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 from 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, İzmir, and a few other cities in Turkey.
Jewish Life in Istanbul Today
Istanbul has a vibrant Jewish community with a total population is around 16,000 – 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 in Bursa, 20-30 in Adana, and 30-40 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 of Sephardic origin and three percent are of Ashkenazim origin. There are also less than 100 Karaites living in Turkey, but they are generally not considered a part of the Jewish community and don’t take any part in its activities.
There have been some demographic changes in where the Jewish population lived in Istanbul before the 1970s they mostly lived within walking distance from each other while today they most reside in the suburbs and 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.
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 Jewish weekly 16-page Salom was written now in Turkish, and 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 aged and several welfare associations to assist the poor, sick, needy children, and orphans.
Balat Or-Ahayim Hastanesi Jewish Community Hospital in Balat was built in 1897 with both local and foreign donations. This district is where Jews settled after their expulsion from Spain. The community is also called ‘Yahudi Hastanesi’ (Jewish Hospital) 120-bed 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 had donated generously to the building of the hospital. Though originally built by and for the Jews, today it serves a predominantly non-Jewish population
The Turkish Jewish community places major importance on education. The community Jewish school is the Ulus Jewish School, a program that starts from pre-school and continues through high school. The school has a 600-student population today and begins teaching Hebrew starting from 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.
Looking back on Jewish life all the way back from the Ottoman Empire to its current time, visitors learned that Sephardic Jews were forced to flee Spain, and created 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 & photography by Meyer Harroch – New York Jewish Travel Guide & New York Jewish Guide.com
The author took part in a press trip sponsored by the Turkey Tourism Promotion and Development Agency (TGA)