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Jewish Journal

In Search of My Sephardic Ancestors

by Alana Newhouse

March 18, 2004 | 7:00 pm

"Last Century of a Sephardic Community: The Jews of Monastir, 1839-1943," by Mark Cohen (Foundation for the Advancement of Sephardic Studies and Culture, $34.95).

Some months ago, I saw a Jewish homeless man near my New York apartment. He was wearing a yarmulke and muttering Hebrew words, and I think I saw a tattered prayer book in his shopping cart. Perhaps, I thought, the Upper West Side has officially become a Jewish town.

I have always been drawn to study Jewish towns and communities, a fascination that spurred me, professionally, toward the Yiddish culture of my paternal family. To my thinking, a real Jewish town -- like prewar Vilna or Warsaw or even the turn-of-the-century Lower East Side -- was one in which everyone was Jewish: not just the doctors and the lawyers, but the grocers, the firemen, even the prostitutes and homeless.

It seemed to me that in those truly Jewish towns in Eastern Europe -- unlike the Diaspora neighborhoods of today, most of which are held together by strict religious observance -- you could be whatever kind of person you wanted to be, with whatever beliefs, either political or religious, and still feel like a Jew, like you were part of a community. I longed for such a place, a place with streets that smell like challah on Friday afternoon, while children swim in local pools on Saturday -- a home base on which to keep one toe while I explored the world with the rest of my body.

Over the last few years, my attention turned to Monastir, the Ottoman Empire town of my Sephardic maternal grandparents, in what is now Macedonia. Before my parents and I became more observant and joined the Orthodox Ashkenazic synagogue near our house, we regularly attended a Sephardic synagogue co-founded by Monastirlis who, like my grandparents, had immigrated to America in the early 1900s.

Though all its Jews had long since emigrated or been killed in the Holocaust, perhaps Monastir had once been this Jewish town of my dreams; if so, maybe I could salvage its legacy. I could find other Monastirli descendants, and we could revive the traditions and sing the songs. I could even learn Ladino.

Aside from one dated, rather shallow history, I found very little published about the town. There were no tomes with extensive footnotes, no museum exhibits, no university chairs endowed for the study of Ottoman Jewry. Most importantly, at least to me, there was no Irving Howe of Balkan Sephardim, no one thinker so dedicated to -- and supported in -- his studies that he could place the disintegration of this culture in context, help me understand the loss I felt for a village I had never seen.

I toyed with the idea of writing a book on Monastir myself, but the task seemed daunting: Given the political chaos that has defined the region for the last century, providing the reader with a clear historical context would be a formidable challenge for a journalist; government records were sure to be near inscrutable, and what individual testimony one could garner would likely come from disparate, far-flung sources.

I was deterred, but, thankfully, Mark Cohen, a journalist from California with the same idea, was not. His newly released "Last Century of a Sephardic Community: The Jews of Monastir, 1839-1943," published by the Foundation for the Advancement of Sephardic Studies and Culture, is an important addition to the study of Sephardic Jews and an essential building block in what I hope is the burgeoning field of Balkan Jewish studies.

The book is focused on the period between 1839 and 1943, the last years of a Jewish community ensconced in the Ottoman village since the Spanish Inquisition. Cohen is at his most evocative in his depiction of Jewish life, and it is in these details that the frequent stiffness of his prose fades away.

We learn how the 3,000 Monastirlis in the mid-1800s chose to live in a walled, self-contained residential district called a mahalle, which circled a great courtyard. Since virtually no one had indoor kitchens, the courtyard, which featured communal ovens in which the women would cook, served as "a house extension and host to domestic life."

Yet this closeness came at a price. "With everyone exposed to the eyes and judgments of their neighbors, people were sure to conform to social norms," including regular synagogue attendance and holiday observance. The Jewish quarter even had berurei averot, wardens who patrolled the area to suppress religious transgressions.

"Sephardic culture was intertwined with and inseparable from Jewish religious practice," Cohen writes. In fact, children were named according to the different roles they played in supporting these twin heritages -- girls were given Spanish names like Allegra, Palomba or Vida, while boys received biblical names like Abraham, Isaac and David. In line with this, boys were offered formal religious education through a Talmud Torah school, while girls were taught to master a wide range of Sephardic folklore genres; through folklore, mothers instructed their daughters in Jewish values, faith in God, even love and sex.

Cohen has gathered many of the unique Monastirli folklore and ballads in a separate index and has extensively detailed various rites of passage rituals -- even down to the final one. When a Monastirli turned 60, a death shroud was made for him by the community; after a complex process, which included rinsing it in Monastir's Dragor River, a ceremony was held in his honor. Cohen writes:

"It is here, in confrontation with death, that the power of traditional life shows itself. Tradition supported people during life's most anxious and terrifying moments. It brought the community to the aid of an individual, orchestrating the enactment of ideals when a person was weak; celebrating with a 15-year-old girl who had just become a mother; feasting with a person preparing for death."

