Page 145 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 44

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The Judeo-Spanish language was the medium of communica­
tion for most Sephardim of the Turkish empire. Many books
were published in this language, using the Rashi type of print.
Much of Judeo-Spanish literature through the mid-19th century
was of a religious nature, and included original works as well as
translations of Hebrew classics. Perhaps the most noteworthy lit­
erary creation of this period was the
M e’am Lo’ez,
originated by
Rabbi Jacob Huli. The first volume was issued in Constantinople
in 1730. Rabbi Huli wrote the
M e’am Lo’ez
as a biblical commen­
tary — but much more than that as well. On each Torah portion,
he included explanations of the biblical passages, midrashic
material, laws and customs, homiletic material. In short, he
wanted the book to be read by the masses so that they would learn
the Torah and the mitzvot from a book written in their language
in a popular style. The book had phenomenal success and went
into many printings. After Rabbi Huli’s untimely death, other
authors continued the project, so that the
Me’am Lo’ez
came to
include the entire Torah, some of the prophetic books, and the
Ethics of the Fathers.
By the mid-19th century, changes were starting to be felt within
Sephardic communities. For one thing, the Ottoman government
became more receptive to European ideas and patterns of man­
agement. More specifically, the Alliance Israelite Universelle
began to open schools throughout the Levant in order to bring
French (Western) culture to the Sephardic children of these
lands. Gradually, a “progressive” element arose within the
Sephardic communities, calling for modernization of education,
adaptation to Western styles, rejuvenation of Jewish community
government. The late 19th and early 20th centuries were a
period of cultural ferment. Forces of modernism challenged the
forces of traditionalism. The intellectual elite which used to be
composed entirely of rabbis and rabbinic scholars now comprised
also intellectuals who lacked rabbinic training and commitment.
The cultural ferment was reflected in a burst of activity in
Judeo-Spanish literature. Elena Romero, for example, has writ­
El teatro de los Sefardies Orientales
(The theatre of the Oriental
Sephardim, Madrid 1979) in which she has come up with a
Sephardic dramatic repertoire totalling 684 works. This total