Looking to the future from Izmir’s glorious Jewish past

For those of us not fully cognizant of the richly sequined history of the Jewish community in Turkey, a look at some of the work currently underway on a bunch of venerable synagogues in Izmir could serve to enlighten.

There is historical evidence suggesting there were Jews living in what is now known as Turkey as far back as the fifth century BCE, although most people who know anything about the community there understandably reference the expulsion of Jews from Spain and Portugal in the late 15th century as a pivotal juncture in Jewish presence in Turkey.

Like any Jewish community across the globe, the Turkish contingent has known ups and downs, as its fortunes fluctuated according to the whim of this or that ruler. Yet by and large, the Jewish population of the Ottoman Empire, and contemporary Turkey, fared pretty well over the centuries – including in Izmir, where numerous local communities were established, each with its own house of prayer and nodal point of cultural and social life.

Some of the latter are the subjects of an ongoing restoration and conservation project that has been in full flow in the Mediterranean Turkish city for some years now, under the stewardship of locally born Nissim Ben Joya, acting under the auspices of the Mordechai Kiriaty Foundation.

Ben Joya certainly has had his hands full for the past decade or so, after terminating a five-year tenure as the artistic director of a cinematheque and returning to the place he was born, a full four decades after leaving for pastures anew at the age of 19.

Serendipity, or just being in the right place at the right time, played its part in leading Ben Joya back to where it all began for him, although this time in a professional capacity.

“After I announced my decision to leave the cinematheque, Judith Kiriaty [of the Mordechai Kiriaty Foundation] got in touch with me and said I was just the person she was looking for,” Ben Joya recalls. “I was born in Turkey and I knew the language and culture.” Ben Joya also has a personal backdrop to the project, as his parents were married in one of the synagogues – the Portuguese.

It seems Kiriaty had visited Izmir sometime earlier while on a business trip, and came across the vestiges of the local Jewish community’s glorious past. The city’s oldest district, Kemeralti, dates back to Roman times and is home to the densest concentration of Jewish landmarks in Turkey. At one time Izmir hosted no fewer than 34 synagogues that served, at its zenith in the 18th and 19th centuries, a local Jewish populace of some 50,000. The remains of only 13 synagogues can still be found there. The Kiriaty Foundation sponsored Izmir Project seeks to restore and conserve nine of them, which are in various stages of disrepair and repair, including some that had survived intact.

The ultimate goal of the makeover venture is to create a Jewish cultural center and museum under one expansive roof, incorporating nine synagogues after they have been restored to their former sumptuous glory. Foundation head Judith Kiriaty notes that the project core offers the opportunity to preserve a singular treasure of Judaica and Spanish-Judeo architecture, and to present it to people from Turkey and from all over the world, Jews and non-Jews alike.

“This place [in Izmir] is not just a group of synagogues, it is a synagogue quarter. It is something you can’t find anywhere else in the world.”

There is also something of a common prayer nuance and design theme to the buildings.

“The synagogues were primarily built by the descendants of Jews expelled from Spain and Portugal,” Kiriaty adds. “They are very special. Some are in ruins.”

Mind you, the foundation did not have to start from scratch across the board.

“Some of the synagogues are in a better state – the ones the local community managed to preserve.”

It is quite a cluster.

“Some of the synagogues are back-to-back,” Kiriaty explains.

The proliferation of prayer houses and the ability of Jews to maintain their time-honored practices and uphold their heritage in Izmir, says the foundation head, was largely down to the benevolence of the local authorities. That, she notes, set the Jewish population of the Ottoman Empire, and later of Turkey, apart from its European counterparts and enabled it to not only survive but also to flourish across the centuries.

“In the Ottoman Empire, Jews were free to practice their religion. They did have to pay a poll tax, but they were allowed to live a religious lifestyle unhindered.”

That included exercising their own disciplinary and judicial processes.

“The Jews were able to operate rabbinical courts and to impose penalties on wrongdoers from the community, instead of the state authorities. The Jewish community even had its own prison where people who were found guilty of certain misdemeanors were incarcerated. The Jews in Turkey had a lot more freedom than European Jews.” Kiriaty says the Turkish Jews were also spared much of the tribulations endured by their European co-religionists.

“They did not experience the Inquisition, they did not go through World War II and certainly not the Holocaust. The Jews of Turkey had a much better life, in general, and had much better relations with the state authorities than European Jews.” Left to their own devices, the members of the local community could get on with their lives, nurture their standard of living, and preserve their cultural and religious customs and practices. The concrete evidence of that uninterrupted continuum can be found today in Izmir, and makes for impressive viewing. One can discern the richness of past Jewish life there in the aesthetic vignettes glimpsed even among the rubble of the less well-preserved edifices.

“That allowed them to flourish in Izmir and left us with so many synagogues that have survived,” explains Kiriaty. “The Turks did not destroy them. There weren’t any pogroms and Jews were not persecuted.”

Add to that the architectural sensibilities that fed off the Golden Age of Spanish art and culture, and even some Italian and basilica form influences, and you have a powerful aesthetic mix that produced particularly alluring visual results. The Bikur Holim synagogue, for example, founded in 1724 by Shalom de Chaves, is a feast for the eyes. The interior design incorporates a vibrant mix of yellow and green shades, with fine wood and marble structures and fittings, and delightfully colored frescoes above the pillars of the bima (stage), and across the frieze-like ceiling partitions. The synagogue was devastated by fire twice in the 18th century and was dutifully restored by de Chaves’s descendants on each occasion.

