Istanbul’s Jewish museum traces community’s contribution to Turkey

The Quincentennial Foundation Museum of Turkish Jews was founded in 2001 on the premises of Zulfaris Synagogue in Karaköy essentially to put Turkish Jews on the global map and preserve their legacy.

In January 2016, the museum moved to a building adjacent to the Neve Shalom Synagogue in the Galata neighborhood. Admission to the museum includes entrance to the synagogue, which is the only one in Turkey that is open to the public year-round.

With two floors of exhibits, the museum traces Turkish-Jewish history through time beginning with life in Anatolia 2,600 years ago and touching on important points in history such as Turkish-Jewish contributions during the Turkish War of Independence in the aftermath of World War I.

The museum’s permanent exhibition offers interactive activities such as touchscreen maps. One map allows you to search for Jewish settlements in different parts of Turkey. The other map shows waves of Jewish immigration to Anatolia over time. Among the videos available at the museum is a selection showing Turkish Jews demonstrating how to make dishes from Jewish family recipes. You also can take home a recipe you’d like to try from tear-off pads mounted on the wall.

Much of Turkish-Jewish cuisine is an amalgamation of the two cultures. For instance, Turkish Jews have a stuffed pastry called a börekitas, which combines the word “börek” used for the Turkish version of the pastry and the diminutive suffix “ita,” coming from Spanish. The pastry is usually stuffed with potato or eggplant. Pırasa köftesi, a meatball containing leeks and potato, is another Turkish-Jewish signature dish.

One of the most eye-catching items in the museum is a 19th-century hanukkiah shaped like an Islamic minaret with a Turkish crescent and star at the top, epitomizing the Turkish-Jewish synergy that developed from living together for so long.

The Turkish-Jewish population reached as high as 250,000-300,000 at its acme during the Ottoman Empire. Over the last century, their numbers have dwindled due to outbound migration and, more recently, low birth rates. Only about 15,000 Turkish Jews remain in the country.

The first Jewish newspaper in Turkey, Sha’arey Mizra, went to press in 1845 in Izmir, followed by Or Israel in Istanbul in 1853. The weekyly Şalom, which is still published today started in 1947.

Until the 1950s, Jewish newspapers were published in Judeo-Spanish, but with younger generations losing the language, the articles started to appear in Turkish. Interestingly, there is an effort underway to revive the language, including free online classes available through the Sephardic Center of Istanbul.

In addition to the permanent exhibition, the museum also presents temporary exhibitions. The current temporary exhibition, “Jewish Life in Turkey,” features the work of photographer Izzet Keribar.

The foundation also holds special events each month. Upcoming events are listed on the museum’s website. The foundation, led by President Silvyo Ovadya, funds the museum through donations and grants and, like other museums, has been struggling with the reduction in visitors during the pandemic.


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