The Jewish Community of Izmir
Haim F. Ghiuzeli
Izmir (historically Smyrna) is the principal seaport of Western Anatolia on the coast of the Aegean Sea and provincial capital of the Turkish Vilayet (province) of Aidin, the third largest city in the Republic of Turkey.
The city had a Jewish population in the antiquity, as mentioned in the New Testament (Rev. 1:11; 2:8). Apparently, the Jews had some influence on the local pagan population with some of them converted to Judaism; however, the appearance of Christianity had reduced the power of the Jewish community, although only a minority of the local Jews accepted the new religion. A Jewish community in Smyrna is mentioned again in Christian sources narrating the martyrdom of Polycarp in the second century. Additional archeological evidence of Greek inscriptions from the second and the third century CE indicate that the community had the authority to punish any person who displayed disrespect toward it. Another inscription mentions Rufina, a woman described as the “Mother of the Synagogue”. A nice depiction of a menorah similar to the one represented on the Triumphal Arch of the Roman Emperor Titus in Rome appears on a seal discovered in the proximity of Izmir.
There are almost no mentions of a Jewish settlement in Smyrna during the Byzantine times and it is possible that the local Jewish community disappeared for most of the medieval epoch, although Jewish communities continued to subsist in a number of neighboring towns. Smyrna, at the time an unimportant town, became part of the Ottoman Empire in 1424, following its capture from the Byzantines.
Testimonies of Sephardi Jews arriving in Smyrna during the 16th century suggest the existence of a local small Romaniot Jewish community. The first Jews arrived in Izmir in the 1530s, following their expulsion (sürgün, in Turkish) by the Ottomans from Belgrade, Serbia, in 1521, and Buda, Hungary, in 1524. Gravestones with Jewish motifs dating from 1540 and 1565 and found in Izmir indicate a Jewish presence in the city during the 16th century.
It appears that a Jewish Sephardi-Portuguese community made up of Jewish immigrants from other cities in Asia as well as from Northern Africa and Venice was established in 1569, although there is no evidence of its existence or of any other organized Jewish community in contemporary Ottoman documents. The great wave of Sephardi immigration into the Ottoman Empire skipped over Izmir for most of the 16th century; they began to settle in any significant numbers only towards the end of the 16th century, when gradually Izmir turned into a major Ottoman seaport.
The Golden Age of the 17th Century
The development of the Jewish community of Izmir started in the early 17th century corresponding with the increased economic status of the city as a major transit seaport, especially for the commerce with Anatolia and the countries beyond the eastern border of the Ottoman Empire. At the time, Izmir was included into the Sanjak (province) of Sigala, one of the most prosperous in the empire. The new Jewish settlers came mainly from among Sephardi refugees, although the great majority arrived in Izmir after first settling in other cities in the Ottoman Empire. A major group of settlers came from Istanbul; they were joined by Jewish immigrants from small Jewish communities in Western Anatolia as well as from Crete, Corfu, Janina (now in Greece), Ankara, and especially Salonika. Etz Hayim, Portugal, and Gerush, were among the first congregations to have been established in Izmir in the early 17th century, possibly consisting of descendants of 16th cent. settlers.
The majority of Jewish inhabitants were Ottoman subjects and according to the Muslim law were considered ahl al-dhimma – protected non-Muslims, an inferior status in the Muslim society. Jews enjoyed relative religious freedom and were able to administer separate educational and judiciary institutions. The community, known in Turkish law as taifa or kamat, and after mid 19th century, as millet, was free to collect taxes from its members in order to support its activity. Resulting from their status as dhimmis, Jews were compelled to pay a special tax – jizya (cizye or harac, in Turkish) – to the Ottoman authorities that promised them protection of their lives and property. For practical reasons, the community paid the jizya in one inclusive sum for all its members. However, the Muslim law was not strictly enforced and the Jews of Izmir were allowed to build new synagogues, of which there were already six by the mid years of the 17th century, despite a regulation permitting only renovation of exiting synagogues and forbidding the building of new ones.
Jewish merchants of Portuguese extraction including many former conversos who returned to Judaism and settled in Italy and other European countries before immigrating to the Ottoman Empire, were called Francos and formed a distinct group within the Jewish community. During the 17th century the Francos of Izmir generally enjoyed the protection of European powers, for instance they were under the protection of France until 1693, and then for short periods under that of the Dutch consul. The Ottoman authorities regarded the Francos as musta’min – foreigners living in a Muslim country, and tended to turn them into dhimmis, especially after 1696. The Jewish community did not recognize and difference in the status of the Francos, although they tried to evade some of their obligations towards the community.
