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The Jews of Izmir and their neighbors

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The Jews of Izmir have always had good relations with their Muslim neighbors, and see great importance in maintaining their close ties with the country's majority. In the past, there have been certain signs of the authorities’ discrimination against Jews. They were not always admitted to schools and universities, and it was very difficult to become officers in the Army (though many served for long periods of time).

Esther Shaul: “A Muslim would walk in the streets on Shabbat morning shouting ‘Light your fire! Light your fire!’ He would then go into the joint courtyards to light the ovens, and collect the money that was put away for him. The food was then cooked and warmed up in the central ovens.”

At the beginning of the 20th century, when most of the Jews still lived in one central area, the children did not have Muslim friends or connections with Muslim children. In the past decades, the Jewish schools have closed down and the children have started learning in Turkish schools. Subsequently, today they all have more contact with the Muslim children and youth. It goes without saying that none of the Jewish children speak Hebrew today.

In the past, there were sometimes fights between the Muslim and Jewish children. The Jewish children would be called 'Yahudim' (Jews) which had (and still has) a negative connotation. Since the 19th century the proper way to refer to the Jews is 'Musevi' (‘son of Moses’). Today, young Jews identify themselves as 'Jewish', an English word without the old connotations of 'Yahudi'.

Morris Ashkenazi, whose family was one of the first to move to the up-scale Alsanjak neighborhood, says they lived (and live) and felt comfortable with the French, Italians, and other Levantines living in Izmir. Perla Carmona remembers that they had Greek neighbors. “They, and the people who moved in after they left, were very good neighbors, who helped us a lot in times of need. Today I miss talking. Talking with people. Slowly they are disappearing from my life. Without them, I feel completely alone. History cannot be of one person; there were always a lot of people around us. Our relationships developed nicely, we ate together and walked together. These things take years to develop, and are the things that build history.”

 


Local shopkeepers’ views about the Kemeralti Synagogues

As part of the objective of the project, to explore and document the way the old synagogues relate (and related) to the surrounding market, we decided to speak with the current local shopkeepers. A questionnaire was written, aimed at determining what the shopkeepers know about the adjacent synagogues and, more importantly, what their attitude is towards any future plans concerning the buildings.

The survey was done with shopkeepers of different ages, whose shops are near the 'Havra Sokag' (Synagogue Road). The following can be concluded:

Shopkeepers of all ages are aware of the high number of synagogues in the area. The older shopkeepers (ages 60 and above) can remember a time when they were all full of worshippers. But this changed following the establishment of the State of Israel, and the subsequent mass immigration. Since then, passageways and shops were built in their courtyards and surrounding areas. It is remembered by Mukhtar (age 66) that the synagogues were used every weekday afternoon, on Shabbat and Holidays. But today, when there are few people, they are rarely used.

Excluding Mukhtar (who in the old days acted as a "Shabbat Goy" – gentile who performs tasks on the Sabbath), the people working around the synagogues have rarely been inside or even seen the interiors of the buildings. Having said that, it is important to mention that they all think that the synagogues have badly deteriorated over the years. Besides minor repairs, they have not been kept up, and one (Hevra) has completely collapsed.

None of the shopkeepers heard of any plans to renovate or turn one of the synagogues into a museum, but when they heard of the idea they all reacted with enthusiasm. Not necessarily because they think it's important to find a place in which to commemorate the long history of the Jews of Izmir, but because it will be useful for the city and the market area. As Mehmet Koparan (age 34) puts it: "It is better to use them than not…." Munir Karatepe (age 54) believes that one or two can be used as museums (or for social functions), but the rest should be used as shops, in order to provide more income.

Among the shopkeepers, there is an obvious awareness of the Jewish history of the Kimeralti Market. But today the Jews are gone, and there is common agreement that any investment in the area will benefit the market by attracting visitors and tourists.

 

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