Ottoman Jews Topic of Siegel Memorial Lecture

By Victoria Bean '14

The 2014 Rabbi Seymour Siegel Memorial Lecture at St. Lawrence University will be delivered by Julia Phillips Cohen, assistant professor of modern Jewish history at Vanderbilt University, beginning at 7:30 p.m. on Monday, April 21, in the Sykes Common Room. A dessert reception will follow.

The topic of Cohen’s talk is also the title of her recently published book Becoming Ottomans: Sephardi Jews and Imperial Citizenship in the Modern Era (Oxford University Press, 2014), which focuses on the imperial loyalties and local identities of Ottoman Jews. Cohen corrects the long-held belief that Jews were a protected group under the Ottoman Empire, arguing instead that Jewish leaders who promoted this vision were doing so in response to a series of reforms enacted by the 19th-century Ottoman state.

“The Ottoman-Jewish story has long been told as a romance between Jews and the empire,” Cohen said. “The prevailing view is that Ottoman Jews were protected and privileged by imperial policies and in return offered their unflagging devotion to the imperial government over many centuries. The process was not seamless, however. Ottoman Jews soon learned that their newfound patriotism could also entail uncomfortable choices and disturbing consequences.”

Cohen has received a number of grants to support her work, including a fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Stanford Humanities Center, the Foundation for Jewish Culture, the Memorial Foundation for Jewish Culture, the Institute for Turkish Studies, the American Research Institute in Turkey and the Herbert D. Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies of the University of Pennsylvania.

Cohen received a bachelor’s degree in Spanish and history from the University of California, Davis, and pursued her Ph.D. in modern Jewish history at Stanford University. As an assistant professor at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee, her teaching interests include a variety of topics in modern Jewish history, the comparative urban histories of Europe and the Middle East, Jewish-Muslim relations and the modern Ottoman Empire. She also has been published in the academic journals American Historical Review, International Journal of Middle East Studies, AJS Perspectives and Jewish Quarterly Review and had a chapter published in the French book Itinéraires Sépharade.

Siegel was a noted Conservative Jewish author and scholar. His family donated his papers to St. Lawrence University’s Owen D. Young Library and created an endowment for an annual lecture on campus in his memory.