Salonika – Immigration and Multiculturalism

Originally delivered as a Yom Kippur sermon, this article is reprinted from the Society for Humanistic Judaism‘s journal Humanistic Judaism (Spring/Summer 2010) with permission.

A great power faces a great challenge. Bogged down by war in the Middle East, facing difficult diplomatic relations with Europe, and a fractious city with great potential for ethnic conflict is newly under its occupation. With a need to develop its economy, the great power finds a new population arriving in great numbers–they are looking for a haven and economic opportunity. And even though these new immigrants speak Spanish and fundamentally change the character of the place they make their home, they also have many cultural and religious affinities with the great power and its traditions. Indeed, it is one of those odd turns of history that such a successful experiment in multiculturalism comes about–from expulsion from Spain in 1492 to success in the Ottoman Empire in Salonika (today’s Thessaloniki).

This description sounds like much like the United States and Hispanic immigration today, but it is also a depiction of the Ottoman Empire in 1500. Those Spanish-speaking immigrants? Sephardic Jews who left Spain up to their expulsion in 1492 and left Portugal gradually after their mass forced conversion in 1497. Sephardic Jews dispersed across Europe and the Mediterranean, settling as secret Jews in southern France and England, living more openly in Amsterdam, and welcomed with open arms into the Ottoman Empire. For these Muslim sultans, Christian Europe’s loss of Jewish industry and intellect was the Ottoman Empire’s gain. Sephardic Jews under Ottoman rule lived by their own laws, spoke their own language (a version of medieval Spanish), and lived comfortably in major Ottoman urban centers like Istanbul, Salonika and Izmir. One can imagine Sephardic confusion on hearing the Yiddish phrase “Oy Vey Is Mir” – Oy Vey Izmir? Izmir is a great place for Jews!

What can we learn for the current debate about multiculturalism and immigration from our Spanish-speaking Jewish heritage?

The arrival of several thousand Sephardic Jews utterly transformed the city of Salonika.  They spoke medieval Spanish written in Hebrew letters, just as Yiddish is medieval German in Hebrew letters, and they called their language Judesmo for daily use or Ladino when translating religious texts. Hebrew was used Hebrew for formal prayer and study, but they could also sing songs like “Buen Shabbat, Buen Shabbat, Kun Salud Y Vida” (A good Sabbath, with health and life) or “Cuando el Rey Nimrod” and feel very Jewish doing so. When they formed synagogues, they named them after where they were from – Otranto, Aragon, Majorca, Lisbon, Catalan. While these may not sound like synagogue names to American Jews of Ashkenazi (East European) background, they did to Sephardic Salonikans.

By the beginning of the modern period, Salonika was “historically Greek, politically Turkish, geographically Bulgarian and ethnographically Jewish” according to Mark Mazower’s masterful history, Salonica: City of Ghosts – Christians, Muslims and Jews 1430-1950 (pp238-239).  Salonika was as multicultural as the late medieval world could get. You could expect a shoeshine in Salonika would have a working knowledge of 6 or 7 languages, including Turkish, Greek, Bulgarian, and Judesmo. But that didn’t mean that the communities mixed as we think of cultural assimilation; there were 4 different calendars in use in the city, and even the time of day was not certain – time alla turka started counting at dawn, but time alla franka started at midnight! So you could really ask “what time is noon today?” (Mazower, Salonica, p183)

Jews did just about everything in Salonika–they could be international merchants and early industrialists running mines and garment assemblies, and they could be the actual miners, dock workers, and small craftsmen, as well as thieves, prostitutes and jailers. In the Diaspora, Jews have not had many experiences of being a majority, or even the largest of many groups. But in Salonika, they did: in 1913, a city census showed 157,000 inhabitants: 40 thousand Greek Orthodox, 45 thousand Muslims, and 61 thousand Jews – 40% of the population (Mazower, Salonica, p284). In comparison, Jewish New York today is maybe 10%, 1 million out of 10 million. In Salonika, numbers bred self-confidence – in 1700, Greek Orthodox Christians asked Ottoman authorities to stop Jewish neighbors from throwing their garbage in the churchyard and to stop Jews from mocking them from surrounding windows during their holiday services (Mazower, Salonica, p49). Christians turned to the government to stop Jews from religiously persecuting them!

