The Virtual Jewish History Tour
by Allison Krant
Izmir is home to a very ancient and historic Jewish community, dating back to the 2nd and 3rd centuries C.E., when the Greeks called it Smyrna. Located in western Anatolia at the edge of the Aegean Sea, Izmir’s Jews lived primarily around the market, the Kemeralti bazaar. Inscriptions from this time show that a Jewish community flourished in the old trading town, but it dwindled during the Middle Ages.
With the conquest of the area by the Ottoman Empire in the year 1424, many Jews began settling in Ottoman cities. Two Ottoman sultans extended invitations to the Jews persecuted in Western Europe, mostly from Spain and Portugal – from Muhammad II in the mid-15th century and from Bayazid II in 1492, during the time of the Spanish Expulsion. Most of them settled in places like Salonika (now called Thessaloniki), Manisa, and Tire, but in the middle of the 16th century, Jews began arriving in the seaport town of Smyrna.
By this time, Izmir (Smyrna) had become one of the most important trading centers in the Levant, and because of this, attracted many Jewish merchants, and an organized Jewish community began in the year 1605.
By the beginning of the 17th century, Jews had set up their own synagogues, established their own leadership institutions, and had made contact with other Jewish communities of the Ottoman Empire. The first rabbi of Izmir was Rabbi Isaac HaLevi Dayan, who came from Istanbul, and settled there in 1609. Other rabbis played a role in shaping Izmir’s Jewish community, such as Rabbi Yosef Ishkapa, who came around 1620, and Rabbi Isaac De Alba. In 1648, Joseph Escapa of Salonika was appointed rabbi over all the congregations, and Izmir had become one of the three major Jewish centers in the Ottoman world.
The Jews from Izmir came from a variety of different places. Some came from the surrounding villages and towns, such as Manisa, Tire, and Salonika, while others came from farther places both inside outside the Ottoman Empire, such as Istanbul, Safed, Ankara, many islands in the Aegean and Mediterranean seas, Italy, and Holland. Other Jews in Izmir at this time were Portuguese converts who had left the Iberian Peninsula and returned to Judaism. In the 1620s and 1630s, they set up their own synagogue called Portugal-Neve Shalom, which later split into two congregations, Portugali and Neve Shalom.
In 1626, Shabbatei Zvi was born in Izmir, the charismatic founder of the Shabta’ut movement, or Sabbatean Messianism. His family had originally arrived from Moria, Greece. In the mid-17th century, Shabbatei Zvi pronounced himself the Messiah, and immediately gained thousands of followings across the Jewish world, but he was thrown out of the city by the rabbis. Under pressure from the Ottomans, Shabbatei Zvi later converted to Islam in 1666, alienating many of his followers.
Jews in Izmir were known as Dhimmis, non-Muslim citizens of a Muslim country. They enjoyed freedom of religion, and could have their own educational establishments and court systems. Dhimmis paid a personal tax, called Gizia, in exchange for government protection, but generally lived a life with very few restrictions or infringements on their personal freedom.
There was a very active Jewish communal life in Izmir in the 17th century, which consisted of six different congregations, including Kahal Bakish (Sason), built in the Kish yard in the 16th century; Kahal Portugal and Neve Shalom, presided over by Rabbi Haim and his son Israel Benbenishti, and included some friends of Shabbatei Zvi that helped shape his ideology; Kahal Pinto, built in the 1640s or 1650s and included an adjacent yeshiva; Kahal Giveret (Senvora), founded in 1660 which still exists today; Kahal Algazi, built in the 1660s, and was the location of the “Affair on Shabbat,” when Shabbatei Zvi declared his control of the community; and Kahal Orchim, which was destroyed during an earthquake in 1688 and subsequently rebuilt, and was one of Rabbi Haim Abulafia’s synagogues in the 1830s.
