5. Family Life

Birth and death were the poles around which family life revolved and as long as a woman was able, she gave birth almost every year or year and a half. Death due to pregnancy complications, miscarriage or hard labor was not rare, and these years were the most dangerous for women. Upon menopause, around the age of forty, she was considered an old woman [45] , which meant, among other things, that she lost her sexual attractiveness and was less menacing. Birthdays, even when a son reached the age of thirteen, were not accorded much importance, and often not even exactly known. The birth of sons and their circumcision, as well as marriages, were the events celebrated with much ceremony because of their social importance―they signified continuity of the family or a tie with another family, one that in addition to the social and economic advantages which could emerge from the relationship was also expected to produce progeny.

Death was always near at hand, part of the experience of daily life. Babies, children, and young people died of diseases or home accidents, itinerant merchants and travelers passed away or were murdered while traveling the roads or the seas, and elderly people died a natural death. Seasonal plagues caused deaths among young and old, especially in the summer months. Every few years there were serious outbreaks of epidemics that claimed many victims. At times, entire families were wiped out within days. The sources also make rare mention of homicides and suicides.

Most people died at home, surrounded by their family who took care of their needs. Those who were poor or lonely were attended by members of the BikkurHolim [=visiting the sick] Society, all volunteers, who primarily looked after needy ill people, but also tended others. When the end was drawing near, representatives of the HevrahKadisha [=holy society] were summoned. They kept a vigil near the bed of the dying person, recited with him the confession before death, and were sometimes witness to his last will and testament. After he passed away, they conducted the ritual purification of the body and dressed it in the shrouds the deceased had prepared during his lifetime. Poor people received shrouds from the burial society or from a special fund established for this purpose. In the neighborhood in which the deceased resided, it was customary to pour out water that had been standing uncovered at the time of death. The body was placed in a coffin and arrangements for the funeral were made as quickly as possible, as Jewish law requires an immediate burial.

As far as we know, only men participated in the funeral procession. Perhaps the women walked further behind or just watched the procession from the windows of their homes. Jewish funerals, unlike those of Muslims, were not known for being restrained, and were accompanied by professional women keeners (who were often hired by other religious communities). When the deceased’s family returned from the cemetery, they sat down to a special meal, by which mourners are comforted and sustained immediately after the burial. According to custom, the neighbors provided the simple and symbolic dishes: hard boiled eggs, lentils, cheese, and bread. Additional daily meals were provided during the seven days of mourning. The family visited the gravesite on the thirtieth day after the deceased’s passing, once again when a year had gone by, and then every year on the anniversary of his or her death. On these occasions, too, gender segregation was the order of the day and members of each sex filled separate roles, acting differently [46] . The relatives also set up a headstone, in accordance with their financial condition or the instructions of the deceased in his will. Women dedicated more time and resources to commemoration of the dead, and there is documentation attesting to their frequent visits to the graves of their dear ones.

The congregational leadership treated the deceased of the economic or rabbinic elites differently than it did ordinary members of the congregation. The funeral services for important persons were lengthy, especially those of rabbis, whose coffins were placed in the synagogue in which they served or in other synagogues, where eulogies were delivered accompanied by the chanting of cantors. Many participated in the funeral procession and burial ceremony, and a great number of people―relatives, laymen, and officeholders of the congregation―would come to console the mourners. The fact that outward features such as expensive shrouds, an impressive headstone, large meals, and the like were status symbols encouraged the families of the deceased to expend sums they could not always afford.

The lifestyle of Ottoman cities resulted in the man and wife conducting their lives in different circles. The husband would go out to earn his livelihood from morning until evening, and then spent his leisure time in the company of male friends in the neighborhood coffeehouse, in a tavern, or in semi-religious activity in one or more of the benevolent societies. Members of the wealthy families adopted the conventions and mores of the Ottoman elites regarding strict segregation of the sexes. Wealth also enabled physical segregation within the home: the women and small children slept together in a part of the house (harem) that was set off from the husband’s quarters.

