Modern Ladino Culture: Press, Belles Lettres, and Theater in the Late Ottoman Empire

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Olga Borovaya explores the emergence and expansion of print culture in Ladino (Judeo-Spanish), the mother tongue of the Sephardic Jews of the Ottoman Empire, in the second half of the 19th and early 20th centuries. She provides the first comprehensive study of the three major forms of Ladino literary production-the press, belles lettres, and theater-as a single cultural phenomenon. The product of meticulous research and innovative methodology, Modern Ladino Culture offers a new perspective on the history of the Ladino press, a novel approach to the study of belles lettres in Ladino and their relationship to their European sources, and a fine-grained critique of Sephardic plays as venues for moral education and politicization.

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1. The Emergence of Modern Cultural Production in Ladino: The Sephardi Press

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The press was the earliest and the most influential form of modern Ladino print culture. Alongside European-style schools, it served as an essential medium for the westernization of Ottoman Jewry. Furthermore, it brought into existence Ladino belles lettres and played a crucial role in the development and conceptualization of Sephardi Theater. In addition, despite the poor condition of the extant Ladino periodicals, a thorough reading has allowed me to uncover a considerable amount of new information. For all these reasons, I will dedicate more space to the discussion of the Ladino press than to the other two genres.

In the late nineteenth century, the press had already begun to attract the interest of historians and bibliographers, and it continues to be the most discussed aspect of Sephardi intellectual life. The first among the numerous bibliographies of Ladino periodicals was Meyer Kayserling’s Biblioteca Española-Portuguesa-Judaica (Strasbourg, 1890). But the most authoritative catalog to date is Moshe Gaon’s The Ladino Press (1965), despite the fact that some new data became available after its completion.

 

2. The Press in Salonica: A Case Study

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The case of Salonica is unique in that, from the end of the 1520s through the early twentieth century, Jews formed a majority, or at least half, of the city’s population. Already in 1519, more than 53 percent of the households (i.e., roughly 15,000 people) in Salonica were Jewish.1 Another crucial factor in the history of the Salonican Jewish community in the Ottoman period was its demographics. Earlier, as part of Mehmed the Conqueror’s plan of repopulating the Ottoman capital,2 Salonica’s Greek-speaking (Romaniot) community was deported to Istanbul, so that by 1478 there were no Jews in the city. A new community was established in the 1490s by Jewish immigrants fleeing from persecution in Europe. In 1530–1531, almost 60 percent of Salonica’s permanent inhabitants were Jews,3 forming a community that consisted of twenty Sephardi congregations “comprising 2,548 households and one Ashkenazi congregation made up of 97 households.”4 Only 4.98 percent of the “Sephardic” immigrants were Italian Jews.5 These statistics suggest that the overwhelming majority of Salonican Jews spoke Ibero-Romance languages (mutually understandable, at least in writing)6 and that, forming the majority of the city’s population, they had to use Greek and Turkish much less than their coreligionists in other Ottoman cities. These circumstances contributed to the preservation and dominance of the Ibero-Romance vernacular and to the linguistic homogeneity of the Jewish community, which at the time was the largest in the empire. It is, therefore, not coincidental that the first original works in Ladino, Moses Almosnino’s Regimiento de la vida and Crónica de los reyes otomanos, were produced in the 1560s in Salonica. Following the establishment of the first printing press in the city in 1512, Regimiento de la vida and Crónica de los reyes otomanos, were produced in the 1560s in Salonica. As is well known, it was also famous for its Talmud Torah (founded in 1520), which attracted numerous students from abroad.

 

3. The Serialized Novel as Rewriting

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Sarah Stein’s insightful analysis of the advertisements for fashions and cosmetics, as well as dietary recommendations and the pictures found in Ladino periodicals reveals the immense role of indirect means of westernization, which functioned as such regardless of the journalists’ intentions. Here, I will examine an even more effective instrument of westernization, which, although initially not intended for this purpose, succeeded in introducing new cultural patterns for imitation in all strata of the Sephardi community. Unlike news reports and history lessons, which frequently used new terms and figures, Ladino novels, which appeared in the pages of newspapers, as separate feuilletons, and, later, depending on the demand, as chapbooks, were well suited for being read aloud. For the same reason, Sephardi Theater, which was specifically created for educational purposes, could also have been effective, but we know too little about its actual audience before 1908 to assess its real impact. In any case, it is clear that, due to economic and spatial constraints, the theater could not reach nearly as many Sephardim as the belles lettres.

 

4. Ladino Fiction: Case Studies

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In this chapter, I will examine by means of close reading seven Ladino novels produced by four Sephardi literati in the first quarter of the twentieth century, by which time the genre had been fully developed and was blooming. We know the names of three of these rewriters: Nantas was rewritten by M. Menashe, about whom there is no further information; one of the two versions of Dumas’s La Dame aux Camélias belongs to David Florentin, whereas the second version is anonymous; and the other four texts were produced by Alexandre Benghiat. All of the novels have foreign sources, while one—Hasan-pasha—though signed by Benghiat, is a rewriting of an unidentified French text. The topics of these seven novels rather accurately represent Ladino fiction: four of them are love stories, two can be classified as adventure stories (one of which is a travel account), and Nantas, despite not being typical of Ladino belles lettres, is a thriller with elements of a love story.

 

5. Sephardi Theater: Project and Practice

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Sephardi Theater is one of the least documented and least studied sociocultural practices in the lives of Ottoman Jews. Since the extant memoirs hardly, if at all, mention it,1 the only available source of information on Sephardi Theater is the Ladino press, which played an exceptional role in its development. Moreover, the conceptualization of Sephardi Theater offered and promoted by Ladino periodicals was an integral element of the whole project, indispensable for its proper realization, if not for its very existence. Outside the framework of the Ladino press, Sephardi Theater cannot be adequately construed, and the data related to it appear as an unstructured assortment of random facts.

It is, perhaps, its chaotic and peculiar makeup that accounts for the fact that, as a cultural phenomenon, Sephardi Theater has attracted the attention of very few scholars; the most important of them is Elena Romero, who dedicated a few years to its comprehensive description. Her doctoral dissertation2 consists of Romanized (more precisely, Hispanicized) editions of fourteen Ladino plays with notes, detailed descriptions, and other bibliographic materials. Romero has also published a number of articles on Sephardi Theater and a valuable collection of the materials found in most extant Ladino periodicals on the shows performed by Sephardim in the Ottoman Empire.3 Finally, a chapter of her monograph on Sephardi print culture4 offers the first and only overview of Ladino theater.5

 

6. Ladino Drama: Case Studies

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In this chapter, I will examine five Ladino plays that belong to different genres—comedy, high drama, and thriller—and combine elements of instruction and entertainment in varying proportions. The rewriter of The Playful Doctor remains unknown, while the four other plays are signed by their creators. The plays will be discussed in chronological order: the two adaptations of Molière’s comedies, The Playful Doctor and Han Benyamin, appeared in Sephardi Theater’s first period (1863 and 1884, respectively); both Purim Eve (1909) and Devora (1921) were created in the second period and explicitly aimed at indoctrinating Sephardim in Zionist ideology. Dreyfus, produced in 1902(?), reflected the Zionist agenda without making any direct statements. Overall, this selection of plays written within almost fifty years provides an adequate picture of Sephardi Theater’s repertoire. I will not analyze any translations of contemporaneous French plays, since this would not add anything to our understanding of Sephardi Theater beyond what one learns from the list of their authors cited in the previous chapter.

 

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