Photo credit: Israel Mizrahi
Recently, I had the good fortune to acquire a rare and important work in the Ladino (Judeo-Spanish) language with an extraordinary provenance. Printed in Constantinople in 1913, it is called Las Madres Judias, a didactic work on women in Tanachintended to provide examples of role models for Jewish women for whom Ladino was the preferred reading language.
The haskamot note that this is the first Ladino work for women, although the time was at the peak of the Ladino printing period, with many rabbinical and fictional works published. Avraham Danan’s endorsement of Constantinople (today’s Istanbul), for example, wrote that “he was glad to receive the book as it would fill a gap in Ladino literature. By depicting the good qualities of Jewish women, it would breathe a living soul into today’s girls, helping them to understand how a Jewish woman should live.
Chacham Ben-Zion Avraham Cuenque of Jerusalem (editor of HaMe’assef), wrote that women of today scarcely remember or had known the mode of life and modesty of the Jewish family, and that he rejoiced that this book had been published by a man so versed in ” every corner of our literature” so that everyone would recognize the importance of his work.
The author, R. Zemach Rabbiner (1862-1936) was an unusual figure in the history of Ladino literature, having been born in Bausk, Latvia, into an Ashkenazi family. After having been rabbi of Sofia from 1902 and of Plovdiv from 1907, he declared himself neither Sephardi nor Ashkenazi but rather Jewish. He led an isolated personal life with no family ties. He often said, “The Torah is my wife. A scholar, he visited as a preacher all the Jewish communities in Bulgaria. During the last ten years of his life he was a member of the Central Consistory of the Jews of Bulgaria. He served as a rabbi in Bulgaria until his death in 1936.
The copy was owned and signed by a great hero and rabbi of Greek Jewry, Rabbi Moshe Shimon Passover. Born in 1869, with the local bishop of Volos, Greece, the rabbi helped save most of its Jewish community. In 1943, on Rosh Hashana, Kurt Rikert, the local German military governor, demanded a list of all the Jews in the city, with the reason given that the Germans needed to determine how much food to ration to the Jewish community. Rabbi Pesach sensed the true intent and requested and received a three-day extension to compile the list. The rabbi began to confer with his friend, the bishop of Volos, to ask for his intervention and to know the intentions of the Germans. The bishop contacted Helmut Sheffel, the German consul in Volos, with whom he was on good terms and who told him that the Jews should leave Volos immediately. Bishop Alexopoulos quickly informed Rabbi Pesach and delivered a letter to him addressed to the clergymen of the surrounding villages of Volos, urging the compatriots to protect the Jews. All but 130 Jews were taken into hiding by local Greeks who provided sustenance during their time in hiding. Rabbi Pesach’s two sons were in Salonika and Didymoteicho, Greece, and were murdered by the Nazis, but after the war the rabbi returned to Volos with 700 members of the Jewish community. Greek King Paul and the Commander of Allied Forces in the Mediterranean decorated Rabbi Pesach for his actions. Rabbi Passover became Chief Rabbi of Greece after the war in 1946.