Rabbi Yitzhak Meir HaLevy (d.1634) of Constantinople was the first rabbi in Izmir in 1606. The 1620s saw the influx of many new Jewish settlers from Salonika. Rabbi Joseph Escapa of Salonika (d.1662) was appointed the first rabbi of the Salonikan Jews, in c1620. After 1631, there was in Izmir a chief rabbi over all local congregations, whose number grew to six by 1644. They were mostly of Sephardi origin, but the city also had a small Ashkenazi congregation. Following the death of R.Y. Meir HaLevy in 1634, another rabbi from Salonika, Azariah Joshua Ashkenazi (d.1647), came to Izmir and was elected a colleague to Rabbi J. Escapa, the chief rabbi. Following a bitter controversy that arose between the two rabbis, the community split into two factions, each supporting one rabbi. The dispute reflected differences in the way Salonikan Jews interpreted and practiced certain Jewish traditions concerning dietary laws, mourning practices, the counting of the Omer, ritual slaughter and Tisha Be-Av, among others, as opposed by the traditions of the immigrants from Istanbul.
It was only after the death of Rabbi A.J. Ashkenazi in 1647 and the intervention of the chief rabbi in Constantinople that all congregations in Izmir once again recognized Rabbi Escapa’s authority. The fingerprint of Rabbi Escapa’s administrative activities was evident for many generations thanks to the takkanot concerning taxes that he issued and that were respected by the Jews of Izmir and the surrounding towns. He was instrumental in consolidating Jews of various backgrounds and traditions into a common community. Rabbi Escapa’s achievements were pursued by a series of distinguished rabbis including Rabbi Aaron Lapapa (d.1667), Rabbi Solomon Algazi, and Rabbi Hayim Benveniste (1603-1673) that helped transform the Jewish community into a major Jewish center of the 17th century. Its significance became evident in the important halakhic studies composed by local rabbis, especially Knesset Ha-Gedolah (“Great Assembly”), a commentary by Rabbi Hayim Benveniste on the Shulkhan Aruch, and the ethics treatise Shevet Musar (“Staff of Reproof”) by Rabbi Eliyah HaKohen (d.1729) of Izmir.
The community comprised many affluent members that supported large yeshivot and Jewish schools. It also excelled as a center of Jewish learning: the prestige of its religious leaders having been recognized by many other Jewish communities in Anatolia, a Hebrew printing press established in 1657 and several celebrated physicians contributed to the fame of the Izmir community. Izmir was the birthplace of Shabbetai Zvi (1626-1676), the false messiah who received the support of large sections of the Jewish people all over the Diaspora.
A student of Rabbi Joseph Escapa, Shabbetai Zvi traveled to a number of Jewish communities in the Ottoman Empire. His return to Izmir in September 1665 caused a great furor in the community when a majority of the local Jews converted to his teachings – ma’aminim (“believers”) in the Shabbatean terminology. They included Rabbi Hayim Benveniste, one of the chief rabbis of Izmir. The opponents of Shabbetai Zvi grouped around Rabbi Aaron Lapapa, the other chief rabbi, who was subsequently expulsed from Izmir leaving Rabbi Benveniste the sole chief rabbi of the city.
Throughout the four months of Shabbetai Zvi’s sojourn in Izmir during the fall of 1665, the city became a centre of Messianic enthusiasm counting at least 150 “prophets”, with the regular economic activities interrupted by a succession of festive days of dancing and processions intermingled with days of collective penitence. Whoever opposed the Shabbatean movement was persecuted and some had to flee the city, as did Solomon Algazi, himself an important scholar and renowned kabbalist, who was forced to take refuge in the nearby community of Magnesia. Following Shabbetai Zvi’s apostasy, it took some time for the Jewish community of Izmir to settle down the virulent conflicts brought about by the false messiah.
Most Jews in Izmir were active as traders, agents, translators, and artisans. Their commercial ties extended from Persia and Syria in the East, to the countries of Western Europe, and especially to the main seaports of the Mediterranean that used to have important Jewish communities of their own. In 1688, an earthquake destroyed Izmir and killed some 400 Jews, among them the chief rabbi Aaron ben Hayim.
