By Daniel Santacruz
The Jews who came to Izmir from Spain and Portugal after the expulsions of 1492 and 1497 brought with them their own ideas about how to build synagogues.
The result were magnificent houses of worship, 34 in total, built mostly between the 16th and 19th centuries.
The names of three of them bear witness to the origin of the expellees that flocked to the city: Los Forasteros, Spanish and Ladino for “foreigners,” name that suggests that it was used by newcomers to the city; Portugal, believed to have been founded by Portuguese Marranos; and Senyora, Spanish and Ladino for “lady,” named either after Doña Gracia Nasi, the famed Portuguese businesswoman, or a woman who emigrated to Israel and rented her house for use as a synagogue, according to a local tradition.
Izmir, an ancient Ottoman port, the second biggest in Turkey, was known by the Greeks as Smyrna.
Highs and lows
At its peak in the 1800s, Izmir was home to about 50,000 Jews, the majority of them Sefardim. Its numbers began to dwindle with the emigration of many in the early 1900s to the United States and Europe, and to Israel after the foundation of the Jewish state in 1948. Today, the Jewish population stands at approximately 1,400, said Sami Azar, president of the city’s Jewish community. In 2004, the World Monuments Fund (WMF), a New York City-based organization, included Izmir’s synagogues on its Watch, a listing of building structures that are “at risk from the forces of nature and the impact of social, political and economic change,” according to its website. The inclusion, says the WMF, generated publicity and interest, which resulted in more funds from several sources, among them Izmir’s municipality. Of the city’s 34 synagogues, only 13 remain. Seeking to restore seven of those, which have fallen into disrepair and neglect, as well as to create a cultural center and a museum, the Jewish community, along with Israel’s Kiryaty Foundation, the Izmir Municipality and local universities, launched an ambitious plan in 2010 called The Izmir Project. The synagogues to be restored are all located in Kemeralti, a district market: Hevra, known also as Talmud Torah, built probably in the 17th century; Algazi, built in the 17th century and associated with rabbis of that name; Senyora built in the 17th century; and the ruins of Los Forasteros, of which only the outer walls remain. The other three are located nearby: Shalom, Etz Ha Hayim and Bikur Holim, the last of which was built in the 17th century. The initiative also seeks to “turn the old Jewish quarter of Izmir into an exciting historical, cultural, educational and touristic site as a tribute to Turkish history and world monuments,” according to The Izmir Project’s site. The Project has teamed up with a travel company, GPC Travel Group, of Izmir, to conduct tours of the synagogues and other Jewish places. Following are excerpts of an interview with Azar. Kolsefardim: The Izmir Project was launched in 2010. What has been accomplished so far? SA: Unfortunately, the Jewish community of Izmir was not recognized legally [by the Turkish government] until the end of 2012. Only after that did we begin to receive the deeds of the buildings we own, which consists mostly of synagogues. The government passed a law in 1936 asking all the religious minorities and communities to list their properties. But, it is my opinion, the community board of that time did not submit a list because of the anti-Semitic winds of the time, or for some other reason.
Thus, we were never a legal entity until 2012. We received some of the deeds at the beginning of 2013. Since then we have been trying to prepare projects with the help of the municipality, the Kiryaty Foundation and local universities. So far have received some funds to clean and preserve our parohet collection, [consisting] of about 200 pieces and to prepare the restoration of the Etz Ha Hayim synagogue.
KS: What is the status of the museum, called Jewish Living Museum, and the cultural center?
SA: The process is just beginning. We cannot call it a museum yet because of legal issues. We want the center to be a living research center. We are working with local and Israeli universities. We already have an exhibition of Jewish culture in the Beth Israel Synagogue, which includes artifacts and photographs.
KS: What does the cooperation between The Izmir Project and the municipality entail?
SA: The most attractive and important part of that project is the renovation of the old Jewish Quarter, located in the Old City, where all our synagogues are. Our community is a de facto partner in the project.
KS: What’s the cost of restoring and reconstructing all the synagogues, as well as the creation of the museum and the cultural center?
SA: We can only guess at the moment, since the projects are not completed. But an educated guess says it will be around 8 million dollars.
KS: Can people donate money for the Project?
SA: As soon as we have viable projects to show, we will be open to donations from anyone.
For more information, visit www.izmirjewishheritage.com and www.wmf.org.
© Daniel Santacruz