Having finished the Papashvily book, I’ve moved on to another memoir, published a year later (1946) and also borrowed from my mother-in-law, Farewell to Salonica by Leon Sciaky (pronounced SHOCK-ee), born in 1893 in what is now the Greek city of Thessaloniki but was then the Turkish city of Selanik, known in the West as Salonica. Diane Matza wrote in 1987 that “Lists of autobiographies by immigrant Jews in the United States do not include Sciaky’s work, nor does criticism of Jewish autobiography mention it” and says “this error must be corrected” because “Farewell to Salonica is the only autobiography written by a Sephardic immigrant who came to the United States in the 1880-1924 period.” Aside from its historical importance, it’s a wonderful read, bringing to life a privileged childhood in a privileged community that had recreated its lost Iberian homeland in the Ottoman Empire (as Mazower says in his Salonica, City of Ghosts: Christians, Muslims and Jews 1430-1950, about which I wrote here and here, “For this home was not only their ‘Jerusalem’; it was also a simulacrum of the life they had known at the other end of the Mediterranean. They worshipped in synagogues named after the old long-abandoned homelands… Their family names—Navarro, Cuenca, Algava—their games, curses, and blessings, even their clothes, linked them with their past… When Spanish scholars visited the city at the end of the nineteenth century, they were astonished to find a miniature Iberia alive and flourishing under Abdul Hamid.”) I’ll quote from Chapter Three, in which the five-year-old Sciaky visits his great-grandmother Bisnona Miriam (born in 1804) and her sister Tia Gracia (born in 1796) in their house, a block south of his parents’ on Sabri Pasha Street (now Venizelou) in the Muslim center of the city:

“Bisnona, why don’t you sing a romanza?”
“Do you like romanzas, little soul of mine? People don’t enjoy them any more.”
“Nona Plata sings romanzas, and I like them better than Sarica’s songs.”
Bisnona would sigh a deep sigh, a far-away look would come to her eyes, and softly she would croon old songs, songs brought from Spain by our hidalgo forefathers centuries ago. She would sing of Queen Isabella at her embroidery frame, working with needle of gold and threads of love; of Parisi, her first-beloved, and of his ships and sails of silk and purple riggings. She would sing of the son of the good count, a page in the court of the king; of the plotting of the jealous courtiers; of his melodious singing which saves his life when the passing king reins his horse to listen and exclaim:

“Si Angel es de los cielos,
O sirena de la mar?”

“Is it an angel from Heaven
Or a siren from the sea?”

“Another one, Bisnona, please!” I would beg at the end of each. “The one about Julian, Bisnona!” Her eyes sparkling with excitement and with a flush on her wrinkled face, Bisnona would adjust the chiffon kerchief on her snow-white hair and oblige her “little lamb.”

Very little sense did I make of the words of these songs. They were couched in old Spanish and told of situations which I could not understand. But the melodies stirred in me something warm and tender.

Andando por estas mares,
Navegando con la fortuna,

Sailing on the seas,
Battling with the storms,
I fell on foreign lands
Where I was not known.
Where the rooster did not crow
Nor even did the hen cackle,
Where grew the orange,
And the lemon and the citron.
Ah, Julian, false and treacherous,
Cause of all my misfortunes!

It mattered little that I did not know who Julian was or what he had done. It was as if an unaccountable nostalgia came over me, an ancestral nostalgia which made me sad and happy at the same time.

(You can read all 13 lines of the ballad in Spanish on page 347 of Antología de poetas líricos castellanos desde la formación del idioma hasta nuestros días (1890-1908) by Marcelino Menéndez Pelayo; it has a whole section of “Romances castellanos tradicionales entre los judíos de Levante.”)


  1. “For all the savagery of the Holy Inquisition and the pitilessness with which the hidalgos enforced the expulsion, Spain and Portugal’s Sephardim would never be able to forget Iberia, the sun-drenched land they had come to love, spending centuries helping to build, convinced that Jews had finally found a place of welcome and refuge. Until Christian royalty and nobility decreed otherwise, and they were driven out to wander again. Yet they retained the language, and recited the poetry, and cherished the culture for their own. Ashkenazim could huddle in their ghettos in central and eastern Europe, shutting the outside world from their souls. But not the Sephardim. Almost a century and a half had gone by since their expulsion from the land they called Sepharad, but it was still the highest praise, amongst them, to call a man hidalgo.”
         –Eric Flint, 1632 Chapter 4

  2. It’s really pretty complex: an inherited obligate nostalgia for a place you had never seen, Spain, which was itself a place of exile and really just a stand-in for a different, even more ancient and even more distant lost and longed-for city, Jerusalem, just as the Spanish place of exile had only been a stand-in for the Babylonian place of exile.
    Yet at the same time, Jerusalem was nearby and easily visited.

  3. And they didn’t even bother to go there! Mazower writes, “Indeed, only a few devout older people, usually men, were ever tempted to make the journey southeast to Jerusalem itself, even though it formed part of the same Ottoman realm.”

  4. It really reminds me of a Kafka parable.

  5. David Marjanović says

    Yet at the same time, Jerusalem was nearby and easily visited.

    Well, relatively.

  6. Iran is just a few months walk to Jerusalem today, however I lived with a family in 1965 that made the trek in the 1920s that took them 25 years to make. They started out with 9 children and lost most of them on the way, so the phrase “yet at the same time, Jerusalem was nearby and easily visited” can only be said by someone with frequent flyer miles.

  7. Yeah, but Iran was outside the Ottoman Empire, and I would guess that the family you mentioned had other impediments. “Easily” is relative, but Jerusalem in the nineteenth century was majority Jewish (they say) and was a common tourist and pilgrimage destination.

  8. Yes, and I expect the merchants of the city made trips to Beirut, Damascus, and Alexandria on more than rare occasions.

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