Jewish Communities in the Medieval Balkans

June, 2007

  1. Jewish Communities in the Medieval Balkans

    June 30, 2007 by Christopher Buxton

    (Annie writes)

    Some Jews made their way to the Balkans and Asia Minor in 300 B.C.. Many were brought as slaves by the Phoenicians, others were encouraged to migrate round the Mediterranean or settle in Asia Minor as well as the Thracian and Aegean coasts. Jews have been known to exist in Thessalonica in 140 B.C., while important colonies have settled on the islands of Cos, Cyprus, Rhodes.

    During the time of the First Bulgarian Kingdom and the Golden Age of Simeon (893/927) alongside the flourishing of literature, heightened commercial developments have taken place – it is assumed that those were encouraged by Jewish settlers.

    St. Cyril successfully used the Hebrew letter bet (by turning it) to create the Б in the Cyrillic alphabet to express this sound – it does not exist in the Greek alphabet. The letter Ш is taken completely from Hebrew consonant shin, neither that, nor the consonants Ж or Ц exist in the Greek alphabet –the first is made out of two letters shin, turned away from each other, with joint backs, while the second is taken straight from the Hebrew letter tzadi. St Cyril knew Hebrew and used it successfully to borrow/create letters, which he could not borrow from the Greek alphabet.

    A large number of Greek Jews, who immigrated to Bulgaria towards the end of the First Bulgarian Kingdom settled not only in large towns like Nikopol, Vidin, Silsitra and Sofia, but also in villages as well.
    During the same time, Byzantine Emperors were decreeing forceful baptisms on the Jews, even though the Legal Code – the Basilica – recognized the rights of the Jews to regulate their religious and communal affairs.7 The religious fervour of the Crusaders led to further murders and desecrations of synagogues. There were further persecutions of the various Jewish sects in Northern Europe, which led to consistent immigration to the Balkans, which lasted all the way to the 15th century. And it was not only religious zeal that fuelled the persecutions of the Jews, but also the fact that Christian merchants and professionals objected to the so called “position of power” of the Jews as bankers, physicians, lawyers and artisans.

    The Jews were motivated to learn and the more intelligent ones practiced and often dominated a variety of professions – medical doctors, cartographers, ambassadors, astronomers, etc, others were farmers, traders some were shopkeepers, coppersmiths, blacksmiths, tanners and peddlers. Some were very rich, some were very poor and others – destitute. Those, who rose to prominence by their skills and abilities, were trusted both by Christian and later on by Muslim rulers, who put them in positions of trust, important administrative and financial posts in their governments and the army.

    The knowledge of many languages – Italian, Greek, Turkish, Hebrew, French, and Arabic made them indispensable to politics and trade. Their family links to other countries, international trade experience allowed them to play a prominent role in banking and commerce. It is assumed that in the Byzantine and especially in the Balkan environment, Jews were much more socially integrated than in Western Europe. In fact the Balkans were a good place for them to practice those skills, as various trade routes met here and traders coming and going from the North and South, East and West interacted here. However, they often paid community or collective taxes, as well as special taxes, import and export taxes and many others, imposed by the local governments.

    With the establishment of the Second Bulgarian Kingdom, the rulers from the Assen family encouraged the immigration of Jewish traders, scholars and philosophers to Bulgaria in order to stimulate the prosperity and development of the new state. The new rulers of the country invited traders from Ragusa (Dubrovnik), Genoa and Venice to come and live in the new capital Turnovo in order to increase the economic independence of the new state. It is assumed that many of those were Jews, who then facilitated the arrival of others. A lot of the traders from Genoa settled in Turnovo, while the Venetians settled in Vidin. A charter, given by Ivan Assen II to the Genoese merchants attests to this, as do storage facilities, built by the Venetians near the River Danube, demolished comparatively recently4. At the same time Kastoria and Ohrid in Western Bulgaria (now part of FYR of Macedonia) became centres of Jewish learning with leading representatives:

