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The Jews of Rusçek: From Periphery to Capital of the Tuna Vilayet, by Zvi Keren, translated by Shulamith Berman. Istanbul: Isis Press, 2011. 354 pp. $
Originally published in Hebrew by the Jerusalem-based Ben-Zvi Institute for the Study of Jewish Communities in the East in 2005, Keren’s book makes the transition into English with bumps and scratches. It is overall a remarkable compilation of information on one small city—the one in which Elias Canetti grew up in and which he describes in his memoirs—and its Sephardi inhabitants. Caught between East and West, on the Danube, which leads in one direction into the Ottoman Empire and its own collisions with the Russia of the Tsars, and in the other into the very heart of Central Europe and its rocky entrance into modernity, Rusçek becomes a microcosm for the clash of peoples, languages, civilizations, religions, and politics.
For the most part, Zvi Keren is a meticulous historian of the old school—the positivists—who eschew theoretical models, psychological speculations, and contemporary implications. In this narrow focus, however, sufficient facts, dates, and citation of documents are cited for more up-to-date scholarship to try its hand, or its many hands. Many photographs of people and places, reproduction of archival documents, and lists of names of places and institutions make the book an excellent teaching and research source.
The Jews of Rusçek is thus a welcome compendium of data within a context of knowledge similar to that of traditional late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Jewish scholarship. Indeed, the focus of Keren’s investigations is this small Jewish community in the nineteenth century, basically from its rehabilitation in 1812 after the disastrous wars of the previous period up to its relatively strong position in the War of 1877–1878. From being a minor part of the Bulgarian Jewish community that expanded and changed under the impact of the Sephardi migrations in the wake of the Iberian expulsions and persecutions in the fifteenth through seventeenth centuries, the people of Rusçek met new challenges, partly from the inflow of German and Austrian merchants and early industrialists, partly from the expanding missionary interest of the French-speaking Alliance Israélite Universelle. Now the Jews of this riverine city would find themselves drawn increasingly into the orbit of Jewish modernity itself through educational institutions, newspapers and books, and liberalizing rabbis.
There are several annoying stylistic features in the book, perhaps due to the awkward translation, perhaps inherent in the method of argumentation. For instance, almost at random, look at this brief passage midway through the volume:
The need for reform had already become apparent towards the end of the reign of his [i.e., Abdülmecid in 1839 at the age of sixteen] father, Mahmud II. His advisors, who were disposed to favour the West, persuaded him that Western ideas should be incorporated into the imperial government (p. 118; my emphases)
I have emphasized the troublesome expressions here, each of which seems to beg the question, to assume a psychological set of motivations that are not addressed, and to imply a cultural process that both creates new contexts for Jewish life in Rusçek and influences the community’s own thought-patterns from similar sources but by different means. In another place, the author excuses his lack of documents, but then makes an unwarranted speculation:
All that has been written until now pertains to Rusçek’s Sephardi congregation; unfortunately we have no information regarding the education of Ashkenazi children. We can assume, however, that there was very little distinction between the two (p. 230).
Surely, given the different historical traditions and streams of modern influence for the two groups of Jews—and the distinct attitudes towards knowledge, religious and secular—one would expect a different conclusion. Either the writer could draw on the vast number of studies on East European education of Jews in the nineteenth century in order to construct possible curricula and teaching methods in chederim and yeshivot which would then be compared to Sephardic models as remodelled by the Alliance; or he could explain carefully why he thinks there would be no measurable, qualitative distinction between the two pedagogical regimes.
Other infelicities belong to grammar, syntax, and inaccurate translation (e.g., meldar for blender), but these are relatively minor, hardly detracting from the overall value of the book.
University of Waikato
Hamilton, New Zealand