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

Olga Borovaya
  • Review
By – September 24, 2012

Olga Borovaya’s new book, Mod­ern Ladi­no Cul­ture, is the first to exam­ine as a uni­fied phe­nom­e­non three gen­res of Ladi­no cul­tur­al pro­duc­tion: the press, belles let­tres, and the­ater. Unknown in ear­li­er peri­ods of the Ottoman Jew­ish his­to­ry, Borovaya iden­ti­fies these gen­res as imports from the West which took root” among Ottoman Sephardim at the begin­ning of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry and devel­oped with­in the con­text of the local cul­ture. Her book focus­es on the com­mu­ni­ties of Saloni­ca, Izmir, and Istan­bul — the major cen­ters of Ladi­no cul­ture.

Borovaya con­sid­ers it impor­tant to approach Ladi­no print cul­ture as a sin­gle phe­nom­e­non in order to rec­og­nize and under­stand the cul­tur­al move­ment under­way at the time and to com­pre­hend the impor­tance of that move­ment in Sephar­di his­to­ry. Not­ing that there are no more than one thou­sand Ladi­no texts extant, she regards her fun­da­men­tal con­cern as being the exam­i­na­tion of tex­tu­al man­i­fes­ta­tions as a source of Sephar­di his­to­ry.” Nev­er­the­less, she does ana­lyze the three gen­res in order of their devel­op­ment, begin­ning with the press – the ear­li­est and most influ­en­tial form of mod­ern Ladi­no print cul­ture.” She then turns to belles let­tres,” a genre depen­dant on the growth of the press. Last­ly she deals with Sephar­di the­ater, for which she asserts that the Ladi­no press pro­vides the only ade­quate source of infor­ma­tion.

Borovaya explores the sig­nif­i­cant role that the Alliance schools played in the growth of Ladi­no cul­ture. The west­ern­iza­tion” mis­sion of these schools was reflect­ed in the edu­ca­tion­al objec­tives of Ladi­no print pro­duc­tion. The Ladi­no press set out to encour­age a broad­er, more lib­er­al world view. This was also the goal of the belles let­tres” genre. Borovaya dis­cuss­es the phe­nom­e­non of rewrit­ing.” Nov­els were gen­er­al­ly rewrit­ten from west­ern Euro­pean texts — often yield­ing a dis­tinc­tive char­ac­ter that defied their ori­gins — and then seri­al­ized in the press. She pro­vides fas­ci­nat­ing insights into the moti­va­tions and careers of the major fig­ures in these cul­tur­al endeav­ors.

With detailed notes and an index Borovaya presents a com­pre­hen­sive but high­ly read­able analy­sis which pro­vides a wel­come com­pan­ion to the study of a rather rare col­lec­tion of materials.

Ran­dall Belin­fante has served as the Librar­i­an of the Amer­i­can Sephar­di Fed­er­a­tion for more than 13 years. He has tak­en a tiny col­lec­tion of 200 books and built an assem­blage of over 10,000 items. Mr. Belin­fante holds degrees in var­i­ous aspects of Jew­ish stud­ies, and dur­ing his tenure at ASF, he has inves­ti­gat­ed a vari­ety of top­ics, pre­sent­ing papers on such diverse top­ics as the Mizrahi Jews dri­ven from their homes in Islam­ic coun­tries and the cryp­to-Jew­ish Mash­hadis of Iran. He has also writ­ten many book reviews on books of Sephar­di / Mizrahi interest.

Discussion Questions