This Storm is What We Call Progress

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Earlier this week, Michael David Lukas shared a list of his top ten favorite Jews of all time and his connection to Nomi Stone. He has been blogging all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning’s Author Blog.

Histories of Jews in the Ottoman Empire (like histories of Jews in the Iberian Peninsula, Ancient Rome, and the Arab world) tend to fall into one of two camps: those that emphasize coexistence and those that emphasize strife. This seems a rather simplistic binary, I know, but pick up any book about the Jews of the Ottoman Empire—say Bernard Lewis’ The Jews of Islam or Avigdor Levy’s Jews, Turks, and Ottomans: A Shared History—and you will be able to tell in a page or two which camp the book falls into.

In writing The Oracle of Stamboul, a novel about a young Jewish girl who becomes an advisor to the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, I tried my best to portray a sense of multiethnic coexistence without ignoring anti-Semitism, and the many other brands of ethnic strife rampant in the Ottoman Empire. Thinking about daily life in such a time caused me to think back on Walter Benjamin’s memoir Berlin Childhood around 1900 and Marcel Proust’s novel Remembrance of Things Past. Both these books look back on a period that we might now think of as a turning point for European Jews. Proust explicitly discusses the Dreyfus Affair while Benjamin is a bit more coy in his treatment of anti-Semitism in pre-WWI Germany. But in both books it is the business of daily life that predominates. Even at the very fulcrum of history, on the brink of the Great War and everything that followed, Benjamin’s and Proust’s narrators are caught up in their daily lives. One might argue that the power of both these books depends on a certain type of silence, an obscuring of events we all know will take place. That may be true. Still, I tend to think that most of us aren’t aware of the history we’re living through.

Michael David Lukas has been a Fulbright scholar in Turkey, a late-shift proofreader in Tel Aviv, and a Rotary scholar in Tunisia. His first book, The Oracle of Stamboul, is now available.

Posted on February 18, 2011

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