Friday, May 18, 2007

Turkey's crypto-Jews unsettled by threat to shrine

Viewed as heretics by both Jews and Muslims, the Doenmeh - followers of the 17th century 'false Messiah' Shabbetai Tzvi who converted from Judaism to Islam - tend to keep a low profile. Now the threatened razing of Shabbetai Tzvi's house is unsettling the delicate balance that the community has kept for centuries. Fascinating article about Turkey's crypto-Jews by Jay Michaelson in The Forward.

"Far away from the eyes of the Jewish mainstream, in modern-day Turkey there live hundreds, if not thousands, of crypto-Jews — and today, one of their most sacred shrines is in danger.

"This is the hidden, fascinating tale of the doenmeh, descendants of the faithful followers of the 17th-century false messiah Sabbetai Tzvi, who converted to Islam in 1666. Tzvi’s own conversion came under duress: The Ottoman sultan demanded that he don the turban or die after nearly one-third of European Jewry had come to believe he was the messiah and had begun swarming into Turkey, expecting the long-awaited triumph of the Jews.

"Tzvi chose to convert, and most of his followers lost hope — but not all of them. Many saw the conversion as a heroic act of tikkun, or repair, and followed their messiah’s lead by outwardly becoming Muslims while secretly maintaining their messianic Jewish faith. They were called doenmeh, meaning “turncoats”— a pejorative term not unlike marrano (“pig.”) Among themselves, they were called ma’aminim, “believers.” Sabbateanism did not die out in 1666, or even 10 years later when Tzvi himself died. There were subsequent messiahs — largely forgotten men like Baruchiah Russo and Jacob Frank — and, as recent scholarship has shown, Sabbateanism greatly influenced the 18th-century emergence of Hasidism. And then there are the doenmeh, who live on until the present day, in secretive communities, at first primarily in Salonika and today almost entirely in present-day Turkey.

"A move to tear down the Turkish home where Tzvi is said to have lived, however, may now disturb the balance the community has cultivated for centuries.

Over the years, most of the doenmeh assimilated into Islam; many more were annihilated during the Holocaust, and still more have, in modern-day Turkey, come to see their background as a curious but largely irrelevant heritage. But even those who did assimilate usually maintained some knowledge of their ancestry, and doenmeh were among the founders of the secular Turkish republic. Today, many doenmeh are among Turkey’s elite, though it is taboo to speak their names; since doenmeh are regarded as traitors by both Muslims and Jews, it is scandalous to accuse a person of being one of them, even if his or her identity is an open, unspoken secret. (Recently-deceased Turkish foreign minister Ismail Cem, for example, was “outed” by several Turkish newspapers, but he denied being a Sabbatean, and Iglaz Zorlu’s best-selling 1999 memoir, “Yes, I am a Salonikan,” stirred controversy throughout the country.) But the secret is open, like the doenmeh cemeteries outside of Istanbul, with their distinctively unadorned gravestones, and the mosques where doenmeh are known to pray.

Barry Kapandji is one of the few doenmeh descendants willing to openly acknowledge his ancestry — and even he wouldn’t use his real name (“totally out of the question,” he said). Kapandji, 33, was told by his father that he was a doenmeh when he was nine years old. Since then, he has been fascinated by his heritage. Kapandji first contacted me a few months ago, when he learned that the house in Izmir (formerly Smyrna) in which Tzvi is believed to have lived was slated for demolition by the municipality to make way for a park. No one would help him: The doenmeh he knew were afraid of going public, and the Jewish community wanted nothing to do with this sect of heretics.

“This is a crime against culture, history and my heritage,” Kapandji told me. “The Jewish community elders do not want the house turned into a museum.… They would like Sabbetai’s name to be eradicated from history.”

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