By David I. Klein
ISTANBUL — Once the jewel of the diaspora, 150 years ago the Jewish community of Izmir, on Turkey’s Aegean coast, numbered more than 30,000 people. It was the birthplace of notable figures, from Ladino singer Dario Moreno to famed Rabbi Haim Pallachi to infamous false messiah Shabbetai Tzvi.
Today, the city‘s Jewish community is reduced to barely 1,000 members. But residents and visitors to Izmir will soon be able to get a taste of what the city was like when it was home to the third-largest Jewish community in the Ottoman Empire.
Thanks to the Izmir Jewish Heritage Project, nine historic synagogues in Izmir’s old town, known as Kemeralti, have been restored and will soon be open to the public as museums, starting in June.
The area, which is not far from a promenade on the Gulf of Izmir, is one of the largest open markets in the world, attracting tourists from all over Europe and beyond.
“You can find anything you want there, you can taste any food, smell any perfume,” Nesim Bencoya, director of the heritage project, told JTA.
Today, its skyline is dominated by the minarets of its many mosques and the spiers of churches belonging to the Greek Orthodox community, whose members were once a defining feature of Izmir’s diversity.
When the project opens, Bencoya hopes the synagogues will join them as a major aspect of Kemeralti’s character.
“Even though there won’t be a single Jew in Izmir, people will be able to say, look, there was a Jewish civilization here,” he said.
Six of the nine synagogues stand next to each other, virtually wall to wall, surrounding a courtyard, while the other three are scattered around the neighborhood.
Besides the synagogues, the former office of the city’s chief rabbi is also being restored. A short walk from the neighborhood is Shabbetai Tzvi’s childhood home and a building that once housed a kosher winery.
Once completed, the synagogues will serve as a living museum of Izmir’s Jewish history, with exhibits on local customs as well as the history of individual synagogues and their worshipers – such as the Algazi Synagogue, named after the musical family of its rabbi, or the Portekiz Synagogue, founded in the 16th century by North African Jews of Portuguese origin.
Izmir is not the only city in Turkey to see its ancient synagogues restored.
In recent years, Edirne, a border town with Bulgaria, and Kilis, a town in eastern Turkey near Syria, have both seen their long-abandoned synagogues restored with government funding.
No Jews live in either city today, and some skeptics have pointed to the campaigns as a way for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a strongman with a history of controversial statements about Israel, to escape to accusations of anti-Semitism.
But others say it stems from a genuine appreciation for the country’s declining Jewish community.
Bencoya said his project, which is mainly funded by the European Union, was inspired by the restoration of other historic Jewish quarters, such as that of Prague, whose Jewish Quarter is now a major attraction for visitors to the city. from central Europe. Small towns in Spain are also looking to renovate (and in some cases dig up) old synagogues.
“We took the Jewish Museum in Prague as an example,” Bencoya said. “In 2017, they had 716,000 visitors. If this happens to us, we will be rich.
If successful, the project, he hopes, will help ease the expenses of the declining community so they can afford to maintain their heritage.
“It will help the community, they will have income to take care of these places and for whatever they need,” Bencoya said. “Izmir tourism will also benefit, hotels, restaurants, taxis, whatever cultural tourists can bring to the city.” Like Prague, there is a lot to maintain as the community is old.
An ancient community
Jews have lived in Izmir, formerly known in Greek as Smyrna, since ancient times. Since the city was also a center of early Christianity, Jews are mentioned in church documents dating back to the 2nd century AD.
The oldest of the restored synagogues, Etz Hayim, is attested in records dating back to the 1600s, but local tradition holds that it has existed since the era of the Byzantine Empire.
As elsewhere in Turkey, the city has seen several waves of Jewish life, from the Greek-speaking Romaniote Jews of the Byzantine era to the Sephardic community brought by the Ottomans after their expulsion from Spain in 1492.
The relative tolerance afforded by the Ottoman Empire allowed the community to thrive, and by the turn of the 20th century, Ladino-speaking Jews made up 10% of the city, the second largest non-Turkish group after the Greeks, who made up about half. the city.
“We are not newcomers here, we are very old citizens of this land,” Bencoya stressed.
Bencoya, who is 66, was born and raised in Izmir. Like many other Turkish Jews over the past century, at age 19 he emigrated to Israel, expecting to leave Turkey for good.
He lived in Israel for 39 years, before returning to the city of his youth in 2010.
“You know, when you start turning 40 or 45, you start thinking about where you come from,” he said.
In Israel, he had been director of the Haifa Cinematheque. After hearing from other Jews in Izmir that the community was interested in preserving Jewish sites in the city, he was hired to lead the project.
Bencoya has her own intentions to combat anti-Semitism, boldly displaying the religious and secular aspects of her culture.
He and everyone else involved in the project expect it to attract far more non-Jewish than Jewish visitors and to provide a space for cultural dialogue between Jews and non-Jews in a country where anti-Semitic rhetoric is rampant. often normalized.
“How am I going to fight anti-Semitism – not with arms of course, but by showing myself with pride,” Bencoya said.
“Here the Jews tend to hide and we have sayings ‘don’t get involved in politics’, ‘it’s better if people don’t notice us’. “I want people to notice us. I want to be taken into account, I want to participate in the decision-making process. That’s what this project is about. »
“People come and see, and it will bring money to the city, all of Izmir will benefit, Jews and non-Jews alike,” he added.
He hopes it will also help build pride in the Jewish community.
“The more successful she is, the more she will strengthen our community. And maybe people won’t just leave and go to Israel, but we’ll be here for another 100 years, at least another 100 years!