Rediscover Modern-Day Jewish Life in Istanbul, Turkey

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    The history of the Turkish Jews can be traced back to the 15th century, when most of the Jewish population migrated from Western Europe during the Spanish Inquisition in 1478, and the Jewish presence in the region goes back much further. The Ottoman Sultan of the time invited the Sephardic Jews to the Ottoman Empire, where they settled in the eastern Mediterranean in major urban centers such as Istanbul, Smyrna, and Salonica. These Sephardic Jews established significant communities and greatly influenced local culture and society while maintaining their own cultural traditions, such as the use of the Ladino language, which since then has been an integral part of Turkey’s cultural history.

    In modern times after the Republic, in the late 1930s and early 1940s, Turkey again opened its homes and universities to Jews who had fled Nazi oppression and persecution. In 1933, Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the Turkish Republic, invited many university professors of Jewish origin who were threatened by the Nazi regime. At the beginning of the 19th century, Turkey was home to more than 150,000 Jews. Today, there is a small but strong Jewish community, mainly settled in Istanbul, Izmir, and a few other cities in Turkey.

    Jewish life in Istanbul today

    Istanbul has a vibrant Jewish community with a total population of around 16,000, making it the second-largest Jewish community in a Muslim country (Iran is the first), with a great majority of 14,000 living in Istanbul. In Izmir, there are less than 1,000; 50–60 live in Bursa; 20–30 live in Adana; and 40–60 live in Antakya. Very small numbers live in other cities. In 1992, the community celebrated the 500th anniversary of its existence since the spring of 1492, when they came to Istanbul. The community is 97 percent Sephardic, and three percent are of Ashkenazim origin. There are also fewer than 100 Karaites living in Turkey, but they are generally not considered part of the Jewish community and don’t take part in its activities.

    Ortakoy Etz Ahayim Synagogue – New York Jewish Travel Guide

    There have been some demographic changes in where the Jewish population lives in Istanbul. Before the 1970s, they mostly lived within walking distance of each other, while today they mostly reside in the suburbs, further away from the city center. In the 1970s, most of the women in the community were housewives, but today, like in so many communities, most work outside of the home. Some statistics show that 75 percent of the Jewish population lives on the European side and 25 percent on the Asian side of Istanbul. The structure of the family is mostly “nuclear” today, consisting of parents and children. Jewish social life seems to be limited to Shabbat dinners and Jewish festivals when most of the family members get together.

    According to data from the Chief Rabbinate concerning the age distribution of the Turkish Jewish population, fifty percent of the population is between the ages of 25 and 55. Longevity has increased due to a healthier diet, more exercise, and better medical care. People over the age of 65 constitute 18 percent of the population. At the same time, there has been a decrease in people younger than 25 (a decrease of nine percent in the last five years). Death and emigration rates are much higher than birth rates.

    Beth Yaakov Synagogue – New York Jewish Travel Guide

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

    Istanbul’s Jews speak Turkish among themselves, even though most are fluent in French. Only the very elderly remember Ladino, the old language in which the 16-page Jewish weekly Salom was written; it is now written in Turkish, but with a circulation of 4,000, it still dedicates one or two pages to Ladino in each issue. Like most newspapers today, Salom can also be accessed on the internet. The number of kosher restaurants can be counted on one hand, however, and the only one left open today, Caffe Eden, is located in the picturesque neighborhood of Ortakoy.

    There are several charitable institutions that help the elderly, orphans, and individuals with disabilities. Many volunteers work at these institutions to raise funds. Two Jewish hospitals, the 98-bed Or-Chayim in Istanbul and the 22-bed Karata’s Hospital in Izmir serve the community. Both cities have homes for the elderly and several welfare associations to assist the poor, sick, needy children, and orphans.

    Balat Or-Ahayim Hastanesi The Jewish Community Hospital in Balat was built in 1897 with both local and foreign donations. This district is where the Jews settled after their expulsion from Spain. The community, also called ‘Yahudi Hastanesi’ (Jewish Hospital), has 120 beds, is owned and operated by a Jewish foundation, and is still operating today. There is a small synagogue inside the hospital named after the Kadoori family from Iraq, who donated generously to the building of the hospital. Though originally built by and for the Jews, today it serves a predominantly non-Jewish population.

     

    Balat Or-Ahayim Hastanesi Jewish Hospital – New York Jewish Travel Guide

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

    The Turkish Jewish community places major importance on education. The community Jewish school is the Ulus Jewish School, a program that starts in pre-school and continues through high school. The school has a 600-student population today and begins teaching Hebrew in the first grade. According to data from the Chief Rabbinate, there is no illiteracy among the Jews. Six percent of the Jewish population is made up of primary school graduates, 26 percent of middle school graduates, 45 percent of high school graduates, 29 percent of university graduates, and 4 percent of individuals with post-graduate degrees.

    Today, Turkish is the main language of the Sephardic home. English and Spanish are also popular, and 5 percent of Turkish Jews speak more than one language, including Spanish.

    The population is more dispersed in the summer, with many Jewish families running into each other at Buyukada, a traditional vacation spot on the largest of the Princess Islands in the Sea of Marmara. Successful merchants, businessmen, and doctors, Istanbul’s Jews leave their Jewish quarter of Balat, Hasköy, Kuzgunçuk (on the Asian side), and even the European old town next to Galata and Beyoglu, to settle in these new residential neighborhoods for the summer season.

    Büyükada Island – Istanbul – Turkey – New York Jewish Travel Guide

    Looking back on Jewish life all the way from the Ottoman Empire to its current time, visitors learned that Sephardic Jews were forced to flee Spain and create a brand-new life for themselves in order to survive. In Turkey, they found a way to honor the old and create a rich new Turkish Sephardic culture.

    Jews continue to coexist happily and peacefully in Turkey, making this corner of the world filled with a treasured heritage ripe for exploration and enjoyment.

     

     

     

     

    For more information, visit:

    To plan a trip to Turkey, contact the Turkey Tourism Promotion and Development Agency (TGA) or log on to https://www.tga.gov.tr/about-us/.

    Fly Turkish Airlines: https://www.turkishairlines.com/

    Ela Turizm: Historical Religious Tours https://www.elaturizm.com.tr/index.aspx

    Story and photography by Meyer Harroch, New York Jewish Travel Guide, and New York Jewish Guide.com

    The author took part in a press trip sponsored by the Turkey Tourism Promotion and Development Agency (TGA).

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