    • Rabi Tobias ben Eliezer, who was a leader of the community or Romaniote (Byzantine/Balkan) Jews and wrote Midrash Legah Tob – an important commentary of the Pentatuch;
    • His pupil, the philosopher and metaphysician Leo Mung, who was converted to Christianity and became Archishop of Ohrid. After that he studied for many years under Euphtemius of Turnovo and travelled extensively in a variety religious centres in north Africa and Europe. He wrote extensively and was interested in the importance of grammar and unification of the language – much in the style of Euphtemius of Turnovo1;

    Jews on the Balkans did not live in isolation, but socialized and co-existed with Christians and later on with Muslims. It was acceptable for Christian families to be linked by marriage to converted Jews and their children and grandchildren were born as Christians. There was little restriction as to where they lived in towns and cities. Sometimes they preferred to live in the part of town, where the other foreign residents lived – like in Frank Hisar in Turnovo. In other places they had their own colonies, or they were spread around the city – as in Thessalonica, etc. They were often working with Christians and were members of the same guilds1.

  2. Geography For The Lost Kapka Kassabova

    June 30, 2007 by Christopher Buxton

    (Chris writes)

    As for Dante’s lovers in the first circle of Hell, Kapka Kassabova’s poems convey the slippery state of never belonging. A reader looking for a starting point need look no further than her generous autobiographical note at the end of the collection. In it she describes vividly a journey through the lands of lost language to locations that can never be destinations. In this regard her sensibility is close to Philip Larkin’s – that there can only be one destination which is individual and final. However, snapshots on the way to this destination are colourful, posiotive and wide ranging – from South America to Vietnam; from Africa to Bulgaria; from the North Sea to Mission Bay. There are temporary consolations and excitements. Kapka Kassabova snaps the fragile moment with a ruthlessly clear lens; captures moments, precise feelings of people’s lives and disjointed relationships. Characters/ghosts inhabit locations, bear witness to the eggshell nature of life.

    In Steve’s last Summer “You” the often mentioned lover stands with the poet at the top of a house, sweatily triumphant at the successgful hauling of a roped double bed through the window. This is applauded by the whole street community, but particularly by the tramp that draws precise pictures of all the houses and is about to die.

    In the words of another poet: “The empty handed painter on your street is drawing crazy patterns on your sheets…”

    In her autobiographical note – Skipping over invisible borders, Kapka Kassabova describes her education as a poet – bound by a series of betrayals to become a displaced person writing in an alien language. In her poetry, she conveys the state of displacement in a precise crystal language that conveys both life’s terror and its albeit temporary joys.

    I recommend this book to everyone – it is a feast.

  3. Inspect me baby – slow blues in G

    June 26, 2007 by Christopher Buxton

    Inspect me baby – Inspect me all night long
    Inspect me baby – Inspect me all night long
    Welcome to my lecture I’ll show you right from wrong

    I’ve got every loving strategy for your every learning style
    My session plan is ready – why don’t you unzip my file
    When you inspect me baby…..

    When you see my session plan – you won’t believe your eyes
    Never mind the quality – just check out the size
    When you inspect me baby….

    For a hot steamy session I commend B202
    If we get the blinds by then – we’ll be safe from view
    When you inspect me baby….

    I don’t need no blutak to give you visual treats
    I do my mounting on jet black sheets
    When you inspect me baby…

    Tick the box for ICT – We’re wireless in this joint
    Play and display – I’ll be your human power-point
    When you inspect me baby…

    So come on inspector baby – Don’t you be shy
    I’ve got a whole body of work for you to internally verify
    When you inspect me baby..

  4. How migrant workers save the British economy.

    June 25, 2007 by Christopher Buxton

    Martin and Daniella work in an old people’s home. Their leave to remain in the UK is based on a contract to work a 42 hour week. If they break their contract, they must pay their employers a significant sum of money. This sum of money reduces over three years but for those years they have the status of bonded workers.

