How Does One Invent a Canon?

Oct. 15, 2014

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 4-1/2 centuries, these communities continued to speak and write in their own Judeo-Spanish language, Ladino, an Ibero-Romance language grammatically similar to 15th-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 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 300 at its peak, but was, at last, arduously winnowed down to just over 150. They were translated from 14 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 source, 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.

Read a Q&A with the editors of "Sephardi Lives."

Reprinted from the Stanford University Press Blog.

Julia Phillips Cohen and Sarah Abrevaya Stein received a 2011 HBI Research Award for their work on "Sephardi Lives: A Documented History, 1700-1950."

Cohen is an 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).

Stein is a 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." She is also a series editor for the Stanford Studies in Jewish History and Culture.