An Enduring Resonance: Turkey’s Jewish Voices

By Dayla Rogers

The Ottoman Empire (1299-1923) was a mind-bogglingly diverse place. For nearly seven centuries all stripes of Muslim, Christian and Jewish people, falling into countless ethnic and linguistic groups, existed in relative harmony compared to Europe, where ghettos, pogroms and discrimination were commonplace. Sephardic Jews, defined as those of Spain and Portugal, were one of the greatest benefactors of Ottoman tolerance. Expelled from Spain in 1492 by royals who feared Sephardic influence, the community flourished within the Ottoman lands. The Greek city of Thessaloniki, for instance, had the largest Jewish population of any city in Europe. Yet the experience of groups like Sephardic Jews is not well-represented for English readers looking for books about Turkey, the modern state that inhabits the former Ottoman heartland.

The most natural reason for this would be that most of the non-Muslims had to leave, assimilate or assume a low profile after the establishment of the Republic. The idea of a nation-state imported from Western Europe required religious and ethnic sameness. Thus, Turkey’s religious minorities began to meet a fate similar to what Europe’s had been experiencing for centuries—purges, pogroms, exile and general insecurity.

This historical moment is where the selection presented here takes place—when the fate of the Sephardic Jews intersects with that of their Ashkenazi cousins. Like other non-Muslim minorities in Turkey, the Jewish community hangs on in small numbers and their literati do what’s in their power to preserve the voices from the past. 

This post presents three works that represent the Sephardic Experience: From Balat to Bat Yam: Memoirs of a Turkish Jew by Eli Shaul, Jewish Istanbul: A Collection of Memories by Roz Kohen and Osman Hasan and the Tombstone Photographs of the Dönmes by C.M. Kösemen.

'From Balat to Bat Yam: Memoirs of a Turkish Jew' by Eli Shaul
‘From Balat to Bat Yam: Memoirs of a Turkish Jew’ by Eli Shaul

‘’From Balat to Bat Yam: Memoirs of a Turkish Jew’’ by Eli Shaul

“Ni a fuego, ni a pleto” or “Don’t run to a fire, don’t run to a fight.” I heard this saying from my childhood…True, I believed this, but if fights happened in the street, I’d jump right in. I wanted to know the reason for the fight. What can I do, that’s how I was made.”

Eli Shaul came of age in Istanbul’s Balat neighborhood, where Jews lived in large numbers along with Greeks and Armenians. It was the 1920s, and the dust was just settling from World War I and the Turkish war of independence. The Turkish nationalizing project was in full swing; Greeks were being sent from Turkey to Greece, Turks sent from Greece to Turkey, and the entire population was encouraged to speak Turkish at all times rather than their native tongues.

Though Shaul’s book begins with childhood memories filled with charming anecdotes and fanciful neighborhood characters it all takes place under the anti-Semitic shadow of World War II looming just on the horizon. The quote above captures Shaul’s spirit—he doesn’t hesitate to make pointed criticism of the shortcomings of Ataturk’s successors for what he sees as their failure to include non-Muslims in the Republican project. He describes the discrimination faced by all non-Muslims and Jews in particular, despite their fierce loyalty to the Turkish state. The final quarter of the book consists of polemical articles published in Şalom, Turkey’s only Jewish newspaper. Most of these writings rail against anti-Semitism and admiration of Hitler creeping into the Turkish administration.

Publisher: Libra Yayınevi

Publication Date: 2012

243 pages

ISBN: 978-6054326532

'Jewish Istanbul: A Collection of Memoirs and Illustrations
‘Jewish Istanbul: A Collection of Memoirs and Illustrations by Roz Kohen

‘’Jewish Istanbul’’ by Roz Kohen

The tales our parents spun were definitely more enchanting than any soap opera.

Roz Kohen’s book presents snippets of everyday life from the days when the Jewish community lived in the tight quarters of the neighborhood of Galata, where nearly every house is equipped with an overhanging portico that allows residents to spy on all the goings-on in street below. This allowed for much neighborhood gossip, the popular past time in the days before television.

