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

Aron Rodrigue and Sarah Abre­vaya Stein, eds.; Isaac Jerusal­mi, trans.

  • Review
By – May 29, 2012

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.


Ran­dall Belin­fante has served as the Librar­i­an of the Amer­i­can Sephar­di Fed­er­a­tion for more than 13 years. He has tak­en a tiny col­lec­tion of 200 books and built an assem­blage of over 10,000 items. Mr. Belin­fante holds degrees in var­i­ous aspects of Jew­ish stud­ies, and dur­ing his tenure at ASF, he has inves­ti­gat­ed a vari­ety of top­ics, pre­sent­ing papers on such diverse top­ics as the Mizrahi Jews dri­ven from their homes in Islam­ic coun­tries and the cryp­to-Jew­ish Mash­hadis of Iran. He has also writ­ten many book reviews on books of Sephar­di / Mizrahi interest.

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