In Istanbul, a New Generation of Jewish Turks

Karakoy, an historic neighborhood on Istanbul's European side, is home to Turkey's largest Jewish population

By / October 2014

“Go down the street, take a right, then a left, and another left, and then another left,” the bank security guard says, directing me toward the Museum of Turkish Jews in Istanbul’s historic Karaköy district. The beautiful three-story building with aging red brick and white columns has obviously been here a long time, but it is tucked away, inconspicuous, not unlike the Jewish community that remains in Istanbul.

“Now in the Jewish community in Turkey, people continue to emigrate abroad every year and we have five deaths for every one birth,” explains Nisya Işman-Alevi, the director of the Quincentential Foundation Museum of Turkish Jews. The Jewish population of Turkey is down to only 17,000; all but a few thousand reside in Istanbul, and the future of this important group of people in this changing country is uncertain.

Photograph by Ryan Wolf

In 1492, the Spanish Inquisition initiated one of the largest movements of Jews in history. The Ottoman Sultan Beyazid II openly mocked Spain’s King Ferdinand for impoverishing his own country by expelling an ethnic group that was key to commerce in the country. The Sultan welcomed the Jews and even sent a ship to facilitate their emigration. The Jews prospered under the Ottoman millet system that provided rights and protection (though also special taxation) for Jews and Christians. Over the course of four centuries, 30,000 Sephardic Jews grew to their climax of nearly 200,000 toward the beginning of the 20th century – the last days of the Ottoman Empire.

The loss of Jew-inhabited Ottoman lands to European powers, the gouging “wealth tax” of 1942, and the UN partition for Israel in 1948 contributed to the decline of Turkish Jewry in the 1900’s. More recently, bouts of anti-Semitism have also been a factor—most recently in 2010 with the Turkish-flagged Mavi Marmara Flotilla incident off the coast of Gaza.

So what is it like to be a Turkish Jew or a Jewish Turk today? “When I am abroad, I am a Turk,” said Işman-Alevi, “but when someone asks me what part of Turkey I am from, and I feel comfortable in the situation, I simply tell them I am Jewish.” A Turk’s “memleket” or hometown can often be synonymous for an ethnic identity within broader Turkish society.

Photograph by Ryan Wolf

Işman-Alevi, whose mother was Italian, attends the Italian Synagogue on holy days. On other Sabbath Saturdays, she can be found taking her daughter to drama practice much like other upper middle class Turks.

It is normal for Jews to have Muslim friends and work associates. Most prefer to marry within their faith community, and though intermarriage is not necessarily looked down upon, it has contributed to the weakening of the Turkish Jew society. In the summers, many Istanbul Jews exchange the city heat for the more moderate climate of Burgazada in the Marmara Sea, on one of the Princes’ Islands west of the city. A summer synagogue on the island gathers around 100 families.

The Jewish community remains strong in Istanbul with a school, a hospital, and 15 functioning synagogues. Many people guess that the population of Turkish Jews is in the hundreds of thousands. In reality, it is much less. The historical Jewish Quarter of Balat neighborhood on the Golden Horn has only one Jew left, a doctor. A new synagogue was built in 1953 in Kadıköy on the Asian side of Istanbul due to what was a growing Jewish population there—the first and only synagogue on the non-European side of the city. The last kosher restaurant closed three years ago.

The response to the question, “Are you a Jewish Turk or a Turkish Jew?” is “yes.” The Turkish Jews seem very comfortable being both. The Museum of Turkish Jews is filled with great examples of Jews who made significant contributions to Turkish society, such as diplomats, the first Turkish printing press operator, and even a flute virtuoso.

Photograph by Ryan Wolf

The converted synagogue prominently displays two pieces: a 19th century prayer shawl and a menorah, both featuring the Turkish star in crescent. The marriage of cultures evidenced in these artifacts reflects the average Turkish Jew. The yellowed walls have witnessed centuries of conversations in Turkish, Hebrew, and Ladino, a Judeo-Spanish dialect dating back to the 15th century. Placed before the collection of ancient red and blue velvet-wrapped Torahs is a letter from Albert Einstein asking the Turkish government to consider receiving Jewish academics who had been relieved of their military duties or were imprisoned in Nazi Germany.

Yusuf, a 29-year-old who works with the security affairs of the Jewish community, says he is 100% Turk. He attended public and non-Jewish private schools and he will have to report for his mandatory military service soon. Yusuf is happy to live in Turkey, but would not mind living in Europe. When asked about Israel, Yusuf replied, “No, it’s too…American.”

Yusuf is concerned about the decline of the Jewish community. He admits that he would prefer to marry a Jew, but he is “not going to wait around forever for a Jewish wife—love comes first.” Intermarriage, something that was unthinkable for his parents’ generation, signs of a fundamental change in the new generation of Turkish Jews. “You can’t stop the outcome of this change,” said Yusuf. “In 20 or 30 years, there may be no Jews left in Istanbul.”

For the sake of the rich history that this 500-year-old community brings to the cross-continental mega city, we can only hope that it perseveres.


Ryan Wolf is a contributing writer for EthnoTraveler. Photographs by Daniel Smith.