Singing Sephardim

June 28 2015

[Sephardic Jews] developed under the Ottoman régime a quite different êthos from the Jewish êthos as we know it in the West, because the treatment which they received at the ʿOsmanlis’ hands was quite different from the treatment which Jews have customarily received at the hands of Westerners.

The psychological effect of four centuries of the [comparatively benign] Ottoman régime upon the descendants in the Near East of these Sephardi refugees from Castile was once brought home to the writer of this Study by an incident which came under his personal observation.

One day in August 1921, some eight years and more after Salonica, with its Sephardi population of eighty thousand souls, had passed by conquest out of Ottoman jurisdiction into Greek, I found myself travelling by train from Salonica to Vodena in the same carriage with three Sephardi school-teachers going on a holiday and one Greek officer going to rejoin his regiment. The holiday-makers – two girls and a man – were in high spirits, and they gave vent to their mood by breaking into song. They sang in French: the “culture language” in which the modern Near Eastern Jew has found the necessary supplement to his hereditary Castilian vernacular. After they had been singing for some time, the Greek lieutenant broke his own silence. “Won’t you sing in Greek for a change?” he said. “This country is part of Greece now, and you are Greek citizens.” But his intervention had no effect. “We prefer French” the Jews answered, politely but firmly, and fell to singing lustily in French again, while the Greek lieutenant subsided. There was one person in the carriage, however, who was even more surprised at the Jewish teachers’ reply to the Greek officer than the Greek himself, and that was the Frankish spectator. Seldom, he reflected, would a Jew have shown such spirit in such circumstances in France or England or America. The incident bore witness to the relative humanity with which the Jews in the Ottoman Empire had been treated by the ʿOsmanlis; and it also had a wider and more interesting significance. It was evidence that the Jewish êthos was not something ineradicably implanted by Race or something indelibly ingrained by Religion but was a psychic variable which was apt to vary in response to variations in Gentile behaviour in different times and places.

The Jews were singing in a lingua franca, French, not in a ghetto language, and they were not showing a ghetto mentality. Such cheerful defiance in the presence of a member of the dominant culture, and a soldier, would not have been thus demonstrated in Russia or Austria – but really not in France, England or America?

Would the point have been made even more strongly if they had been singing in Turkish or Greek or would that have come from mere cultural dilution? Would they have shown even more confidence if they had been singing in the “hereditary Castilian vernacular”, ie Judaeo-Spanish, ie Ladino? Ladino was spoken by Sephardic minorities in the Balkans, Turkey, the Middle East and North Africa. Most speakers are now in Israel.

It is not to be confused with another Romance language, Ladin, which is spoken in parts of northern Italy and is related to Friulian and the Swiss Romansh.

The Jews of Salonika were happier in the multi-ethnic Turkish Empire (before the arrival of the Young Turks) than under the Greeks (1912-41). 98% of them died in the Holocaust. Much of the Jewish Quarter had been destroyed in the fire (probably accidental) of 1917.

See Mark Mazower, Salonica, City of Ghosts: Christians, Muslims and Jews 1430-1950, Harper Collins, 2004.

Jewish Museum of Thessaloniki.

A Study of History, Vol II, OUP, 1934

One Response to “Singing Sephardim”

  1. davidderrick Says:

    Mazower’s book was followed by Giles Milton’s Paradise Lost: Smyrna 1922: The Destruction of Islam’s City of Tolerance, Sceptre, 2009. But Milton deals only with the years immediately leading up to 1922.

    Milton was followed by Philip Mansel, Levant: Splendour and Catastrophe on the Mediterranean, John Murray, 2010, about the histories of Smyrna, Alexandria and Beirut.


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