May 4, 2023

Introducing Moabet

By Devin Naar

Para moabet no se kere kandil.
(Moabet continues into the darkness.)1

Moabet (מואביט) is a Ladino (or Judeo-Spanish or Judezmo) term that means essentially “intimate conversation.” You might say, “Ayde, ven beveremos un kave, fumamos nargile, i azeremos moabet!” (“Come on, let’s have a coffee together, smoke nargileh, and engage in moabet!”) 

But moabet is not only a Ladino word: it draws its meaning from the broader Eastern Mediterranean cultural contexts in which Jews have been embedded for generations. The term stems from Ottoman Turkish ( محبت‎ – muhabbet), which in turn comes from Arabic (مَحَبَّة‎ – mahabba). Mahabba literally means love—love of the soul. A way we express that love, in other words, is through the deep connections we develop with others through conversation. As the Ladino refran, or proverb, informs us, moabet continues into the darkness, into the depths of the night: without a light guiding us, we may become lost in conversation; we may enter the world of nocturnal possibilities afforded by dreams and the imagination; we may explore provocative, heterodox, or antinomian ideas; and in the morning, we may emerge from our moabet with a range of emotions and perspectives that we do not yet fully grasp. 

This column is dedicated to moabet—to conversation—on themes and topics of pressing concern to those who stem from Ladino-speaking backgrounds and from various communities of Sepharadim; it is an attempt to create a space where our cultures’ perspectives and histories are voiced, and to come out of hiding like conversos in an Ashkenormative Jewish world. The preoccupations of the column, however, are for everyone, for Jews of all backgrounds, and for non-Jews as well: for the many peoples with whom Sepharadi Jews have long shared (and still share) cultural traditions, land, and languages. These conversations can help us reframe what it has meant and could mean to be “Jewish”—and to be “Arab,” “Turkish,” “Greek,” “Spanish,” “Mediterranean,” “Mizrahi,” “Oriental,” or “Levantine”—in the past, present, and future.

Yet the goal of the column is not to acquiesce to the superficialities of “inclusion” and “diversity,” but rather to draw on cultural, historical, political, biographical, philosophical, theological, rabbinic, artistic, linguistic, folkloristic, humoristic, satirical, gastronomic, affective, and other threads from Levantine Jewish societies to challenge—indeed overturn—the canon of Jewish culture. And to postulate, through translinguistic and intercultural conversation, alternative visions of both the Jewish past and the Jewish future. The breadth of possible approaches is characteristic of moabet: it is a conversation that meanders; it lingers; it may endure for dias enteras (days on end).

In a discussion of the power of moabet, on the eve of World War II in 1939, New York’s Ladino weekly La Vara emphasized how the path of moabet, organized primarily  around storytelling, leads to tales of the most important konsejero (storyteller) of them all: Djohá. Varyingly a simpleton and genius, trickster and advisor, Djohá tells us about human folly and foibles, aspirations and anxieties, insubordination and audacity. As contemporary writer Jane Mushabac observes, “Djoha is the self before the self was invented. He is the self with no self, no borders or boundaries.”2 He is the Jewish take on the universally recognized Ottoman wise fool, Nasreddin Hodja, whose folktales are told in thirty-five countries across the broader Middle East and has parallels in many other societies. His alleged grave in Akşehir, in Anatolia, is said to have a large, locked gate attached to no fence. This column draws inspiration from the often occluded but nonetheless rich tradition of storytelling connected to Djohá, who may serve as our honadji, our “guide,” through moabet.

“The term and concept of moabet cuts across languages, religions, and geographies in a manner emblematic of Ladino culture, which stands not only firmly within a Jewish frame but also readily—necessarily—moves beyond it.”