In 1631, the Jewish community of Izmir named a Chief Rabbinate to preside over all over the congregations. Two important rabbis helped shape Jewish communal life – Rabbi Yosef Ishkapa in the 1650s, and Rabbi Haim Benbenishti in the 1660s. Sephardic Jewish life dominated the culture of Izmir during this time, and the Jewish communal structure was extremely vibrant.
18th and 19th centuries
In 1772, a huge fire ravished Izmir, and all of the synagogues were destroyed. This began a process of the breaking down of the Jewish social structure, when many Jewish families were forced to move to new areas of the city, away from their original congregation. It was not until 1792 that new synagogues were built to replace the old ones. Three new congregations were founded – Shalom, Bikur Holim, Etz Haim – on rented land. In 1801, the Ottomans gave their permission for construction of the synagogues to begin.
In addition to the destruction of the synagogues, the breaking down of the Jewish social structure was exacerbated by the growing gap between the rich and poor. In the 1840s, communities began to form on the basis of a certain guild, called gildas, rather than a certain congregation, and social divisions based on class began to develop.
Throughout the 1860s, Jews founded their own institutions, like schools and hospitals, and the community began to modernize. In 1873, the European organization, Alliance Israelite Universelle, established a Jewish school for boys, and five years later, the Alliance founded a Jewish school for girls. The Alliance was originally founded in 1860, with the hopes of improving the education of Ottoman Jewry. Three Jewish newspapers were founded at the turn of the century as well.
This time period marked a chance in Izmir’s Jews, especially with the establishment of the Alliance school. The French-speaking graduates became the next leaders of the Jewish community and began adopting Western dress, became less religiously observant, lived in large Spanish-style homes near the central market, and worked as bankers or in the trade services.
By the end of the 19th century, Jewish life in Izmir flourished, and there were 55,000 Jews living there. But due to the worsening economic situation in the Ottoman Empire, a mass migration of Jews from Izmir took place in the early 20th century, mainly to the Americas, Western Europe, and Israel, which brought the population down to 25,000 by 1905.
World War I
By the start of World War I, Jews held many influential positions in Izmir, including high positions in economics, politics, and journalism. But after the Young Turks revolt of 1908, Jews and Christians alike began to be drafted into the Ottoman army and many Jewish families were beset by poverty and unemployment during this time, as the main breadwinners of the family were hauled off to war.
In 1919, Izmir was conquered by Greece during the Greco-Turkish War (1919-1922), but was taken back by Ataturk’s solders in 1922. A few days later, the city was ravaged by a fire, which destroyed the Greek, Armenian, and European quarters, the most active commercial centers of Izmir, and destroyed all of the Jewish shops and homes. With the establishment of the Turkish Republic in 1923, many Jews chose to emigrate. Under the Ottomans, the Jews had lived virtually autonomous and were allowed their own Chief Rabbinate, religious courts, and elected communal council. With Ataturk’s reforms, the Jewish community was now relegated to a religious entity only. Many efforts were made by the Turkish authorities to turn the Jews into good Turkish citizens.
After the Great Depression of 1929, the Jewish community of Izmir dwindled rapidly, and by the 1940s, the population had shrunk to nearly 10,000. The mass migration reached its peak in the 1950s, when almost all of Izmir’s remaining Jews left for the new state of Israel.
Jewish life today
Today, most Jews in Izmir live in the upscale neighborhood of Alsancak, near Mustafa Ender Boulevard, also known as Mustafa Bey. Izmir is Turkey’s third largest city with a population of nearly 4 million people, where the Jews number around 1,700.
Sites and Information
Jewish Community Administration
Sha’ar Hashamaim Synagogue
Bikur Holim Synagogue
Giveret (Senora) Synagogue
Etz Hayyim Synagogue
Beth Israel Synagogue
Rosh Ha’ar Synagogue
Gur Cesme Cemetery
Jewish tour guides:
Patisserie Angelina (Jewish-owned Turkish and Sephardic pastry shop)
Sources: Hecht, Esther. "Izmir." Hadassah Magazine. October 2006.