The wife spent most of the day in the company of female relatives or neighbors in her home or the common courtyard, together with other women who were not necessarily Jewish. Her responsibilities included supervision of the household, the children’s education (only boys attended “school”), preparation of food, housecleaning, and laundry. Many hours were spent cooking - a process that began with bringing water from nearby water fountains, grinding cereals to flour and baking bread, and culminating in the preparation of complex dishes, jams, and all kinds of pastry for festive occasions. Relatively cheap labor and the availability of servants enabled upper-class women to employ female servants who did some or even all of the work, including preparation of kosher cooked food. Thus, wealthy women were free most of the day; European travelers describe them as spending most of their time paying visits or engaging in embroidery, playing and listening to music, smoking, drinking coffee, and consuming fruit and sweets [47] .

Women who had to work to support the family tried to engage in some craft at home, not outside it. Shopping was done by men or servants. Opportunities to leave the confines of the home were primarily for visits to the bathhouse. This they did in groups once or twice a week, spending many hours there. The visit to the hamam was accompanied by eating and drinking, music, dancing, and singing. On these occasions they flaunted new clothes and jewelry (a habit that was condemned and even banned from time to time), exchanged news and gossip, planned matches for their children, and had a chance to examine at first hand future brides for their sons. In certain cities women would go out together into the fields outside the city and hold picnics there. Another form of female recreation was to go to the cemetery to visit family graves, a custom apparently borrowed from popular Islam. Similarly to the neighbors, women rarely attended prayers in the synagogue, and this generally only during services of the High Holidays.

It is possible that due to difficulties of communication with a husband who was older than themselves, physically remote, and not necessarily loved, wives tended to nurture ties with other women―relatives or neighbors, sometimes even of a different social class. In such friendship they found comfort and support over and above what was provided by the family.

The recreational patterns of Jewish men and women were gendered and similar to those of their neighbors: men spent their few leisure hours in the coffeehouse, the tavern (a manly territory), or the bathhouse, while women paid lengthy visits to the homes of female relatives and friends and, as noted, in joint outings to the hamam, to visit graves in the cemeteries, or to green areas outside the city (again, a habit that was considered by the rabbis as a potential moral risk). Among the amusements of upper-class males were riding horses and indulging in certain types of competitive sport [48] . When they were free from other business, as well as on official state holidays, the Jews, together with the other subjects, could take in diverse street amusements such as puppet plays and lantern shows (karagöz) or performances of acrobats, dancing, and music. Rich dinners organised by those who could afford them provided a convenient opportunity to display one’s financial standing and dining together was a means of enhancing interpersonal relations and strengthening loyalty.

Since there is little information about how the Jewish holidays were celebrated, we have to rely to a great extent on descriptions dating from the late Ottoman period set down in writing during the twentieth century (for example, the descriptions provided by Moshe Attias, David Benvenisti, or in the works of Ya’akov Yehoshua (describing Jerusalem), and others). The family spent time together on Saturdays and holidays. The men first attended prayers, after which the entire family ate together and then went out to visit relatives [49] .

Relations between husband and wife, and between them and their children, have been the subject of very little research to date, so we have only sparse information about intimacy within the family. Under the influence of Muslim patriarchal society, more importance was placed upon blood ties, and the written sources point to close ties between the father and his extended family. It would seem that despite their apparent importance, marital relations were not the focus of family life and relationships; neither is it clear just how important they were for either the husband or the wife, nor what did love mean and what were its manifestations. Relations between husband and wife were dependent upon their personalities, on whether the wife was able to find favor with her husband’s relatives, her ability to bear him sons, and the test of their life together. Even if they were forced into a match that was not based on prior acquaintance and emotional attachment, at times there developed a partnership marked by liking, friendship, love, and passion [50] ; there are very few mentions in the Hebrew sources of love between husband and wife in its modern romantic form [51] .

