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 Gabay Collection 


The second acquisition the Sephardic Archive Initiative celebrates is the gift to UCLA Special Collections of the library of Moreno and Dagmar Gabay. The Gabay collection consists of roughly one hundred Hebrew and Ladino-language rare books printed in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries in the Jewish printing capitals of Ottoman Izmir (Smyrna), Salonica, and Istanbul (Constantinople), as well as in the Italian cultural centers of Venice and Livorno.


Moreno and Dagmar Gabay began building their collection in order to reconstruct the journey of the Gabay family from medieval Spain to Ottoman Manisa. In donating their precious books to the UCLA Sephardic Archive Initiative and UCLA Special Collections, the Gabays intended the materials to be carefully preserved and treasured by students and scholars. The works will be accessible at UCLA Special Collections as the Moreno and Dagmar Gabay Sephardic book collection.


The volumes in the Gabay collection reflect the rich intellectual legacy of the Ottoman Sephardic diaspora – a legacy made possible by a global network of rabbis, scholars, publishers, and merchants formed in the wake of the Iberian expulsions at the end of the 15th century.


The history of the Ottoman Empire and Sephardic publishing is closely intertwined.  The first book printed in the empire was a Hebrew book, which was produced by the brothers David and Samuel ibn Nahmias, Iberian Jewish exiles who resettled in Constantinople.  In their adopted city, the brothers established the first Ottoman printing press, on which the first Ottoman book was printed:  Jacob ben Asher’s Arbaah Turim (1493).


The books in the Moreno and Dagmar Gabay collection date to a later period of Ottoman and Sephardic publishing, the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries, by which time numerous printing presses were in operation.  These books constitute a cross-section of the rich post-expulsion literature penned by Jews in the centuries during their sojourn in the Ottoman Empire, and reflect some of the major concerns of the communities’ rabbinical elite as well as the lay population.


These religiously oriented works paint a picture of a dynamic Sephardic society. Among the works in the Gabay collection, for example, are volumes of the Me’am Lo’ez, a popular biblical commentary in Ladino [Judeo-Spanish] consisting of eighteen volumes produced by a dozen authors from 1730 to 1899. Works of musar, Jewish ethical literature, like Me’am Lo’ez aimed to reshape rabbinical reading and listening audiences. Similarly, writers’ use of the Sephardi vernacular Ladino reflected authors’ and publishers’ desire to expand the reach of Jewish thought to the masses, who were, by and large, unable or unwilling to devote themselves to studying Hebrew texts.


A sampling of some of the items in the Moreno and Dagmar Gabay Collection give us a good indication of Sephardic religion and thought between the 17th and 19th centuries. Among the earliest published works in the collection are Elijah ben Abraham Mizrahi’s Mayim ‘Amuqim and Joseph Mitrani’s She’elot u-Teshuvot, both published in Venice in the 1640s.  The books are collections of the authors’ responsa, or questions and answers on topics of religious law. Oftentimes these rabbinical authorities reached communities far and wide, and spoke to the interconnectedness of the Jewish Mediterranean. Some of Mitrani’s responsa, for example, were addressed to Ashkenazi Jews living in Istanbul as well as to communities in Safed and Egypt.


One of Mitrani’s students, soon to become a Chief Rabbi of Izmir, was Hayyim Benveniste, whose oeuvre is represented by eight titles in the Moreno and Dagmar Gabay collection. Izmir became a vibrant center of Sephardic life beginning in 17th century, and quickly staked its claim as an intellectual hub in the early modern Jewish world. Taking over Joseph Escapa (whose Rosh Yosef is in the collection), Benveniste, however, did not occupy the title of Chief Rabbi (hahambashi in local parlance) alone. Rather, he shared this title contentiously with Aaron Lapapa, another of Mitrani’s students – whose 1674 compilation of responsa, Bene Aharon, is also included in the Moreno and Dagmar Gabay collection.


In addition to his connections to Mitrani and Benveniste, Lapapa was married to the daughter of Solomon Nissim Algazi, an important rabbi and miracle-worker active in Izmir, Hebron, Jerusalem, and Alexandria, and the author of several works one can find in the Moreno and Dagmar Gabay collection. Algazi’s younger brother Isaac even studied with Benveniste in Izmir, a small fact that adds one more thread to the tightly interwoven world of early modern, southeastern European Sephardic intellectual life.


Benveniste, Lapapa, and Algazi found themselves enmeshed in the Sabbatean movement that roiled the Jewish world in the mid-17th century. The Sabbatean movement, named after the Izmir-born, false messiah Shabtai Zvi, grew out of the latter’s claim to be the redeemer of the Jewish people across the world and return them to sovereignty in the Holy Land. Most scholars claim that one of the primary roots of the Sabbatean movement lay in the influence of kabbalah, or Jewish mysticism. (Ladino translations of one of the key texts of the kabbalistic canon, the Zohar, are represented by several volumes in the collection.) The controversy split the Jewish world, and in Izmir, it caused Lapapa and Algazi to go into hiding, while Benveniste sided with Zvi and his believers. Eventually Zvi’s success and rebelliousness caught up with him, and when imprisoned by Ottoman officials and faced with death or conversion to Islam, he chose the latter. This turning point, which occurred in 1666, sent shock waves across the Jewish world, including the immediate Sephardic environs. Some, like Benveniste, repented and repudiated Zvi as a false messiah and was allowed to retain his post, while others were hounded by stringent rabbis seeking to oust Sabbatean beliefs. Some even joined Zvi in converting to Islam and formed the Donmeh sect.


The effects of Sabbateanism and mysticism outlasted the life of Zvi himself. Elijah ha-Kohen’s Shevet Musar, first published in Hebrew in 1712 and later in many Ladino editions, is said to reflect certain strains of Lurianic kabbalism (from the school of the famed Isaac Luria) and carry influence from the not-so-distant Sabbatean movement. The aforementioned Me’am Loez, too, is said to be a (albeit delayed) reaction to the lingering appeal of Sabbateanism, as well as to the widespread dismay the crisis prompted in some.

It was in the 18th century that we see a concerted effort to bring to Ottoman Jewish readers texts in languages other than Hebrew. Abraham Asa is perhaps one of the most prolific and prominent figures in this effort, for his efforts to translate the Tanakh (the Torah, Prophets, and Writings of the Hebrew scriptures) into Ladino between 1739 and 1745.  These translations consist of three volumes, which are included in the collection. Asa also translated other important works of Hebrew literature.


Another important books in the Moreno and Dagmar Gabay Collection are those by the family of Hayyim Pallachi and his sons Abraham, Isaac, and Joseph. The Pallachi family had a strong hold on the rabbinic and lay leadership of Izmir’s Jewish community for much of the 19th century. One of the many publishers of the Pallachis’ works was the publishing house of the a-Levi family, which operated in Ottoman Salonica for four generations.  The Moreno and Dagmar Gabay collection contains books published by several of the a-Levi publishing generations, allowing use to trace subtle evolutions in taste and design within a single Ottoman Jewish publishing house.


All told, the volumes in the Moreno and Dagmar Gabay collection provide a glimpse into the diverse and fascinating history of Ottoman Jews over centuries. Through these texts we witness the reconstruction and development of Sephardic religious and philosophical creativity after the expulsion from Spain and Portugal, the commercial and publishing networks formed throughout the Mediterranean and beyond, the effects and aftereffects of kabbalah and Sabbateanism, and the ongoing confrontations with various forms of modernity.  The books in this collection allow us to reconstruct the prominent role Ottoman Jewish printers and writers played within the Ottoman Empire—and well beyond—serving as intellectual taste makers for generations.

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