Book review: «Jewish Salonica» by Devin Naar
Posted by Abravanel, the Blog στο 27/02/2017
Until 2004, when M.Mazower wrote his celebrated «City of Ghosts», the history of Salonica was relegated to a state-sponsored fable of an uninterrupted path between Alexander the Great to Venizelos. That a foreigner was to inform modern-day Salonicans on their city’s history was perhaps only fitting since the efforts of erasing Salonica’s history had been successful and Greek (Christian) historians appeared completely uninformed or unwilling to deal with it.
Since then only 12 years have passed but research has raced to fill in the void abruptly «discovered». In this efforts historians have struggled with three main obstacles:
1. the language. Various archives require knowledge of Ladino, Greek, French and Hebrew; an arduous obstacle indeed.
2. the lack of bibliography. The archives need not only translation but interpretation. Given the lack of research, each historian founds himself in a terra incognita forcing him to build interpretation models from scratch with the unavoidable pitfalls which befell to pioneers.
3. a lack of will. History is intertwined with nationalism and this «new» history comes to clash with established truths, in which funding institutions have a vested interest.
Given these limitations which dwindle the pool of willing and capable historians, Devin Naar appears as a miracle. Of salonican descent, Naar is fluent in the languages of the salonicans – literally and figuratively – and this perspires in his new work «Jewish Salonica. Between the Ottoman Empire and Modern Greece», published by Stanford University Press in 2016 and available here.
The book is divided in 5 chapters: Like a Municipality and a State: The Community – Who will Save a Sephardic Judaism? The Chief Rabbi – More Sacred than a Synagogue: The School – Paving the way for better days: The Historians – Stones that Speak: The Cemetery. It includes an introduction on whether Salonica is Jewish and a concluding chapter of Jewish Salonica as a myth, a reality and a memory.
The unparalleled advantage of the book is its extensive use of Ladino sources, mainly newspapers and community archives. It effortlessly blends a staggering, for a book less than 300 pages, 1085 footnotes into a narrative which lets the subjects speak for themselves, without losing focus of a broader historical aspect. Tellingly Naar begins the first chapter with the sephardic saying Boz del puevlo, boz del sielo which means The Voice of the People is the Voice of the Heavens.
Each chapter allows us for a better understand of why Salonica is different and of how the Salonicans themselves managed to create a city which Palestine Post described in 1941, «was not unlike Tel Aviv is today». Of special interest is the description of the Jewish efforts to face the adversities that were stacked against them. It challenges the idea of an ever-declining community, showing how the Jews were not passive passengers of a lifeboat, victims to the swirls of the waves of history but instead illustrated agency and will. Concurrently it pierces the myth of an immutable Salonican nationality, showing Jews re-interpreting their identity as circumstances around them were changing.
Unfortunately this also acts as the Achilles Heel to the book. Although Naar aptly describes the efforts of the Community to the challenges, he often lacks to describe them in full. An example is how he treats the Sunday Closing Law, which he describes as «allegedly to level the economic playing field». Although in other articles he is fully aware of the Sunday Law being a rallying point around which coalesced the chauvinist elements of the freshly arrived Christian Greeks, he fails to describe the – surprisingly – homogeneous wall of hostility which the Community had to negotiate with.
But this should not imply that Naar is accommodating to appeasement. His chapter on the cemetery is damning and excruciatingly frank in detailing the efforts to destroy the biggest Jewish cemetery in Europe whose first tombs date from the Roman era. He details the efforts by the Christian elite, epitomized by the Chamber of Commerce and the Aristotle University, to destroy what was the largest visible obstacle to the hellenization of the newly conquered city. He illustrates their efforts which disregard alternatives, proving Jews as the real target and not «modernization» while at the same time describing the almost miraculous ability of the Community to fend the attacks.
Other commenters have said that the history of Jewish Salonica merits a magisterial work. They correctly assume that this book is not the 21st century equivalent of the Histoire des Israelites du Salonique. But I believe its unfair to judge it by this standard; objectively speaking we have not reached the critical mass of works necessary for a magnus opus to delve in, despite recent claims of other books who aspire to this title. «Jewish Salonica. Between the Ottoman Empire and Modern Greece» is a book which aims to let the subjects speak for themselves and sheds light to areas in which the protagonists were pictured until today as supernumerary actors. Even its errors are valuable because they point to areas completely unknown to local historiography, eg the first work concerning the depiction of the Donme by Nehama came out a year after the book was concluded. As such it is indispensable to the erudite and layman alike and in all likelihood will prove itself resistant to the passing of time. Certainly it advances the study of the history of Salonica, it offers new information with which we can re-assess older sources and appears as a fresh breath of air.
And as far of the magnus opus of the history of Salonica? It is yet to be written but Devin Naar certainly puts himself as a favourite among the restricted group of scholars capable and willing to write it.