There are almost no literary expressions of true love, but it is clear that romantic love did exist and was even sought. It appears as a motif in folk songs and proverbs, but there it gives rise to complications and ends tragically. It may be that this was meant to discourage any prospect of love becoming a factor in making matches or in marital life; in fact, some of the sources even rule out the legitimacy of love altogether.

We have more frequent information about tension and disagreement within the family. The responsa literature includes information about oral rebuke and physical violence between husbands and wives. Though there is little written evidence of a husband beating his wife, this was apparently quite common, especially among the lower classes (see the instructive opinion of R. Eliyahuha Cohen who took for granted that a husband beats and curses his wife when he thinks her behavior improper [52] ). Similarly cases were recorded in which a violent wife curses her husband and his parents and strikes him or has recourse to others to beat him [12] . Tension between a bride and her mother-in-law was so common that it was often dealt with in the corpus Ladino Ottoman folk songs and found its way into proverbs which consider this to be the obvious state of affairs [53] [54] . The fact that the young couple lived with the husband’s parents, at least during the first years of marriage, placed the young bride in a position of inferiority and provoked and even increased the natural tension between her and the mother-in-law, and at times also with her senior sisters-in-law.

6. The Status of Women

The male-centered class society in which women lived saw them as a separate social category with its own rights and obligations. And yet, one cannot refer to “the woman” in Ottoman Jewish society because there was no typical model of a woman. The status of married wealthy women was not similar to that of poor women or young girls, Muslim women differed from non-Muslim ones, and women living in the cities from those in the rural areas. Furthermore, the accepted norms in Syrian cities, for example, were not necessarily identical with those in Egypt, the Balkans, or Anatolia. The role and status of women is a topic that recent Ottoman historiography has completely revised, but did not affect the wider discourse on the subject. Studies published since the beginning of the 1990s have to a great extent shattered the Orientalist image of the submissive, passive woman who is isolated, reserved, ignorant, and lazy. This conception, created by Europeans who traveled to the Orient over hundreds of years, was perpetuated in their writings and drawings. Contemporary research has replaced the accepted image with a completely different evaluation of the status of the Ottoman woman within the family and of her involvement in urban life, as reflected primarily in the records of the şari’a courts. This goes hand in hand with the tendency to see social frameworks, including the family, as less rigid than they were thought to be in the past.

Segregation of the sexes and a patriarchal structure were the most significant aspects of urban society in the eastern Mediterranean basin. These shall now be briefly discussed in relation to the family, economic activity, and legal status.

6.1. In the Family

Throughout her lifetime, a woman was almost always under the aegis of men: at first of her father or brothers, then of her husband, and after his death of her son or sons. Men assumed responsibility for her behavior and for ensuring the fulfillment of her obligations vis-à-vis the authorities and the public -whether Jewish or not. However, the view that assumed absolute superiority of the husband in the patriarchal family and complete subordination of the wife is mistaken. It has been replaced today by recognition that there were parallel hierarchies, with each partner having a different set of rights and obligations. Moreover, under certain circumstances older (and wealthy) women could take priority in household and family affairs; for instance, in the interim between the father’s death and his son’s coming of age the wife, or even the husband’s mother, might replace him. Differences in the age and life expectancy of husband and wife made such a situation possible, even if it was not very frequent.

Furthermore, both Ottoman law and the halakhah placed limitations on the power and authority of the husband. Women were aware of this (some more, some less) and when necessary adopted a strategy that seemed suitable to them: they turned to members of the family, to the rabbinical court, or to the şari’a court to demand their due or complain about some injustice committed by the husband or his family. There were even cases in which Jewish women applied by themselves to the şari’a court, complaining against their husband, even requesting that the court order him to return home or conduct sexual relations with them.

