Long feature in eSefarad about Ottoman and Turkish Jews by Marie-Christine Bornes Varol. These Jews formed the bulk of the old Yishuv in Palestine but are virtually invisible today, she claims. (With thanks: Imre)
In 1988 Walter Weiker published a book with the enigmatic title The Unseen Israelis: The Jews from Turkey in Israel. These invisible Israelis, whose invisibility is the main asset in Israeli society according to the author, are the Jews of Turkey who massively emigrated to Israel after the recognition of the new state by Turkey in 1949. They joined the generations who had previously left the Ottoman Empire for Palestine, often clandestinely, since the end of the 19th century in the wake of religious Zionists; those of the 16th and 17th centuries who had previously come to Safed and Jerusalem from the Ottoman Empire for study or religious reasons, but also conversos from Spain and Portugal who returned to Judaism, as witness the Ottoman registers studied by Gilles Veinstein. These Judeo-Spaniards, expelled from Spain, Conversos who returned to Judaism, Kabbalist rabbis and their families largely formed the old yishuv.
In Turkey, where they still make up the bulk of the Jewish community in Istanbul and Izmir, their motto is “to live happily, live hidden”. It is mischievously spoken in French, one of the languages spoken by this multilingual community.
In the wake of the Abraham Accords with Sunni Arab states, Israeli president Isaac Herzog paid a landmark visit to Turkey after 15 years in which the two countries had rocky or frozen diplomatic relations. This report in Arab News is unusually frank about the Jewish community’s history in the country, including even a reference to their ‘less than equal’ dhimmi status.
ISTANBUL: Israel’s president on Thursday ended his landmark trip to Turkey with a visit to the Jewish community in Istanbul, a day after the two countries hailed a new era in relations.
Isaac Herzog held talks in Ankara on Wednesday with Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the first visit by an Israeli president since 2007.
He then took part in a prayer for Ukrainian refugees as well as “Turkey and President Erdogan” with members of the Jewish community in Istanbul at the Neve Shalom synagogue in the historic Galata district.
“The entire process is without illusions, but reflects strategic and bilateral interests,” Herzog told journalists about the visit and talks before entering the synagogue. He left Turkey shortly after.“We will not agree on everything… But we shall aspire to solve our disagreements with mutual respect and goodwill,” Herzog said during a press conference with Erdogan on Wednesday.The Neve Shalom synagogue, which is also home to a museum about Jewish heritage, holds a special place for local Jews.
It is a synagogue which “suffered in the past,” Herzog said, referring to terror attacks in 1986 which left 22 dead, and others in 1992 and 2003.
On November 15, 2003, 30 were killed and over 300 others were injured after vehicles filled with explosives targeted two synagogues in Istanbul.
The attacks were claimed by a Turkish cell of Al-Qaeda.
Under the Ottoman Empire, Istanbul, then Constantinople, welcomed many Jews expelled from Spain in 1492 who found refuge and established thriving communities until the 20th century.
In the 1930s, Jews were subject to discriminatory laws and pogroms.
These “500 years” of living together is often cited by Turkish officials, although the status of Turkish Jews has sometimes been less than equal.
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.
If you haven’t seen The Club, Netflix’s 10-episode Turkish TV series, you should. It casts light on a Ladino-speaking, 500-year-old community which today is a shadow of its former self. But the rot set in during WWII when minorities were taxed beyond reason, were prone to abuse by the Muslim majority and sent to forced labour camps. Yet this episode in Turkish history is barely known. The Times of London explains (with thanks: Lily):
When Forti Barokas was a girl, in the 1950s, she lived in a tight-knit Jewish community among the cobbled streets of Pera, Istanbul’s most cosmopolitan, and glamorous, neighbourhood.
Tailors whipped up the newest European fashions, and women with names like Rasel and Ester would not dream of stepping outside without a hat.
In the street, you were less likely to hear Turkish spoken than French, Greek, Armenian or Ladino — a language brought over by Jews who fled persecution in Spain in the late 15th century.
Yet within a generation this vibrant history was all but forgotten by many Turks and the city’s Jews had nearly all left or assimilated themselves to the point of invisibility. It took a hit television series to bring their world back to life.
Last week Netflix released four new episodes of The Club, a Turkish-language series set among the Jewish community of Pera in the 1950s that became an unlikely hit when it first reached screens late last year.
The series has prompted a reckoning with some Turkish viewers about the discrimination and, at times, persecution that Jews suffered in the mid-20th century. Many had no idea that there were still Turkish Jews in their midst.
At the beginning of the 1930s, there were more than 150,000 Sephardic Jews in Turkey. Today, only about 15,000 remain, worshipping at the remaining synagogues under tight security since two bombings in 2003 that killed about 30, and struggling to keep their community alive. In the roads off what was once the Grand Rue de Pera, now Istiklal Caddesi, Istanbul’s main shopping street, remnants of the dwindling cultures remain in the faded Hebrew, Greek and Armenian lettering engraved on old buildings.
