A Jewish Voice from Ottoman Salonica: The Ladino Memoir of Sa’adi Besalel a-Levi
Stanford University Press
A treasure trove of information and intimate insights, A Jewish Voice from Ottoman Salonica opens up a world that was all but lost until serendipity and some research brought it to light. This is the first example of a memoir written in Ladino (the transliterated Ladino text follows the English translation) and it should prove extremely enlightening for both researchers and the general reader interested in Salonica in the late nineteenth century. As the editors point out, this work goes far beyond the scope of a simple memoir. It explores societal ignorance and the rigid attitudes (or “fanaticism,” as Sa’adi describes it), communal corruption, and power struggles that proved to be extremely resistant, if not hostile toward reform. Sa’adi Besalel a-Levi was a printer, singer, composer, and an outspoken critic of the status quo. He critiqued everything, from the schools to the Jewish leadership to the old fashioned forms of music. His activities (including the singing of Turkish songs at celebrations) resulted in not one, but several excommunications, climaxing in a riot, imprisonment, and a grand excommunication by a collection of Salonica rabbis in April, 1874. These excommunications took their toll on Sa’adi, producing a bitter and resentful man, who struck back in the only ways that he could—in his writing and in the printing of non-sacred works (since part of his excommunication required that he refrain from printing sacred texts). This work is a highly readable, fascinating memoir which opens up the world of Jewish life and politics in the Balkans in the last days of the Ottoman Empire. Sa’adi’s last request was that his descendants pass down his record of life in Salonica, so that future generations could learn from his writings, a desire that fortunately came to fruition with this publication.
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