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Izmir’s Faded Glory

Ari Greenspan and Ari Z. Zivotofsky

Centuries of vibrant Jewish life have left their fingerprints in the Turkish city of Izmir. The souk, the cemetery, even the hospital — all whisper of the Jews who lived and thrived here. On a recent visit, Ari and Ari soaked up the rich history in Izmir’s unusual shuls and sites, and reacquainted the dwindling Jewish community with matzoh, Havdalah, and the true meaning of freedom.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Several hundred years ago, the Turkish city of Izmir was one of the leading centers of Judaism. Yet today, the city that was home to Rav Chaim Palagi, Rav Chaim Benvenisti, and many other gedolim — as well as, l’havdil elef havdalos, the infamous Shabbtai Zvi — can barely cobble together a single minyan. With the city’s Jewish population in precipitous decline, we seized the chance to visit while there were still children to teach, old men from whom to garner venerated traditions, and shuls from the sixteenth century still open to visitors.

Two communities had asked us to bake with them shmurah matzoh. During a stopover in a Viennese airport, we got an eerie hint at the irony of matzoh tutorials in Izmir: our reading material of choice was the mid-nineteenth century Bitul Moda’ah, the booklet printed during the great machine matzoh debate that permitted machine-made matzoh. The booklet’s author, Rabbi Yosef Shaul Nathanson, contended that matzoh of any shape was valid, since the venerable Torah community of Izmir had a tradition to bake square matzoh. Sitting there in the airport of Vienna, with a matzoh-baking trip to Izmir next on our itinerary, we felt the hand of history on our shoulders.

Izmir’s Jewish heyday is a thing of the past. The former stronghold of Jewish life, historically known as Smyrna and home to tens of thousands of religious Jews, now houses about 1,500 Jews. Most of the city’s 4 million residents have never met a Jew (though a recent poll showed a majority of Izmirites saying they wouldn’t want to have a Jewish neighbor). Where prominent rabbis, shuls, and yeshivos filled the streets, there is no longer even one Jewish school. Izmir’s Jewish presence can still be seen and felt in unexpected places, however.

Not far from the old Jewish quarter is the Asansör (literally, the “elevator”), a popular tourist site. The elevator was built in 1907 to ease access between Mithatpaşa and Halilrifatpaşa streets, situated respectively in Izmir’s Lower and Upper City and separated by a steep cliff that until then was traversed by climbing 155 steps. The elevator was initially water operated, but was replaced by an electrical version in 1985, and modernized in 1994. We entered the elevator tower, rode to the top, saw the amazing view of the Gulf of Izmir and the bay, and then rode back down.

On our way out, we did a double take: above the doorway was an inscription in Turkish and Hebrew, dated 5688/1907. It turns out that this wonderful addition to early twentieth-century Izmir was a private contribution by Jewish businessman Nesim Levi Bayraktaroğlu. He built it as a gift to the people of Izmir. It of course also benefited the Jews, who frequented many shuls located right near the bottom of the elevator, and another one in the neighborhood at the top, with the apt moniker of Rosh HaHar.


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