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Tag : sephardi

The Lilith Blog

April 13, 2020 by

Making Jewish Life in 15th Century Spain Come Alive for Kids

Loma—short for Paloma—is a Jewish girl living in 15th century Spain and the clear hero of this middle-grade historical novel, (A Ceiling Made of Eggshells, HarperCollins, $17.99).  Clever with words and even more clever with numbers, Loma captures the attention of Belo, her stern and commanding grandfather.  To her surprise, he decides that she will accompany him on his travels and she discovers she has an important role to play in determining the future of her people. Newberry award-winning author Gail Carson Levine talks to Fiction Editor Yona Zeldis McDonough about bringing significant episodes in Jewish history to life again. 

Yona Zeldis McDonough: What sparked your interest in this period in Jewish history and what kind of research did you do?

Gail Carson Levine: My father is the culprit! Soon after his death, because I missed him so much, I wrote my first and only other historical novel (so far), Dave at Night, which is loosely based on his childhood in the Hebrew Orphan Asylum in New York City. A Ceiling Made of Eggshells comes indirectly from that orphanage experience, too, because it separated him from his Sephardic roots.

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January 16, 2020 by

Trauma and Transition in Sephardic History

Family Papers

Family Papers: A Sephardic Journey Through the Twentieth Century ($28.00), a remarkable new book by Sarah Abrevaya Stein, introduces the lives and legacies of Salonica’s Jews during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Abrevaya Stein takes readers on an intimate multi-generational journey via the lives of Sa’adi Besalel Ashkenazi a-Levi (later Levy), a prominent publisher in nineteenth-century Salonica, his 14 children, and a number of their descendants. Her research into the Levy family includes interviews conducted across multiple continents, and a collection of documents such as letters, photographs, telegrams, and miscellaneous “family papers” written in over half a dozen languages, reflecting both the cosmopolitan and diasporic reality of the Levy family. These sources, available to the author as a co-editor and co-translator of Sa’adi’s original Ladino memoir, open up the world of the Levys and the radical changes they navigated over the course of their lives.

Organized chronologically, the book’s seven sections reflect the socio-political reality of the Levy family, and Sephardic Jews more broadly, the Jewishness of Salonica is palpable. Abrevaya Stein captures the vibrancy and possibilities of a thriving port city in the late nineteenth century in which there is “a Jewish plurality, if not a Jewish majority,” with Jews numbering between 60,000 and 100,000, and setting the pace for the city’s commercial life. It is against this vibrant landscape that Abrevaya Stein introduces Sa’adi’s children, observing their lives through a prism of the social and political realities of the time, and explores the multiple ethnic, national, and religious identities that informed Ottoman Jewry during this robust period of change. Within the tensions that arise from a society in flux, she makes these transformations personal.

Family Papers presents intimate vignettes which reveal the challenges between tradition and modernity, Ottoman political changes, and institutional forces, like the Alliance Israélite Universelle, which shaped the lives of many Ottoman Jews. For example, Sa’adi’s daughter Rachel, a “dutiful daughter of the Alliance…[and] travelled distances unimaginable to most Ottoman women of the time.” Rachel graduated Salonica’s Alliance school at age 15 or 16, then continued to Paris in 1877, where she continued her education and teacher training at the École Normale Israélite Orientale. Graduating at 18, she assumed a post in a poor Jewish neighborhood in Istanbul. She married Elie Carmona, another Alliance graduate, and they “would travel across the Levant in the employ of the Alliance, working as a teacher (Rachel) and a school director (Elie)” in Morocco, Beirut, Jerusalem, Bulgaria, and Macedonia. Through Rachel’s travels, readers are familiarized not only with the Alliance movement but also with how Rachel and Elie were affected by gender, modernity, and war. They struggled to feed their young daughter after they arrived in Tétouan in 1900 as famine and violence engulf the city due to civil war. Elie writes that the family’s “existence has become intolerable” as they attempted to flee, despite the Alliance’s directive to remain and aid the local poor. Throughout, Sa’adi’s children represent possibilities as well as challenges. One son, Sam, followed in the family business of newspapers and publishing; another, David/Daout became a “high-ranking official in Ottoman bureaucracy, and, in time, interwar head of Salonica’s Jewish community.” Though the book reflects the deep nostalgia of its protagonists, its author is careful not to romanticize the past. When she introduces us to Rachel, whose “education liberated her from the restrictions that had bound her mother’s generation,” she explains that as Rachel assumed a teaching position with the AIU that would take her throughout Ottoman world, she entered into “a new, equally patriarchal authority…and with it, the ideals of Western European bourgeoisie.” And later we learn that Sa’adi’s great grandson Vital was a Nazi collaborator known as “The Jews nightmare,” and he became “the only Jew in Europe tried as a war criminal and killed by a state, Greece, at the behest of its Jewish community.”

