Jewish Life in Istanbul
The Guardians of Hope

Istanbul was once a centre of Jewish life. Now 20,000 Sephardi Jews still live in the city. The writer Mario Levi recreates the spirit of time past in his books, which is also nurtured by a businessman and a linguist. Kai Strittmatter has been exploring Jewish life in Istanbul

Synagogue in Istanbul (photo: AP)
"Istanbul is full of graves which tell stories in foreign tongues"

​​ Things don't always go the way a dreamer would like to dream them. But that's OK. As the writer says, this is still the best place in the world. And it's hard to disagree, on this evening, sitting in front of a freshly brewed mokka on the fourth-floor balcony in the Amber-Polisher's House on Windmill Street. Below is the sea – the sea in the middle of the city, which this very morning has revealed to a few lucky people the sight of a group of frolicking dolphins.

Over there, on the other side: Europe, which one can see burning in the light of the setting sun. Istanbul. Mario Levi giggles, as he often does. Leave here? Why on earth? "I live in a city which provides me with such a torrent of stories, that I will never cease writing them."

Anyone who has difficulties integrating fits into his stories, says Levi. That's what makes this city, this country, into an inexhaustible source. It is his city, his country, but still, from time to time, he feels like a stranger.

Mario Levi is someone who lives on the edge. That has something to do with his character, but also with his origins. And that's fine with him, says the 51-year-old: "I'm happy with my sadness. It's a gift. If I were a happy man, I wouldn't be a writer." It's not so long ago that he was giving a reading in a foreign country and a young Turkish woman came up to him and asked him in English for an autograph. When he said he came from Istanbul, she was shocked and cried, "Are you Turkish? That can't be true. How come you're called Mario Levi? That's not a Turkish name!"

The Ottoman Jews were the most prosperous community in the diaspora

So where does the name come from? Levi is one of the sons of Jacob in the Old Testament, and the father of one of the Israelite tribes. And Mario is a Spanish name. Mario Levi has his name because he is one of the Jews who originated from Spain, a Sephardi. He's one of those whose families have lived in Turkey for over 500 years.

In 1492, Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain gave all the Jews in their empire a choice: become Christians or flee the country. Almost all of them fled, and most of them fled to the young Ottoman empire, "where everyone lives in peace under the shade of his vine or his fig-tree," as the rabbi of Edirne rapturously told his fellow-Jews. Sultan Beyazid invited them to come, greedy for their knowledge and their skills, and it wasn't long before the Jews of the Ottoman Empire were the most prosperous in the whole diaspora.

Until the beginning of the nineteenth century, Jews made up the majority of the population in Salonica; the Istanbul district of Balat was home to Europe's largest Jewish community. Twenty thousand Sephardim still live in Istanbul; a hundred years ago there were ten times as many in the whole country. They are the guardians of a language which they brought from their homeland. If one pays attention, one can still hear it: in the summer, on the Princes' Islands, or in the cafés on the banks of the Bosporus, where elderly ladies meet for tea and a game of cards, all of a sudden switching from Turkish into that strangely moving Spanish which they have preserved from the Middle Ages and which they call Ladino. And still there are young Turks who know nothing of all this.

Istanbul is a wounded city

Mario Levi at the Frankfurt Book Fair (photo: Hülya Sancak)
"If I were a happy man, I wouldn't be a writer": for the Jewish writer Mario Levi, Istanbul is the best place in the world, a city full of inspiration – in spite of problems. Mario Levi presented his book "Istanbul Was a Fairy-Tale" at the Frankfurt Book Fair

​​ That's another reason why Mario Levi writes: "So that the stories flow from one to another." To fill the gaps which have grown up: in the memory of the city, but also in its appearance, which is still full of the inheritance of the repressed – full of inscriptions on houses, churches and synagogues, the letters of which already look like alien code, even though the Jews, the Christians and the Armenians called this their home only yesterday.