Barokas, 73, was one of dozens of members of the Sephardic community in Istanbul who worked on The Club, consulting on dialogue and appearing in scenes depicting raucous Shabbat and Purim celebrations. In 2019 she taught Ladino and Hebrew to Gokce Bahadır, the Turkish star of the series. Yet, like many other Turkish Jews raised to keep quiet about their origins, she never taught her children to speak either language.
“We killed it, and now we’re trying to revive it,” Barokas said, adding that she regretted not teaching the languages to her children. “But there’s no going back.”
Kenan Cruz Cilli, a researcher working on the Turkish Jewish community, said: “There truly is this lack of understanding that there is a local Jewish culture.
“Unfortunately, the grand majority of Turkish people have no idea, especially the younger generations who didn’t grow up in cities where there were Jewish populations”.
As director of the Sephardic Centre of Istanbul, Karen Gerson Sarhon has struggled for years to keep the community’s culture and language alive. “Istanbul has a population of 20 million people, we’re a population of only about 10-15,000,” she said. “I mean it’s nothing. How many of them have ever seen a Jew?
“Sometimes when they do meet a Jew what they say is, ‘Oh, you don’t look at all like a Jew.’ What does a Jew look like? Horns and a tail?”
Since The Club first aired, she said, she and her colleagues have been receiving messages every day from Turks, some of them Muslims apologising for the actions of their fathers and grandfathers.
“All those communities, all those minorities, have diminished, become so small today. That richness, that wonderful multiculturalism has slowly faded away,” she said. “That’s what people are lamenting now when they’re seeing the series: that once Istanbul included all these cultures, all these people, and everybody knew everybody else’s culture.”
Archaeological excavations indicate that Jews have lived in what is now Turkey since at least the 4th century BC. Yet much of modern Turkey’s Jewish community was formed by a wave of immigration from the Iberian peninsula to the Ottoman Empire after 1492, when King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain ordered the expulsion of all Jews from their lands. Sultan Bayezid II welcomed and assisted the new arrivals and, over the centuries, they settled deep into the fabric of Ottoman life.
Yet in the 20th century, as the empire crumbled and the new Turkish state tried to establish its national identity, Jews were increasingly, sometimes violently, discriminated against. Pogroms in the Turkish region of Thrace in 1934 drove thousands of Jews from the area. A Turkish “wealth tax” instituted in 1942, as fear of a Nazi invasion was rising, disproportionately targeted minorities, wiping out family savings and business empires overnight. Thousands who were accused of not complying were taken to internment camps and forced into backbreaking labour.
In September 1955, a mob of Turkish Muslims rioted in Pera, targeting mainly the Greek community but also looting shops and houses belonging to Jews and Armenians. In the years after, many more Jews left for Israel.
Those who remained, said Barokas, learnt to keep their heads down and try to assimilate. A government-funded campaign called “Citizen, speak Turkish!” encouraged people of every ethnicity and religion to speak only the tongue of the new republic. Ladino, which had survived in Turkey for four centuries, began to slip away. Many began to refer to themselves as “Turks who believe in Judaism” rather than “Jews”.
In today’s Turkey Judaism is often conflated with Israel and Zionism — a fraught topic in a country where support for the Palestinian cause is almost universal, although Turkey maintains a strong diplomatic relationship with the Jewish state.
Netflix has disrupted the traditional model of Turkish television and film production, pouring money into series depicting subjects other than the traditional fare of Ottoman splendour and emotionally fraught soap operas. Yet it is still under pressure from government censors to conform to their interpretation of “Turkish values”. In 2020 the streaming service cancelled a series that had a gay character after coming under government pressure.
Critics have praised The Club for its depiction of rounded Jewish characters, in contrast to the antisemitic tropes that often appear in Turkish series, where Jews tend to be shown as hooknosed money lenders.
Yet for some members of Turkey’s minorities, a series like The Club is a risk, that could revive old hatreds after decades of tentative calm.
“I just worry that it’ll bring attention to them,” said a member of another minority group in Istanbul, who did not wish to be named, nor have her ethnicity identified. “We learnt to keep quiet and not draw attention to ourselves, because when we did, that’s when the majority noticed we existed and that’s when they felt threatened by us. This is a gamble.”
Barokas disagrees. “We need to go face to face with the past,” she said. “Both the good things, and the bad.”
The remains of an ancient synagogue dating back as far as the 7th century have been discovered in a resort town on Turkey’s Mediterranean coast. YNet news reports:
The synagogue was found recently in the town of Side, not far from the tourist hotspot of Antalya, in southern Turkey.
Among the remains was a plaque with a menorah motif and an inscription in Hebrew and Greek stating that it was donated by a father in honor of a son who passed away at a young age. The plaque ends with the Hebrew word “Shalom.”
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