Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Annie Greene reviews The Jews of Ottoman Izmir

Dina Danon. The Jews of Ottoman Izmir: A Modern History. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2020. 241 pp.

Review by Annie Greene

In The Jews of Ottoman Izmir, Dina Danon explores the making of modernity through the quotidian class negotiations of Izmir’s Jewish community during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Danon’s access to the Ladino records––such as handwritten tax collections, censuses, and print newspapers, in addition to the better known Alliance Israélite Universelle archives and Ottoman archives––enables her to reflect on the polyphonic voices of this modern Ottoman community—its rich and its poor. These sources and her interpretation of them makes the monograph an important intervention, and it demonstrates how poverty awareness, embourgeoisement, and community restructuring were not only essential to making modernity but also essential to facilitating imperial citizenship.

Danon’s book visits the making of modernity among Izmir’s Jews by focusing on their struggles and the production of discourse about their struggles. In chapter 1, Danon investigates the changing understanding of poverty and its relations to public space. In chapter 2, she continues this investigation through a taxonomy of the poor and by identifying the new charity associations as a form of embourgeoisement. Chapter 3 furthers the discussion of the bourgeoisie but with a focus on leisure, demonstrating that the seemingly Western activities of Izmir’s middle- and upper-class Jews were authentic in their expression. In chapter 4, Danon illustrates how the struggles over the gabela tax on kosher meat signify Izmir’s Jewish community’s development of its own public sphere, mirroring the larger Ottoman public sphere. This public sphere, sustained through the discourse in the Ladino press about the community’s internal organizational structure, leadership, and authority is analyzed in chapter 5.

Sensory analysis runs throughout this monograph and highlights the applied class analysis and socioeconomic negotiations as sites of modernity. Making modernity in the everyday requires classifying new sights, sounds, smells, and encounters––such as, among other examples, the physical poverty of public begging, the noise from Purim holiday carnivals, and the importation of Western clothing. However, these encounters, negotiations, and discursive classifications were not unique to Jews. As Danon asserts, there was no “Jewish question” in Izmir (p. 6). Throughout her book she demonstrates that Jewish self-consciousness arose not from religious concerns but from class-based ones. Jewish poverty was incompatible with new and accepted Ottoman attitudes of progress, and therefore, Jews engaged in modern pursuits of charity and leisure too (see p. 26). One is left with the conclusion that Izmir’s Jews were diverse yet rather like their Ottoman Muslim and Christian neighbors. The Jews of Ottoman Izmir contributes to new perspectives on the class-based process of becoming modern in an empire and provides a model for writing modern imperial histories, ones that focus on voices from non-elites, from nondominant communities, from regions outside the center, and in materials composed in nonofficial state languages.