- The Beginnings of Ladino Literature: Moses Almosnino and His Readers by Olga Borovaya
Olga Borovaya's persuasive work on the beginnings of Ladino literature serves as an important corrective to the commonly-held view that this literature did not truly begin until the eighteenth century. Borovaya works from a study and close reading of Moses ben Baruch Almosnino's writings from the sixteenth century—the Crónica de los reyes otomanos and several of his letters—to argue for a much earlier start point for Ladino literature. As the author describes in the introduction, Almosnino is considered the most famous Ottoman Sephardi writer, known to both Jewish and Christian audiences. Much of his influence among Christians was due to Jacob Cansino's liberal translation of Almosnino's Crónica into Spanish in 1638, published as Extremos y grandezas de Constantinopla, although Cansino's translation effectively changed the tenor and focus of Almosnino's work to mirror the travelogues that were popular at the time. Cansino's volume was used as a resource on Ottoman history by the Austrian Orientalist Jacob von Hammer in the early nineteenth century, even [End Page 168] though Borovaya demonstrates that Almosnino's original work should not be viewed as actual history.
Ottoman Jews began to use Cansino's translation at the end of the nineteenth and first quarter of the twentieth century, and therefore Almosnino's Crónica was imperfectly preserved. For Sephardic Jews, however, Almosnino's Regimiento de la vida was much more famous and respected. The 1564 edition of this work was written in Hebrew characters and was accompanied by a shorter work, Tratado de los suenyos. The work was republished in 1729 in Latin characters. Tomás Antonio Sánchez de Uribe discovered it while compiling a catalogue of rabbinic writings and ensured that Almosnino's works would continue to be known when his mostly-positive assessment of Regimiento was quoted in the Jewish Encyclopedia.
Borovaya laments that very few scholars have analyzed either this author or his literary production. Apart from a biography and a few articles, mostly concerned with Almosnino's life and language, there is really only a handful of studies on Almosnino's works, one of them the volume under review. Borovaya proposes that this paucity in scholarly attention is due to the fact that Ladino literature from the sixteenth century has not been properly categorized. On the one hand, since it has been labelled as "Spanish literature," it does not typically receive analysis by Ladino scholars, but on the other, the fact that it is written in Hebrew characters prevents most Spanish scholars from accessing it. Borovaya argues that Almosnino's literature should be classified as Ladino literature. She demonstrates that Almosnino's primary audience were educated conversos who had been forced to abandon their Jewish communities in Spain and who no longer were able to communicate in Hebrew. This group needed to be reeducated in Jewish traditions as they attempted to return to their Jewish roots in Salonika and elsewhere in the Ottoman Empire. The goals of Almosnino's work, in part, were to strengthen the Jewish community's relationship with the Ottoman Empire and to help these new members of the Jewish community to integrate into their community. As Borovaya states, "Almosnino's chronicles of Ottoman sultans . . . fundamentally differ from his contemporaries' Hebrew histories of non-Jewish monarchs represented in biblical terms. What we see is a skillfully constructed political, if not propagandistic, narrative aimed at making Sephardim feel that they were living at the right time in the right place, and that they should be good Ottoman [End Page 169] subjects" (11). Since Hebrew was mostly inaccessible to this group, Ladino became the vehicle through which written communication passed.
Having set out the general arguments in the introduction, Borovaya proceeds in the prologue to set the stage for Almosnino's sixteenth-century works by discussing Jewish vernacular culture prior to the expulsion from Spain in 1492. The spoken language of Jews in fifteenth-century Spain was Ibero-Romance. Their...