A series of fires changed the course of the community's history. In 1863, in less than two hours, 190 homes in the Jewish quarter -- more than 90 percent of the total -- burned down, leaving nearly 3,000 people homeless. All six synagogues, every house of study and the Talmud Torah school were ruined. The tragedy set the stage for one of the most intriguing twists in the town's history.

The chief rabbi of Monastir appealed to Sir Moses Montefiore of London (portrayed in the book as a sort of Ron Lauder for 19th century Ottomans). As Cohen notes, the rabbi had excellent timing. The Board of Deputies of British Jews, led by Montefiore, had recently been lambasted by London's Jewish Chronicle for ignoring the appeals of poor Jewish communities in Sana, Yemen and the Greek Ionian islands. Montefiore, sensing an opportunity to redeem himself, took it upon himself to help the small town.

Yet, there was a catch: Montefiore insisted the money be spent on humanitarian relief; believing that Ottoman Jewry needed to "modernize," he and the other London Jews refused to help the devastated community rebuild its synagogues or its religious school.

With the authority of the rabbis thus undermined, Jews began to move to other areas in Monastir and, more importantly, their entire educational system was revolutionized. Beginning in 1863, a French-language alliance-style school was established -- formally severing the Monastirlis' ties with traditional religious life and its institutions. Some Jewish children even joined Christian missionary schools. The period from 1880 to 1903 was a time of incredible growth for the Jewish community, which reached its historical population peak of 11,000.

Yet as a backdrop to this assimilation and growth was the ethnic fighting that would plague the region for a century, with Bulgaria, Greece, Serbia and even Romania all laying claim to the region at one point or another. Monastir would change hands repeatedly, as four centuries under Ottoman rule came to an end.

During the first decade of the 20th century, the Monastir region suffered ethnic conflict, a cholera epidemic and a decline in food production. It was at this time that massive emigration began, and the Monastirlis "experienced the greatest dislocation since Spanish expulsion." Many left for South America, particularly Chile, as well as North America, where they founded communities in New York City, Rochester, N.Y., and Indianapolis.

Those who stayed endured one world war after another, as they say. A Zionist youth movement emerged between the two wars, inspiring a good number of Monastirlis to immigrate to Israel.

But the story of the unlucky ones is, unfortunately, all too familiar to us from the well-documented stories of their Ashkenazic brethren: On April 9, 1941, Monastir came under Nazi control; Jewish shops were looted; a ghetto was created (in the area of the old Jewish quarter) and yellow stars were pinned to lapels. In March 1943, the Jews of Monastir were shipped to Skopje and then to Treblinka. "None of the Monastirlis who were sent to Treblinka survived," Cohen writes.

Cohen has done an impressive job, and no library -- certainly no center of Jewish studies -- would be complete without this book. But as I finished it, I felt disappointed. I found myself wishing for a fuller epilogue, a chapter in which this seemingly kindred spirit would point the way forward from the sad tale unearthed by his research.

Instead, bits and pieces of Balkan history began to fall in my lap. I found out about a Web site chronicling the genealogy of all the Monastirli families run by Elie Cassorla of Austin, Texas (www.cassorla.net), and Stephen Schwartz wrote in about the efforts of Muhamed Nezirovic, a Bosnian Muslim and leading expert on his country's Sephardim.

And I was sent a CD of music by Sarah Aroeste, a Ladino singer. Aroeste -- whose relatives founded the only Monastirli synagogue to survive World War II, the Kal de los Monastirlis in Salonika -- has picked up on the romanceros, or ballads, of her Sephardic culture and is bringing them to the world music stage.

All of these people are writing their own stories about the Balkans, struggling to deal with a piece of history, and they need more knowledgeable voices -- academic, communal, perhaps even rabbinic -- for support, and the opportunity to understand their own lost world, just as the descendants of the thriving Ashkenazic culture of Eastern Europe have come to understand theirs.

As it turned out, Monastir was never the Jewish town of my dreams. Mothers passing on folklore to their daughters is quaint, but less so when it is in place of formal education for girls, and those religious police are not for me. But perhaps Vilna and Warsaw weren't as I imagine them either; perhaps no community, not even the Upper West Side, could fulfill my needs. Maybe those needs are antithetical to communal life.

Regardless, Monastir is no longer a Jewish town -- of any kind. There are no Jewish homeless anymore; in fact, as of 2002, there was only one Jew, 68-year-old Mois Benjakoz, who escaped the deportation to Treblinka because his mother had married a Turk. It seems to me oddly important that Cohen wrote this book when he did, before Benjakoz died, extinguishing the last ember of a nearly forgotten Jewish community.

His example should open the door, quickly, to more research into the Jewish communities of the Balkans, because, as Cohen notes poignantly, "being dead [is] not nearly so bad as being dead and forgotten."

In honor of Women's History Month, Cohen will discuss women in Sephardic folktales on Tuesday, March 23 at 7 p.m. at the Jewish Community Library of Los Angeles. Admission is free, but reservations are required. To R.S.V.P. or for more information, call (323) 761-8644 or send e-mail to info@jclla.org .

Reprinted with permission of the Forward



Alana Newhouse is the arts and letters editor at The Forward.

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