Feature: Keeping Memory Alive
At first blush, the tiny Jewish community of Bursa might seem like the living embodiment of the old joke about the shipwrecked Jew who, alone on a deserted island, builds two synagogues—in case he gets fed up with the services at one of them. Despite the occasional struggle to get a minyan together, the 55-member community in this Turkish city still maintains two gleaming synagogues, located just a few steps from each other on a small street in Bursa’s historic Jewish quarter.
But the Jews of Bursa—traders in the city’s bustling bazaar, where they have been living since they arrived as exiles from Spain 500 years ago—know what they are doing. The Turkish government has frequently confiscated unused property belonging to minority religious groups. To maintain its ownership of both synagogues, the community keeps both open, alternating Shabbat and holiday services between them.
For the small Jewish communities outside of Istanbul, which has the country’s largest Jewish population, acrobatics like this are part of everyday life. Canakkale, for example, a town near the World War I battlefields of Gallipoli and once a center of Jewish life in western Turkey, is today home to only a handful of Jews. Former residents make an annual pilgrimage in a convoy of buses from Istanbul to pray in the last functioning shul and help with upkeep.
Other places have not been so lucky. Edirne, a provincial capital near the border with Greece and Bulgaria, was once home to 30,000 Jews (three remain). The city’s Great Synagogue, an architectural gem built in 1907, is now state property and in almost complete ruins. Its roof is caved in and only a few bits of its brilliantly colored, frescoed ceiling are intact.
“Our big challenge in the last 15 or 20 years is maintenance,” said a top Jewish community leader in Istanbul who, giving an indication of how sensitive the issue of religious minorities and their property is in Turkey, asked not to be named. “What has disappeared has already disappeared. It’s not easy to do this, but keeping synagogues open is very important—emotionally and pragmatically.”
In the beginning of the 20th century, under Ottoman rule, the area that makes up modern Turkey had a Jewish population of more than 100,000, with sizable settlements ranging from the Anatolian heartland to the Aegean coast and the eastern border with Iran and Iraq. Today, Turkey’s 22,000 Jews live almost exclusively in Istanbul. Driven to emigrate by political and economic turbulence and lured by the possibility of living in the Jewish state, Turkish Jews left the country in great waves starting in the late 1940s. They left behind Jewish worlds that—with the exception of Istanbul and, to a lesser extent, Izmir, which has a Jewish population of around 1,800—are either struggling to survive or have disappeared altogether.
A visitor can get a good sense of that struggle by visiting Bursa, located 57 miles south of Istanbul, and Antakya, 500 miles south of Istanbul, near Turkey’s border with Syria, where a dwindling 35-member Jewish community lives. Though different, these two groups are similarly engaged: Each is trying to stay alive.
On a shabbat in July, inside Bursa’s Gerush (exile in Hebrew) synagogue in a historic neighborhood a short walk from the city’s bazaar, nine mostly gray-haired men sit waiting for a 10th who has been summoned from nearby so services can commence. Built in the 16th century, the synagogue has a unique circular bimasurrounded by tall white columns and topped by a dome decorated with a colorful floral motif. The men, led by a cantor who comes from Istanbul on the weekends, sit around the bima on burgundy velvet cushions, singing along with the hazzan. Soon after, the summoned davener arrives.
After services, the group heads for a small social hall, where the men drink tea and eat cigar-shaped phyllo pastries filled with cheese, chatting with decades-long familiarity. In Bursa, as in other Turkish Jewish areas, locals trace their presence back 500 years, to the time of the Spanish Inquisition and the arrival of Sefardic Jews in the Ottoman Empire. Indeed, the men occasionally pepper their conversation with Ladino, the Judeo- Spanish their ancestors brought with them and which, until a few decades ago, was the main language spoken by many of Turkey’s Jews. On the walls are several black-and-white photos of smiling children, members of the synagogue’s long-gone religious school. Among those pictured is 69-year-old Ezra Venturero, the community’s former president and elder statesman and spokesman.
“This whole street [where the two synagogues are located] used to be Jewish,” says Venturero, who has hooded eyes and radiates a friendly warmth. “I lived across the street from the synagogue and went to the Jewish school a few streets away. We used to hear Ladino spoken in the streets.”
Set at the foot of a tree-covered mountain range, Bursa—an early capital of the Ottoman Empire—has long been famous as a textile center, and its sprawling and crowded covered bazaar is filled with small shops selling cut-rate towels and bathrobes.
At its peak, there were around 1,500 Jews in Bursa. Life centered around a cobblestone neighborhood of pastel-colored wooden houses wedged between Bursa’s ancient citadel and Altiparmak Street, a busy commercial strip. The area has lately become a popular entertainment spot with many Jewish-owned homes converted into pubs and fish restaurants, providing steady rental income. In recent years, Bursa’s Jews have been able to make extensive renovations to the synagogues and buy a nearby apartment where they house the cantor who comes on Sabbath and holidays.
But these efforts are tempered by reality. “We’re slowly, slowly disappearing,” Venturero says. He owns two small, cluttered lingerie shops in the bazaar. “There are no young people. There are no children. The young people go off to study or get married and don’t come back.”
