The Jews of Istanbul, who have lived for centuries along the shores of the Golden Horn, never tire of one particular sea story: In 1492, Christopher Columbus set sail from the tiny port of Palos . . . because the harbors at Cadiz and Seville were jammed with boatloads of Sephardic Jews expelled from Spain by his royal sponsors.
Columbus went west to uncertainty. Around 60,000 Jews exiled that year by Ferdinand and Isabella came east to official welcome in lands of the Ottoman Empire. Thousands more joined them after an interim stop in Portugal.
Now, their Turkish descendants are preparing a yearlong celebration of a Jewish tradition that since the 15th Century has flourished in an Islamic universe.
“There is no other example of a Jewish minority living as well in a Muslim country,” said Yakup Barouh, an advertising agency owner who is president of the community.
The celebration, by a Jewish minority that has preserved its language--a cousin of Spanish--as well as its religious and cultural identity, will be both a kind of 500th birthday party and a thanksgiving.
“We want to send the world a message that we have been living here peacefully for centuries while other Jewish communities have suffered in many lands of Europe,” said Sami Kohen, a prominent Istanbul newspaper columnist and Turkish nationalist. “Jews here have been almost immune to state repression. We are proud of that. We want to pay tribute to Turkey.”
Today, about 26,000 Jews live in Turkey, including around 2,500 in the southern city of Ismir, and about 100 in the capital at Ankara. The five-rabbi, 15-synagogue Istanbul community runs a Jewish hospital, an old-age home and its own 600-student school. The principal is Muslim.
“I think it’s more important to celebrate 500 years of acceptance here than to remember the expulsion by visiting Spain,” said Arthur Jablon of Los Angeles, one of a growing number of American visitors who tour Jewish sites in Istanbul, a metropolis better known for its minarets.
In Ottoman days, when Istanbul, then Constantinople, was a small town, Jews were 10% of the city’s population. About 80,000 Jews lived in Turkey as recently as 1927, according to Stanford J. Shaw, a UCLA professor cooperating with the quincentennial celebrations.
The numbers were thinned by subsequent exoduses, principally for economic reasons. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, Havana was a popular destination. “People said, ‘What do we know? We know Spanish.’ So they went to Cuba,” said Nedim Yayha, the community’s avid amateur historian.
Emigration to the United States created communities of Turkish Jews in Los Angeles and Philadelphia, and many Jewish Cuban exiles in Miami today also trace their ancestry through the Bosporus. Kohen, visiting Havana six years ago, found that the octogenarian caretaker of a tiny synagogue there was an Istanbul native.
During World War II, Turkish Jews survived unscathed at home, and often were protected by Turkish diplomats in Nazi-occupied parts of Europe. Yayha remembers standing in the rain on the Istanbul docks with Vatican Nuncio Angelo Roncalli, who had come to help welcome a boatload of Jews fleeing Bulgaria. The nuncio would pass into history as Pope John XXIII, but to Yayha he will always be “Monsignor Roncalli.”
After World War II, many Jews left for Israel. Yayha says 130,000 Turkish Jews live there today, many of them around Bat Yam near Tel Aviv, where Turkish language, music and food are part of the landscape.
The relatives whom Israel’s Turks left behind lived peacefully in the Middle East caldron until 1986. Two gunmen, outsiders, burst into the historic Neve Shalom synagogue during services at 9:17 a.m. on Saturday, Sept 6. They murdered 22 worshipers and a custodian, then died themselves.
The terrorists were Arabs, not Turks. As the Jews of Turkey will confirm, such violence is not the way Turks have ever behaved toward Jews.
“Sure, sometimes kids throw stones at synagogues, and there are anti-Semitic remarks, but there’s never been a Jew killed by the state. Anti-Semitism is not a problem here,” said Kohen, three decades a Turkish newspaperman. “When I started in journalism, I expected antagonism. It never came. I write a featured column for a big newspaper, and I’ve never even gotten a letter.”
The rabbi comes walking to services each Saturday in a working-class district of Istanbul called Balat. Weekly services draw up to 100 people there, says caretaker Korin Soriano, although only 17 Jewish families still live in the neighborhood; the rest have moved to the suburbs. But if the rabbi walks to observe the Sabbath, most of his flock doesn’t.
“We are entirely Orthodox as a religious community, but members (are) not really Orthodox. For community events we keep kosher, but not at home,” said Barouh. Prayers are sung in Hebrew, but the melody is Turkish, and during services worshipers pray for the wealth of their country and the health of their (Muslim) president, naming him.
In 1892, Jews celebrated their 400th anniversary with a courtesy visit to the Sultan. This time, they are more ambitious. The 500th celebrations range from conferences and a photography competition to performances next summer by the Israel Philharmonic.
Istanbul’s Jews are also building a new school, creating a museum in one disused synagogue and restoring another built in 1420 by Jews who had moved to Constantinople from Macedonia long before the Ottoman conquest in 1453.
A hallmark of the Jewish community is its vanishing language, Ladino, also known as Judeo-Spanish. “It has never been taught in schools, but has survived 500 years exclusively through oral tradition,” said Yayha.
Ladino, which incorporates some Portuguese nouns and verbs, sounds like Spanish a long way from home.
“We’re trying to teach Ladino to the children, but it is a dying language,” said Barouh, 46. “My father and grandfather spoke Ladino, but I speak Turkish with my wife. We talk Ladino when we don’t want the kids to understand.”