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The Sun Sets on All Joy

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Serialized in the Hebrew newspaper “Ha-zvi” in 1910, this roman-feuilleton is part of a Hebrew translation of a German novel titled “Esther Chiera,” originally published in Maintz in 1878 by renowned German-Jewish author Marcus Lehmann. The plot centers on the life of Jews in the Ottoman Empire in the 16th century, especially their involvement in Palace intrigue and the constant danger of yet another expulsion. Bar-Nissim’s version is based on an earlier Ladino translation of this novel, which was presumably based on an earlier Hebrew translation, as Hebrew was often used as a mediating language for Ladino authors and translators. Mixing kernels of historical facts with sensationalist fictionalized accounts of love, intrigue, and betrayal, this installment illustrates how the histories of Sephardic Jews found dramatic echoes in 20th century Ottoman Palestine.

Title (English)

The Sun Sets on All Joy

Title (original)

ערבה כל שמחה

Title (transliterated)

Arva kol simha

Date Issued

April 20, 1910



Content type



Marina Mayorski


Marina Mayorski



Jewish history, translation, Ottoman Empire, antisemitism, Sephardim, fiction

Original Text


Marcus Lehmann, Moshe Bar-Nissim (trans.), “Beautiful Esther,” 1910. Translated by Marina Mayorski

The Sun Sets on All Joy

Dr. Ashkenazi wrote to his mother in Krakow and informed her of his impending marriage to the Kira family. He described in vivid colors the image of his beautiful fiancée, her angelic likeness and noble virtue. “If you could only see her, mother, this lively doe,” wrote the young man, intoxicated with love. “If you could only see this child of God, her gentle soul, her thoughtful eyes, her flowing hair, you would take her in your arms and she too would embrace you in hers, and then…”

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The young paramour had not finished describing the overflow of emotions that rushed though his soul when the door opened and a man carrying bundles entered.

“Eliezer! What are you doing here? How did you get here? When did you leave the capital? Why is your face filled with dread? What happened…? Speak…!”

The young doctor circled the man who was supposed to be looking after his household in Constantinople, questioning him.

“Please calm down, sir,” Eliezer replied. He saw that his sudden arrival had surprised his master. “I do not come bearing good news, that is true, but if we hurry, you can alleviate the suffering of you brothers, who are in peril.”

“But why do you speak in riddles?” – the young doctor lost his patience – “Explain yourself so that I will know. How severe is the danger?”

“I was sent to you by our chief rabbi and the leaders of our community, to ask that you hurry back immediately to help our imperiled brothers with the terrible new edict of the Sultan, who decreed that all Jews are to be banished from the land!”

“The new Sultan? And Sultan Murad, what became of him?”

“Sultan Murad is dead. His son, Muhammad the second, returned from exile and ascended the throne.”

“Is that it?” – called out the doctor, feeling the weight of dread lifted. “You see? I was right. Things are not as bleak as I imagined or as our rabbi believes. I just need to fawn over the Mother (walida), Sofia, and I will eradicate this ‘decree’ as we eradicate hametz for Pesach.”

“Please listen to me, dear sir, and hear me out” – Eliezer called our, sighing – “you say you will fawn over the Sultan’s mother and bring the affair to an end, but I doubt that you can succeed this time, because the ire of the Sultan against our brethren is so immense that Sofia’s efforts will be futile.”

“Is the charge against us so terrible? In my confusion, I did not ask you what the cause was.”

“I will tell you everything,” said Eliezer and sat down. “When Sultan Murad died, the Grand Vizier Sifan Pasha, who was sympathetic to the Jews and beloved by them, was dismissed. The man who took his place is the tyrannical Ferhad Pasha. His tyranny and capricious leadership aroused the wrath of the armies and they conspired against the government and the Sultan. The rebels chose a reckless and vain leader, someone named Abdallah whose father abandoned Judaism and converted, bringing his entire family down with him. This Abdallah believed himself to be the reincarnation of Mustafah, brother of Mohamad, and that he should inherit the kingdom. He fought, heroically and ferociously, against the Sultan’s troupes, doing wonders with his armies. Ferhad Pasha finally managed to defeat the enemy, and Abdallah was killed in one of the battles against the Sultan’s men. The Sultan knew that the man who fought against him and conspired to take his throne is of Jewish descent, and his ire burned forcefully with the wish of revenge. He exacted his vengeance on our miserable brothers, dictating that they should be expelled from the land.”

