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Around the Jewish World Past Glory, Present Disrepair: Jewish Sites in Turkey Fading

December 23, 2002
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The small city of Edirne, situated in northwestern Turkey, once was the center of Jewish life in the region.

But that is a thing of the past.

Located near the borders of Greece and Bulgaria, the city exudes the distinct air of faded glory.

Once a bustling and cosmopolitan provincial capital, the city today is a sleepy pit stop on the highway that connects Istanbul to the rest of Europe.

A walk around the city’s old town, once the hub of Edirne’s Jewish life, finds a neighborhood of dilapidated and crumbling two-story wooden houses.

Edirne’s Great Synagogue, an architectural gem built in 1907, is now almost in complete ruins. Its roof is caved in and only a few bits of its brilliantly colored, frescoed ceiling are left intact.

In 1914, the city was home to almost 30,000 Jews. Now, only three remain.

Speaking in the office of the Goodyear tire dealership he owns, Joseph Romano, a 65-year-old who is one of those remaining Jews, recalls a time when the streets of Edirne’s old town were lined with Jewish homes and businesses.

On Saturday afternoons in the spring and summer, he says, a nearby park would be filled with Jewish families having Shabbat picnic lunches.

“I long for that life. I miss those times,” says Romano, who today spends his weekends with his daughters in Istanbul.

The Edirne Jewish community is not the only one in Turkey to have vanished.

In the beginning of the 20th century, Turkey’s Jewish population numbered more than 100,000, with sizable Jewish communities ranging from the country’s Anatolian heartland to its Aegean coast and its border with Syria.

Today, Turkey’s 25,000 Jews live almost exclusively in Istanbul.

Driven away by political and economic turbulence and lured by the possibility of living in Israel, Turkish Jews left the country in great waves starting in the late 1940s. They left behind Jewish communities that — with the exception of Istanbul, and to a lesser extent Izmir, which has a Jewish population of around 2,000 — are either struggling to survive or have ceased to exist altogether.

“You had all these communities all over the place, and in a matter of a few years they almost all disappeared,” says Rifat Bali, a Jewish historian in Istanbul.

“From the Turkish point of view, this has reinforced the idea that Jews only live in Istanbul, that they were not Anatolian, not real Turks, only traders. Which is not true.”

The communities outside of Istanbul that remain are very small.

In Ankara, Turkey’s capital, the Jewish community numbers 100.

In Antakya, near the Syrian border, only 50 Jews remain from a community that can trace its roots back to biblical times.

In Bursa, a textile center south of Istanbul, 70 Jews are left, carefully tending to two exquisite 500-year-old synagogues.

The long-term survival of these communities is doubtful, since most young Jews leave for Istanbul.

“If you want to have a Jewish life, you have to go to Istanbul,” says Victor Kuzo, 24, who grew up in Bursa’s old Jewish quarter but now lives in Istanbul.

“If you want to marry a Jewish woman, you have to go to Istanbul.” Kuzo grew up with 10 other Jewish kids in Bursa, all of whom have left the city.

“They went for education, for family, but nobody stayed,” says Kuzo, who runs a small business and also works as a volunteer editor at Shalom, the Turkish Jewish community’s weekly newspaper. For the Jews left behind in the small communities, life mostly revolves around the synagogue, with religious services provided by the Turkish Chief Rabbinate, based in Istanbul.

“In essence, unfortunately, this community is able to provide services only in terms of religious needs,” says Lina Filiba, executive vice president of the Turkish Jewish community.

“We haven’t had the right structure to train people who will act as social workers” to help the needy in these places. “I hope we will be able to.”

With their populations dwindling or already gone, some of these outlying communities are today engaged in the difficult task of maintaining the legacy of Jewish life in their area, making sure synagogues and other communal properties are used regularly and looked after.

Some of this work comes in reaction to Turkish law, which states that any property belonging to minority communities that is unused for 10 years becomes state property.

This law has led to the loss of countless Jewish communal properties throughout the country.

“We have lost what we have lost up to now, and unfortunately we can’t get them back because of the law,” says one Jewish community leader. “What we are trying to do with what we still have is keep them as active as we can by holding regular elections and using them regularly.”

A good example of this is the synagogue in Canakkale, a town near the World War I battlefields of Gallipoli that was another center of Jewish life in western Turkey.

Although no Jews live there today, a group of Jews from the city who now live in Istanbul make an annual pilgrimage to the city’s remaining synagogue to pray there and help with its upkeep.

In Bursa, the tight-knit community of 70 splits its religious and social activities between the two remaining synagogues in the city’s old Jewish quarter in an effort to keep both in the hands of the Jewish community.

The quarter, a cobblestoned neighborhood of pastel-colored wooden houses, has lately become a popular entertainment area, with many of the old homes being converted into pubs and fish restaurants.

A large sign at the end of one street says “Historic Jewish Street” in Turkish.

Although Bursa’s Jews no longer live in the quarter, they still own many of the area’s buildings, and the rents from those properties have provided the community with the funds to maintain and renovate their synagogues.

“We are in good shape because of the buildings that were left to us by our grandparents,” says the community’s leader, Izra Venturero, 63, who owns a clothing store in Bursa’s sprawling covered bazaar.

Four years ago, the Bursa community — which numbered around 1,500 at its height — was able to renovate the derelict Mayor Synagogue, a 500-year-old domed house of worship that was originally built by Jews who came to the Ottoman Empire from the Spanish island of Mallorca.

Sitting on a blue velvet cushion inside the synagogue’s lovingly restored main sanctuary, which is decorated with large crystal chandeliers and whose ark is covered with an intricately embroidered antique teal-colored curtain, Venturero assesses the condition of Bursa’s Jewish community.

“All the young people don’t want to stay here,” Venturero says, speaking in a combination of Hebrew and Turkish. “After university they don’t come back, including my children.”

“In 50 years there probably won’t be Jews in Bursa, but we want to show that there was once a big, strong Jewish community in Bursa. That’s why we renovated this synagogue.”

In places like Edirne, it is probably too late for a mission like that. But in other small Turkish Jewish communities, like Bursa, that is probably all the remaining Jews can really do.

“In 50 years, there won’t be any Jews,” Venturero says, “but the places of the Jews will still be.”

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