In some ways, the self-assertiveness and self-confidence that their numbers give Jews in Israel or in New York or the North Shore of Chicago have more in common with this Sephardic experience in Salonika than with the Eastern European shtetl experience of most American Jews’ direct ancestors. The same may well become the case for Hispanics in the American Southwest, while those in smaller communities scattered through other states may be less assertive.

Salonikan Jews’ comfort in their identity was so deep that their rabbis periodically complained about their laxness in following tradition–what I call “Sephardic-style Orthodoxy.” Ashkenazi Jews can be fanatic about their Orthodoxy because they had a Reform movement to respond to, but Sephardic Jews can be more relaxed. That tradition of flexibility morphed rapidly in the 19th century into a drive to change with Enlightenment. Over the vehement opposition of traditional rabbis, wealthy Salonika Jews created new Western-influenced schools, newspapers and cultural institutions. By 1912, the Alliance Israelite school, an important chain of modern Jewish schools in the Middle East, enrolled half of the Jewish children in Salonika (Mazower, Salonica, p220). There was even the Association of Jewish Assimliationists, which was designed to encourage learning Greek and connecting with Greek culture while maintaining a positive Jewish identity.

So what happened to this Ottoman multicultural experiment? It no longer exists–over the last century, Salonika has become unrecognizable. You can’t even find Salonika on a map any more–you have to look for Thessaloniki, its original Greek name. The Ottoman empire lost political control of Salonika and the Balkans in 1912, but the population didn’t change that much. The churches that had been made into mosques were rededicated as churches again and streets were renamed, but much remained the same. In 1917, however, the Great Fire in Salonika made 70,000 people homeless and destroyed almost 10,000 buildings in the old Ottoman city, most in the densely-populated working-class Jewish quarter. A Judesmo song of the period imagined that the fire struck because of “los pecados de sabat” – the sins of the Sabbath – though a later version imagined it was because “los mocicas de agora todas visten de tango” – the young girls of today all dress for the tango (Mazower, Salonica, p300, p362). After past fires, Jews had simply rebuilt where they had been. This time, Greek authorities refused them permission to return and rebuild, which inspired some to leave.

The fire of 1917 served the Greeks very well–it cleaned out the cramped, dirty Ottoman city slums and created clear space for a new, modern European city. And new arrivals inspired even more change: a peace treaty between Turkey and Greece agreed to mutually expel thousands of people: Turkish Muslims left the Balkans, and Orthodox Christians left coastal city-states on the Turkish mainland, even though many of them spoke Turkish and not Greek. Many of the Greek Orthodox refugees landed in Salonika. Now the city was larger, and very different: by 1928, the city had grown from 157,000 to 236,000 people, with no Muslims left, Greeks 75% of the population, and Jews no longer the biggest group (figures cited in Mazower, Salonica, p310). The Jews were a minority under a patriotic Greek government influenced by refugees going to extra lengths to prove their Hellenism. The new authorities passed a law to make Sunday a day of mandatory business closing, challenging for Jews who were used to everything being closed on Saturday, and this new law motivated more of them to leave. It was also during this stage that the Association of Jewish Assimilationists appeared and Greek-language teachers paid by the government were welcomed into Jewish schools, a step which ultimately saved lives–during the Holocaust, younger Jews fluent enough in Greek could hide as non-Jews, though their parents’ Judesmo-accented Greek was, pardon the pun, a dead giveaway.

