The Last Jews of Ankara: A Once-thriving Jewish Community Dwindles to Near-extinction

The ancient Turkish community dates back to biblical times but today its 24 members struggle to make a minyan on Yom Kippur

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Congregants praying in the Ankara Synagogue, September 2017.
Congregants praying in the Ankara Synagogue, September 2017.Credit: Davide Lerner

“The Jews of Ankara are so far and few between that I can fit them all around my dining room table,” says Israel's ambassador to Turkey, Eitan Na’eh, as he surveys the congregants for Yom Kippur services in the nearly empty synagogue.

Located in Ulus, the tumbling old quarter of Turkey’s capital, the synagogue dates back to the 19th century and was radically refurbished by an Italian architect in 1906. Na’eh is surrounded by a sea of little carpets that are laid out on the synagogue benches, which remain unoccupied throughout the holy day.

In 1923, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk proclaimed Ankara the capital of the newly founded Turkish republic, but the history of the city — and that of its Jewish community — date back much further.

The Torah scroll is removed from the ark during a prayer service, Ankara Synagogue, September 2017. At right is Israeli Ambassador Eitan Na’eh.Credit: Davide Lerner

The Jewish community of Ankara can be traced back to the biblical period. The Byzantine-era Jews, known as Romaniots, inhabited central Anatolia well before a wave of thousands of Sephardi Jews came to the region following their expulsion from Spain in 1492. The community peaked at about 5,000 members in the 1930s, according to researcher Enver Arcak, who has produced a new documentary, “Hermana,” (“Sister” in Spanish) on the history of the local Jews.

Ankara’s Jewish community now numbers a mere 24 people, and that includes the Jewish members of the diplomatic corps and UN officials posted in the city. Just a few of the 24 turned up promptly for the start of Saturday morning’s Yom Kippur service, which was led by a rabbi sent from Istanbul. It took several hours and many desperate phone calls to gather a minyan, the minimum of 10 male Jews required to start the prayers.

“When I was a child the whole neighborhood of Samanpazari of Ulus was bustling with Jewish life,” bemoans Can Ozgun, president of the local Jewish community. “The synagogue was open every day,” adds Moshe, one of the community elders.

Congregants at the Ankara Synagogue, including Israeli Ambassador Eitan Na'eh, right, September 2017. Credit: Davide Lerner

“Now I only open it once or twice a year,” Ozgun says, fidgeting with the keys to the synagogue. The rest of the year Ozgun is rarely available, declining requests to open the synagogue for curious passersby.

In his documentary, Arcak tries to identify the key turning points in the Jewish depopulation of Ankara and the region. “Thousands of Jews, as well as Greeks and Armenians, were forced to leave Turkey in 1942 after the issuing of the so-called levy on wealth and extraordinary profits,” he says. “The tax was deliberately tailored to transfer their riches to ethnic Turks by requesting sums from the minorities that they were unable to pay.”

Against the backdrop of an economic slump following World War II, another wave of Turkish Jews left for the newly founded State of Israel, Arcak explains. While Turkey’s neutrality during WWII helped save the Turkish community from the fate of European Jewry, Turkey did not prove immune to the postwar economic downturn that crippled much of Europe. Like many other Europeans, Ankara’s Jews packed their bags to search for better economic fortunes overseas, heading to North America and Israel; others settled closer to home, in Istanbul and Izmir.

Prayer led from the pulpit of Ankara Synagogue. Credit: Esther Judah

By the 1960s and '70s, the Jews of Ankara numbered 500 to 600 people. “We would sit in the right-hand corner [of the synagogue] squeezed together,” recalls Ozgun’s wife, Vicky. “That’s where the young people would sit, and our mothers would sit on the central balcony over there,” she continues, pointing to the empty, dusty women’s balcony above. Broken neon lights flicker above the terrace. On the ornate ceiling, with cracked, peeling paint, a chandelier dangles above us, half its bulbs burned out.

Moshe was born across the street from the synagogue in 1948 and is a proud speaker of Ladino, the Judeo-Spanish dialect. “We are the last generation to keep the language alive,” he says. Moshe and his wife grew up in the Jewish quarter of the old city, which lies below the Roman citadel. “We moved away from Ulus in 1956 toward Kizilay, the modern central quarter of the city, where there was running water and electricity; we then moved upward toward Ayranci, the city’s hilly residential area,” he recalls.

Moshe now lives in a modern high-rise apartment block a far cry from the abandoned houses in front of the synagogue, in the heart of what is now the slums of Ulus. “With the jobs [available] in Istanbul, people moved on,” he says, especially as they became less involved in civil service and government institutions in the capital. Most Jews are in trade and found better work opportunities on the Bosphorus, he adds.

The ark of Torah scrolls at the Ankara Synagogue.Credit: Esther Judah

With the exception of some 1,400 Jews who live in Izmir, Istanbul is home to almost all of Turkey’s 17,000 Jews. But there, too, the community has been shrinking. As many as 500 Jews have left for Israel since the July 2016 failed coup that ushered in another era of political and economic instability in Turkey. Of those who have remained, thousands have obtained Spanish and Portuguese citizenship, based on laws passed in both countries offering citizenship to descendants of Jews exiled from the Iberian Peninsula in 1492.

As Yom Kippur draws to a close, one of the elderly women of the community slumps down in her chair next to me. “It breaks my heart that he married a Muslim,” she laments while flicking through her phone showing me pictures of her son’s wedding, where he is pictured standing next to a pretty Turkish woman in a décolleté dress.

The last wedding in Ankara’s synagogue was held in 2008; the one before that, 16 years earlier. With the closing prayers of Yom Kippur, she slips her phone back in her purse, and the muezzin's call from the local mosque echoes through the broken window. Before long, she grabs her phone again, this time to film the pinnacle of the Yom Kippur prayers, the ne’ila, and send the clip to her son.

When it comes to religious observance, the community is very relaxed, with members using their phones in the synagogue. Indeed, the Jews of Istanbul make fun of the president of the Ankara community, Ozgun, who is a wholesale supplier of non-kosher meat.

Before the closing prayers and the symbolic shutting of the front door, the women fuss over Can and Vicky’s daughter, a tall woman in her early 20s, with long brown hair. “You have to go to Israel to find yourself a husband darling,” one of the women tells her. “Hedi, hedi,” they add for good measure — the Turkish word for “c’mon.”

Intermarriage has played as important a role in the disappearance of the local community as migration has.

“We can’t remember the last person to have used the mikveh,” says Hannah, one of Ankara’s elderly Jews, referring to the ritual bath where a woman immerses herself before her wedding. “It must be somewhere around here,” she adds. “I assume it’s under some rubble around the synagogue. When I was married we used the hamam,” she chuckles, referring to the Turkish bath.

The last rabbi of Ankara’s community immigrated to Israel in the 1980s. In the wake of a coup in 1980, the community sent half of its Torah scrolls to Israel for safekeeping, but they have gone missing, say local Jews. In the run-up to the military takeover that year, which included violent clashes between left-wing and right-wing factions in universities and public places, many Jews and other Turks left for good.

At the end of the Yom Kippur service the Torah scrolls are taken to a back room, more of a former janitor’s cubby hole for safekeeping, “in case they are stolen or if there is a fire,” says Meir, a younger member of the community, who clings to the scrolls tightly.

Ozgun, holder of the key and president of the tiny community, ushers the few remaining Jews out the door and flicks the lights off. “Will see you next year, Inshallah,” Vicky waves as she watches her husband lock the gates of the centuries-old synagogue. Before she bids her final goodbye she turns and adds, “that is, if we are still here next year.”

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