Salonica Jewish Language Baggage

From Salonica, City of Ghosts: Christians, Muslims and Jews, 1430-1950, by Mark Mazower (Vintage, 2006), p. 51:

[Salonica’s Jews] worshipped in synagogues named after the old long-established homelands—Ispanya, Çeçilyan (Sicilian), Magrebi, Lizbon, Talyan (Italian), Otranto, Aragon, Katalan, Pulya, Evora Portukal and many others—which survived until the synagogues themselves perished in the fire of 1917. Their family names—Navarro, Cuenca, Algava—their games, curses and blessings, even their clothes, linked them with their past. They ate Pan d’Espanya (almond sponge cake) on holidays, rodanchas (pumpkin pastries), pastel de kwezo (cheese pie with sesame seed), fijones kon karne (beef and bean stew) and keftikes de poyo (chicken croquettes), and gave visitors dulce de muez verde (green walnut preserve). People munched pasatempo (dried melon seeds), took the vaporiko across the bay, or enjoyed the evening air on the varandado of their home. When Spanish scholars visited the city at the end of the nineteenth century, they were astonished to find a miniature Iberia alive and flourishing under Abdul Hamid.

For this, the primary conduit was language…. In Salonica there was a religious variant—Ladino—and a vernacular which was so identified with the Jews that it became known locally as “Jewish” (judezmo), and quickly became the language of secular learning and literature, business, science and medicine. Sacred and scholarly texts were translated into it from Hebrew, Arabic and Latin, because “this language is the most used among us.” In the docks, among the fishermen, in the market and the workshops the accents of Aragon, Galicia, Navarre and Castile crowded out Portuguese, Greek, Yiddish, Italian and Provençal. Eventually Castilian triumphed over the rest. “The Jews of Salonica and Constantinople, Alexandria, and Cairo, Venice and other commercial centres, use Spanish in their business. I know Jewish children in Salonica who speak Spanish as well as me if not better,” noted Gonsalvo de Illescas. The sailor Diego Galan, a native of Toledo, found that the city’s Jews “speak Castilian as fine and well-accented as in the imperial capital.” They were proud of their tongue—its flexibility and sweetness, so quick to bring the grandiloquent or bombastic down to earth with a ready diminutive.

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Filed under Greece, language, Mediterranean, migration, religion, Spain, Turkey

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