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Encyclopaedia Judaica

Jews in Turkey 04: Community life

Press - chief rabbis - schooling - language questions

from: Encyclopaedia Judaica 1971, vol. 15

presented by Michael Palomino (2008)

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<Cultural, Religious, and Social Life.

[Close of the Hebrew press in 1944 - chief rabbis]

There was a dramatic decline of interest in Judaism and Jewish culture among Turkish Jewry in the period between the two world wars and for a few years after it. The last Hebrew press closed in 1944, when its proprietor emigrated to Erez Israel.

After the death in 1931 of the hakham bashi [[chief rabbi]] R. Bekhor Hayyim *Bejarano, the official representative of Turkish Jewry, the community did not even feel an immediate necessity to appoint a successor. This absence of a spiritual leader not only led to religious indifference but also to apathy. As the hakham bashi was responsible for leading all activities of all Jewish communities in the Turkish republic, his absence was felt in every field of Jewish life. After a long interval Turkish Jewry decided to elect another hakham bashi, and R. Raphael David Saban was appointed to head the chief rabbinate (1953-60). He was succeeded by R. David Asseo in 1960. The hakham bashi is assisted by a religious council consisting of a rosh bet din [[court]] (also bearing the title mara de atra) and four hakhamim [[wise men]]. The lay council of the hakham bashi deals with secular-social matters concerning the Jewish community; it consists of 19 members (Sephardim and Ashkenazim).

Jewish Communal Schools.

[No Zionism - Turkish and Ladino - Hebrew only for prayers permitted]

Turkish Jewry maintained its own educational institutions. However, the syllabus in all of them was the same as in government schools. When state opposition to religion was reduced (1948), Jews were permitted to teach Hebrew and religion in their schools (for (col. 1460)

following the prayers). The Turkish government forbade all Zionist activity as well as the existence of organizations with centers abroad which propagated non-Turkish nationalism. Since most Jewish children attended school, illiteracy fell, and almost all of them spoke Turkish, although most of them also spoke Ladino.

Istanbul had four Jewish communal schools and one high school (founded in 1922 as Lycée Juif [[Jewish grammar school]] by the *Bnai Brith Lodge). The Turkish language was the compulsory medium of instruction in all state schools, and in private schools at the primary level. The Jewish schools obtained permission to give one course in elementary Hebrew, needed for reciting the prayers, but not to give instruction in Jewish history and literature.

[Alphabet question 1928 - Ladino newspapers in Latin scripture - Jewish publications in Turkish or French - young Jewish generation is not Jewish fanatic any more - mixed marriages]

Abraham *Galanté was one of the enthusiastic supporters of the spread of Turkish and one of the sponsors of replacing the Arabic script by the Latin alphabet (1928). Ladino periodicals, which had previously appeared in Hebrew script, began to be printed in Latin characters. Two of them in Istanbul, Shalom (edited by Avram Leyon) and La Vera Luz (edited by Eliezer Menda), survived; a third, Étoile du Lévant [["Levantene Star"]], published in French, ceased in 1948. The monthly periodical (later a quarterly) Hamenorah [["The candlestand"]] published by the B'nai B'rith (1923-38) and edited by David Marcus in three languages (Hebrew, Ladino, and French), carried many important articles concerning the history of Ottoman Jewry.

Present-day Jewish writers published their works in Turkish or French. The Jewish poet Joseph Habib *Gerez wrote in Turkish and described the glories of Istanbul. The library of the chief rabbinate was little used, and Italian Jews made efforts to promote interest  in religion and culture. The Turkish authorities have not hindered Jews from religious observance. Nevertheless, most of the younger generation in the 1960s was not observant, and some young people were entirely ignorant of Judaism. The number of marriages to non-Jews increased.

