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The Jews of Rusçuk: From Periphery to Capital of the Tuna Vilayeti, by Zvi Keren, translated by Shulamith Berman.  Istanbul: The Isis Press, 2011.  355 pp.  $40.00.


Originally published in Hebrew in 2005 by the Ben-Zvi Institute for the Study of Jewish Communities in the East (Jerusalem), where the author specializes in Bulgarian Jewish history, this study is a major compilation of data on the Jewish community in the important river-port city of Rusçuk or Roustchouk. Its main focus is on the nineteenth century down to the close of the Russo-Turkish War of 1878 when the Jews had formed themselves into a small but cultured and influential body.

Today, of course, unless one’s own ancestors came from the Danubian town or the surrounding region in Bulgaria, the main interest will arise from the opening chapters of Elias Canetti’s biography, The Tongue Set Free, where the future Nobel Prize laureate describes growing up in his grandfather’s house. As Keren shows, there was more to Rusçuk than this one family, though Canetti’s grandfather, with his nineteen languages used as he plied the Danube all the way up to Vienna buying and selling his merchandise, was a representative type of his fellow Sephardic, Judeo-Español-speaking Jews.

Keren is at pains to point out throughout his study how difficult it was to find archival data and documents to compile his history; most studies of Bulgaria in general and of Jews in particular, give short shrift to the Jewish people, institutions, cultural achievements and quality of life in Rusçuk. He therefore takes pride in pointing out what new materials he has found and therefore what new conclusions he has been able to reach in describing the manner in which the Jewish community responded to various external pressures occasioned by economic and technological shifts but above all in political and military events in the course of the nineteenth century, and the way the community itself was typical of other relatively isolated Jewish town-groups in the Ottoman Empire and yet with its own distinct personality, an individuality occasioned by its mixture of citizens from various other towns in the region and further to the West, thanks to its commercial importance as a Danubian entrepôt between German, Austrian, Russian, and Turkish lands. Though there was the usual infighting between dominant Sephardim and minority Ashkenazim in Rusçuk, there were also disagreements between persons from Istanbul and other Bulgarian cities and those from the local region, as well as ideological differences between those open to western influences, especially when the Alliance Israélite Française opened schools for boys and girls, and those more inclined towards Ottoman education or fearful of secularizing tendencies in the Paris-based institution. Unfortunately, just as things started to go really well for the Jews of Rusçuk in terms of their wealth and political strength in the city and the development of modern education and culture, including newspapers and libraries, the disastrous war between Czarist Russia and the Turkish Empire put a spanner in the works. That is where this book ends.

The most extensive discussions concern—properly, given the subject of a Jewish community—education and rabbinical ambitions and rivalries among the lay leaders. Aside from these topics and some interesting anecdotes on a handful of other personalities in the Jewish community, the bulk of this study is, as we have indicated, a compilation. That is, it is old-fashioned, positivist, documentary history, with many census lists, economic tables, reproduction of documents, and a few photographs and maps. Keren is very cautious in what he says and couches his speculations in the language of hesitation. First, there are times, though, when what Keren—or his translator—writes is unclear because the import of what he means to say is lost precisely in the ambiguity of the terms used, and in the not-quite idiomatic English expressions. In other words, when he speaks of facts, reasons, and motives, it is not clear whether he means actual data gleaned from government documents and checked against reports from various consulate sources or points in an argument set up as premises or heads of debatable issues or his own postulations drawing on analogues and precedents elsewhere in the Jewish or the Balkan world. Second, though Keren from time to time addresses the problem of the formulaic, formalized and ritualized language used by rabbinic authors, Ottoman officials, Shariya court scribes and westernized consuls, most often he takes these documents at face value, and this again becomes blurred as the reader comes to these materials not only through an imperfect translation of the Hebrew original, but also through several layers of other discourse from Turkish, Bulgarian, German, and so on.      

Nevertheless, given these minor drawbacks, as Arnaldo Mamiligano once said of Cecil Roth’s unsystematic histories of Italian Jewry, the study does the real groundwork of digging up information where before there was hardly anything but polemic, amateur chronicles and biased and fragmentary documentation. With Jewish history, with the repeated destruction of communities, the dispersion of their members, and the final persecutions and massacres of the Holocaust, the task of the researcher trying to compile a reasonably accurate compilation is first of all an act of salvage, as well as an act of faith: in fact, it is a mitzvah. Now that Keren has done the spadework, and a blessing upon his head, it is time for others to go in with contemporary theories and paradigms and refine the picture, fill in the shades and textures, for instance, by discussing the role of Dhimmitude in the various non-Muslim communities, by evaluating the shifts in language from Ladino to French, and by reading more closely the letters, journals, liturgical and celebratory poems, and newspaper essays, memoirs, and narratives published by men and women of the Rusçuk community, both in the city and when in temporary or long-term exile.

Norman Simms

Department of Humanity

University of Waikato