A Jewish Voice from Ottoman Salonica
The Ladino Memoir of Sa'adi Besalel a-Levi
Edited and with an Introduction by Aron Rodrigue and Sarah Abrevaya Stein; Translation, Transliteration, and Glossary by Isaac Jerusalmi

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A Jewish Voice from Ottoman Salonica: The Ladino Memoir of Sa'adi Besalel a-Levi

This website is a companion to A Jewish Voice from Ottoman Salonica: The Ladino Memoir of Sa'adi Besalel a-Levi, which is edited and introduced by Aron Rodrigue and Sarah Abrevaya Stein, and includes a translation, transliteration, and glossary by Isaac Jerusalmi. It features the first known memoir written in Ladino, the Judeo-Spanish language of the descendants of the Jews expelled from Iberia who settled in Ottoman southeast Europe and Asia Minor beginning in the sixteenth century. The memoir was penned in the city of Salonica between 1881 and the 1890s by Sa'adi Besalel a-Levi. Sa'adi (as he was known by contemporaries) was an accomplished singer and composer, a prominent publisher of texts in Hebrew and Ladino, and the founder (in 1875) and editor of the first Ladino newspaper in Salonica.

Reprinted here with permission of the Manuscripts Department and Institute of Microfilmed Hebrew Manuscripts, National Library of Israel, Sa'adi’s memoir was written in soletreo, the Ladino handwritten, cursive form. Especially for English speakers who may not have access to French or Hebrew dictionaries, there is a woeful shortage of professional Ladino-language learning tools, and the acquisition of reading fluency in soletreo is particularly difficult to pursue. It is our hope that this website, in tandem with numerical cross-references to the romanized Ladino transliteration and the English-language translation that appear in A Jewish Voice from Ottoman Salonica, will help fill this lacuna.

Sa'adi’s memoir was written on what appears to be a commercial ledger, a notebook that was pre-numbered on every other page. For ease of reference, the editors have indicated the pre-numbered pages that appear on the left-hand side of the original by assigning the letter "a" to them, and the following pages, which appear on the right-hand side of the ledger, are numbered with a "b" both in the English translation and in the romanized Ladino transliteration. Hence, 1a is followed by 1b, 2a by 2b, etc. Pages 83a–93a of the ledger were left blank. Two poems in Hebrew by Sa'adi follow on pages 93b–95a; these have not been transliterated in A Jewish Voice from Ottoman Salonica as they were not composed in Ladino, but they do appear within the English-language translation in the volume. These poems are followed by a Ladino poem on pages 95b–96a, though the latter were rendered mistakenly as 96a–96b in the translation and transliteration texts.

The text was in all likelihood dictated to scribes (or perhaps his sons) by Sa'adi when he himself was slowly going blind. Though the bulk of this memoir is written in the hand of one scribe, there are several other soletreo handwritings that can be observed in the manuscript. Further evidence suggests that Sa'adi returned to his memoir again and again, dictating or himself adding addenda to the margins and the bottom of pages. Some of these additions to the original have been impossible to read and hence are not included in the translation and the transliteration sections in the book; for example, there are a few lines on page 82b that have neither been translated nor transliterated due to their illegibility in the version we had at our disposal.

As we describe in the Introduction to A Jewish Voice from Ottoman Salonica, this manuscript bears many fingerprints: those of Sa'adi, the scribes with whom he worked, and multiple generations of a-Levi descendants. Proof of this appears on the first full page of this manuscript (numbered 1a here), which includes a title in Latin characters (La vida de un honesto perseguido [The life of an honest persecuted man]) superimposed over its soletreo equivalent. We believe these titles were retroactively assigned to Sa'adi’s memoir by the memoirist’s grandson, Leon David Levy. How and whether to translate fingerprints such as these are questions that have both delighted and bedeviled us. It is a virtue of this website, with its beautiful reproduction of Sa'adi’s original manuscript, that others may puzzle over its various handwritings, marginalia, and additions, thereby joining us in interpreting this complex and important text.

Aron Rodrigue and Sarah Abrevaya Stein

Click here to view the Ladino text.