Some Good Fall Reading: Jewish Salonica, Vastardis’ Life Struggles

November 23, 2016

As November draws to a close, and the colder temperatures descend, it is a perfect time to curl up with a good book.

History and memoir can often be more compelling to read than fiction because the stories they tell are factual. Here are two books to add to your reading list.

Jewish Salonica: Between the Ottoman Empire and Modern Greece by Devin E. Naar is a fascinating, scholarly study on the Jews of Thessaloniki.

The book recounts the history of the vibrant community as it adjusted from the collapse of the Ottoman Empire to 1912 when Thessaloniki became part of the modern Greek state.

The cosmopolitan, multi-cultural city was for centuries home to the thriving Jewish community which was ultimately decimated by the Holocaust.

The recent revival of interest in the history and traditions of the Jewish community of Thessaloniki has led many Greek Jews to rediscover their roots in the city and has helped to uncover a great deal of information.

The author’s family hails from Thessaloniki and the “perplexing” photo of his bearded rabbi great-grandfather wearing an Ottoman fez led him on a journey of discovery, tracing his family’s history.

He wondered about how his great-grandfather had been born in Turkey and his grandfather in Greece without having moved. The Sephardic Jews had settled in Thessaloniki after the 1492 expulsion from Spain and Portugal.

They spoke Ladino, also called Judeo-Spanish, among themselves but often spoke many languages including Greek, Hebrew, French, and Turkish.

The book explores how the Jewish community adjusted to the transition from Ottoman rule to becoming citizens of the Greek nation-state and uses the voices and perspectives of Salonican Jews themselves to tell the story.

The author’s late grandfather Isidore B. Naar inspired his research and his work as a historian. Naar is the Isaac Alhadeff Professor in Sephardic Studies, Associate Professor of History, and faculty at the Stroum Center for Jewish Studies in the Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington.

Born and raised in New Jersey, Dr. Naar graduated summa cum laude from Washington University in St. Louis and received his PhD in History at Stanford University.

He has also served as a Fulbright fellow to Greece. Jewish Salonica: Between the Ottoman Empire and Modern Greece is his first book, published by Stanford University Press in 2016. Naar serves on the Academic Advisory Council of the Center for Jewish History in New York where he represents the American Sephardic Federation.

He was also elected to the Academic Council of the American Jewish Historical Society. Naar conducts research in Judeo-Spanish, Greek, Hebrew, and French. The book is available online through Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

The Struggle of my Life by Louis J. Vastardis (Pargianos) is a short memoir originally published in 2005 following the often harrowing life of Vastardis.

He admits he is not an educated man and the book is not a finished memoir but more of a recorded oral history preserving the voice of the author, but also the little grammatical errors everyone makes in their everyday speech.

The struggles begin early on as the family can barely make ends meet on the island of Andros and the young Vastardis must go to work.

Shipping out from the island offers some hope, then World War II breaks out, and he finds himself joining up. Vastardis eventually found his way to America where the struggles continued as they do for all immigrants. The lesson of the book is that hard work and determination are the keys to success.


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