The 18th and 19th Centuries
During the 18th and the 19th centuries, the Jewish community of Izmir continued to flourish as its economic activity moved to the manufacture, especially of wool from goat’s fleece, and of carpets. The European trade of the local Jews flourished after 1774, with many acting as exporters of cereals, figs, oil, raisins, carpets, licorice and beans. Jews also acted as dragomans (translators and local agents) for European merchants, banking houses and consulates. A special mention should be made of Moshe Soncino who was controller of the customhouse in 1718 and Moshe Arditi, a governmental treasurer in 1812. During the 19th century, especially after the liberal reforms known as Tanzimat were introduced in the Ottoman Empire bringing about an end to the formal discrimination against the dhimmis, an increasing number of Jews held various positions in the local municipal government and judicial court. There had also been numerous Jewish physicians and surgeons in the Jewish community of Izmir, some of them plague specialists.
However, the fortunes of the Jewish community of Izmir were impaired by frequent disasters: great fires (1743, 1772, 1841, and 1881), at least eleven epidemics of cholera between 1770 and 1892, and a number of powerful earthquakes. The great fire of 1772 was particularly destructive leaving the community for 28 years with no standing synagogue, until the Ottoman authorities issued authorizations for new buildings. During this long period, the Jews of Izmir were constrained to pray in specially adapted private houses.
The intellectual life of the community was bolstered with the establishment of a printing house in 1657 by Abraham ben Jedidiah Gabbai, an immigrant from Livorno, Italy. Rosh Yosef by Rabbi J. Escapa was the first book published in Izmir. In addition to several Hebrew books, Gabbai printed a second edition of Mikve Yisrael – Esperanza de Israel (“The Hope of Israel”) by Rabbi Manasseh Ben Israel and Apologia por la noble nacion de los Judios, by Eduardo Nicholas, both books in Spanish with Latin characters, the last one being a translation from English by R. Manasseh. Izmir became the third printing center in the Ottoman Empire, after Constantinople and Salonika. More than 400 titles, mostly of rabbinical literature were printed in Izmir from the 18th until the early 20th century by twelve various printers, Ben Senior (1913-1922) being the last one. Local rabbis were the authors of many of the works printed in Izmir. R. Joseph ben Elijah Hazzan’s commentaries Ein Yosef were published in Izmir already in 1675, it was followed by R. Aaron Alfandari’s Yad Aharon (Izmir, 1735), and R. Abraham ibn Ezra’s Battei Knessiyot (Salonika, 1806). Other important authors include R. Isaac B. Moshe Nunez Belmonte and R. Isaac Di Mayo (d.1810), who both composed commentaries on Maimonides’ Yad Hazaka: Sha’ar ha-Melekh (Salonika, 1801) and Shorashei Ha-Yam (Salonika, 1807), respectively. R. Hayim Palaggi (Palache) (1788-1868), chief rabbi of Izmir and of another six neighboring communities after 1855 and appointed Hakham Bashi of Izmir by the Ottoman authorities in 1856, is the author of over more than 70 works, most of them have been published. R. Joseph Hazzan’s (1741-1820) seven-volume collection of response Chikrei Lev (Salonika, 1806) and R. Nissim Abraham Ashkenazi’s Nechmad le-Mareh commentary on the Jerusalem Talmud (Salonika, 1832) are additional important works composed by the Izmir rabbis.
Several important rabbis of Izmir emigrated to the Land of Israel: Rabbi Hayim Ben Jacob Abulafia (d. 1744), a native of Tiberias, was chief rabbi of Izmir from 1720 to 1740, when he returned to Tiberias along with his disciples and restored the Jewish settlement in that city, having received the assistance of the Istanbul Committee Officials of the Land of Israel that were in charge of organizing immigration and pilgrimages to the Land of Israel. Other rabbis of Izmir who settled in the Land of Israel include R. Hayim Moda’i (d. 1794), a Safed-born chief rabbi of Izmir from 1776 till 1793, when he returned to Safed, and R. Joseph Hazzan (1741-1820) who settled in Hebron in 1813 and then in Jerusalem, where he was appointed Chief Rabbi of the Land of Israel.