“It is truly awful!” exclaimed the doctor, his face radiating sorrow and despair. “Now I see how gloomy the situation is, yes, terrible! I have the responsibility to rush to the aid of my brothers immediately. Yes, I will do everything in my power, I will go to Sofia, the Sultan’s mother, beg her for help, and explain the predicament of our persecuted people. God Almighty does not abandon His people, He will help me and undo the harsh judgment.”

The young doctor said these things with the heat of devotion and unrelenting dedication. He hastily put on his coat and said to Eliezer: “Wait for me here, I will go see my fiancée Esther and tell her that I am leaving for the salvation of my people. She will not deny me this, I am certain, because hers is a precious, divine soul!”


Marcus Lehmann, Moshe Bar-Nissim (trans.), “Beautiful Esther,” 1910. Commentary by Marina Mayorski

This feuilleton is the sixth installment of the Hebrew novel Esther ha-yafa (Beautiful Esther), which was serialized in the Jerusalem newspaper Ha-zvi in 1910.

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It was published by Moshe Bar-Nissim (1882-1926), a Sephardi author and journalist from Jerusalem who worked with Eliezer Ben-Yehuda at Ha-zvi and collaborated with him in the compilation of his famous modern Hebrew dictionary.1 Bar-Nissim translated the text from Ladino, but this was also a translation, based on a novel by prolific German Jewish author Mayer Marcus Lehmann (1831-1890) titled Esther Chiera.2

The plot is set in the 16th-century Jewish community in the Ottoman Empire, during the first generations after the Expulsion from Spain and Portugal. The eponymous character, Esther Kira, is a Jewish woman engaged to Shelomo Ashkenazi, a Jewish doctor from Krakow serving Safiye Sultan, the influential mother of the new Sultan, Mehmed III. After their engagement, news arrives of imminent danger: the new Sultan has been convinced to expel the Jews from the Empire because a Jewish convert to Islam had attempted a coup. As Dr. Ashkenazi rushes to the Capital to seek the intervention of Safiye in favor of the Jews, the beautiful and demure Esther finds herself in the midst of a power struggle between palace functionaries.3 One of them kidnaps her and offers her as a gift to the Sultan. After many twists and turns that involve the young Sultan falling madly in love with her, Esther manages to convince him to cancel the edict of expulsion while maintaining her chastity. In this regard, the novel features a prevalent trope in Jewish literary traditions: the Jewish woman who is called upon to save her people by ingratiating herself with a non-Jewish monarch. This textual tradition includes the biblical book of Esther and highlights the role of women and their ability to navigate threats to Jewish political existence.

There are kernels of historical facts in Lehmann’s Esther Chiera. Mixing several individuals and periods in Ottoman history, the plot is loosely based on the life of Solomon Eskenazi (1520-1602), a German Jew who was trained as a doctor in Krakow. Eskenazi served the Polish king and arrived at the Ottoman Empire as physician and translator to the Venetian ambassador. He went on to serve four Ottoman sultans throughout his lifetimes. According to 19th-century historian Solomon Rozanes, Eskenazi was indeed responsible–alongside the Sultan’s mother, Nurbanu Sultan, and a Jewish businesswoman named Esther Handali–for halting action against Ottoman Jews by Murad III. However, its supposed cause was much more frivolous than that depicted in the novel: the Sultan was enraged by a rumor about a Jewish woman wearing an expensive diamond jewel.4 Moreover, the fictional doctor Ashkenazi is portrayed as observant and naive, unlike the historical Eskenazi, a shrewd and savvy political operative who successfully negotiated treaties involving the Ottoman Empire, England, France, Spain, Venice, and the Vatican.

The women characters in the novel also incorporate a mixture of fact and fiction. Safiye Sultan (c. 1550-1619) was a central figure in Ottoman politics during her lifetime, but she was the successor of Nurbanu Sultan (c.1525-1583) and not the one involved in stymying the plan to eradicate the Jews.5 Jewish and other non-Muslim women indeed played central roles in Ottoman high society, primarily as intermediaries for Muslim women. In fact, Lehmann’s choice of the name Esther Chiera for his heroine was probably rooted in the title “kira” (also spelled “kiera” or “chiera”), which is derived from the Greek word for “lady” and designated women who acted as intermediaries for the harem, where men were barred from entrance.6 Many kiras were Jewish, but there is no known historical foundation for a love story between a sultan and a Jewish woman, and the novel’s Esther is not a businesswoman or intermediary like most historical kiras.