The city is also full of graves, which tell Istanbul's stories in foreign tongues. The spirit of old Istanbul haunts derelict wooden houses full of mould. Bulldozers don't dare to come near. Is it because of a bad conscience? This is a wounded city.

It's fitting that the German Suhrkamp publishing house brought Mario Levi's novel to the Frankfurt Book Fair, which has just closed. The times seem to be softening, after a period when Turkey tried to force Turkishness on everyone and everything. The minister of culture Ertugrul Günay said before leaving for Frankfurt that he sees it as particularly important to present the ethnic and religious variety of his country. These are new tones for a country which has often appeared so torn, so paranoid.

Mario Levi: "Istanbul Was a Fairy-Tale"

Mario Levi has called his book "Istanbul Was a Fairy-Tale." One looks in vain for magic or misty-eyed nostalgia. The book is a river fed by an endless number of streams. "To search for Niko meant to search for a lost life," is how Levi describes his task as he writes about Niko the jacket maker, who feeds raki to his old cat Yorgos every evening, until an anti-Greek mob forces him into exile in 1955.

It seems as if Levi wanted to gather all the lost lives together, to leave none out: not the elegant but unhappy Olga whose family fled the pogroms in Riga, nor the silver thief Ibrahim, nor the Armenian uncle Kirkor, who whiles away the time with Monsieur Jacques playing the Turkish backgammon called Tavla. There was a time "when nobody could say what the real language of the city was." One heard Yiddish on the streets around the Galata Tower, as well as Greek, Armenian, French and Arabic. Petty bourgeois, traders, skilled workers: the Jews of Istanbul at the start of the twentieth century were often poor.

If this Istanbul is a fairy-tale, then that's only because the story-teller is not out of breath, even after 1001 nights. For Mario Levi, the issue is this: what might have been if Istanbul had been spared its "frightful awakening" into the nationalist delirium of the young republic.

Ishak Alaton: "Taking revenge in a positive way"

The businessman Ishak Alaton (photo: Hülya Sancak)
In his youth, the 81-year-old businessman Ishak Alaton swore to take revenge "in a positive way"

​​ What might have been – that thought is what drove the seventeen-year-old Ishak Alaton, now 81, when he swore "to take revenge in a positive way." He wanted revenge against the system which destroyed his father, who loved Atatürk, the founder of the republic. Atatürk commanded the family to speak only Turkish at home. Alaton's father built a modest fortune with the import of textiles from England – until 1942.

That was the year when the Turkish nationalists took revenge against all who were not Turks but were still prosperous. The Turks had lost a multi-ethnic empire and founded a republic. It was a time when the justice minister could tell the non-Turks in the country that they had "only the right to be slaves."

It was a period of contradictions. On the one hand, the state took in Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany, on the other, in 1942 it imposed a property tax which had one aim: to destroy all non-Muslim prosperity. Those who could not pay their debts were condemned to forced labour. Alaton's father worked in a quarry in Erzurum in Eastern Anatolia, together with 2,000 other Jews, Greeks and Armenians. His father returned a broken man. The son swore that he would become rich and famous. "I wanted to make them think," he says. "Everyone should see: how bad it was to destroy so many good people."

Ishak Alaton went to Sweden, trained as a welder and became a social democrat. He returned to Turkey and set up a company called Alarko together with a partner. Today he is rich, the best-known Jewish businessman in Turkey, with interests in property, construction and tourism. He's still a social democrat, and if he has one criticism of the Jewish community, then it's this: "They never wanted to be noticed. I found that outrageous." Alaton founded political think tanks, campaigned for democracy.

"The others kept their heads down," he says. "I went on television and shouted: 'I'm Jewish.'" Once, ten years ago, a viewer rang live into his talkshow and wanted to know if Alaton felt like a Turk. "My family has been living here for 500 years," responded Alaton, "and yours?"

