An Enduring Friendship

Seclusion was never a hallmark of the Jewish community in Turkey, as can be seen once again in a comprehensive new book by historian Yaron Ben-Naeh.

"Kehilot Israel Bamizrach Bameot Ha-19 Veha-20: Turkiya" ("Jewish Communities in the East in the 19th and 20th Centuries: Turkey" ), edited by Yaron Ben-Naeh, Ben Zvi Institute and the Education Ministry, 314 pages (in Hebrew )

Sultan Beyazid II

Much false resentment and manipulation of hatred have been evident lately between Turkey - the country considered to be the "heir" of the Ottoman Empire - and the country that is considered to represent the Jewish people. The latter are actually the very same people over whom the Ottoman Empire spread its protective wings, time after time, in times of trouble: first in the period that followed the Spanish Inquisition, when Sultan Bayezid II opened the gates of his kingdom to a people that suddenly found itself without a homeland. And once again, during World War II, when Turkey turned a blind eye and allowed a steady stream of European survivors to pass through it en route to Palestine.

In other words, the friendship between the Turkish and Jewish nations is firm and longstanding, and that is not simply words but a historical fact. For those requiring proof, here is a comprehensive new book that is intended to introduce the reader to the history of Jewish life in Turkey during recent centuries, from a variety of perspectives.

The book's editor, Hebrew University historian Dr. Yaron Ben-Naeh, got a hole in one (in my view ) with a revolutionary article that he wrote about homosexual practices among Jews in the Ottoman Empire, in which he described the tolerance for such phenomena on the part of the community's rabbis - who ostensibly ought to have censured them vehemently.

Since then Ben-Naeh has enlightened us in other articles about other matters, and in a thick book about the Jews of the Ottoman Empire in the 17th century entitled, "Yehudim Bemamlechet Hasultanim" ("Jews in the Realm of the Sultan," Magnes Press, 2006 ). In it he describes the mutual social and religious relations between the Jews and their surroundings in a tolerant kingdom that allowed them to exist and develop within an autonomous framework that was always open to the outside world. Seclusion was never a hallmark of this Jewry.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, the period covered in the new book, Turkish Jewry was exposed, slowly at first, and then at an accelerated pace, to modernism, secularism, nationalism and to the innovative arts - from dance and theater to cinema. There was never any explosive or blood-soaked revolutions here: Turkey's Jews knew to keep their heads down when necessary, and during the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and founding of the republic, they also knew to bet on the right side. But in any event, one does not find extremism of any kind in the community's history, nor sharp transitions or overly fierce rebellions against tradition, but rather, mainly, evolutionary processes and slow change - and plenty of tolerance, from every direction, albeit not without arguments and fights.

Indeed, there were debates surrounding education - whether Turkish, French, Jewish, or any combination thereof. This is the subject of the chapter written by Yaron Ben-Naeh. There were also conflicts between Jewish newspapers over the issue of Zionism versus assimilation (the subject of a chapter by Moshe Maggid ). One fascinating chapter in the book deals with the Sabbatean believers, whose ancestors converted to Islam along with Shabtai Tzvi, and who to this day observe traditions of their own that are shrouded in mystery.

So multifaceted was Turkish Jewry, and so impossible to describe fully, that I can attest firsthand, for example, that the history of my own family - one whose roots in Istanbul go back for generations - does not actually correspond to any of the categories in the book. Was my family in fact "Eastern"? "Turkish"? It was certainly Jewish, but according to a rather broad and vague definition of Judaism. For example, I can just see my parents and grandparents guffawing were someone to say they were fond of Turkish-Jewish folk music, liturgy or poetry, a subject which musicologist Edwin Seroussi expounds on with tremendous erudition in the book. In fact, music, in their eyes, and in the eyes of all their relatives and members of their circle, meant solely Western classical music.

Ben-Naeh's book outlines general phenomena and historical models. It cannot and does not presume to take in individual nuances. Nevertheless, this is a heartwarming and informative work, which provides, on the margins of every page, concise information about people, phenomena and terms of import to anyone interested in the subject. For instance (completely at random, on page 67 ) there are a few lines about Rabbi Dr. David Marcus, the Ashkenazi rabbi of Istanbul, a liberal and enlightened man - and grandfather of the senior correspondent for Haaretz, Yoel Marcus.

Rare photographs, from family and public archives, give the book a nostalgic air, for what appears there is a world that is gone forever. It is safe to assume that Jewish homes no longer serve jam as a refreshment in a "tabela di dulsi," and many of the synagogues featured in the old photos are not active or no longer exist. But documentation still exists because Turkish Jewry was lucky to have one precious gift that not many other communities in the world had: continuous habitation from the late Middle Ages to this day, which was made possible due to Turkish society's tolerance toward the Jews, and to the Jews' efforts to avoid making themselves loathsome to their environment by annoying separatism.

These days, however, the coexistence described in the book before us is under threat. But better days are still to come, and we shall yet exchange with each other the almond candies that we Jews call "confetti di disposario."