The Jewish Traveler: Izmir
This lively city on Turkey’s west coast has afforded opportunity to Jews since their arrival in the 16th century. The close-knit Sefardic community remains prosperous to this day.
When Jacky Pardo was a young boy in the 1930’s, he used to dive off the jetty behind his house to swim in the bay of Izmir. Jews then lived in modest two-story homes overlooking the Aegean, the sea that brought prosperity to Jewish merchants through the busy port. It is the very sea immortalized by the epic poet Homer, who was born in this city that the Greeks called Smyrna. a The flavor of the Orient lures visitors to Izmir, and they will surely find it in the winding alleys of the Kemeralti bazaar in the city center, where vendors hawk brightly colored shirts, antique postcards and even wedding gowns. Jews once lived around the market, worked in it and to this day come to pray in its old synagogues, where the patterned carpets and turquoise walls are constant reminders that one is in the East.
Yet Izmir—as the Turks named the city—is decidedly European. Nearly every building has ground-floor shops and cafés, so the streets are alive with pedestrians. Best of all is the promenade along the bay, punctuated by the statue of Ataturk, the father of modern Turkey, in Cumhuriyet Square and Konak Square’s palm-tree flanked clock tower, which is the symbol of the city.
At least two millennia ago Jews lived and traded along the Aegean coast of western Anatolia (today part of Turkey), in the ancient cities of Ephesus, Sardis, Pergamon and Smyrna. Greek inscriptions from the 2nd and 3rd century C.E. show that a Jewish community flourished in Smyrna; however, it dwindled during the Middle Ages.
In the 15th century, the Jews persecuted in (Christian) Western Europe received three invitations to move to the (Muslim) Ottoman Empire: two from sultans—Muhammad II at midcentury and Bayazid II in 1492—and one, in 1454, from Rabbi Isaac Zarfati of Edirne, who wrote, “Here every man dwells at peace under his own vine and fig tree.”
Many Jews, especially exiles from Spain and then Portugal, settled in various Ottoman cities, such as Salonika, but only in the late 16th century did they move to Smyrna, which had become a major seaport. There they found a small community of Romaniots, descendants of Greek-speaking Jews.
The newcomers established congregations according to their places of origin. In 1648, Joseph Escapa of Salonika (now called Thessaloniki) was appointed rabbi over all the congregations; under his leadership, Smyrna became one of the three major Jewish centers in the Ottoman world.
The custom of celebrating Tu Bishvat with a seder developed in Izmir in the 17th century. The originator may have been Izmir-born Shabbetai Zevi (1626-1676), the charismatic founder of the Sabbatean movement (with thousands of followers in many countries) who proclaimed himself Messiah, thus launching a dispute that shook the entire Jewish world, especially his hometown.
Under pressure from the rabbis who opposed Zevi, Izmir’s Jews retreated to religiosity, withdrawing from secular pursuits for the next two centuries and producing eminent rabbis.
Only when the Alliance Israelite Universelle boys school was established in 1873 (the girls school followed five years later) did Izmir’s Jews start to move into the modern world. At least three Jewish newspapers were founded by the turn of the century. But starting at the end of the 19th century, the community—beset by worsening economic conditions, increased taxes and fear of the draft—began to shrink, from 40,000 in 1868 to 25,000 in 1905.
French-speaking graduates of the Alliance schools, who were less religiously observant, now ran the community and adopted European dress. By World War I, Jews held high positions in economics, politics and journalism, yet many chose to leave after the Greco-Turkish War (1919-1922), during which much of Izmir was destroyed by fire. Subsequently, Jews emigrated after the establishment of the Turkish Republic in 1923 and as a result of the Great Depression of 1929.
During World War II, the British authorities agreed that any Jews from Nazi Europe who reached Turkey would receive visas to enter Palestine. Some 1,000 Jews who escaped Greece were cared for by their brethren in Izmir until they moved on to Palestine and other countries. Between 1948 and 1950, 10,000 Jews—Izmir’s poorest—left for Israel.
In a city of about four million (Turkey’s 3rd largest), Izmir’s 1,700 Jews form an active and tightly knit Sefardic community that is more traditional than religious.
From the 16th century, Jews lived around the Kemeralti market, where the Bikur Holim, Shalom and other synagogues are located. Later, they moved to Karatas, site of the Beth Israel Synagogue. The poorest lived in cortejos, houses built around a courtyard, with a family in each room and shared bathroom and cooking facilities.
Today, most Jews live in upscale Alsancak, on and around Mustafa Ender Boulevard, which is also known as Mustafa Bey (Mr. Mustafa). Activity centers around the building known as Liga (named for an old sports club), which houses the Sha’ar Hashamaim Synagogue.
Izmir’s Jews speak several languages, including Turkish, Judeo-Spanish, French and English, but few know Hebrew. They are involved mainly in industry and commerce, but also in the professions.
In the summer, Izmir’s Jews vacation in Cesme, the seaside resort about an hour north of the city.
