, and composer in Salonica, a Mediterranean port city whose 2,000-year-old Jewish community was later decimated in the Holocaust. He also wrote the earliest known Ladino-language memoir, which was all but lost until Stanford University history professor Aron Rodrigue found a forgotten copy at Jerusalem’s Jewish National and University Library. Now the memoir is available to all, in an edition introduced and edited by Rodrigue and fellow historian Sarah Abrevaya Stein, and translated by Isaac Jerusalmi: A Jewish Voice From Ottoman Salonica has been published in English in tandem with a digital version of the original soletreo, or Ladino cursive. Rodrigue and Stein join Vox Tablet host Sara Ivry to talk about Sa’adi’s life, his obsession with the arbitrary rabbinic authority that led to his excommunication, and the surprising details about Jewish Salonica that find their way to us through his account. [Running time: 24:34.] 

Sarah Abrevaya Stein and Aron Rodrigue will discuss the memoir with Sara Ivry in New York City on March 29. Click here for more information.

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Please review the use of the word “decimate” in this piece. Unfortunately, a much higher proportion than 10% of the Jewish community of Salonika was murdered by the Nazis. Most were deported and very survived the death camps. I hope you will edit the article to correct this error in the wording.

Mathilde B. says:

The statement “2,000-year-old, largely Sephardi Jewish community” is inaccurate. The Jewish community of Salonica is indeed 2,000 years old. However, the Sephardim did not arrive until the 15-16th centuries to dominate its character. Prior to that, the Jews of Salonica were Romaniote initially, and then Eshkenazi.

Mathilde B., thank you for the correction. The text has been amended accordingly. Marian, we use the term “decimated” as it is commonly understood, to convey that the size of the community was drastically reduced.

Thanks for your interest.

-Julie Subrin

apikoyros says:

Just as for so many Jewish communities destroyed in the Shoah, one can not speak about the Jewish community of Salonica without also accurately remembering its fate. Certainly, the intent was to say that the community was “drastically reduced,” but even that belittles the annihilation — how about that better chosen word? — that more accurately describes what happened.

The USHMM estimated that that Jewish community went from around 50,000 to less than 2,000.

I would like to read this, but why on earth is it $50?! A professor is already paid to research and produce content. The printing costs shouldn’t be THAT high, even anticipating limited sales–much longer hardbound books sell for $30 or
so, and they could come out with a trade paper version, or sell the ebook for much, much less, rather than a mere $10 discount. It’s true I can probably eventually get this from a library, but even libraries have limited budgets, not everybody lives in a big city with broad libraries, and even school libraries probably won’t have enough copies for all the students of teachers who want to assign this book. I also can’t annotate or keep a library book as a reference.

A publisher associated with an ostensibly not-for-profit institution dedicated to the creation and propogation of knowledge ought to make that knowledge available as cheaply and as widely as possible, and not artificially inflate costs.

(This is obviously a broader problem with academic literature and not limited to this work).

Usually I use the word Ladino to refer to word-by-word grammatically artificial translations of the Hebrew-bible into Judeo-Spanish. Such texts were used as teaching materials in Judeo-Spanish speaking communities.

A-Levi (probably al-Levi) appears not to have spent much time in discussion of the Zionist-alleged Ottoman-Islamic anti-Jewish oppression that is a mainstay of modern Jewish (ethnic Ashkenazi) anti-Muslim prejudice and Islamophobia incitement.


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Salonica Stories

The earliest known Ladino memoir, now in translation, sheds light on both Ottoman Jewry and one controversial man’s conflicts with the community

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