There were numerous synagogues in Izmir. Bikkur Holim, one of the earliest, was founded in 1690 by Solomon de Ciaves, a Dutch merchant who settled in Izmir. The Shalom or Aydinlis synagogue, also known as Shabbetai Zvi synagogue or Kal de Abasho, is thought to have been founded in the 17th century. The Portuguese synagogue was established in 1710, The Mahazikei Torah in 1722, the Bikkur Holim (used as a hospital during outbreaks of cholera epidemics) in 1724, the Algazi also known as Kahal de ariva, in 1728. The Segnora (Geveret) synagogue was named after Dona Gracia Mendes and believed to have been founded by her.
However, the natural catastrophes that repeatedly hit the city destroyed the original buildings. New synagogues were established in the 19th century, among them the Shalom synagogue (1800), the Forasteros, and Beth Levi (1898). Many of the old synagogues of Izmir are distinguished by a unique architectural style. Their praying hall is either rectangular or square and divided into nine equal sections by four ceiling supporting columns situated in the center. The interior decorations are generally of wood and reflect local decorating traditions common to Western Anatolia and the adjacent Greek islands of eastern Aegean Sea.
It should pointed out that the building of the Mahazikei Torah synagogue, also known as the Sonsino synagogue, provoked the anger of the local Turkish authorities who subsequently ordered its demolition because of its alleged resemblance to the local Hisar mosque. It took the community many efforts to cancel this edict. By the end of the 19th century in the Shalom, Talmud Torah and other synagogues belonging to this architectural style, the tevah has been moved towards the western wall reflecting an Italian influence. Bet Israel synagogue, the largest and most elegant in Izmir, was built by specially employed Italian artisans in the 1900s. It shows modern European influences, notably by the location of the tevah close to the Holy Ark towards the southern wall. By the end of the 19th century, there were in Izmir a total of ten synagogues and eight prayer-houses.
During the 19th century, the cultural activity diversified with the publication of the first Ladino newspaper, La Buena Esperansa (since 1842, for a short while). The paper Shaare Mizrah (Puertas del Oriente), by Refael Uziel Pincherle, started 4 years later. La Buena Esperansa renewed publication once again in 1870. At least five other periodicals, among them El Novelista (1889-1922), and El Messerret (1897-1922), all published in Ladino, the language of the local Jews, were published in Izmir at that period. After 1838, more than 110 books were published in Ladino, and by the end of the 19th century, many were volumes of poetry, novels, and stories, besides religious works. The Jewish traditional education and learning declined with fewer yeshivot and students; however, in 1847 Abraham Enriquez founded a new Talmud Torah that was subsequently enlarged in 1871. The first Alliance Israelite Universelle school for boys of was opened in 1878 followed a year later by a school for girls. A second vocational school for girls with 34 students was opened in 1884. By 1895 there were in Izmir four Jewish schools for boys with about 2,500 students and two Jewish schools for girls with some 500 students
The first Jewish hospital was opened in 1805; after 1840, the Rothschild family of Vienna enlarged and financed it for some years. The Rothschild hospital was closed in 1911, but three years later, a new Jewish hospital was opened in the Karatas district. During the 19th century, several charitable volunteer associations fulfilled many of the social and welfare activities of the community. Bikkur Holim and Bikkur Holim shel Nashim served as a Hevra Kadisha, while Hevra Kedosha shel Gvarim was responsible with the maintenance of the cemeteries. The needy families received financial support from Ozer Dalim association, and Hachnasat Orchim was in charge of foreign Jewish visitors to Izmir. There were additional associations who cared for orphans, underprivileged brides and needy patients. Part of the expenses of the Talmud Torah and the Jewish hospital were met from the revenues generated by a lottery organized by Gemillut Hassadim association. In addition, the community received substantial financial support from a number of donors: a new cemetery in Burnabat (today Bornova, a town in the province of Izmir) was purchased with the help of Alexander Sidi while Nissim Crispin dedicated his efforts to the benefit of the Alliance schools. The Barons Edmond de Rothschild and Maurice de Hirsch, too, contributed to the welfare of the Jewish community of Izmir.
The leadership of the community consisted of two main bodies: the Beth Din who acted as a legal court and dealt with the civil and commercial disputes among Jews and sometimes also with disputes between Jews and non-Jews. It generally had between three to seven members and sometimes was headed by the chief rabbi of Izmir. The Community Council, on the other hand, had twelve members elected annually. The Council was responsible with the administrative functions of the community, including collecting the taxes. In the second half of the 19th century, the community adopted new and more democratic methods of governing. They lead to an increased participation of the community members in the decision making process and on the other hand to the introduction of some limits to the authority of the chief rabbi.