The tragedy that struck all of European Jewry in the middle of the 20th century hit Salonika too. Of Salonika’s 50,000 Jews, some 45,000 were killed in Auschwitz, and the city itself was transformed–1/5 of its population, including an even larger proportion of its businesses, simply vanished. Around two thousand Jews returned after the war, but the city of Salonika as it had been for Jews was gone. Over the next 50 years, the increasing urbanization of Europe changed Thessaloniki even more–today it holds 1 million people, 10 times its size in 1913, and almost all of the residents are Greek Orthodox Christians. And few of them remember the rich history of the multicultural medieval and early modern city that was Salonika–few mosques and only one minaret survive, much Jewish property was confiscated or destroyed, and Greek culture was quickly imposed throughout the city, as if memory of the past would be a betrayal of present commitment.

What can we learn from the Salonika experience?

First, the battle for memory and history is played out in buildings and names, and the real meaning of a place is richer if we acknowledge all that came before. Consider the tragedy of the Salonika Jewish cemetery – at one time, it covered over 80 acres and had up to 500,000 tombs (by comparison, the Jewish cemetery of Prague was about 2½ acres). The cemetery had burial monuments, mausoleums, and headstones hundreds of years old, but by 1925 it was also prime real estate in a city bursting at the seams with new refugees looking to make homes. Corners here and there were grudgingly ceded to urban development, but the bulk of the cemetery remained until 1943.

In 1943, the Nazi occupation government cancelled all Jewish rights to the cemetery, and the city used the Jewish cemetery as a quarry–they took marble headstones and monuments for paving stones and building material. Inscriptions found on the stones in Latin or in Greek were recorded and preserved, but everything in Hebrew was ignored. After the war, the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki was built over where the Jewish cemetery used to be, and there is sign that the cemetery was ever there. Restoring all of this land as a Jewish cemetery, without a Jewish community there, doesn’t make sense, but neither did erasing the memory of what had been there. Today there is a small Jewish Museum of Thessaloniki, or “Museo Djudio de Salonik”, but it was only established in 1997.

We Americans should not feel that superior – we value the national Holocaust Memorial Museum, which remembers an event that did not happen in America and did not affect American citizens at the time, but where is the Museum of American Slavery on the National Mall in Washington? The National Museum of the American Indian only opened in 2004. And when we talk about “discovering” and settling America, we always start and end with the Pilgrims and the Puritans and Plymouth Rock and we basically ignore Spanish settlements in Florida, California, New Mexico, Colorado, and so on. Is it because, since we speak English, we imagine that our “founders” must only have been English? Or is it just  East Coast bias that makes Massachusetts Bay more important than Santa Fe? We know we were not the first people here, so we should have the courage to see ourselves standing on the mound of history–the layers beneath us raised us to our current heights.

A second lesson we can learn from Salonika: open multiculturalism can be addition, not subtraction. We see the problems of a forcible drive to Hellenize, to homogenize, to assimilate:  not only does such a drive create tension today, but it can wipe out memory of the past. And assimilation can come from within the community. Because there was no possibility of integration into the Muslim Ottoman government and ruling class, Sephardic Jews under Ottoman rule kept a separate language and traditions. Under a Greek democracy, however, they were allowed to vote and participate, and they tried their best to learn Greek and Western Culture–those girls “dressing for the tango” were freely participating in the outside world. If we in America give Hispanic immigrants positive incentives to participate in American culture, they will, in their own way. And the next generation will know English even better, just as younger Jewish Salonikans learned Greek much better than their parents.

Finally, the integration of new participants in a larger culture can change the dominant culture, but cultures have always changed. Ottoman Muslims were largely tolerant in Salonika because they were rulers but also a minority–and this is the future of WASP America. The Ottomans were also tolerant because they too were immigrants–they couldn’t say “we’ve always been here,” so they welcomed still newer immigrants. Consider the words of another Sephardic Jew: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free. The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me. I lift my lamp beside the golden door.” Yes, Emma Lazarus was a Sephardic Jew. Imagine American culture when Emma Lazarus wrote these words in 1883, and how different it is today, transformed by immigrants like our own direct ancestors–from media and technology to language, to imagery, to sex and sin and singing and communities. I understand that it is scary for current Americans to be unable to predict the future of their culture and society, but the truth is that it was an illusion to imagine that we ever could.

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