Living Quietly in Turkey (part 2): Once a Bustling Jewish Center, Izmir Faces an Uncertain Future

The dire shortage of women of marriageable age is one reason the Jewish population of Izmir keeps shrinking. Young men often leave to seek wives in Istanbul or in other countries.

The community’s current population of 2,300 contrasts sharply with its heyday in the 17th century, when some 55,000 Jews lived in the city after the reigning sultan resettled Jews from Constantinople and the Balkans.

In those days, the Jews represented one-quarter o the total population in this port city on the Aegean Sea, once known as Smyrna. They formed numerous subcommunities, according to their ancestral towns of origin, with each erecting its own synagogue. Then, Izmir boasted no less than 55 synagogues.

During the same period, Izmir because a major center of kabalistic study. One native son, Shabbetai Zevi, spread his claim to be the Messiah from here throughout the Ottoman Empire. The ruins of his home can still be found near the entrance of the bazaar.

Around World War I, the Jewish community had some 40,000 members. However, small waves of emigration to the Americas in the 1920s and Palestine in the 1930s, followed by a massive exodus of predominantly poor Jews to Israel between 1948 and 1955, have drastically reduced the Jewish population.

The small remnant, however, is proving that it takes only a small critical mass of Jews to trigger a chain reaction of Jewish institutions and social life.

Some 110 students, representing 80 percent of the Jewish children between the ages 5 and 11, attend the Jewish elementary school, said to be the best in town.

At the school, which goes up to fifth grade, the youngsters have daily classes in Hebrew and English, and “a little bit of religion and tradition” besides, according to one teacher.

Eight synagogues in the city still exist, though only three are in regular use.

The Beit Israel Synagogue, which local patriots claim is the most beautiful in Turkey, was built in the Italian style in 1915. A large candelabrum is topped by both a Magen David and the Turkish crescent and star, a common sight in Jewish institutions used to express the community’s gratitude for centuries of peaceful existence in the Ottoman Empire and modern Turkey.

All the community’s Bar Mitzvahs are celebrated at Beit Israel, though a short- lived experiment to introduce Bat Mitzvahs did not pan out.

Daily afternoon Minchah services are held at the airy Senora Synagogue, whose walls feature framed prayers, in the tradition of Ottoman mosques.

The synagogue is named in honor of Dona Gracia Nassi, a remarkable Marrano woman of the 16th century who tried to persuade the reigning sultan to turn Cyprus into a homeland for the Jews. She eventually became a kabalist and settled in Tiberias.

The colorful Shalom Synagogue is currently undergoing repairs. The newest synagogue is Shir HaShamayim, the only one in the new section of Izmir, to which most Jews have moved over the years.

All the synagogues are Sephardi and, at least nominally, Orthodox, though few Izmir Jews are punctilious in their observance. The attitude is shared by the Islamic population — Izmir bears the appellation of “the city without faith” – - and Islamic fundamentalism has relatively few adherents here.

Nevertheless, in keeping with the extreme caution and low profile typical of Turkish Jews, there are no outside markings to identify any of the synagogue. A visitor has to know the exact street addresses to find them.

Currently, Silvia Franko, the only woman among the 11 members of the Jewish Community Council here, has embarked on a project to restore the Street of the Synagogues in the old Havra Sokah quarter to its 17th century glory.

Although the small but relatively affluent Izmir community supports a range of charitable institutions, Franko believes that outside help will be needed for the restoration project.

There have been Jews in the Izmir region possibly from the time of the Persian Empire in the 5th century B.C.E. Proof of their presence, size and wealth is found in the excavation of the giant synagogue at Sardis, an hour’s drive east of Izmir.

Built in the 2nd century C.E., when the region was part of the Roman Empire, this behemoth of a shul covered the length of a football field.

With such a historic past, is there a future for the Jews of Izmir? Given a balance of 100 deaths and only 50 births during the past two years, the demographics are not very promising.

Much will depend on the long-range economic situation, now quite depressed, especially among the younger people. Intermarriage runs at a low 5 percent, compared to 20 percent in the 10 times larger Istanbul community, but is likely to rise.

In addition, Israel, where almost every Izmir Jew has relatives, keeps beckoning.

The community’s president, Moris Bencuya, sighed when he considered future prospects.

“It is difficult to maintain our institutions with only 2,000 Jews,” he said. “After many hundreds of years, the time may come when the Jewish community of Izmir is no more.”

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