After the expulsion from Spain in 1492 and from Portugal in 1497, many Jews fled to and settled in the Ottoman Empire—a sprawling Muslim state where countries like Turkey, Egypt, Greece, Bulgaria, and others are today. Here, Spanish Jews became more commonly known as Sephardic Jews, from the Hebrew word for Spain, Sefarad. Compared to their experiences in Catholic Spain, Islamic Ottoman rule provided a safer and more stable haven for Jews. The sultan, or ruler, of the Ottoman Empire at the time, Bayezit II, allowed Jews to settle there, and was even rumored to have said to his advisors: “You venture to call Ferdinand a wise ruler—he who has impoverished his own country and enriched mine!"
While Jews in the Ottoman Empire lived under dhimmi status, a protected but subservient legal category for non-Muslim religious groups, they largely controlled their own communal affairs and used Ladino instead of Turkish in daily life. Nevertheless, the boundaries between Jewish and other communities were porous, and Jews interacted regularly with Turkish, Arab, Armenian, Christian, and other groups, especially in the empire’s large and diverse cities like Istanbul, Izmir, and Salonica.
Salonica (today Thessaloniki, in Greece) was, by many accounts, a Jewish center of the Ottoman world and was often referred to as the “Jerusalem of the Balkans” and a “mother-city of Israel.” During the lifetime of Sa’adi Besalel a-Levi, a journalist, printer, and musician, Jews made up nearly half of the city’s population.
Suggested Activities: Conflicts between more traditional and more flexible religious practices have always been present across Jewish communities throughout history, as has the comingling of Jewish culture with neighboring cultures. What are the specific issues at play in this excerpt of Sa’adi’s memoir? Why do the more conservative rabbis condemn the incorporation of “Turkish” music, and why does Sa’adi defend its use? How does this argument relate to the different versions of “Adio Kerida” in Resource 1 of this kit? In what ways does musical style effect the meanings of lyrics and rituals?