Regarding the discussion about women’s status, power or weakness in this society we should add that there is yet another source: oral literature, or the genres which are passed on orally, not only songs and proverbs, but also the personal narratives. Such narratives of Sephardic women of traditional background similar to those related to in the essay, documented in the late twentieth century, convey no wish to rebel against the rules of the traditional world in which they grew up. These women made them flexible, thus proving that a wise and resourceful woman may benefit from tradition by implementing her independence within its boundaries [55] .

6.2. In Economic Life

Women played a role in the economic life of Ottoman cities. They bought, sold, rented, and leased out property, gave out loans with interest, provided credit, or guaranteed loans, bought and sold merchandise, and more. Lower-class women engaged in production of handicrafts, peddling, and provision of diverse services: music, dancing, cosmetic and medical treatments, or as servants. The occupations and economic activity of women changed in accordance with their socio- economic status, the economic needs of the family, their talents, and norms of the region in which they resided. Their right to private property was recognized in both Jewish and Islamic law. The most common way of accruing property was to inherit it or receive it as a gift, and a woman could keep it even after her marriage and manage it as she saw fit. Ownership of assets such as cash, jewelry, promissory notes, and property, or the ability to earn a living independently, provided the wife with some power en face her husband and a certain amount of independence in running her own affairs (one example is the case of a woman who had her own income and rejected her husband’s complaints about the way she spent her money [56] ).

6.3. The Status of Women According to the Law and Social Norms

Like dhimmis and slaves, women were a category unto themselves, their status in general society being inferior to that of Muslim men. A rigid corpus of law grounded in the şari’a shaped the lives of women―including Jewish women― but there were those who refused to submit and rebelled. A woman had ways and means by which she could get around her inferior status, even if she was unable to revoke it absolutely: turning for help to her family, using a proxy, applying to a court, or petitioning the sultan. Both the general public and Islamic law exhibited a certain flexibility vis-à-vis the system of strict segregation, and women exploited this. Having the right and ability to complain about injustice, cruelty, extortion, or discrimination and to demand their rights granted them some power. Divorcées and widows had more freedom of action than did young girls and married women. All in all, the wealthier and older the woman, the more independent she could be, though a high social standing obligated a woman to more strict observance of the rigid social norms demanding seclusion of women.

7. Gender Segregation

A concept that presumed a fundamental difference between the sexes was at the basis of social norms, the halakhah, and Ottoman legislation. For men in the Muslim East, a woman’s sexuality was the basic element in the nature of her identity, which was different from and inferior to that of men. Her sexuality was seen as being so seductive as to endanger the social order. The male, in contrast, was conceived as having a perpetual sexual lust for whom every contact with a suitable object of desire―a woman or a boy―bore sexual potentialities. Since the assumption was that a man’s sexual drive could not be suppressed, the way to avert the danger was to control the display of feminine sexuality, especially by keeping women out of the public domain. In the cities, a woman was restricted to the area of her home and if she had to leave it was obliged to cover her body with a cloak and don a veil that concealed her identity and facial features ( [2] , pp. 150-155; [22] [57] [58] ). An honorable woman would not go without a chaperon of some sort.

Seclusion of women and protecting their chastity were social norms reinforced by the state, by religious law, and by traditional social norms. In contrast to a man, whose sexual lust arose when he matured, a woman was considered as possessing sexuality and desires only from the moment she married and had been introduced to marital relations. Thus, restrictions relating to modesty and strict social supervision were the lot of the woman particularly after she married, which in any case generally happened when she reached puberty. As already noted, responsibility for the education of a young girl and safeguarding her chastity were placed upon her father, and after marriage became the responsibility of her husband. The head of the family was supposed to control the sexuality of the members of his household, thus ensuring his own exclusive rights as husband and protecting his manly honor ( [57] , p. 25) (For the husband’s duty to prevent his wife from setting foot outside the home, see, for example, the following injunction: “Keep an eye on your wife lest she go out to the tavern and, it goes without saying, for walks in orchards and in the company of women who befoul their mouths” ( [52] , p. 52d). Jews adopted this approach from the majority society. As with other Jewish values, in this case too an accepted norm of Muslim society reinforced an existing Jewish value, giving it new form: rabbis were quick to adopt this manner of contending with the danger to social order and morals posed by female sexuality. In ordinances, sermons, and lectures on moral behavior they praised the strict Muslim conventions relating to female modesty. Women were called upon to hide their presence by limiting to a minimum their movements in public areas and covering most of their body. These demands were inculcated through formal and informal education, and enforced by means of congregaional or communal regulations.

