by Julia Phillips Cohen and Sarah Abrevaya Stein
Some six years ago, we began a collaboration with little idea that it would last so long, or yield such rich fruit. Our collaboration was motivated by a single realization: the bulk of sources by and about the Jewish communities we had dedicated our lives to studying remained inaccessible, to specialists, students and lay readers. Most had never been translated into English, republished (in the case of published works), or (in the case of archival sources) published in any form.
The communities in question were modern Sephardi Jews—descendants of Jews who fled medieval Iberia (modern-day Spain and Portugal) following their expulsion in 1492 and settled in the western portions of the Ottoman Empire, including the Balkans, Anatolia, and Palestine. For over four-and-a-half centuries these communities continued to speak and write in their own Judeo-Spanish language, Ladino, an Ibero-Romance language grammatically similar to fifteenth-century Castilian Spanish but encompassing loan words from other Romance languages as well as from Hebrew, Aramaic, and other languages that Sephardim encountered in their new homes, such as Turkish, Greek, and South Slavic languages.
When we began our project, English-language readers had precious few primary sources about Sephardi history at their disposal—and next to none originally written in Ladino, a language that is today threatened with extinction. This inaccessibility, we concluded with amazement, existed despite the fact that the history of Mediterranean Jewry is of great interest to so many, including overlapping circles of scholars and general readers invested in Ottoman, Middle Eastern, Jewish, Balkan, European, United States, and Latin American histories.
This insight initiated a six-year long conversation of surprising profundity, one that raised questions we debated, resolved, and reopened again and again. Where ought the geographic contours of modern Sephardi history be drawn? How might one impose boundaries (chronological, religious, linguistic, conceptual) on this topic whilst remaining attentive to its essential richness? Whose voices, what spaces, and which historical dynamics was it necessary to include? Was Sephardi history indeed a discrete history, or did it bleed so deeply into local, regional, imperial, continental, and Jewish histories as to render it altogether amorphous?
With these questions always motivating (and vexing) us, we gathered and collected. Our goal was to amass a corpus of sources that reflected Sephardi history in all its diversity; from the courtyard to the courthouse, spheres intimate, political, commercial, familial, and religious. We sought to reflect life within Jewish communities and between Jews, Muslims, and Christians (Greek Orthodox, Armenian, and Serbian Orthodox, among others), as well as between Sephardi and Jewish communities of other varieties (those of Judeo-German, Judeo-Greek, or Judeo-Arabic backgrounds, for example). Finally, we wanted to depict Sephardi culture in times of peace, manifold wars, and during the Holocaust, focusing on the Ottoman heartland of Southeastern Europe and the Levant but reaching across the Middle East and Europe and into diasporic contexts that spanned four continents.
Working in a field still in its infancy and without an established body of canonical texts to choose from meant that we were compelled to do extensive archival research of our own and to consult with scores of experts in a variety of fields to identify sources that covered the broad sweep of modern Sephardi history—ranging from documents of high politics to those covering various aspects of everyday life. Our list of sources topped three hundred at its peak, but was, at last, arduously winnowed down to just over one hundred a fifty. They were translated from fourteen languages, with the help of many colleagues and collaborators. The selections are of a vast range, including private letters from family collections, rabbinical writings, documents of state, memoirs and diaries, court records, selections from the popular press, and scholarship.
In the words of one of our sources, all this remains but “a drop in the ocean.” For perhaps the most profound lesson that we learned over years of collaboration is this: when it comes to Sephardi history, one must invent a canon painstakingly, humbly, and with the knowledge that there is far more cultural richness and historical complexity that can be confined to a single volume.
Julia Phillips Cohen is Assistant Professor of History and Jewish Studies at Vanderbilt University. She is the author of Becoming Ottomans: Sephardi Jews and Imperial Citizenship in the Modern Era (Oxford University Press) and co-editor of Sephardi Lives: A Documented History, 1700-1950.
Sarah Abrevaya Stein is Professor of History and Maurice Amado Chair in Sephardic Studies at UCLA. She is the author of several books, including most recently, Saharan Jews and the Fate of French Algeria (University of Chicago Press) as well as co-editor of multiple volumes including A Jewish Voice from Ottoman Salonica: The Ladino Memoir of Sa’adi Besalel a-Levi and Sephardi Lives: A Documented History, 1700-1950. She is also a series editor for the Stanford Studies in Jewish History and Culture
Julia Phillips Cohen and Sarah Abrevaya Stein received a 2011 HBI Research Award for their work on Sephardi Lives.