Family Papers moves readers through exciting and formidable junctures in Salonica’s history. The Levy family “had lived under Ottoman, Greek, German, French, Spanish, Portuguese, British, Indian and Brazilian rule.” Abrevaya Stein utilizes the “family papers” to illuminate loss, trauma, and transition. The First Balkan War, in 1912, had a dramatic impact on all the Jews of Salonica, because it resulted in the establishment of a Greek and Christian cityscape— Salonica is renamed Thessaloniki, streets are renamed for Greek heroes and figures, Jews are placed under particular labor restrictions and lose the ability to regulate the pace and culture of commercial life. Gone are the days where the port was closed on Saturday and open on Sunday, in deference to Jewish dock workers. This war, and the others that shape the lives of the Levy family, mean that Sephardic Jews like the Levys face questions of citizenship and belonging. The various wars also continue to bring to the fore the question of Zionism. The Levy family’s ambivalence about— and sometimes outright rejection of— Zionism illuminate not only a particular Ottoman identity, important to many Sephardic Jews of the period, but also indicates the Ashkenazi face of the movement. Sam, whose Jewish journalistic work is dismissed by Zionists, believes that the problem with Zionists is “that they tended to be ignorant of Sephardic culture, and history, and oblivious to the importance of Sephardic activism.”

The extensive destruction of Salonican Jewry is told through the profound loss that the Levy family confronts as they exchange letters in the years immediately following World War II. Abrevaya Stein writes, “Family history continued to matter, in diaspora and even in death.” By the conclusion of the Second World War, the Levy family, scattered through Europe, Latin America, and India, clamors for news of hope and survival amidst the rubble. Instead, they are met with tales of destruction and loss. By this point, Sa’adi’s far-flung descendants no longer speak Ladino, and many had never lived in Salonica, yet the “Jewish city” continued to be the center of family lore and identity. Family Papers reflects the possibilities of modernity, the richness of Ottoman Jewry, and the nostalgia of diaspora consciousness. Her deeply intimate portraits of the Levy family present “how this family loved and quarreled, struggled and succeeded, clung to one another and watched the ties that once bound them slip from their grasp.”

HILIT SUROWITZ-ISRAEL is a professor in the Religion Department at Rutgers University. She is co-author, with Laura Leibman and Michel Hoberman of Jews in the Americas, 1776–1826. She is currently completing American Diasporas: The Creolization of Religion in the Colonial Atlantic World.

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July 15, 2014 by

Under the Covers

        Every night, after house patrol, Pop marched into my room shouting, “Enough books!” and flicked off my lights before slamming the door. He thought that by turning off lights he was turning me off, ridding me of curiosity and saving me from what would become a home-wrecking narcotic: books.

            But by age 13, I was already a pro at reading with my head tucked under the sheets. I’d reach for my flashlight, dive head-first under the covers, and read voraciously. Beneath layers of bedding, with labored breathing, I silently turned pages. My squinting eyes, acclimating to the circle of light on each page, devoured the words. Eventually I’d re-surface for a deep inhale and then slide back down.  

            Books…their insidious voices threatened to corrupt his highly sheltered, one-and-only daughter. Pop hated bookcases jam-packed with words, thoughts, and opinions that had not first passed his inspection: He thought books immoral, overthrowing the law and order he had firmly established in our home.

            In the 1960’s, as high-school girls teased their mountainous hairdos and applied hair spray for hourly reinforcement, I was raking in A’s. A’s were my lifeline to the outside, a rope ladder growing thicker and longer, stretching out my bedroom window.  Throughout my teens, I’d put myself to sleep imagining that ladder furiously swinging back and forth, ultimately flinging me to that forbidden land, college.

