WATCH: A Look Inside the Jewish Community of Izmir

A visit to the port city on Turkey’s Aegean coast and its dwindling community.

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IZMIR - Amidst the fish market and shoe kiosks in Izmir’s Kemeralti market is a discrete complex of historic synagogues.  Here, in what was once the heart of a vibrant Jewish quarter, remains a small community with a long and distinguished heritage.

This Aegean port city once had 40,000 Jews at its peak, late in the 19th Century. The first Jews arrived over two millennia ago to the Hellenistic city known then as Smyrna.  The main growth came in the 16th and 17th Centuries, the Sephardim expelled from Spain and invited by the Ottoman rulers to settle here. Their arrival enhanced a growing diverse city, still known for its progressive reputation.

Finding a friendly reception, Jews flourished under Moslem rule, mainly as traders, small businessmen, as well as scholars and civic leaders. Ashkenazi Jews arrived much later, fleeing other parts of Europe or seeking opportunity.

Today, only 1400 Jews remain in Izmir.  Sami Azar, the President of the dwindling community, is proud of its heritage, but realistic about its future.

“When I was a boy, there was a lively Jewish community with  the school, sports clubs, synagogues packed on the holidays," said Sami, 66.  “Today, only on the High Holidays do we find meaningful numbers in the synagogues.” He adds that the Jewish school had to be closed down, as well as the Jewish hospital.

Most of the community is elderly, as the younger generations have left, many going abroad owing to the uncertain economic and political situation. There is a youth club, the “League,” supported by a JDC volunteer from Australia, Warren Steinberg.  JDC has also been helpful to Jewish community programs in Istanbul.

THE JEWS OF IZMIR from Heritage Productions Int'l on Vimeo.

Video via Jewish Discoveries

The synagogues, those that remain, can easily be missed by their plain exteriors. But inside, it’s a different story. The Shalom synagogue, where a daily minyan takes place, has a bima, or ‘tevah’ as known among the Sephardim, a wooden deck protruding well above the congregation. It’s design, according to legend, is to symbolize the boats that brought Jews from Spain after the Inquisition.

Bikur Holim Synagogue, also in the market area, was built in 1724, renovated a few times, and active today. Its name evokes a time when it also functioned as a hospital for Jews during a cholera epidemic in the city. In its center is an elevated ark, supported by four columns; a faux marble canopy the ceiling is decorated with geometrical patterns. Congregants sit on low, cushioned benches, with floral Ottoman patterns, surrounding the tevah, with embroidered carpets on the floor.

The Senora synagogue, said to be build with the sponsorship of Dona Garcia Nasi, the 16th Century Sephardic patron.  Twin tevahs placed in the front of the hall are possibly result of Ashkenazi influence.  Outside, there are several gravestones that were excavated. The oldest Jewish tombstone in Izmir, according to Sami Azar, dates back to 1499.

Nearby is the Portugal Synagogue. Closed and badly in need of renovation In 1665, the messianic Shabbetai Zevi and 500 of his followers occupied the building, becoming the center of his growing network.

Other historic synagogues also closed and in badly need of repair are Etz HaHaim, the oldest in the city, and Hevra.

Most of Izmir’s Jews moved to the more comfortable Alsancak district. There, the Sha’ar Hashamaim synagogue is community focal point, used for Shabbat services, bar mitzvahs, weddings, and holiday celebrations. Its twin bimas, jutting out with carved wood and floral patterns, make for a unique design.

Last, the Beit Israel Synagogue, the largest in the community and most active today Completed in 1907, when most Jews left the market district, it shows a different, more confident aspect of Izmir Jewry. With its tall, imposing façade and front-facing seating, the synagogue departs from the traditional modest Sephardic structures in Izmir.  On the second floor is a small exhibit on the history and heritage of Izmir’s Jews.

There is no longer a kosher restaurant or butcher in Izmir.  But Sephardic culinary tradition is continued by David Halegua, 29, the owner of Locanta, a restaurant located outside the Jewish quarter, on a busy plaza.  Halegua, who was born and grew up in Izmir, wanted to create a restaurant that would preserve the Sephardic cuisine that he had an s child.  He realized keeping a kosher restaurant would not be feasible. Instead, he and his partner established the café/restaurant that features diverse minority traditions in Turkey – Armenian, Greek, Levantine, and of course, Sephardic.

Halegua is something of a food historian with a passion for culinary traditions. Like so many Sephardic Jews, he came to appreciate cuisine at the Shabbat dinners prepared by his mother and grandmother. 

“You will find many dishes in Izmir that are influenced by the Sephardic cosine”, says Halegua. Jews, he explains, played a dominant role in the bazaar as traders and food merchants. Also, he says, Turkish culture and local ingredients influenced the Sephardic kitchen.

One of the most popular dishes, almost iconic in Izmir, is ‘boyoz”, a pastry made with tahini and served with a hard-boiled egg. Its origins are traced back five centuries to the Sephardim.

While the Jewish numbers of Izmir inexorably dwindle, there is an effort to preserve the Jewish quarter for its heritage and visitors. The Izmir Project, a joint effort of the Jewish community and municipality, to restore synagogues, historic buildings and to transform the old Jewish quarter into a cultural site for visitors.

Recommendations

How to get there:

Turkish Airlines flies daily from the United States and Israel to Istanbul and provides frequent connections to Izmir.

Hotel:

The Movenpick Hotel is within walking distance of tourist attractions and most of Izmir’s synagogues.

Restaurants:

Locanta, featuring Sephardic dishes. Owner/chef David Haleagua, grew up in Izmir’s Jewish community. Not kosher.

Mavra  Restaurant on the Kardon seafront, specializing in fish.