As a reader, you get to know the entire neighborhood: our narrator Roz, Tant Sarina, Djentil the Jewish butcher, the singing beggar of the Apollon Synagogue, Dr. “The Backside Stinger” Beraha, Namer the Fortuneteller and many more. From mingling with Muslims and Christians at the hammam to learning the story of Purim from grandma, to practical witchcraft for infertile couples—as Roz puts it in her introduction, the purpose of the book is to relate a by-gone era to a generation that no longer comes together with family to share culture as people did in the past.

Roz even manages to transmit language by writing each story in both English and Judeo-Spanish (also known as “Ladino”)! As mentioned above, the Jews of Turkey fled from Spain and continued to speak a medieval form of Spanish all the way through the 1960s. Even for novice Spanish speakers like me, it’s interesting reading through it to see the Turkish, Greek and French (“Musyu” instead of “Senior”) and holdovers from the era of Cervantes (“mueve” instead of “nueve”, “dinguno” instead of “ninguno”).

The childhood described by Roz Kohen takes pace twenty years after that of Shaul’s in the neighborhood of Galata, just across the Golden Horn from Balat. One gets the sense that the community is just barely hanging on, indecisive about whether to join the relatives that have moved to Israel, who tell about the neighborhood of Bat Yam in their letters. While the end of World War II and the establishment of Israel have given the community a sense of hope, they are saddened by the slow “disappearance of Jewish voices” in the neighborhood.

Publisher: Libra Kitap

Publication Date: 2012

369 pages

ISBN: 978-6054326587

'Osman Hasan and the Tombstone Photographs of the Dönmes' by C.M. Kosemen
‘Osman Hasan and the Tombstone Photographs of the Dönmes’ by C.M. Kosemen

‘’Osman Hasan and the Tombstone Photographs of the Dönmes’’ by C.M. Kösemen

The final stop on our tour is the cemetery. But not just any cemetery. Istanbul hosts a handful of graveyards where members of the “Sabbatean” or “Dönme” community are laid to rest. This mysterious and fascinating community complicates our understanding of religious identity, showing just what a complicated society the Ottoman Empire really was.

Who are the Dönme? Briefly, they were a Jewish cult that emerged around the figure of Sabbatai Sevi in the 17th century. Sevi had declared himself a prophet, which the sultan saw as a threat to his own power. The Sultan gave Sevi an ultimatum: convert to Islam or face death. Sevi elected to convert to Islam, as did a number of his followers. They continued throughout the centuries to outwardly behave as Muslims, but privately practiced a religion that was somewhat Jewish and somewhat not. You can find a more detailed history here.

Fast forward to the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Most Dönme lived in Thessaloniki, but because they were publicly Muslim, they were forced to move to Turkey, where they established schools, mosques and cemeteries.

Unlike other Muslims who didn’t have a custom of representing their loved ones with tombstone portraits, Dönme tombstones bear hand-paınted porcelain images along with other peculiar symbols, a butterfly being the most common. C.M. Kösemen photographed and compiled the images of these tombstones into a curated collection. He also did research on the artist Osman Hasan, who produced nearly all of them for a particular generation.

Publisher: Libra Yayınevi

Publication Date: 2014

527 pages

ISBN: 978-6054326976

Dayla Rogers is a teacher and translator living in Istanbul, Turkey. Honors she has received include a finalist ribbon for her translation of the short story “The Rifle” by Faruk Duman and a PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grant for the novel Wûf by Kemal Varol.  She has translated several full-length works that are available for publication.

6 thoughts on “An Enduring Resonance: Turkey’s Jewish Voices

  1. What fascinating titles! Thank you, Dayla, for sharing these books and your expertise with us. I will buy the first two for my Sephardic temple library; unfortunately the last one (Osman Hasan) is too expensive.

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