Uncovering layers of history with the Izmir Jewish Heritage Project, Turkey
New York Jewish Travel Guide sat down with Mr. Nesim Bencoya, Cultural Heritage Project Manager to ask a few questions about The Izmir Jewish Heritage Project. The following interview was edited for clarity:
NYJTG: Can you share your background with us? How did you get involved with the Izmir Project and for how long have you been working on it? What are the Izmir Project’s objectives, significance, and background? Why is it unknown to the Jewish world?
Nesim Bencoya: I was born in Izmir and after high school emigrated to Israel where I lived for forty years that included everything an Israeli goes through. In the last fifteen years, I was working at Haifa Cinematheque where I became the director.
Thirteen years ago, I came back to Izmir, and I was fascinated by the cultural heritage I met here. I was not aware of its existence even though I used to go to the synagogue with my father on high holidays. I immediately started to work on this project which means that I am involved in it for thirteen years.
There is a belief that Izmir Jewish Heritage Project is about restoring synagogues buildings. They should be restored and compose one big compound of synagogues each one will function as a section of a museum. We are talking about a visit center/open-air visitor’s site. This site will be the pride of the Izmir Jewish Community, the door through which the community will step into the decision-making processes in the city. This means strengthening the Jewish Community that has lost long ago its power to influence socially and culturally. This is also the way to fight antisemitism. Briefly, Izmir Jewish Heritage Project is not only about telling history. It is a tool for us to influence and be relevant to the whole of Izmir society.
The reason for the Jewish Heritage not being known in the Jewish world lies in the attitude of the Jewish Community in Izmir throughout its history. For reasons we can understand or for others, the community preferred to live in low profile. This automatically makes you unseen, and unknown. This is a real pity as Jewish life in Izmir was very vivid and active. Hayim Palacci is still studied within the theological circles, and so are Shabbetai Zvi and others. Yes, this project – together with our restored synagogues should bring us back the recognition of the world. I hope we will manage to do it.
NYJTG: Can you share a synopsis of the history of these synagogues and their conditions today? How many are there in total? Are most or all these synagogues of Sephardic heritage, i.e., Ladino for their traditions of religion and worship? Which organizations are supporting this project and what are some of the major challenges?
Nesim Bencoya: Most of the synagogues are of Sephardic tradition. Since Jews from the Iberian Peninsula came in big numbers to the Ottoman Empire and possessed a very dominant culture the reality here was painted in Sephardic colors although Romaniote and Ashkenazi Jews were present here in small numbers.
A big immigration of Ashkenazi Jews arrived in Izmir by the end of the 19th century following the pogroms in Russia. We do have remnants of one synagogue that those immigrants used at the time they lived in Izmir.
In total, we have nine synagogues in the synagogue’s street area (First Juderia) and two more in Karatash (Second Juderia). They are all of Sephardic heritage; they use Hebrew and Ladino for worship.
Izmir Jewish Heritage Project is supported by European Union at present for a period of three years. We restored Bet Hillel with the support of the Metropolitan Municipality, and The Etz Hayim restoration was done with the finance of the Turkish Government, with support from the German Republic that helped us rescue Talmud Tora and Forasteros synagogues.
NYJTG: Why are these synagogues adjacent to each other and why did this specific configuration exist with passages that connected them? Which synagogues are open for religious services only and which ones serve as social and cultural activity centers? What are some of the characteristics these synagogues all have in common?
Nesim Bencoya: The reason is that this was the port, the commercial area, and the businessmen probably preferred to be close to the port and the customs and settled in this area. They also bought land and built their houses here. Therefore, there were in this spot people with means who could donate land for building synagogues. For example, the La Senyora synagogue’s land was donated to the community in 1664 by a wealthy widow called Lea, the Algazi synagogue was built by the influential Algazi family.
The Algazi, Shalom, and Bikur Holim synagogues are open for religious services. The other six synagogues are functioning for cultural and artistic purposes.: Bet Hillel is a memorial house for Rabbi Hayim Palacci, the Portugal synagogue functions as a conference center, and Etz Hayim has an art gallery and functions as a culture and art hub, as does Talmud Tora and Senyora.