The term and concept of moabet cuts across languages, religions, and geographies in a manner emblematic of Ladino culture, which stands not only firmly within a Jewish frame but also readily—necessarily—moves beyond it, always in dialogue with surrounding environments. On the eve of World War I, in 1914, Joseph Nehama, a Jewish teacher and historian from the Aegean port city of Salonica (Thessaloniki), once the capital of the Ladino-speaking world, observed that Judeo-Spanish existed not as bastardized detritus of the diaspora, but rather as an organic Mediterranean Esperanto:3 a hybrid tongue whose multiple linguistic influences linked Jews to their Greek, Turkish, Albanian, Bulgarian, and Romani neighbors; to Arab, Armenian, Kurdish, and Ashkenazi Jewish interlocutors; to Italian, French, Spanish, English, and American visitors. Inspired by the multiple influences on the language, this column seeks to surface ways in which Levantine Jewish perspectives intersect and interact with those offered by other cultures, in Eastern Mediterranean, North American, and other contexts.

The 1865 inaugural issue of Salonica’s first Ladino journal, El Lunar (“The Moon”), defined the term cosmopolitanism as the status of those “who can live in any part of the world and who do not have a determinate homeland.” This column, however, brackets the question of cosmopolitanism—and its baggage—to instead engage with the philosophy of “multi-rootedness.” Edgar Morin,4 a philosopher, resistance fighter, communist, and Paris-born son of Salonican Jews, considered his family’s multiple affiliations across the generations—as Salonican, Sepharadi, Jewish, Turkish, Greek, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, and French—not as a symptom of irremediable alienation, but rather as a promise of “multi-rootedness” (poly-enracinement).5 Within this web of significance,6 he identified a transdisciplinary worldview that embraces relationality, complexity, and contradiction as the foundations of human knowledge. The concept of “multi-rootedness” also provides an alternative to imagining Jewish experience as a dialectic between a single homeland (Israel) and the diaspora (everywhere else); it restores to our map the multiple geographies of Jewish connectivity by destabilizing the presumed hierarchies of significance among them. 

Nearly a century ago, in 1929, a nativist and fascist architect of immigration restriction in the US demeaned those from the region stretching from the Balkans to Turkey and Syria as “trash of the Mediterranean, all that Levantine stock that churns around through there and does not know what his own ancestry is.”7 In the Jewish sphere, this denigrating attitude found a parallel with those like the famed Russian Jewish diaspora nationalist Simon Dubnow, who criticized the Jews of Salonica and Istanbul for embodying a “superficial cosmopolitanism of the Levantine type” that prevented them from becoming either Europeans or Turks. This alleged flaw, Dubnow claimed, impeded their ability to develop “a Jewish national consciousness,” and ensured that their culture would remain “congealed,” lacking the “liveliness” he attributed to Ashkenazi Jewry.8 

“The concept of ‘multi-rootedness’ also provides an alternative to imagining Jewish experience as a dialectic between a single homeland (Israel) and the diaspora (everywhere else); it restores to our map the multiple geographies of Jewish connectivity by destabilizing the presumed hierarchies of significance among them.”

To their detractors, Levantine Jews emerge as “borderline figures,” “mixed breeds,” “wavering forms,” and “composites of Easterner and Westerner” who are “peculiar,” “strange,” “queer,” even “dangerous.”9 Cairo-born writer Jacqueline Shohet Kahanoff—who moved first to New York, then Paris, and finally Tel Aviv—embraced what she referred to as “Levantinism” despite the corrupting, mongrelizing, and orientalizing associations that continued to mar the term in 1950s Israel. She viewed the antiparochial and multiple cultural inputs that shaped the world of coexistence of her youth as an antidote to the politics of nationalist exclusion and cultural subjugation, and as a positive social model.10 Today, while being aware of the pitfalls of nostalgia, the reclamation of the Levantine Jewish “option” (as Kahanoff put it) derives power, utility, and radical possibility from precisely the same misfit and liminal characteristics that once rendered us the targets of derision. 

Multi-rooted Levantine Jewish dispositions, which call into question dominant cultural, geographic, national, and racial categories, are our asset. Already in 1883, Levantine Jews from the Ottoman Empire, residing in the capital of the Habsburg Empire, gestured to those liberatory possibilities in their Judeo-Spanish journal, El Koreo de Viena: “In actual fact, we may say that we, los levantinos of Vienna, are a chosen people, kissed by fortune for all the good things at our disposal [and] for [the fact] that, while at times Turks and at other times German Austrians, we may become whomever we want.”11 The subversive potential of self-fashioning became ever more apparent to Mauricio Fresco, an Istanbul-born son of a prominent Ladino journalist who served as a diplomat for France and Mexico. Drawing on his own multi-rooted status as a Levantine Jew, in 1949 he drafted plans for a never-finished book: Forge Your Own Passport. In revealing the farce of modernity, he wanted to “prove the stupidity of passports, visas, nationalities, races, etc.”12

