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January 30, 2015 5:09 pm

Remembering the Jews of Salonica

avatar by Jeremy Rosen

Auschwitz Entrance. Photo: Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum.

Auschwitz Entrance. Photo: Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum.

While I was wondering about Jews living in Europe under difficult conditions, I was reminded of the Jews of Salonica. Once, it was one of the most bustling and creative of Jewish communities. Now it is gone. Most of them were carted off to Auschwitz.

Several years ago I reviewed Mark Mazower’s excellent Salonica, City of Ghosts: Christians, Muslims and Jews 1430-1950, which covers the rise and fall of a major Jewish community from 1430 to 1950, and records its changing fortunes under different conquerors and occupiers. They were rarely completely safe. Neither Greek nor Turk (and certainly not Nazi) come away with much honor. Of all of them, the Turks were the ones who treated the Jewish population the least inhumanely.

Most Ashkenazi Jews are sadly unaware of the richness of Salonica’s long Jewish history and the important part played by the Ottoman Empire in welcoming Jews fleeing from Spain after the expulsion of 1492. Whereas Yiddish is now thriving as the lingua franca of ultra-Orthodox Judaism around the world, the number speaking Ladino, the Sephardi equivalent, is sadly small and diminishing. However, more and more books are now bringing its rich heritage to light.

Salonica was not just a city of Sephardi Jews. There were Ashkenazi communities too, attracted by trade and the tolerant conditions that were far more attractive than most Eastern European communities. The Ottoman Empire in the early nineteenth century was still threatening central Europe, and both Russia and the Western European powers were meddling in Ottoman affairs. It was only by the end of the century that the Ottoman Empire was described as the “Sick Man of Europe.” Nevertheless, the writing was on the wall. Society was fracturing. Extremists were spreading their malignant aggressions. Western and Central Europe were in the ascendancy as the Industrial Revolution swung the balance of power away from religious control, and the slow decline of Islamic power in the Middle East began.

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I have just read a moving short memoir written in Ladino and translated into English: A Jewish Voice from Ottoman Salonica: The Ladino Memoir of Sa’adi Besalel a-Levi, published through the generosity of Joe Dwek.

Sa’adi a-Levi’s memoir covers this period of transition in the early nineteenth century. It starts with a community controlled by its rich men and its rabbis exercising power through the Millet system, in which each religion in the empire ran its own affairs with absolute authority, subject only to the administrative oversight of the Ottoman government and its agents. Within a society that was dominated by religious authority, and before the enlightenment began to weaken the grip of the pious, rabbis, imams, and priests could make use of the death penalty, corporal punishment in the form of the bastinado (lashing the bare soles of a victims feet with canes), and the ban or excommunication that effectively excluded someone from the benefits, support, and protection of the community. At a time when there was no governmental social security, health care, or unemployment benefits, communities played an essential role in peoples lives. Exclusion meant destitution, and the only option was to convert to another religion. The authorities exercised enormous power buttressed by a culture of gossip, malicious slander, and, above all, incredible superstition. The ordinary Jew, Christian, or Muslim was at the mercy of his or her religious authorities.

Sa’adi inherited a modest printing business and had to eke out a living for himself and his orphaned siblings by becoming a successful musician and singer, able to perform both Jewish and Turkish music at weddings and community celebrations. But he was constantly being threated by his own religious authorities who disapproved of his non-Jewish music and by competitors who used underhanded methods to destroy his livelihood and attack his family. Sa’adi himself was outspoken in his criticism of the methods used by rabbis to control the community, of the unfair financial impositions that made kosher food very expensive, and of the way the rabbis fought amongst themselves and supported their favorites to make life difficult for those who opposed their abuses. Things haven’t changed!

Sa’adi describes how, in his own case, his only protection was to find some important member of the community, one of the rich men, the Gevirim, to support him. He struggled in his early years. But as Western powers began to exercise an influence on Salonican Jews, this led to the opening up of the community. The arrival of the French Alliance Israélite Universelle spread secular education and ideas. This divided the community between those who wanted to preserve the old ways and those who welcomed progress. The absolute authority of the rabbinate began to wane.

This situation applied just as much to the Ashkenazi communities of Europe. They too had been controlled by this usually unholy alliance of the wealthy and the rabbinate, where control and conformity were the tools of social cohesion. Superstition, the fear of curses, and exclusion were used freely to coerce and subdue. All this is still effective nowadays in certain circles.

We are inclined to forget how significant the Enlightenment was in challenging this religious monopoly. The freedoms we have are overwhelmingly due to the separation of State and Religion and the limitations imposed on religious authority that developed during the nineteenth century. But every movement produces a reaction. As religious authority lost its grip, materialism, La Belle Epoque, lack of any restraint, and the abuses of freedom began to gnaw away at the security that closed communities offered.

In the West these polarizing forces usually coexist and accommodate. Much of the Muslim world continues to regress. The very forces that led to the collapse of the Ottoman Empire drove its fragments back to the dark ages. This is where much of the Middle East finds itself today, with its executions, amputations, rape, and slavery that so many refuse to recognize or condemn. It is ironic that in the Middle East now only Israel is able to accommodate both secular values and extreme religious ones.

Sa’adi reminds us of what we have escaped. But his memoir stands as a warning of what we might return to if we allow religion too much control. Personal choices and freedoms are essential. Equally, the right to live an extreme religious life must also be preserved. But if we do not limit extremism to its own backyards, we too will be dragged back to the primitive, cruel, and fanatical medievalism that he survived.

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