Fashioning the “Mother of Israel”: The Ottoman Jewish Historical Narrative and the Image of Jewish Salonica
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Using sources in Judeo-Spanish, French, German, and Hebrew, this article explores the complex processes through which Ottoman Jewish intellectuals fashioned their own vision of Ottoman Jewish history, positioned Salonica at the center of that narrative, and in the process popularized an image of the city as the “mother of Israel.” Ottoman Jewish history writers internalized Enlightenment discourses about “regeneration,” “civilization,” and “modernity” that also shaped the nineteenth-century historiography of Greek Christian, Ottoman Muslim, French Jewish, and German Jewish intellectuals. This article focuses on how Ottoman Jewish intellectuals translated French Jewish and German Jewish historical narratives about Ottoman Jewry into Judeo-Spanish, adapted and rewrote them, and ultimately overturned them. Discovering that German Jewish historians portrayed Ottoman Jews as being in decline while French Jewish writers adopted a more sympathetic perspective, Ottoman Jewish intellectuals recast their own former narrative of tragedy as an exceptional story of Jewish redemption and romance in the Ottoman realm. In reclaiming Ottoman Jewish history they sought to strengthen their position within the Ottoman Empire and to elevate their status in the eyes of world Jewry. The Salonican Jewish intellectuals who participated in this effort presented an image of their city and its storied Jewish past as an idealized symbol of the broader Ottoman Jewish experience and founded a Salonican Jewish historiography that still shapes our understanding of the city’s history today.
KeywordsSephardic Jews Salonica Ottoman Empire Greece Historiography
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