A Rare Tanach And The Ladino Renaissance | The Jewish Press – JewishPress.com | Israel Mizrahi | 17 Sivan 5782 – June 16, 2022
A rare edition of the Tanach I acquired recently was a volume of the Bible with Ladino translation printed in Constantinople (Istanbul) in 1739. The spurt of Ladino printing in the early 18th century was not simply a revival or a reprinting of what had been done before. It was an utterly new phenomenon, the creation of works that had no previous examples. It included the Meam Loez, the first siddur, the first complete Bible, the first book on Jewish history, and new books on Jewish law.
These books constituted a complete collection of texts necessary for everyday Jewish life, something that had existed among the Western Sephardim and Ashkenazim for over 200 years. This creative period started in 1729 with the printer Jonah Ashkenazi. It was initiated by the realization that the lay Jewish masses in the Ottoman empire were devoid of any kind of Jewish literature in their everyday language. The few books that they did have were written in the 16th century in a pure Castilian Spanish, which they brought with them to Salonika from Spain, while the current 18th-century Ladino was already mixed with Turkish words.
Jonah Ashkenazi was born in Ukraine and had fled to Constantinople around the turn of the century, as had so many other Jews in the decades after the anti-Semitic outbursts in Chmielnicki in 1648. He began his career as a printer in 1710, and in the course of many years he and his heirs published no less than 188 Hebrew texts in Constantinople. Jonah Ashkenazi’s productions were the basis for the development of both modern Ladino literature and the Ladino language.
This rebirth of Ladino publishing was initiated by a man who needed money to marry off his five daughters. This man, Benjamin Peretz, came to Constantinople to ask for financial help from Jonah Ashkenazi. Ashkenazi suggested to him that he edit a translation of the mystical alphabet of Rabbi Akiva. The publication was apparently a commercial success.
The translator of the book, Avraham Assa, was a fascinating and mysterious personality of whom hardly any biographical information exists. He should be considered, as Yaari once put it in Kiryat Sefer (Vol 10, 1933, p. 378), as someone who meant more for Ladino literature than any other person before or after him. Despite this great importance, in his works his name usually appears only at the very end of the books, often hidden in an acrostic poem. In the Ladino translation of the Pentateuch that he published in 1739, his name was lacking altogether. Was he still afraid of the public discontent with Ladino translations that had been prevalent among Ottoman Jews since the 16th century? We do not know.