Bulgarian Jews: Living History

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The book Bulgarian Jews: Living History by Clive Leviev-Sawyer and Imanuel Marcus was published in spring 2018 by Shalom Organization of the Jews in Bulgaria in cooperation with Globe Media Ltd, Sofia

What is important in this book, a chronicle subjected to rethinking and multifaceted presentation, are the historical and culturological aspects of the life of Jews in Bulgaria. A significant quality of the text is in that it provides a broad outline of key moments of the shaping and development of a Jewish community in Bulgaria. The authors comment on and analyse a number of examples of Bulgarian and world history directly relating to the Jewish people.

I became engrossed in the book not in my capacity as a researcher, but rather with a great deal of empathy and curiosity about the life of Jews in Bulgaria; curiosity about the facts of a history though long gone, but strongly influencing our contemporary life; curiosity about the postulates underlying and still building the life of a rather united and emotionally cohesive community.

The style is lucid and absorbing. The narrative is expressive being at the same time emotionally charged: the life history of Jews in Bulgaria. The feeling is that of getting familiarised with a living organism, which seems to breathe and continue to change and develop. Regardless of abounding in historical facts and historical events, the narrative fascinates the reader with its filigree. It is the detached point of view from the outside of the processes in the history of the Bulgarian Jews that is an intriguing aspect of the book. Not only events and phenomena are traced in the first person, but also their responses and perception across the world.

The book contains eleven chapters beginning with a commentary of the menorah, a fragment of the mosaics at the Synagogue in Plovdiv, dated to the third century and citing the decree issued in 379 by Roman Emperor Theodosius I to the governors of the Roman provinces of Thrace and Illyria ordering persecution of Jews and demolishment of synagogues. The account goes well into the present day, showing the Bulgarian Jewish community’s expectations of the future as seen by the thousands of Jewish kids and youths with their living energy, knowledge of history, preservation of traditions and world view.

The history of the community is represented with an dispassionate attitude toward the details in an attempt to render a precise interpretation of the facts and events, eschewing emotional touching upon or hyperbolising of various documentary moments. Fact-based grounds have been searched to clarify various historical moments key to the Jewish community in Bulgaria. Events are treated and analysed in their entirety and context, rather than in isolated or sporadic examples. It is, of course, impossible to suppose that such a voluminous context could be represented in its entirety in a book of 216 pages. That is why the selected key and significant moments of history are so important regardless of minor problems that will be hopefully solved in the edition in Bulgarian language.

The narrative goes further to comment on Jewish life as a ‘key indicator’[1] of the presence and influence of Judaism on Bulgaria’s life in the eleventh century; represent migration to what is now Bulgaria in the Byzantine period and many Jews from other parts of Europe finding refuge in the Bulgarian lands; accentuate the reign of Tsar Ivan Alexander and Theodora-Sarah and details of the migration and the life of Sephardic Jews in the Ottoman Empire; show the resistance put up by Bulgarians against the deportation of Bulgarian Jews to the death camps during the Holocaust all the way to the turning point of October/November 1989. The events occasioned by the centenary of Sofia Synagogue in 2009 along with the spiritual, social, educational and charitable lines in the present development of the Jewish community, are also considered.

It is impossible to broach all the significant historical moments under consideration in the book for it is unthinkable in a short annotation. What matters is that the authors have treated them observing the factual documentarism, attaining the goal to pique the interest of various readerships’ who’d afterwards look for new information. A number of historical and culturological examples have been found that are marking trends in the life of the Jews in Bulgaria. Reading the book, one subconsciously compares different historical events with one’s own life these days. Interesting are the accounts about the migration of Jews from various spots across the world to Bulgaria and about the findings evidencing particular people with their names, rather than the statistics on multitudes of nameless migrants and refugees, this being recorded in the period between the ninth and the fifteenth centuries. Now with the entire world being shaken by yet another migration of peoples and ethnic groups, when it is apparently easier to retrieve historical data, the time has come to ask ourselves as to whether culturologists conducting research on historical processes are doing this adequately.

In Bulgarian Jews: Living History the authors broach the stories of interesting persons who were born or lived in Bulgaria such as the talmudist and poet of the ninth century Tobia ben-Eliezer (who was born in what is now the Greek city of Kastoria, falling at the time within the Bulgarian lands); Leon Judah ben Moses Mosconi, writer of works on metaphysics and Hebrew grammar of the fourteenth century; Rabbi Yosef Caro, a key figure under the Ottomans, author of the books Beit Yosef and Shulchan Aruch; Plovdiv-based Jews who also joined the struggle against the Ottoman domination Eliezer Kalev and Moshon Garti. Interesting is the history of the Aries and the Bakish brothers; the stories of members of Bulgaria’s revolutionary movement Iosif Astrukov, Emil Shekerdjiiski, Israel Meier, etc., rabbis Yosef Caro, David Papino, Gabriel Mercado Almosnino, Marcus (Mordechai) Ehrenpreis, etc., or such significant art-world figures as poet Valeri Petrov, composer and pianist Milcho Leviev, writer/director Angel Wagenstein, virtuoso Pancho Vladigerov, writer Elias Canetti, painter Jules Pascin among many others. It is impossible to mention the names of all the key persons of Jewish extraction the book refers to, who have contributed, historically and culturally, to Bulgaria’s achievements. Still, I think that the book pays due attention and respect to a significant number of these exceptional figures. It is impossible to mention all of them, but after all that’s what catalogues and reference books exist for.

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The bibliography provides 35 titles in various languages. The rich visual and archival material is in itself a ‘living’ photographic treasure trove that has captured the life of Jews in Bulgaria (including a number of wonderful photographs by Solomon Frances, pictures in the individual chapters made by Nedelin Neshev, Imanuel Marcus, Alex Ringer, etc.

Bulgarian Jews: Living History ignited a lot of discussions and comments as early as its release, showing that nobody remained indifferent towards its content. In conclusion, let me quote the words of Ronald S. Lauder, President of World Jewish Congress: ‘It is against historical backdrop that this book should be read. It sheds an important light on Jewish community that has always distinguished itself as an integral and proud part of the Jewish people’.[2]

[1] Leviev – Sawyer, Clive and Marcus, Imanuel: Bulgarian Jews: Living History, Organization of the Jews in Bulgaria Shalom, Sofia Globe Media Ltd, 2018, p. 27.

[2] Leviev – Sawyer, Clive and Marcus, Imanuel: Bulgarian Jews: Living History, Organization of the Jews in Bulgaria Shalom, Sofia Globe Media Ltd, 2018, p. 15.

Bulgarian Jews: Living History

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