            “We suffered anti-Semitism in Iran, escaped and immigrated to America, not to end up cursed with an American daughter,” Pop ranted. “A daughter who wants to read and go to school!” I thought he was insane.

            In Mashhad he had lived life trembling, looking over one shoulder, always in fear of being stoned, beaten or murdered. He and his underground Jewish community posed as Muslims and carefully juggled dual identities. In the safety of his basement, he learned Hebrew and studied Torah. Outdoors, in public squares alongside Muslim neighbors, he chanted from the Koran. The journey from Mashhad to Bombay to Shanghai to San Francisco and finally to New York, with wife and sons, had been tremendously difficult. And he endured it in order to raise his children openly and freely as Jews—not Americans. 

By Unknown artist from Iran [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By Unknown artist from Iran [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

            “America is a wild country! There is too much freedom! Just look at the nasty, loose girls walking the streets,” he would shout in Farsi. “They all take drugs, wear short skirts, wanting you to look up and see everything when they cross their legs. American girls are jen-dehs—whores! It is my responsibility as your father to protect you from Americans and not allow you to become one.” 

            In 1947, when Pop settled in New York City with my mother and my two brothers, he lugged with him not only rugs, pots, pans and mattresses, but all of Mashhad’s thinking. A few years later, I was born—their first daughter and American child. Although my parents were delighted, my father was now saddled with the anxiety-provoking mission of keeping me uncontaminated.

            Mom and Pop both found my immersion in school heretical. In Mashhad, Jewish girls stayed home, learning to prepare for wifedom; the academic world belonged to men.           “American women, as a result of education, have become men. It is perverse,” my father told me. “They squeeze themselves into subway cars, carry attaché cases, smoke cigarettes, and sleep around, as if they were not women.”

            To make sure I didn’t become one of those educated whores, Pop praised me when I sewed and snarled when I studied. He continually argued for me to drop out of high school and stay home, to learn to embroider tablecloths, hem skirts, and master the art of Persian cooking.  

             But I also grew up with two older brothers. When I was eight, my eldest brother Albert was a senior at Brooklyn Tech High School. Into the early hours of the morning, he would measure, draw and right-angle, hunched over a makeshift drafting table. He had rulers of every shape, size and color. 30 or 40 of them hung over his head, nailed to a corkboard.

            After dinner, I would follow him into his bedroom and watch. Homes, offices, museums, concert halls, stadiums, highways, bridges…they all burst out from cryptic penciled lines. His dream was to become an architect and sculpt space in a way never done before.

            Pop didn’t think architecture was a real profession. He wanted to see Albert become a Persian rug dealer—now that had prestige. Mom, on the other hand, wanted educated sons. She would lick her lips and boast to her butcher, “My son vant be ar-ki-tect,” not quite knowing what that meant, but enjoying the sound of the hard consonants.

            Mom had never been schooled. Each evening after dinner, she would scurry up the stairs with three bowls of fruit, each containing an apple, an orange, a banana, and a fruit knife carefully placed. To my brothers, the fruit was filled with praise and prophecy: “Keep studying, my brilliant sons. You will conquer the world.” To me, the fruit said, “Eat and go to sleep.”

            At 18, Albert was awarded a full scholarship to Cornell’s School of Architecture.  With shoulders thrown back and blueprints in hand, he left for Ithaca. I cried for months.       When I was 11, my second brother, David, was accepted to Columbia University. English literature was his passion. His bedroom was stacked with books: novels, plays, and poetry. His love affairs were with Gerard Manley Hopkins, Thoreau, Eugene O’Neill, Henry James, Mark Twain, Joyce, and Wordsworth. There was no hint of Iran and our family’s Persian legacy.

            We would take long, hand-in-hand walks. “Writers,” David would tell me, “were the greatest psychoanalysts, delving into the mysteries of God, love, hate, birth, and death.” His mind stretched mine, taking me far beyond anything I was learning in middle school.