Several committees run the community with the help of 160 volunteers, looking after the Jewish hospital, the old-age home and those in need. A group of mothers runs a Sunday school—where Jacky Pardo’s wife, Sara, is president—which is the primary source of Jewish education. Izmir-born Dina Eliezer, now a Jewish educator in New Jersey, returns to her hometown once a year to train teachers and prepare teaching materials for the school.
Close ties to Israel characterize Izmir and Turkey as a whole, and community members frequently cite Turkey’s tolerance of minorities, particularly the Jews. At the same time, Jews are still concerned by the 2003 terror attacks on Istanbul synagogues and prefer to keep a low profile. Security is tight at all Jewish activities, and most Jews would like even more security than budgets allow.
Sha’ar Hashamaim in Alsancak, built in the mid-1960’s, is the main synagogue today and is used for all brit mila ceremonies. Though it is Orthodox, no mehitza separates the women from the men. The overall design is modern, furnishings are in dark wood and there is a triple Ark, as in older Izmir synagogues. After Shabbat morning services, worshipers breakfast together in the modest community center downstairs (No. 4 1390 Street, off Mustafa Ender Boulevard; the Jewish Community Administration, 011-90-232-421-1290, has information about this and other Jewish synagogues and sights).
Just a century ago, Izmir had dozens of synagogues. Some are in ruins, a few have been restored and others will survive only with immediate preservation. Most are in or near the Kemeralti market.
Bikur Holim Synagogue, built in 1724 and still in use, is on a main street just outside the market. The plain yellow stucco exterior (like that of most of the synagogues in the market) belies the beauty of the restored interior, with its European-inspired floral patterns on the arches, lavishly decorated ceiling and women’s section hidden behind a wooden grate. The eastern wall has three Arks, the central one for a Torah scroll and the others for ritual objects (No. 38 Gazi Osmanpasa).
Not far from Bikur Holim, on Gazi Osmanpasa, an entrance to the Kemeralti market is marked by a sign—just opposite the entrance to the ruins of the Roman agora—that says Havra Sokak, or Street of Synagogues. Like most side streets in Izmir, it is officially designated by a number: 927.
The Shalom Synagogue, founded in the 16th century, has square faux-marble columns topped by Corinthian capitals and a ceiling painted with a geometric design. As is common in Romaniot synagogues, the bima is at the rear, opposite the Ark; the light-blue pews stand perpendicular to them. With a grant from the World Monuments Fund, the community repaired the roof in 2004 and restored the interior (No. 38 927 Street).
Nearby is the Portugali Synagogue. In 1665, Shabbetai Zevi and 500 of his followers occupied the building, where his opponents prayed, and made it his base. Today, all that can be seen is a gabled gray façade with the synagogue’s name written in Hebrew (No. 8 926 Street).
The 18th-century Algazi Synagogue, in use on Shabbat and holidays, is the only remaining one of four attached synagogues built around a courtyard. The walls are painted turquoise; the gold-embroidered red velvet Ark hangings and the carpets have been donated by local families. The corners of the central bima are topped by carved ornaments that resemble Torah finials (No. 73 927 Street).
Turquoise and gold ornaments on a white ceiling grace the newly restored Giveret (Senora) Synagogue, founded in 1660 and said to be named for Doña Gracia Nasi, a Converso stateswoman and patron who settled in Constantinople in 1553 and endowed many synagogues in Ottoman lands (No. 77 927 Street).
The oldest of Izmir’s synagogues, Etz Hayyim, is not in use because it is in dire need of preservation (No. 7 937 Street). According to tradition, it predates the Ottoman period; some sources date it at around 1500.
The Hevra Synagogue (No. 4 937 Street), said to have been the most beautiful in Izmir, is in ruins. The community hopes to turn it into a Jewish museum.
When Izmir’s Jews moved from the market area to Karatas, they obtained permission from Sultan Abdulhamid II to build a magnificent new synagogue, Beth Israel, which opened in 1907. But the interior—including the massive mahogany bima and the Ark, ornamented with carved fruits—was finished later. Unlike earlier Izmir synagogues, Beth Israel has a basilica form, with the Ark on the south wall; worshipers turn to the east, toward Jerusalem, for some of the prayers. The synagogue seats 600 in the men’s section and is used for weddings and bar mitzvas (265 Mithatpasa).
Jews living atop the steep cliff of Karatas had to contend with 155 steps daily. To ease their lives, Nissim Levi Bayrakli, an illiterate Jew who made a fortune by importing hats from France, built an elevator to connect their homes to the shore road, very near Beth Israel. Built in 1907, the 165-foot-high elevator was restored in 1994 and the street leading up to it renamed for Dario Moreno, the Jewish singer and actor (1921-1967) whose family lived there. The terrace above the elevator affords excellent city views.
A ride up the elevator and a short, steep walk lead to the Rosh Ha’ar Synagogue, one of Izmir’s oldest, with a central wooden bima and newly restored ceiling (No. 67 281 Street).
Near the lower entrance to the elevator, a century ago the Jewish community established a hospital in a mansion donated by Bayrakli. A three-story modern hospital wing, today a maternity ward open to the public, and an old-age home were added some 30 years ago (Karatas Hospital; No. 26 336 Street; 232-483-5687). A room in the complex houses a collection of more than 1,740 volumes written by the city’s rabbis. One of the rarest is Netivot Mishpat by Rabbi Hayyim Algazi, published in 1669.