The earliest Jewish cemetery located in Bahri Baba, which had been in use since the 17th century until the early 19th century, was destroyed in early 20th century to make room for the new urban developments. In addition to the Burnabat cemetery, the Gür Çeşme cemetery was used between the end of the 19th century until the 1930s. The new cemetery still in use opened in the 1930s.
The 19th century saw a degradation of the general relations between the Jewish community and the Greek population of Izmir. Already in the late 18th century anti Jewish accusations had been vociferated by some sections of the Greek population; during the second half of the 19th century there was an upsurge in blood-label accusations with six cases between 1864 and 1901. The Ottoman police interfered to protect the Jewish population, most notably in 1872, when two Jews were murdered because of the Greek attacks, and in 1901, when the Greek mob threatened to storm the Jewish neighborhoods.
During the 19th century some Jews managed to obtain the protection of European powers, especially there was a significant number of families who became Italian nationals, followed by small numbers of French citizens while others, like the Palache and the Leon families, acquired the protection of the Netherlands.
The 20th Century
The Jewish population of Izmir has been since the middle of the 19th century in a steadily decline. Out of about 40,000 Jews in 1868, making Izmir the third largest Jewish community in the Ottoman Empire, after Salonika and Istanbul, there remained only 25,000 in the early years of the 20th century. The second number included a small Ashkenazi community founded by Jewish refugees from Russia in 1905. The collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the ensuing Turko-Greek war (1919-1921) that had ravaged the region of Izmir and badly damaged the city, brought about a renewed exodus of the local Jews with many moving to Greece or emigrating to France, the United States, and Argentina. In 1927, there were about 17,000 Jews in Izmir, and twenty years later approximately 15,000. Following the establishment of the State of Israel, some 10,000 Jews of Izmir made aliyah. In the early 1960s, there were less than 2,000 Jews in Izmir, but later their number grew to about 3,000 in the 1970s. There are now about 2,400 Jews in Izmir out of a total population of 2,300,000 inhabitants, making it the second largest Jewish community in Turkey, after Istanbul.
There were a number of volunteer associations active in the Jewish community of Izmir: Liga de Pas (“The League for Peace”), known after 1925 by its Turkish name – Yardim ve Kardeslik Cemiyeti (“The Association of Assistance and Brotherhood”), was founded in 1909 and devoted its activities to the modernization of the community.
During World War II, the Jewish community of Izmir was instrumental in rescuing about one thousand Jews from the German occupied Greek Aegean islands. After December 1943, with the help of Greek partisans, groups of Greek Jews had been smuggled to Turkey in small boats. The Jewish community of Izmir offered to shelter them until the British authorities in Istanbul issued them the necessary authorizations to emigrate to Palestine.
The dramatic decline in population during the early 1950s caused the shutting down of several community institutions, among them the Alliance Israelite Universelle school, though it was opened again in 1959. In the 1960s there functioned only one Jewish school and two synagogues, the community still maintained a hospital and a rabbinical court headed by Chief Rabbi Moreno Siegora until his death in 1966. In 1970, there were still some organized youth activities.
Most of the Jews who remained in Izmir during the last decades of the 20th century were active as merchants, some of them exporters and industrialists. The general economic situation of the community was good and they enjoyed good relations with the local Turkish population, except for some attacks on Jewish shops during the demonstrations connected with the problem of Cyprus in September 1955.
The current religious life of the Izmir community is concentrated mainly around two synagogues: the Bet Israel synagogue and Shaar Hashamaym, a new synagogue located in the modern district of Alsancak that also houses the offices of the local rabbinate and community. The cultural activities are promoted by the Liga benevolent association established in 1909. However, the veteran Talmud Torah school, founded in 1847 by Abraham Enrikez, and expanded in 1871, was closed in 1998 and the remaining students transferred to the local American school. At that time, some 150 children attended the Jewish elementary school with Turkish as the language of instruction and Hebrew taught for 15 hours a week. Today there is no longer any Jewish elementary school. A Sunday School for children was started in 2010 with the efforts of Izmir-born educator Dina Eliezer of Israel and the United States.
The Jewish hospital in Karatas now admits non-Jewish patients as well. An old age home is located in an adjoining building.
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