In Ladino, archival documents like the ones quoted above are sometimes called papelikos satanikos (“little devilish papers”): they reveal perspectives about the past that present-day gatekeepers may prefer not to acknowledge, for the counternarratives they unlock may threaten the status quo. Drawing on both the archive and contemporary perspectives, this column seeks to explore the creative power of the Levantine Jewish option, once viewed as a liability, by viewing it instead as a source of strength and flexibility. The framework of Levantine hybridity empowers us to build bridges to our occluded pasts, to imagined futures, and across cultures. As we engage the many possibilities of diaspora, we must reclaim our roots: they are not singular, but multiple, just as the perspectives we bring to our column, Moabet

Ayde, azeremos moabet!

Footnotes

  1. Or, literally: “Moabet does not want a candle.”
  2.  Jane Mushabac, “Going Out on a Limb: Joha,” Conversations (Autumn 2017), https://www.jewishideas.org/node/2374/pdf.
  3.  P. Risal [pen name for Joseph Nehama], La Ville Convoitée: Salonique (Paris, 1914), 166.
  4.  Born Edgar Nahoum.
  5.  Edgar Morin, Vidal and His Family: From Salonica to Paris: The Story of a Sephardic Family in the Twentieth Century, trans. Deborah Cowell (Portland: Sussex Academic Press, 2009); Dalia Kandiyoti, The Converso’s Return (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2020), 200.
  6.  “Man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun. I take culture to be those webs, and the analysis of it to be therefore not an experimental science in search of law but an interpretive one in search of meaning.” Anthropologist Clifford Geertz (invoking Max Weber), The Interpretation of Cultures (New York: Basic Books, 1973), 5. 
  7.  Sarah Gaultieri, Between Arab and White: Race and Ethnicity in the Early Syrian American Diaspora (Oakland: University of California Press, 2009), 110, 131.
  8.  Simon Dubnow, The History of the Jews, vol. 5 (South Brunswick, NJ: Thomas Yoseloff, 1973): 638–639.
  9.  Gil Hochberg, In Spite of Partition: Jews, Arabs, and the Limits of Separatist Imagination (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007), 47–48.
  10.  Deborah Starr and Sasson Somekh, eds., Mongrels or Marvels: The Levantine Writings of Jacqueline Shohet Kahanoff (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2011).
  11.  Quoted in Martin Stechauner, “Vienna: A Cultural Contact Zone between Sephardim and Ashkenazim,” in Sephardim and Ashkenazim: Jewish-Jewish Encounters in History and Literature, ed. Sina Rauschenbach (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2020), 206–207.
  12.  “‘Forge Your Own Passport’: The Unlikely Rise of an International Author and Diplomat,” trans. Julia Phillips Cohen, in Sephardi Lives: A Documentary History, 1700–1950, eds. Julia Phillips Cohen and Sarah Abrevaya Stein (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2014), 379–380. Also see Devi Mays, Forging Ties, Forging Passports: Migration and the Modern Sephardi Diaspora (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2020).

Dr. Devin E. Naar is the Isaac Alhadeff Professor in Sephardic Studies and Associate Professor of History at the Stroum Center for Jewish Studies in the Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington. A former Fulbright scholar with a PhD in History from Stanford University, Naar founded and chairs the UW’s internationally recognized Sephardic Studies Program. His first book, Jewish Salonica: Between the Ottoman Empire and Modern Greece, won a 2016 National Jewish Book Award and the 2017 prize for best book awarded by the Modern Greek Studies Association. His essays have also appeared in the Washington Post, Jewish Currents, Jewish Review of Books, Tablet Magazine, and Public Radio International. While he conducts research in six languages, Dr. Naar speaks his ancestral language, Ladino, with his two children.


The launch of Moabet was made possible in part by the generosity and vision of Anne Germanacos and Firehouse Fund and Rise Up.

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