A resigned smile crossing his face, he added: “It’s better for them in Istanbul or abroad. We can’t grab them and tell them ‘You have to stay.’ The future doesn’t look good [here].”
On the outskirts of Bursa, Salvo Manisa, 40, works in a glass building occupied by textile firms. “We don’t have any problems here,” says Manisa, whose son, Albert, 13, and daughter, Lara, 7, are Bursa’s only Jewish children. “In Istanbul there’s a Jewish school, there’s a wedding or bar mitzva every weekend. Here that happens once every five years or more. My children don’t get exposed to Jewish life.” This past year, Manisa took his son to Istanbul every weekend for bar mitzva lessons. The family celebrated Albert’s bar mitzva in January; it might be the last one held in the city.
About an hour’s flight from Bursa is Antakya, one of the oldest Jewish settlements in the world. Here, bar mitzvas are already a thing of the past: The last one was 13 years ago; the last Jewish wedding, 15 years ago.
Jews were among those to first settle in Antakya, ancient Antioch, when it was founded in the fourth century B.C.E. Jews were also an important part of the city’s landscape during the time of Alexander the Great and later the Romans, when Antioch was one of the major cities of the Near East.
“This city has never been without Jews,” says Efraim Kebudi, 47, who today lives in Istanbul and is researching Antakya’s Jewish history.
The last century, however, has been less than kind to Antakya’s Jews. Speakers of Arabic rather than Ladino, Jews always felt more connected to the Jewish enclaves of Syria, particularly in nearby Aleppo, than to Jews in Istanbul or other parts of Turkey. (Locals like to point out that they are closer to Jerusalem, some 300 miles away, than to Istanbul, almost twice as far.) When the city and the surrounding Hatay region were made part of the Turkish republic in 1939, the community—which numbered 500 a century ago—suddenly found itself adrift, cut off from Aleppo and Damascus and with few connections to the Jews and chief rabbinate in Istanbul.
What followed was a slow but inevitable decline. “My generation was born at the end of a beautiful period,” Kebudi says.
Antakya today still retains a strong Syrian flavor, with Arabic continuing to be heard in the streets alongside Turkish. At the heart of the city, which lies on the banks of the Orontes River, is Antakya’s labyrinth-like covered souk, once home to dozens of Jewish-owned stores.
Not far away, on Kurtulus Street, a weathered stone Star of David hangs over a nondescript iron door marking the entrance to Antakya’s synagogue. Inside is a courtyard with pomegranate and lemon trees and a simple stone building where, on a Monday morning also in July, a small group of men gather to pray.
“We try to keep up our religious life,” says Shaul Cennudi, the community’s 67-year-old president, sitting in a corner of the synagogue after services. “We open the synagogue on Shabbat and during the week. But our biggest wish is to have a religious leader here full time. We want to be able to keep doing our tefila here.”
Cennudi, a retired textile merchant, speaks in a mixture of Turkish, Hebrew and Arabic, with an occasional sprinkling of Italian.
Cennudi’s desire for a full-time rabbi—something the city has not had in decades—is emblematic of Antakya’s efforts to maintain Jewish life. Keeping the synagogue open for services is a constant effort for Cennudi; he has to badger men to close their shops and come to pray. Until recently, services were regularly led by 88-year-old Shaul Cemal, a clothing manufacturer who doubled as the community’s hazzan and shohet, skills he learned in a yeshiva in Aleppo, where he was sent to study at the age of 15. Illness keeps Cemal mostly at home these days.
Asked if it is realistic to expect a full-time rabbi to move to town to serve a community of 35, Cennudi gets up and storms off into another part of the small synagogue, angered by the question.
“Should we just close down here? That’s impossible,” he says when he returns a few seconds later. “We’ve been here for a very long time. We can’t simply leave.”
Davut Cemal, who also splits his time between Istanbul and Antakya, says, “We may only have 35 people here, but we’re not ready to give up. Our Jewish feeling is very strong…but we need help.”
Getting that help may be difficult, though. A cantor who was being trained in Istanbul to work in Antakya ended up making aliya, and it’s unlikely anybody will replace him. A shohet from Istanbul makes regular visits to provide kosher meat, but the chief rabbinate in Istanbul might not be able to offer much more than that, officials there warn.
“We only have a limited number of religious personnel who can adequately perform the job,” says the Jewish community leader in Istanbul. “It’s kind of like musical chairs, sending them from one place to another.”
With such scant resources, Antakya and Bursa must raise funds to keep their synagogues open, care for their cemeteries and pay for other expenses. And while they are struggling to keep Jewish life alive, these Jews are also confronting another challenge: making sure their memory lives on once all the Jews are gone from their cities.
“My hope is that in 100 years, people will still know and be able to say that in this area lived the Jews of Bursa and they were good people,” says Venturero. “That’s why we are always renovating the synagogues. We’re not just doing it for the community, but for us to be remembered in the future. This is a 500-year-old community and we want to be remembered.”H
Yigal Schleifer is a journalist based in Istanbul, where he works forThe Jerusalem Report and the Christian Science Monitor.