Ishak Alaton: "Antisemitism is not widely spread among Turks "

The Jews did not have to suffer such a brutal expulsion as the Greeks or the Armenians. Many left for Israel. Those who remained emphasised their loyalty. Even today, in every service in the synagogue, a prayer is said for the president.

The Turkish Jewish community has acted as a lobby for Turkey among its influential fellow-Jews in the USA and Israel. "That gives us brownie points," says 25-year-old David Ojalvo. Ojalvo works for Shalom, the Jewish community newssheet, and is in charge of the opinion pages. He says, "We don't have political opinions. We keep out of it." Visitors to the paper's offices in the middle class suburb of Tesvikiye have to stand in front of a barred door and submit to camera observation. Synagogues have been attacked. In 1986, 22 Jews were killed, six in 2003.

Ojalvo, whose best friend is a Muslim, still agrees with Alaton when he says that antisemitism is not widespread among Turks. The problem is rather discrimination by the system. On the one hand, the state uses its alleged generosity towards the Jews for propaganda purposes abroad, on the other hand, it has confiscated community land – and members of minorities still cannot gain promotion to become ministers or senior military officers. Mario Levi jokes, "Who wants it? I don't." Alaton is more serious: "I want Turkey to apologise."

The newspaper Shalom is now 61 years old and has a circulation of just under 5,000.

The fifteen journalists don't receive pay. David Ojalvo is studying medicine. One thing which worries him is that many young Jews don't show any interest in the community once they've passed the age of eighteen. The cement which held the community together is crumbling. The columns which supported it threaten to collapse: Ladino, for example – in the early days most of the articles in Shalom were written in Ladino. Now Ladino occupies just one page out of eight.

Ladino is dying. Nobody ought to know that better than the linguist Karen Gerson Sarhon. She has done research on the decline of Ladino and is responsible for the Ladino page in Shalom. She shrugs: "Times change," she says. When she was young, she and her friends used to put on plays making fun of their Ladino-speaking parents and grandparents. Today she runs the Istanbul Centre for Sephardi Cultural Studies and performs Ladino songs. Sarhon sings. Sarhon is a member of the last generation which still speaks Ladino. Who still reads her page? "Everyone over fifty," she answers.

The determined, vivacious Sarhon sees the issue surprisingly unsentimentally. The language has been well researched in the last few years; it's been, in effect, prepared for the museum; now let it rest in peace. The older generation is anyway to blame, says Sarhon: "They always switched into French, and later into Turkish. Ladino wasn't intellectual enough for them. My mother always used to say, 'That isn't a language, it's a salad.'"

The Turkish language as homeland

View over the Bosporus (photo:dpa)
Istanbul: "Full of the inheritance of the repressed, of inscriptions on houses, churches and synagogues"

​​ Mario Levi says his homeland isn't a city, and it isn't a country, his homeland is the Turkish language. Only a handful of people in Turkey can live from writing, and Levi teaches advertisement copywriting at the university. At the weekend he goes to the football stadium, to watch Fenerbahce. It's the generals' favourite club. It was also Levi's father's favourite club.

Sometimes, when they can't get the ten men they need for prayers, the people in the synagogue in Kadiköy phone him, and, although he lost his faith to Voltaire and Rousseau as a young man, he hurries over. He has a programme on the radio. He likes most to talk about what he enjoys most: cooking and eating. Last week it was about the Lüfer, the bluefish. "As far as Istanbul is concerned," he says with a generous guffaw, "I'm a chauvinist. Nowhere does the fish taste as good as out of the Bosporus." However polluted it is.

This city, this country, they sometimes make heavy demands. Last year a gang of nationalists killed Levi's friend, the Armenian-Turkish journalist, Hrant Dink. Things don't go the way he would like, says Mario Levi. "But I'm optimistic," he adds. "I want to be optimistic." He pauses. "I ought to be optimistic."

Kai Strittmatter

© Süddeutsche Zeitun/ 2008

Translated from the German by Michael Lawton

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