A constant accusation runs through the rabbinical literature: women flaunt their sexuality and purposely arouse lust in men. There were even those who were aware of Muslim public opinion in this matter and expressed their concern about its possible reaction to sexual permissiveness among the Jews that might range from anger, which could lead to physical danger, to mockery and derision of Judaism that entailed defamation of the name of God. It would seem that in comparison with other, especially Muslim, urban women, Jewish women did enjoy greater independence. It could be that the myth fostered by European travelers about the great degree of freedom of movement and the sexual promiscuity of Jewish and Christian women is a distortion resulting from what they saw in the great, bustling centers of the cities they visited. In small, provincial cities they probably encountered a different reality. Perhaps they purposefully exaggerated in order to emphasize the contrast between Islam and Christian- Western civilization.

8. Conclusion

This article is a longitudinal survey of the Ottoman Jewish family in the pre- modern era―from the sixteenth century until the 1830s reforms. While previous studies have examined some facets of the Jewish family in specific areas of the Ottoman Empire, this is the first to discuss the Empire as a whole.

We analyzed the characteristics of the basic social unit, the family, among a definite group―that of the Ottoman Jews. Jewish Ottoman world was not only governed by the same regime, and used one language in most of its provinces, but was also “united” under the halakhic dominance of the Sephardi scholars and the sixteenth century opus magnum “Shulhan Arukh” that dictated their lives. Up until the nineteenth century, the Ottoman-Jewish family was a traditional body shaped by two factors: the inner Jewish one, continuing the Iberian Jewish law and customs as well as some of the local Romaniot traditions, and that of the surrounding Muslim society, its şari’a law, customary law, norms, and values. Living in an urban environment and being open to influences, Jews were acculturated in Ottoman society. This took many forms, some of which were the nature of the patriarchal family, its values, and the mechanisms which dictated its life both in regular times and under crisis. Social standing and the economic situation were also an important factor, as social norms were much stricter in relation to the middle and upper classes.

The family had formal and informal functions, which included continuation of Jewish life and socialization. Procreation and bringing up male children who bore their ancestors’ names were highly considered values. The gendered society in which they lived destined different roles for men and women and demanded different requirements―even different values―from each. Men and women lived their lives in parallel, almost separated, spheres. We know very little about feelings―between husband and wife (or before the wedding, love for example), between parents and their children, between a first wife and the second―but the sources allow us a glimpse into this world. Women were subjected to various restrictions, most of which stemmed from their menacing sexuality. The patriarchal system dictated much―from patterns of dwelling to decision making and wills [59] . Notwithstanding the basic scheme of power relations, we now know that women had much more power and much more freedom than was formerly believed. In the future I intend to broaden this fascinating research, which in a way is also very revealing about Ottoman lives and the Ottoman mentality.

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[58] Zarinebaf-Shahr, F. (1998) Women and the Public Eye in Eighteenth Century Istanbul. In: Hambly, G.R.G., Ed., Women in the Medieval Islamic World: Power, Patronage and Piety, Macmillan, Basingstoke, 307-308.

[59] Ben-Naeh, Y. (2015) Jewish Wills from Salonica: A Source for Social and Cultural History. Hispania Judaica Bulletin, 11, 27-46.

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NOTES

1The bibliography is a very seminal and short bibliography, due to the system of citing and lack of space. There are much more primary sources and research literature. I intend to write a book on the subject.

Conflicts of Interest

The authors declare no conflicts of interest.

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