Another 86 sacks of books from the community’s geniza are being sorted by volunteers, and the Avi Chai Foundation has agreed to help preserve the collection.
The tomb of Rabbi Hayim Palaggi (1788-1869), surrounded by a green metal grate at the Gur Cesme Cemetery, has become a pilgrimage site for Sefardic Jews from Israel. Revered as a miracle-worker, Palaggi was the hakham bashi (chief rabbi) of Izmir in the 19th century and a prolific scholar. Among his works are homilies, responsa and commentaries, as well as an account of the 1840 anti-Semitic blood-libel known as the Damascus Affair.
Gur Cesme Cemetery, on Gur Cesme Street and in use from 1885 until 1934, has 8,000 graves including the remains of Jews from Izmir’s oldest Jewish cemetery, Bahri Baba, which was in use until 1922, when it was destroyed to make way for a park. A series of marble plaques placed at Gur Cesme recounts the history of Izmir’s Jews.
Izmir is a perfect base for visiting the rich remains of the ancient cities of Ephesus and Sardis.
Ephesus, which was a Roman provincial capital, is south of Izmir. The bountiful remains include marble-paved streets, a whole neighborhood of terraced houses with mosaic floors and frescoed walls, a two-story library and a huge theater. The New Testament describes the apostle Paul’s contacts with the Jewish community there. Images of a menora, lulav and etrog were found on a step of the library, and a building across from the theater is now thought to have been a synagogue. The Ephesus Museum is located in nearby Seljuk (www.ephesus.us/ephe sus/ephesusmuseum.htm).
A huge 3rd-century-C.E. synagogue—the largest known from the ancient world—with mosaic floors and walls inlaid with colored marble, served the 25,000 Jews of Sardis, 54 miles northeast of Izmir on the Izmir-Ankara road. The many Greek inscriptions found at the excavated and partially restored site show that the community was prosperous, esteemed and assimilated. The Ark at the eastern end is one of a pair of structures topped by a pediment. The unusual altar has images of the Roman eagle on its sides. The back-to-back lions near the altar were recycled from an earlier shrine to the goddess Cybele and “reincarnated” as the lions of Judah. The elders sat on three-tiered benches arranged in a semicircle behind the altar. Shops owned by Jewish merchants and artisans separated the synagogue from a large two-story gymnasium.
Books, Film, Music
The anthology Sephardic American Voices: Two Hundred Years of a Literary Legacy (Brandeis University Press) includes three vignettes by Gloria De Vidas Kirschheimer, whose family hails from Izmir.
Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s leading novelist, is a brilliant storyteller whose theme is identity—of the individual, of the writer and of the Turkish people, torn between East and West. In The Black Book (translated by Guneli Gun, Harvest Books), the protagonist’s search for his missing wife leads the reader deeper and deeper into the Turkish psyche.
In the film Trees Cry for Rain, Izmir-born Rachel Amado Bortnick tells of her childhood filled with Sefardic traditions.
Roza Askenazi, a top early-20th-century singer of rebetica (Greek “blues”), was born in Izmir and includes local songs on her album Rembetissa (Rounder).
Turkish Airlines flies from the United States to Istanbul and provides frequent connections to Izmir. The Hilton Hotel is within walking distance of tourist attractions and most of Izmir’s synagogues (7 Gazi Osmanpasa; www.hilton.com).
Among the excellent Jewish tour guides are Eti Tuvi (www.unitedtrav el.com.tr) and Rozet Alaluf (542-422-1427).
For a cheap thrill and a ride on the bay, board the ferry at Pasaport or Alsancak piers for Karsiyaka (“opposite shore”), to wander the teeming north-shore shopping streets.
Though Izmir has a kosher butcher, it has no kosher restaurants. But with a week’s notice, the Hilton’s general manager can provide kosher meals to guests; kosher food items are under supervision of Turkey’s rabbinical council.
Excellent fish restaurants line the bay. Near the Hilton, Vejetaryen Restoran offers inexpensive organic dishes that include vegetable and soy products; the restaurant also serves fish and meat (9A Sehit Nevresbey Boulevard; www.vejetaryen.com.tr).
Savory or sweet Turkish and Sefardic pastries make a perfect light lunch at the Jewish-owned Patisserie Angelina, which can also fill orders for catering under rabbinical supervision (19 Mustafa Ender, near Sha’ar Hashamaim Synagogue; 232-422-5103).
And no visit to Izmir is complete without a taste of asure, a Turkish dessert traditionally served during the month following the Muslim Feast of Sacrifice, but available year-round in dessert shops.
According to legend, when Noah’s ark came to rest on Mount Ararat in northeastern Turkey, Noah’s family wanted to prepare a feast of celebration, but they had only bits of ingredients. Asure’s many grains and fruits make it a perfect dish for celebrating Sukkot, when we are enjoined to eat of the seven species and appreciate the bounty of the land.