Earlier this week, Michael David Lukas shared a list of his top ten favorite Jews of all time and his connection to Nomi Stone. His blog posts are being featured this week on The Arty Semite courtesy of the Jewish Book Council and My Jewish Learning’s Author Blog series. For more information on the series, please visit:
Histories of Jews in the Ottoman Empire (like histories of Jews in the Iberian Peninsula, Ancient Rome, and the Arab World) tend to fall into one of two camps: those that emphasize coexistence and those that emphasize strife. This seems a rather simplistic binary, I know, but pick up any book about the Jews of the Ottoman Empire — say Bernard Lewis’s “The Jews of Islam” or Avigdor Levy’s “Jews, Turks, and Ottomans: A Shared History” — and you will be able to tell in a page or two which camp the book falls into.
In writing “The Oracle of Stamboul,” a novel about a young Jewish girl who becomes an advisor to the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, I tried my best to portray a sense of multiethnic coexistence without ignoring anti-Semitism, and the many other brands of ethnic strife rampant in the Ottoman Empire. Thinking about daily life in such a time caused me to think back on Walter Benjamin’s memoir “Berlin Childhood Around 1900” and Marcel Proust’s novel “Remembrance of Things Past.” Both these books look back on a period that we might now think of as a turning point for European Jews. Proust explicitly discusses the Dreyfus Affair while Benjamin is a bit more coy in his treatment of anti-Semitism in pre-World War I Germany. But in both books it is the business of daily life that predominates. Even at the very fulcrum of History, on the brink of the Great War and everything that followed, Benjamin’s and the Proustian’s narrators are caught up in their daily lives. One might argue that the power of both these books depends on a certain type of silence, an obscuring of events we all know will take place. That may be true. Still, I tend to think that most of us aren’t aware of the History we’re living through.
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