The Unexpected Journey of Tevye's Ottoman Daughter

Submitted by Jacob Beckert on
UW History PhD Sarah Zaides Rosen

Writing a work of history is a journey full of twists and turns in which the final destination is often a surprise. This was a lesson UW history PhD (2017) and current UW Stroum Center for Jewish Studies Associate Director Sarah Zaides Rosen learned first-hand when writing her book Tevye’s Ottoman Daughter: Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jews at the End of Empire. Sarah’s journey began in 2010 when she was admitted to the University’s history PhD program with the intention of writing a history of Soviet immigrants setting up Russian cultural centers in the Middle East. While the topic seemed promising, twists of fate soon made such work impossible. The Arab Spring, and in particular the Syrian revolution, meant her intended archives were now in the middle of a war zone. To further complicate matters, Sarah’s advisor left academia, leaving her looking for guidance and a new research topic.

After such a streak of bad luck, Sarah was due for a positive twist of fate, which materialized with the hire of Professor Devin Naar.  Naar specializes in Sephardic Jewish history, the history of Jews descended from the expulsion in Spain who later settled in North Africa and the Ottoman Empire, and was searching for students who might be interested in working with him. While Sarah had no background in the field of Sephardic Jewish history—in fact, she now admits that she really didn’t even know what Sephardic Jews were— her impressive language skills and need for a research topic piqued Naar’s interest. Working together, Sarah found rather curious mentions in old Ladino (a language which is a mixture of Hebrew and Spanish once spoken by many Sephardic Jews) newspapers about neighborhoods of Russian Jews living in cities within the Ottoman Empire. These scraps of information sent her on a journey to find out more about these exiles—a journey that culminated in the publication of her book.

The history Dr. Zaides Rosen documents in her book is a story with as many twists of fate as her own journey. Beginning with those snippets of information found in Ladino newspapers, Zaides Rosen uncovered a largely forgotten history of Russian Jewish immigration to Constantinople and other areas of the Ottoman Empire. Between 1880 and 1918, millions of Jews facing persecution and poverty fled the Russian Empire. Most headed for the United States, a smaller number to Palestine, which, at that time, was part of the Ottoman Empire. A smaller, and almost completely forgotten, group of Russian Jews moved to Constantinople, a waystation on their journey to Palestine or the United States. However, as Sarah’s research reveals, for a variety of reasons, some Russian Jews ended up staying in the Ottoman capital and ultimately forming a small Russian Jewish neighborhood within the city. Bringing their own culture with them, these Jews struggled to make ends meet in a foreign land and, at times, clashed with the local Jewish communities. With few options for employment, some immigrants turned to prostitution. This topic became a particular interest to Dr. Zaides Rosen who began to use documents that expressed concern over Jewish prostitution to recover the otherwise undocumented lives of young immigrant women. Zaides Rosen focused her dissertation, and now book, on the lives of these Russian Jewish immigrants and tells the stories of how they ended up in Constantinople, how they brought and adapted their culture to their new environment, and how they were aided by, and at times clashed with, the local Jewish community.

Despite discovering such a fascinating history, Zaides Rosen’s book was almost never to be. Like many scholars Sarah decided not to pursue a career as a professor, instead accepting a position as the associate director of the Stroum Center for Jewish Studies, a complex academic unit within the Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies. Trading in time spent conducting academic research for time spent learning and creating complex financial forecasts, leadership on delicate matters that balance academic freedom and institutional stability, fundraising for some of the most successful annual campaigns in the College of Arts and Sciences, and managing a faculty of 32 full and associate members, Zaides Rosen said she was satisfied with the idea that her dissertation would help another scholar. Then a final twist of fate shifted her approach: a publisher saw her dissertation online and made clear that he would love to help her turn it into a book. Writing a book with a full time job is no easy task. Working nights and weekends, Sarah began the process of revisiting her work and shaping it for a new, broader, and not exclusively academic audience. However, the labor of writing sometimes came as a relief, “anytime I got stuck with a problem I couldn’t solve in my work [as associate director], I would turn to my book and work for an hour, just to get something done” Zaides Rosen stated. 

The work was exhausting, but the final product was worth the effort. Sarah hopes that, in addition to other scholars, her book will appeal to those outside of academia, perhaps even descendants of the Russian Jews she writes about; and Zaides Rosen may not be done with this topic just yet. She is considering working on a piece of historical fiction based on the accounts of two women she found referenced in the archive. These women, after leaving prostitution, bought an abandoned synagogue and turned it into a halfway home for former prostitutes. Zaides Rosen hopes that through this genre the stories of those left out of the archive can be reimagined and offer perspectives unobtainable in a traditional history.