Meet the keeper of Izmir’s Jewish heritage

Nesim Bencoya returned from Israel  to his home town of Izmir in Turkey in 2010, and now devotes himself to restoring the city’s collapsing synagogues. Paul Benjamin Osterlund reports in Tablet: 

But for Bencoya, the project goes far beyond restoration, and he has two distinct personal reasons for being involved in this demanding, grandiose project.

“I didn’t know it at the beginning but now I know better. I see this project not as an architectural project within the framework of rebuilding or preserving the old, collapsed buildings. First, I want to tell a story that I find very interesting which is linked to the story of İzmir and of Turkey, and of the Ottoman Empire. So it’s a universal thing and it excites me,” he says.

“The second thing, which is also very important for me, I have been a Jew who has lived in a community of Jewish people who hid their identity. They went to pray in the synagogues, they knew they are Jews, they kept traditions but they changed names, for example,” Bencoya goes on, mentioning that instead of Nesim, people would call him Nedim, a Turkish name

As in Istanbul, which was also a more cosmopolitan city before the establishment of the Turkish republic, minorities in İzmir left or were forced out due to a series of ethno-nationalist policies, like the “Citizen, speak Turkish!” initiative, which scapegoated Jews in particular as many chose to speak Ladino and French in public. In addition to economic reasons, this eventually left only a small remaining Jewish population in Turkey, between 15,000 and 20,000 today, most of whom live in Istanbul. (One reputable source estimates a peak Jewish population of 300,000 during the late Ottoman period.) Persistent antisemitism has resulted in many young people leaving for Israel, and in recent years, Islamist groups have protested outside of Istanbul synagogues, holding the Turkish Jewish community responsible for episodes of escalating violence between Israelis and Palestinians. According to Bencoya, many of the country’s Jews simply left for a better economic future, adding that the wealthiest members of the community have stayed.

Despite numbering no more than 1,000, İzmir’s Jewish community is Turkey’s second largest, a result of its historical role as a pivotal port city and trade center. Nevertheless, congregations are still active at three of the intact synagogues in Kemeraltı: Signora Geveret, Algazi, and Shalom, in addition to the Bet Israel Synagogue in the neighborhood of Karataş.

Sephardic Jewish culture and cuisine have left their mark on the city, and İzmir’s signature snack is boyoz (etymologically linked to the bollos of Latin America) a flaky, savory, fist-size pastry served in carts all over the city that goes well alongside slices of boiled egg doused in black pepper. The late singer Dario Moreno, who was born in a neighboring province and grew up in İzmir as an orphan, remains among the city’s most iconic artists.

The Portekiz Synagogue, built by Sephardic Jews from Portugal in the early 17th century, today functions as a museum. It has been fully restored, though the structure was almost entirely destroyed by a fire in 1976. Just across the main avenue lies the ancient Agora of Smyrna, built in the Roman period in the fourth century BCE and excavated in 1933 just 10 years after the establishment of the Turkish republic.

In the corner of the agora stands the restored home of the infamous Sabbatai Zevi, a rabbi who claimed to be the messiah and attracted the ire of both Jews and Ottoman Muslims alike. He nevertheless assembled a serious following, the center of which became the Portugal Synagogue. Associated with Jewish converts to Islam who historically maintained their faith in secret, the term “Sabbatai” is still found in the rhetoric of Islamist pundits in Turkey who employ it as an antisemitic trope when attacking their opponents.

The Forasteros Synagogue is one of those that has been newly emptied of tons of rubble due to roof collapse. I find a tiny scrap of paper printed in Ladino tucked in a divot of one of the old walls, which are designed intricately with mid-Ottoman era brick and stand proud amid the absence of any interior. I show it to Bencoya, who nestles it into a crevice in another wall next to a small piece of Hebrew text.

Immediately next door is the Signora Giveret Synagogue, built in the 16th century and still in good shape due thanks to its small but active congregation. The courtyard and garden are stunning, with looming palms, fruit trees, and large swathes of ivy. Nestled in the same area, the Etz Hayim Synagogue was on the verge of collapse, but was stabilized and restored in 2019 following a grant from the U.S. Ambassador’s Fund. Etz Hayim is thought to be the city’s oldest synagogue, dating back to the Byzantine era.

Synagogue Street, or Synagogue Market, as Bencoya called it, retains certain traditions dating back to İzmir’s cosmopolitan past. In those days, Jews would go out in their yarmulkes while market sellers would bellow out what goods they were hawking in Ladino, Greek, Armenian, and Turkish. Today only Turkish is heard, and the Jews of İzmir no longer live in Kemeraltı but mainly in the nearby district of Alsancak.

Shopkeepers and hoteliers in the area are in favor of its restoration, lamenting the shabby surroundings and the fact that most of the market is pitch black at night, which spooks tourists. “Muslim neighbors feel that something important will happen in the neighborhood. They usually are empathetic to the project,” Bencoya says.

Some involved with tourism in the area want to tidy up the street and liberate it from the smelly fish and organ meat vendors, but Bencoya believes it should remain as is. A stone’s throw away is a small shop owned by Rafael Palombo, the city’s last Jewish caviar salesman. It was closed during my visit, but Palombo’s number was written in a note on the window for interested customers. Amid the chaos and overwhelming scents of Synagogue Street, one might spend considerable time there without ever realizing that there are nine synagogues in the immediate area. But there they are, standing as they have for centuries, hidden in plain view.



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