BU’s Danon has personal connection to Sephardic studies

By: Rabbi Rachel Esserman

Dina Danon (Photo by Dora Polachek)

A family connection sparked Dina Danon’s interest in Sephardic studies: her paternal grandmother spoke Ladino, a Judeo-Spanish dialect. When she was young, the assistant professor in the Judaic Studies Department at Binghamton University “thought it was cool that my grandmother spoke a different language” and loved listening to Ladino folktales. However, it was only during her undergraduate work at the University of Pennsylvania that Danon really became excited about studying history.

Her specialty is history with a focus on Sephardic Jewry. When she was at Stanford University, her doctoral research centered on the Jewish community of Izmir, because of yet another family connection: her father’s family originally came from that area.

Danon enjoys researching the modern period because “it’s off the map.” While many people know about the Golden Age of Spain, fewer are familiar with the history of the Sephardic communities after that period. Danon noted that, while it was not perfect, the Ottoman Empire generally treated its Jews well. That’s because the empire controlled so many different communities it didn’t expect its citizens to conform to one religion: Minority groups were allowed to maintain different customs and religions.

Her dissertation, “The Transformation of the Jewish Community of Izmir, 1847-1918,” used previously unexplored Ladino archival material. Although Danon is a historian, not an anthropologist, she enjoys learning how the people in that period lived. “It’s exciting to see what it was like for someone who was living in poverty and to hear women’s voices,” she said. “You get to hear voices that don’t get into the books, that usually get lost in the cracks.”

Danon is impressed by the nature of the material in the archive. “The communal council met a couple of times a week and kept a record of what they did,” she said. The community was autonomous in that it was responsible for caring for its own poor. There are records from charitable organizations, which include information about the dowries given to those women who otherwise might not have been able to marry. There are also discussions about taxation because, at times, taxes had to be raised to support the community. “Raising taxes could be tricky,” she said. The community also supported schools for students of all ages.

However, reading those records can be a challenge. “They had their own Hebrew cursive, which is different from any other, so reading it is not easy,” she added. The cursive, known as Solitreo, is different from both Ashkenazic and Rashi script.

Danon is teaching several courses at BU this semester, including “Sephardi and Mizrahi Voices: History Through Personal Accounts.” Students in that class examine texts from a variety of time periods. She also teaches a course on “Medieval Jewish History.”

Among Danon’s publications are “Abraham Danon, la vie d’un maskil ottoman, 1857-1925,” which appeared in Itinéraires Sépharades, and several forthcoming works, including a translation of the 1847 Ladino “Shaavat Aniim” in The Sephardic Studies Reader and several entries in the “Encyclopedia of Jews in the Islamic World.”