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Dwindling Generations

Ari Greenspan and Ari Z. Zivotofsky

Turkey, the modern incarnation of the Fertile Crescent, has shadowed Jewish life since Avraham picked himself up from Ur Kasdim and Rivkah watered Eliezer’s camels. We wanted to see how the Jews in outlying cities were faring today, in the towns that once burst with Jewish vibrancy. We wanted to find the Donmeh, the secret sect of believers in Shabbtai Zvi who never admit to their affiliation. We wanted to discover the ancient fish of the Euphrates praised in the Talmud. What would our quest reveal?

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Although the center stage of Jewish past, present, and future is Eretz Yisrael, its neighbor to the north has always played a supporting — if not always supportive — role. We’ve traveled to Turkey several times to gain a greater appreciation of what it must have been like for our forefathers who lived in that part of the world, traversing Jewish history from Avraham Avinu through the golden age of the Ottoman Empire.

Yet the current state of affairs for the Jews of Turkey is complex; in Izmir, for example, they can barely cobble together a minyan, although the city was once a leading center of Judaism, home to Rav Chaim Palagi, Rav Chaim Benvenisti and many other gedolim – and even, l’havdil, the infamous Shabbtai Zvi.

On our most recent trip to Turkey, we wanted to close some of the gaps. We wanted to see how the Jews in outlying cities were faring, if there was anyone left to whom to offer our services or assistance. Did anyone need help in shechitah or baking matzos? Was there anyone who wanted us to run a Friday night service?

One couple we met in Izmir pretty much typifies the challenge of this dwindling community. He and his wife are by no means fully observant, but they are proud Jews who are continually learning more. Now, though, they have a major life dilemma. They and countless generations of ancestors have lived in Izmir. But there is no longer anything there for Jews. He has a married (to a Jew) daughter in Istanbul, and a single son living in the US, about whom he is concerned. His mind has been taken over by the question: should I move to Istanbul, the US, Israel, or stay put? His Hebrew is poor, his roots and job are in Izmir, but his children have left and Yiddishkeit in Izmir is on the decline. We obviously had no answer for him, but offered an ear of understanding and prayed that our visit gave him and the others a bit of strength.


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