[Jewish institutions: rabbinical seminary since 1955 - religious schools with Hebrew lessons]

Turkish Jewry also had a rabbinical seminary (see below) located in Istanbul. There were about 2,000 pupils in these institutions. The Mahazikei Torah  institutions provided (col. 1461)

religious instruction (and elementary Hebrew language courses) in the evenings and Sunday mornings (Sunday being the official rest day in the Turkish republic) for Jewish boys and girls who attended the Turkish state schools where no Hebrew was taught. The Mahazikei Torah also trained religious functionaries: hazzanim [[cantors]], shohatim [[ritual slaughterers]], mohalim [[circumcisers]].

The rabbinical seminary was established in Istanbul in 1955, and about 50 students were registered in the mid-1960s, some of whom were awarded rabbinic ordination. After years of general decline in Jewish life this indicated noticeable progress and a reaction to the general apathy in Jewish education.

By 1971 Izmir had the second largest Jewish community in modern Turkey, with between approximately 2,000 and 4,000 Jewish inhabitants. It had two Jewish elementary schools and a secondary one. Other communities were too small to have their own schools.

The usual Jewish philanthropic and social institutions also exist in Istanbul and Izmir: orphanages, hospitals, assistance for poor, etc., all supervised by the Türkiye Hahambashiliği, the chief rabbinate of Turkey (letter from the hakham bashi dated Aug. 3, 1965).

<Contemporary Situation.

There were 35,000-40,000 Jews in Turkey (1969), of whom about 30,000 lived in Istanbul: 95%-97% were Sephardim, the rest Ashkenazim, called lehli, the Turkish name for Poles, because during the 17th and 18th centuries the Ashkenazi immigrants came from Poland. Later, however, there was Ashkenazi immigration from Austria; the Austrian German-speaking Jews formed the elite of the community, and the Great Synagogue built by them became known as the "Oesterreichischer Tempel" [["Austrian Temple"]]. The last officiating Rabbi, David Marcus, born in Russia, studied in £Germany, and then settled in Istanbul (1900-44). After his death the congregation remained without a rabbi and went into a decline, being in danger of complete disintegration.

[Language situation: more Turkish, less Ladino]

The older generation of Sephardi Jews continued to speak *Ladino, in which language they produces sacred literature, and since the 19th century published many periodicals. In the 1955 census 64% among the Jews declared that their mother tongue was Yahudice (Ladino) compared with 84% in 1927, but knowledge of Ladino is decreasing. Neither the Jews nor the Greeks mastered the Turkish language until, under the new regime, it was introduced into the schools and the younger generation learned to speak and write it fluently.


Since all the Karaite Jews of Egypt left for Israel during the 1950s, as did the remnants of the Karaite community in Hith (Iraq), the Karaite community in Istanbul remained the last in non-Communist Europe. There were about 200 Karaite families (1,000 persons) in Hasköy, a suburb of Istanbul, whose forefathers settled in the city in Byzantine times. They established their own synagogue and cemetery and were completely separated from the Jewish Rabbinate community. They did not intermarry with Rabbanites with whom the only link was a Rabbanite mohel whom they employed for circumcisions. Their rabbi, Isaac Kerimi, came from the Crimea. The Karaites spoke Greek. Their attitude toward Israel was neutral, or even unfriendly.

[H.Z.H. / H.J.C.]> (col. 1462)

[[It seems the Karaites understood that a Herzl Free Mason CIA Israel with a colonial program against the Arabs cannot be good for worldwide Jewry. So they said no to the Zionist project]].

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Encyclopaedia Judaica 1971: vol. 15,
                            col. 1456
Encyclopaedia Judaica 1971: vol. 15, col. 1456
Encyclopaedia Judaica 1971: vol. 15,
                            col. 1457-1458
Encyclopaedia Judaica 1971: vol. 15, col. 1457-1458
Encyclopaedia Judaica 1971: vol. 15,
                            col. 1459-1460
Encyclopaedia Judaica 1971: vol. 15, col. 1459-1460
Encyclopaedia Judaica 1971: vol. 15,
                            col. 1461-1462
Encyclopaedia Judaica 1971: vol. 15, col. 1461-1462
Encyclopaedia Judaica 1971: vol. 15,
                            col. 1463-1464
Encyclopaedia Judaica 1971: vol. 15, col. 1463-1464

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