A new documentary history sheds light on a vibrant culture.
Inspired by the relative scarcity of information and understanding about Sephardi culture, Julia Phillips Cohen and Sarah Abrevaya Stein sought to collect, study, and translate a diverse array of sources by and about Sephardi Jews into a single documentary history. Combining the fruits of their own research with the findings of dozens of colleagues, they compiled over 150 sources originally written in 15 languages and spanning a period of two-and-a-half centuries. Their recently-published volume, Sephardi Lives: A Documentary History 1700-1950, is the result of this undertaking. In light of its publication, we wanted to ask them a few questions about what it was like to work on a project of this scope.
Sephardi Lives collates hundreds of years worth of primary source material written by or about Sephardi people—what motivated you to bring these texts together?
JULIA PHILLIPS COHEN: A number of years ago, not long after I had first begun teaching, a student in one of my classes approached me at the end of one of our sessions to thank me for assigning so many original, historical documents. I’d never had a student put it this way: she explained that she was grateful to have access to sources crafted by the historical subjects we were studying rather than simply getting scholars’ interpretations of the same sources. Ever since that time I’ve considered primary sources a pedagogical exercise in empowerment—one that allows students to do the work that historians do, including reading between the lines, contextualizing a source, and making links between documents.
Not long after this, some six years ago now, Sarah and I began to discuss the possibility of putting together a documentary history of the modern Sephardi world. The need for such a volume was quite evident to us.
SARAH ABREVAYA STEIN: Those of us who teach Jewish history have long been able to rely on a fine primary source reader on the European Jewish past, but until now we have lacked a comprehensive documentary history on Judeo-Spanish communities. At the same time, the wonderful source books that exist on Ottoman and Middle Eastern history tend to pay little to no heed to Sephardi Jews—or to the complex entanglements that tied Jews to their Christian and Muslim neighbors, or to Jews of other backgrounds. As a result of this lacuna, Sephardi history has, for years, fallen through the pedagogical cracks of Jewish Studies and Middle East Studies. We wanted to fill this void by offering English-language scholars, students, and teachers a collection of original documents that fleshed out Sephardi history in all its complexity, and that included documents in the mother tongue of the Judeo-Spanish community, Ladino—a language now threatened with extinction.
What resonance does this history have for us today? What do you hope readers will take away from this book?
SARAH ABREVAYA STEIN: The world represented in Sephardi Lives is one of great diversity and dissent. We have tried to depict, in this book, the many lines that fissured Sephardi culture—ruptures of class, political orientation, geography, language, and religious practice—and, at the same time, the ongoing, dizzying changes that residents of Southeastern Europe and the Eastern Mediterranean experienced in the eighteenth, nineteenth, and first half of the twentieth centuries. Perhaps the most important lesson of the book, then, is that Sephardi history is not a single story, but constituted of many, disparate lives and experiences.
JULIA PHILLIPS COHEN: The picture of Jewish difference that it helps to provide is particularly useful in the United States, I would argue, where popular Jewish culture is almost entirely defined by Ashkenazi traditions—that is, by the traditions of Jews who trace their origins back to Central and Eastern Europe. To Jews and non-Jews alike, bagels and gefilte fish are broadly recognizable as Jewish food; klezmer music as Jewish music. I would hope that after encountering the myriad texts included in the book readers will walk away with the sense that burekas and pan de espanya are equally Jewish foods, and that the music of maftirim choirs—Ottoman court-style music traditionally sung in Sephardi synagogues—be considered just as Jewish as klezmer.
SARAH ABREVAYA STEIN: At times, while writing this book, we wondered if we were stretching the frame “Sephardi” too thin. Could this organizing motif, we asked ourselves, truly encompass all the voices arrayed in the volume? The conclusion we reached, which we hope readers will take away from the book, is that “Sephardi” is a wonderfully expansive category, reaching not only into Jewish or Middle Eastern history, but also into the many places we touch upon: not only the main Sephardi regional centers of Istanbul, Salonica, Edirne, and Izmir, but Palestine and North Africa, Latin America and southern Africa, Los Angeles and Seattle, with many stops in between.
Of all the stories, documents, and memories recorded in this volume, were there any favorites—any that particularly stuck with you?
SARAH ABREVAYA STEIN: This is like being asked to choose a favorite child! To me, the most moving voices in this book are inter-familial. I think of a 1917 letter, penned by a sister in Salonica to her brother in Manchester, that offers a first-hand account of the terrible fire that decimated that culturally rich Jewish city; or a letter written (partly in code) by a husband to his wife from the internment camp of Drancy, during the Second World War. The book includes a series of Ladino-language reflections, composed in 1778, on the advice a mother should offer her child; and a wonderful 1916 letter submitted to the editors of a Ladino journal in New York City by an immigrant Russian Jewish woman who sought to know with certainty whether the man with whom she has fallen in love could really be Jewish (as he claimed), despite the fact that he looked and gestured like an Italian. These are the sorts of voices that are more often than not elusive in existing documentary histories—but are among the very richest sources, regardless of whether one is a scholar, student, or general reader.
JULIA PHILLIPS COHEN: There are so many. One is a diary written and then buried by a Greek Jewish man named Marcel Nadjary in 1944 while he was interned at Auschwitz. Amazingly, the manuscript—which bears witness to Nadjary’s dogged refusal to be cowed by the dehumanizing experience of the camp, his enduring faith in God, and his deep attachment to Greece—was discovered between Birkenau’s Crematoria I and II in 1980. Much of the original was by then lost to the ravages of time, leaving only a fragmented text full of spaces that can no longer be filled in. Somehow, to my mind, these absences do not detract from the text but instead make it even more powerful. They bear testimony not only to the story of the man who had the courage to write and bury his manuscript while imprisoned in Auschwitz but also to the incredible material history of the text itself and to its reappearance in the world after so many decades.
There are other texts that I’m drawn to because they illuminate schemes and possibilities that today remain almost entirely forgotten. One such example is a 1906 manifesto written by an Ottoman Jew proposing that the “Jewish Question” could be solved by creating a Jewish homeland in the Sudan. Although the plan was never realized this text shows the extent to which Sephardi Jews were engaged in the major Jewish debates of their day.
Finally, there are the texts that offer the voices of Sephardi women. While there is little question that Sephardi Studies is a field in which much work remains to be done, some topics remain almost unplumbed. Sephardi women’s history is one of them. Sarah and I therefore made special efforts to locate texts penned or dictated by women from different centers of modern Judeo-Spanish life. What we came up with surpassed our wildest expectations, in part because many of these documents remained completely unknown even to us before we began our searches: the book now contains a wealth of sources written by or about Sephardi women. To list only a selection of these I could cite the excerpts from a Ladino etiquette handbook written by a Sephardi woman of Istanbul in 1871; a 1913 lecture on feminism offered in French by a female Jewish journalist of Izmir; the memoirs of a Sephardi woman who fought as a Macedonian partisan during the Second World War; and, finally, the text that closes the book—a plea, written by the daughter of Sephardi émigrés from Izmir to Harlem, that the young Sephardim of her generation record the Ladino language spoken by their parents before it died along with them.