If the German novel sought to sensationalize Ottoman history and capitalize on its Orientalist appeal, its Hebrew translation took it a step further: the plot of Bar-Nissim’s text begins in 1595, as did Lehmann’s novel, but it confuses the Sultans’ names, and thus Murad III and Mehmed III mistakenly appear as Murad II and Mehmed II. The error could have occurred somewhere along the translational trajectory of the novel, because Bar-Nissim used a Ladino translation that was probably based on an earlier Hebrew translation, but both of these presumed texts have been lost. Bar-Nissim’s text is therefore (at least) twice removed from the original. The error indicates that the Hebrew novel was not invested in educating readers about Ottoman history but rather in presenting them with a thrilling plot in which Jews take central stage. Somewhere along the translational route of Lehmann’s Esther Chiera, the text “lost” its origins and, by the 1920s, was presented to Hebrew readers by a Sephardi intellectual as a Ladino novel, that is, a story about Sephardi Jews in the Ottoman Empire, composed in their traditional vernacular.

There are several important elements of this text’s 20th century Hebrew iteration that are manifested in the episode translated here. It features an Ashkenazi man eager to marry a Sephardi woman who boasts about this fortuitous match to his mother in Poland. The story of successful intermingling of Ashkenazim and Sephardim, not only falling in love but also working together to save the Jewish people, would have been noteworthy in early 20th century Ottoman Jerusalem, with increasing calls for Jewish unity and collaboration across religious, ethnic, and political affiliations. The text also foregrounds the enduring instability facing Jews, even after their settlement in the Empire that opened its gates for them. The sense of imminent danger is underscored from the opening of the chapter: unlike the German original, Bar-Nissim’s version contains chapter titles, and the one translated here is titled “‘Arva kol simha” - the sun sets on all joy, an allusion to an apocalyptic prophecy in Isaiah 24.7 As Palestine found itself increasingly in the limelight of regional and international affairs, the question of Jewish immigration and the possibility of life under Ottoman rule found dramatic echoes in this story, written half a century earlier by a German-Jewish rabbi in Mainz who had likely composed it with a very different set of cultural and political issues in mind.

  1. In 1922, Moshe Bar-Nissim’s roman feuilleton was collected and published in book form. See Moshe Bar-Nissim, Esther ha-yafa: sipur she-kara be-Koshta ahare gerush Sefarad (Jerusalem: Defus Shelomoh Israel Sherezli, 1922). 
  2. Lehmann was a leading German rabbi and a successful author. In 1860, he founded the journal Der Israelit where he published many stories and novels, primarily historical novels, many of which were translated into Hebrew, Yiddish, and Ladino. His works were later collected in the 6-volume Vergangenheit und Gegenwart (Frankfurt, 1872-1888). Esther Chiera was published in installments in Der Izraelit in 1878 and as a book in 1902. 
  3. This part of the plot draws on historical events, specifically, struggles over the position of “grand vizier.” In the Ottoman Empire, as in other Islamic states, the grand vizier was effectively the head of government, tasked with consulting the Sultan and seeing to the execution of his will. In the novel, the deposed grand vizier, Sifan Pasha, plots to reclaim his post and depose Ferhad Pasha, who had replaced him. 
  4. Solomon Rozanes, Divre yeme Israel 3, 10-11, 348-474. 
  5. Nurbanu Sultan was the consort of Sultan Selim II and mother of Murad III. She was, most likely, of Venetian origin, although some Turkish historians claim she was of Jewish descent. Safiye Sultan was most likely of Albanian origin. She was the consort of Sultan Murad III and mother of Mehmed III. Both women exerted immense power in the Ottoman court in a period many historians refer to as the “Sultanate of Women.” 
  6. Historically, Safiye Sultan’s favorite kira was a Jewish woman named Esperanza Malchi, who was killed in 1600 by the imperial cavalry due to widespread discontent with her political influence and wealth (an episode that bears some resemblance to the ending of Lehmann’s novel). Ester Handali (1539-1592) was another influential kira who worked with Eskenazi to aid the Jewish community. She also met a violent end at the hands of army officers as a result of a dispute over a promotion that she was paid to abet. 
  7. Isaiah 24:11: “Even over wine, a cry goes up in the streets: The sun has set on all joy, The gladness of the earth is banished” (Revised JPS translation). 
Further Reading:
  • Leslie Pierce, The Imperial Harem: Women and Sovereignty in the Ottoman Empire (Princeton University Press, 1993).
  • Yaron Ben-Naeh, Jews in the Realm of the Sultans: Ottoman Jewish Society in the Seventeenth Century (Mohr Siebeck, 2008).