            As for me, I had started forging Pop’s name, Fatulla Amini, on every report card beginning with first grade. As I traveled through elementary and junior high school, Fatulla’s signature improved. It wasn’t until I reached 11th grade that my father demanded to see my report card. My stomach cramped as he slowly read my grades out loud: A after A. He cursed the day he had stepped foot in America. It was as though he’d discovered I was a drug addict and my A’s were discarded heroin needles. His eyes bulging, pulling at his thick white hair, he said he would never allow his only daughter to reach her intended destiny, America’s brothel: college.

            Secretly, I sent college applications out to Radcliffe, Barnard, Brandeis, and Hunter. Although I had mastered forging Pop’s name, I couldn’t pay for four years of college. What was I thinking?

            David became my accomplice. He was certain he could smuggle me out of Forest Hills and, behind our parents’ backs, drive me to Massachusetts for my Radcliffe and Brandeis interviews, both scheduled for the same Friday. We hatched a plan to slip out of the house at 4:30 a.m., accomplish our mission, and return home before the Sabbath.  

            That Thursday evening, I set out my navy-blue plaid skirt and a starched white shirt. I lined up my polished, black penny-loafers, and prepared everything else: college forms, maps, driving directions, two cream-cheese sandwiches, and two cans of apple juice. Weeks in advance, I’d practiced washing my face and brushing my teeth noiselessly. David and I had agreed we wouldn’t flush the toilet, in case the noise woke Pop: my father’s ears were always on high alert. Since he lived with the perpetual fear that someone would break into our home, he slept, as he put it, “with one eye open.”

            At 4:30 a.m., my brother and I tiptoed down the long mahogany staircase, our shoes in hand. David had written a polite note telling our parents that we were taking a car trip. There was no reason to worry, he wrote—we’d be home in time for Shabbat dinner. He placed the note on the kitchen table. The note made us seem so conscientious and obedient, so respectful; I was sure my parents would suspect nothing.

            We soundlessly opened and closed the kitchen’s back door and entered the garage through its side door. David slipped into the driver’s seat of our family’s red Valiant. The one thing we couldn’t control was the garage door—its rusty chains screeched when it was lifted.

            With perfect synchrony, David turned the car key, the engine groaned, I raised the rickety door, which rattled and screeched on cue, and I jumped into the car, cursing the door. Putting the car in reverse, David slammed on the gas.

            Suddenly, Pop’s crazed face flashed in front of the windshield. Barefoot, wearing grey flannel pajamas, his thick white hair spiked from pulling, he flailed his hands, desperate to cut off our escape.

            Too late. We sped off towards Massachusetts. 

- See more at: http://lilith.org/blog/2014/06/when-her-persian-father-wouldnt-let-her-go-to-college/#sthash.nPg9z1Fq.dpuf

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The Lilith Blog

June 25, 2014 by

When Her Persian Father Wouldn’t Let Her Go to College…

Esther Amini (courtesy author)

Esther Amini (courtesy author)

Rabbi Sholem Cohen, the new Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Israel and successor to Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, has just released his first ruling.

The verdict?  ”Women’s participation in academic pursuits, including in haredi colleges, is a violation of Jewish law,” Cohen wrote. Apparently, even in ultra-Orthodox educational institutions, women put their “pure” mindset at risk by coming into contact with potentially college-educated instructors.

Esther Amini, a writer and psychotherapist, shared her own experience being discouraged from higher education as a young woman in a piece that will be featured in Lilith’s Summer issue. Amini’s courageous pursuit of an education has paid off in spades, as her writing has been featured in publications from Elle to Tablet Magazine.

 

  Under the Sheets

        Every night, after house patrol, Pop marched into my room shouting, “Enough books!” and flicked off my lights before slamming the door. He thought that by turning off lights he was turning me off, ridding me of curiosity and saving me from what would become a home-wrecking narcotic: books.

            But by age 13, I was already a pro at reading with my head tucked under the sheets. I’d reach for my flashlight, dive head-first under the covers, and read voraciously. Beneath layers of bedding, with labored breathing, I silently turned pages. My squinting eyes, acclimating to the circle of light on each page, devoured the words. Eventually I’d re-surface for a deep inhale and then slide back down.  

Continue Reading

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