The Shalom Synagogue, thought to have opened in the 17th century, is a somewhat more sober affair. Even so, the arched recesses running along the southern wall catch the eye, as do the unusual seating arrangements with cushioned benches set against the perimeter wall. The said house of prayer, like the vast majority of other synagogues in the now largely neglected Izmir quarter near the local market, served one of the numerous Sephardic factions.

The Shalom Synagogue also provided access to an Ashkenazi synagogue adjacent to it, which fell into disrepair in the early 20th century and was considered unsalvageable. There were, in fact, several groups of Ashkenazi Jews who immigrated to the Ottoman Empire from eastern and central Europe as early as the 15th century, but later, following the mass influx of Jews fleeing persecution in Spain and Portugal, many Ashkenazi Jews adopted Sephardic styles of prayer and customs.

As the foundation and Ben Joya get on with the conservation and restoration work in tandem with local authorities, the structural remains of a once large and prosperous Jewish presence gradually rise out of the rubble and give voice, as it were, to the lives of tens of thousands of Jews who lived and died there, and others who, at some stage or other, relocated around the world, including to pre-state Palestine and later to Israel. There are said to be some 100,000 Jews of Turkish descent currently living here, including ethnically leaning rock musician Beri Sacharoff, who was born in Izmir and made aliyah with his family at the age of three, and world-renowned percussionist Zohar Fresco, whose parents hail from Istanbul.

The interior of the Algazi Synagogue in Izmir appears to be a little more two-dimensional than the others. After a few moments you note there is no women’s gallery, wherein lies a tasty tidbit from community goings-on of yore. Local lore has it that, during a Yom Kippur prayer, the cantor winked at a woman sitting in the women’s section, after which the gallery was permanently closed to prevent a repeat of such “reprehensible” conduct.

The importance of the Izmir Project also stretches back further into the annals of world Jewry and, in fact, serves as a showcase for a lost world.

“Today you can hardly find any evidence of the beautiful synagogues of Spain and Portugal,” says Kiriaty, “but the architectural designs from there resonate in the synagogues in Izmir.”

There were, however, some strictures placed on synagogues planners in the Kemeralti district.

“They could not build structures that were higher than the mosques,” Kiriaty reveals. “So the synagogues are relatively small and intimate, but they are very special.”

Kiriaty Foundation international relations director Uri Bar-Ner feels the value of efforts to restore and preserve the Izmir synagogue quarter, and present the end product of the project to the public, cannot be overestimated.

“The Jewish world can basically be divided into three streams – Ashkenazi Jewry, eastern (Mizrachi) Sephardic Jewry – the Jews who lived in Arab countries – and there’s the heritage of Spanish Jewry, which is the least known of the three.” More’s the pity, and Bar-Ner is hopeful the ongoing work in Izmir will serve to draw attention to that cultural and artistic apogee.

“It is the harbinger of all the glorious Jewish achievements of the Middle Ages and thereafter.”

The foundation hopes the restored synagogue complex, when completed, will provide a springboard for wide-ranging cultural activities that will spread the word of Izmir’s rich Jewish history far and wide.

“Our vision is that, ultimately, Jews from all over the world will travel to Izmir to learn about and experience the heritage of Spanish Jewry,” Bar-Ner continues. “There are other Spanish synagogues – in Amsterdam, London and other places – but there is nowhere else like Izmir, with the concentration of Spanish synagogues, with their Judaica, music, food and Jewish ritual textiles, such as parochot.” The latter refers to the curtains that covered the Holy Arks in the Izmir synagogues, some of which are stored and are currently being repaired and preserved, along with hundreds of centuries-old Jewish books and synagogue artifacts.

The Kiriaty initiative is also supported by a slew of prestigious organizations from around the world, including the Rothschild Foundation Hanadiv Europe, Foundation for Jewish Heritage Europe, US Ambassadors Fund, Association of Jewish Museums in Europe, European Council (AEPJ), World Monument Watch and World Monument Fund, the German Foreign Ministry and the European Union. Local sponsors include the Turkish Ministry of Culture and Tourism, the local Izmir Metropolitan authority and Municipality of Konak, Izmir Cultural Association (IZKA), and TARKEM.

This powerful and impressive coalition reflects the importance the international community attaches to the restoration of synagogues in a truly unique spot on the global Jewish map. The same could be said for the interest expressed by iconic architect Daniel Libeskind in designing the Izmir Jewish heritage visitors’ center. That would be quite a feather in the Izmir Project’s collective cap. Libeskind’s portfolio features work on the One World Trade Center – the main building of the rebuilt World Trade Center in New York; the Berlin Jewish Museum; and the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco.

Bar-Ner feels there is even more added value to be gained from the Izmir Project, emanating from the predominantly harmonious relations enjoyed by all the communities, religious groups and social strata in Izmir.

“We believe that the museum, which is being developed, will convey a message that goes beyond the story of Spanish Jewry. There is a message to the world, to humanity, of acceptance, mutual respect and pluralism, and respect for people who are different from you – a positive message to the world from this place.”

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