    Daniella is a qualified nurse in her own country. When I ask her what she does, she lowers her voice. It requires an effort to admit that she is now a cleaner. Her husband, Martin, is a doctor.but in the care home, he is a care assistant. Both have high principles.

    They are asked – required even – to work every day. On rest days they are called in to work. Martin can work from 7.00 in the morning to 9 at night. He has had only two free days in the last three months – once to meet his wife from the airport; once to move to new rented accommodation. These two days were taken despite shrill opposition from his employers.

    All these extra hours are still only paid at the basic rate.

    In order to have their experience recognised and be able to apply for more responsible jobs, they need qualifications in English. It is of no comfort to them that the government wants all migrants to learn English. They are willing to pay the new steep charges at the local college – if only that college was running sufficient courses and they had guaranteed time from their employer to be able to attend.

    So the strawberries are rotting in the fields. It comes as a shock that the migrant student workers from Bulgaria and Romania did not show up this year. Were they fed up with the way they were treated on many of these farms? Or were they prevented from coming by quotas unnecessarily applied by a government running scared of our right wing anti-migrant press?

  5. Martin Lubenov Barbican 16/06/2007

    June 17, 2007 by Christopher Buxton

    Chris writes:

    We went to see a Bulgarian Gypsy band at the Barbican last night. Martin Lubenov, a shambling bear of a man in a loose fitting black shirt, generous trousers and grey cloth cap, faces his band, who, sublime musicians all, look back at him with trusting smiles of expectation.

    For a long time I had never rated the accordion – finding it bland, imprecise, and too much a pale imitation of an organ. It looks too an ungainly instrument, a burden strapped to the chest – not an instrument to easily allow the expression of free spirit. Our son, Vlad, received accordion lessons from a teacher who took her inspiration from Germany. I once asked her if she could teach him some Cajun music as he was getting bored by the square rhythms and melodies he was being forced to play. She had never heard of Cajun music and so, sadly, my son rejected the irksome German strapping.

    In Bulgaria, I began listening to Ibro Lolov, the gypsy band leader and accordionist. I began to realise how the instrument could bring a smile to my face and a surge in my body to leap up and dance. With a visit to New Orleans and a listen to a Neil Young track, my view of accordions continued to change.

    I read in the programme notes that Lubenov’s father was a drummer in the Lolov band and the Lolov band had been the only approved Gypsy band during communism.

    Martin Lubenov directs his orchestra from his accordion. His instrument is as bulky as himself but from it come phrases of muted tenderness that I never thought an accordion capable of. In driving percussive mode, his instrument is anything but imprecise. His band members are all virtuosos but there is no sense of arrogance in their young faces as Lubenov’s accordion leads them to the heights of free improvisation – even the quiet guitarist seizes his chance to amaze.

    Lubenov’s music draws not just on Balkan Jazz with a saxophonist/clarinetist playing like Ivo Papazov. There are echoes of the Parisian alley and the Buenos Aires brothel in his accordion playing and the guitarist’s solo is reminiscent of Carlos Jobim.

    After a bravura opening instrumental, there is a pause as the trombone player leaves the stage and returns with a blind singer, Neno Iliev, who clutches an acoustic guitar to his chest. We scarcely hear the guitar but the blind man’s voice soars, ululates and warms the soul.

    The audience had mostly come to see “the King Prawn”, Diego EL Cigala a Spanish gypsy singer, chosen to provide the climax of the Barbican 1000 Year Journey celebration of gypsy music. I have to say that in spite of El Cigala’s sharp expressive voice and his brilliant backing musicians, I found much of his set repetitive. Ironically it climaxed with songs from Cuba, which heavily featured his Caribbean bass player.

    Leaving after the final rapturous encore, I noted the number of empty seats in what had been a full auditorium. Perhaps those early departing may have shared my view that the pace variation and inspiration of the Bulgarian band had surpassed El Cigala.