All synagogues have had a common characteristic regarding the Teva (Bimah). Izmir synagogues all had their Teva in the center of the main prayer hall. This has been modified during their history because of various cultural influences.
Another typical İzmir characteristic is the Ehal which is composed of 3 cupboards. All Izmir synagogues except Bet Israel have this common trait. The reason for this might be the early synagogues of Spain.
NYJTG: Can you shed some light on how the Bikur Holim Synagogue basement was once the Bet Din prison?
Nesim Bencoya: This is not a documented fact. We know that people were arrested for various reasons such as being drunkards, thieves, and treachery as well as others in times of social unrest in the community because of the Kosher wine and meat taxes. We might think that the prison was there because of its vicinity to Chief Rabbinate where the Bet Din was located.
NYJTG: Do you hope that a few of these synagogues will be assigned UNESCO status soon?
Nesim Bencoya: I am a consultant (on behalf of the Jewish Community) to the UNESCO team that is trying to get the market area a UNESCO status. For this purpose, a dossier is being prepared. The old Jewish quarter with its synagogues is a very strong factor in the application that is being prepared and I am of course pushing hard.
NYJTG: Is the Gurcesme Jewish Cemetery part of the Izmir Project renovation? Which other projects are you working on?
Nesim Bencoya: Unfortunately, the historical Jewish Cemetery of Gurcesme does not make a part of the Izmir Jewish Heritage Project due to a lack of both financial and manpower resources. It could easily turn into a museum by itself. I hope that as soon as we finish our immediate missions we will seriously think about the cemetery.
NYJTG: Were there any Jewish schools or Yeshivas for boys and girls that existed in the district?
Nesim Bencoya: There were many Jewish schools and Yeshivas in Izmir such as Talmud Tora Yeshiva, Alliance, and Bnei Brit schools for boys and girls.
NYJTG: Are you producing any film documentaries on the Izmir project?
Nesim Bencoya: Yes, this is the link to the last documentary we shot:
NYJTG: What are your vision and dreams for this ongoing project upon its completion and the impact on the Izmir economy in terms of potential international visitors?
Nesim Bencoya: Thanks to the publications from the press and the work we are doing in social media we already see an increase in visitor numbers. We are very happy to see that our effort is producing results. We see here visitors from Mexico and Argentina, from USA and Canada, European countries, etc.
We need this for a sustainable Visitor Center, and I have a strong belief that we are going to succeed.
NYJTG: As a follow-up, your strong determination, desire, and hard work are to replicate Izmir’s destination as a Jewish Cultural Festival Center similar to the Krakow Jewish Festival in Poland with its main goal here to educate and have others experience the unique culture of Sephardic Jews of Izmir Jewish Heritage by organizing concerts, exhibitions, plays, and lectures
Nesim Bencoya: This festival is making so much good. This year we will hold the fourth one and it is really embraced by many people Jews or not. This makes a good service for intercultural dialogue between cultures, for us to express ourselves as Jews and see that when people get to know our cultural prejudices start disappearing. Although this sounds very serious, it is a lot of fun as well.
NYJTG: How can our readers contribute directly or indirectly to the restoration and conservation of this project?
Nesim Bencoya: No need to say that we need any help we can get. We would be very happy to get any support little or big.
We have established a fund with the help of the American Sephardi Federation and donations are tax-deductible. Here is a link to make donations: https://mailchi.mp/asf/izmir
NYJTG: Thank you for your valuable time and for all the information you shared with us. I really appreciated it, as will our readers.
For more information:
To plan a trip to Turkey, contact the Turkey Tourism Promotion and Development Agency (TGA) or go to https://www.tga.gov.tr/about-us/
Fly Turkish Airlines – https://www.turkishairlines.com/
Ela Turizm – Historical religious tours. – https://www.elaturizm.com.tr/index.aspx
Story & photography by Meyer Harroch – New York Jewish Travel Guide & New York Jewish Guide.com
The author took part in a press trip sponsored by the Turkey Tourism Promotion and Development Agency (TGA)