They secretively practice a strange form of Judaism, but are not recognized as Jews. At least one of Turkey’s Doenmeh would like to change this.

ILGAZ ZORLU IS SOMETHING OF an expert on the markets of Istanbul and Turkish cuisine. As he strolls down lesser known streets, pointing out this gem of a restaurant and that great leather shop, dozens of people greet him. But although the 30-year-old accountant has lived in this enormous city all his life, and knows most of it practically by heart, he claims he doesn’t feel quite at home here. There is one place where Zorlu finds peace: a secluded cemetery in the Uskudar district, across the Bosphorus on the Asian side of the city. At first, it looks like an ordinary Muslim cemetery, but Zorlu and his companions begin to point out the small differences. Many of the tombs are covered by a concrete surface, not earth, and have pictures of the deceased on them. These are not Islamic customs, and many of those buried here, he explains, are not Muslims – well, not exactly. Rather, they’re Sabbateans – members of a community descended from Jewish followers of the 17th-century self-proclaimed messiah Shabbtai Tzvi. To avoid execution by the sultan, Tzvi converted to Islam in 1666; the most extreme of his followers did so as well, practicing Islam outwardly and a strange form of Judaism in secret – a Judaism that supposedly included ritual adulterous orgies.
Until this century, the sect was concentrated in the city of Saloniki; today most Sabbateans live in Istanbul.

And everyone in Istanbul, so it seems, knows about the Sabbateans, or, as they are known here, the Doenmeh (“converts” or “apostates” in Turkish; the Sabbateans themselves dislike this title, and seldom use it.) They are perhaps Turkey’s best-known secret. No Sabbatean, with the exception of Ilgaz Zorlu himself, will ever publicly admit to being one, and they are rarely talked about. Even the Sabbateans themselves learn their real identities only when they turn 18, when the secret is finally revealed to them by their parents. This tradition of zealously maintaining a double identity in Muslim society has been passed on for generations.

They’re Muslims, as their identity cards attest, but, as Zorlu puts it, “all the Muslims know we’re different.” Their elders speak Turkish in an accent heavily flavored by Ladino, the Judeo-Spanish of Sephardi Jews. Their beliefs and rituals are largely unknown to outsiders. They rarely go to mosques. They marry mainly among themselves and live in the neighborhoods on the European side – Nisantasi, Sisli and Haskoy – where most of the city’s Jews also reside. But they are not Jews either. The Jewish community wants nothing to do with them. “As far as we’re concerned,” says Rabbi Yitzhak Haleva, deputy chief rabbi of Istanbul, “there are only Jews and Muslims. There’s nothing in between.”

SO WHO ARE THE Sabbateans? This is what Zorlu set out to explain in his book, “Yes, I Am a Salonikan,” which has been through six printings since its publication earlier this year and which has made its author persona non grata in the Sabbatean community. After centuries of secrecy and denial, Zorlu is determined to break the silence, to put the issue on the public agenda, and to prove that the Sabbateans are actually crypto-Jews, that their Muslim appearances are nothing more than a sham.

Sabbatean leaders are convinced that Zorlu’s disclosure has put the community in jeopardy, and have washed their hands of him. Some critics argue that he is only after publicity. Zorlu rejects the criticism and stresses that he wants only one thing: official recognition on the part of the Jewish rabbinical establishment, that the Sabbateans are Jews, albeit with a difference.

So far, he’s been turned down. Three years ago, he spent time in Israel, at the religious kibbutz, Yavneh. He met with Sephardi Chief Rabbi Rafael Bakshi-Doron, who hadn’t even heard of the Sabbateans. Zorlu told Bakshi-Doron that if the Sabbateans were recognized as Jews, many would settle in Israel. Bakshi-Doron replied that they would have to undergo full Orthodox conversion. This was unacceptable to Zorlu; he feels they are already Jewish.

About five years ago he had a Jewish girlfriend, whom he wanted to marry. He claims her family forced her to leave him because they discovered he is a Sabbatean. Yet he hasn’t given up. “We’re only asking for the kind of recognition given to the Karaites in Israel,” he told The Report, referring to the small community that believes only in the Torah and not the Oral Law. “I want us to be recognized for what we are. We are not Muslims. We are Sabbateans. Our families are all of Jewish origin, but we have our own separate identities.”

THE DOENMEH ROOTS go back to the immense messianic crisis of the 1660s. Across the Jewish world, Shabbtai Tzvi, an Izmir-born kabbalist, was accepted as the promised redeemer of Israel. It was a turbulent time for Europe’s Jews, who were looking for deliverance in the wake of the devastating massacres in Ukraine and elsewhere. Tzvi declared himself the messiah in 1665, and prepared to lead the Jewish people to the Holy Land. He also told his followers that the Ottoman sultan would become his slave. In response, the Ottomans arrested Tzvi and gave him the choice of conversion or death. The messiah chose apostasy, and converted to Islam the next year. While the great majority of Jews subsequently renounced him, some – the ma’aminim, or “believers” – secretly kept their faith in him. About 200 families of believers – the original Doenmeh – followed Tzvi into Islam. In secret, they practiced their own form of Judaism, based on the “18 precepts” supposedly left by Tzvi – essentially the Ten Commandments (with a very ambiguous replacement for No. 7), along with a ban on intermarriage with true Muslims.

Within a few years, the Sabbateans congregated in Saloniki, a center of the Sephardi world. Like the Spanish conversos who’d remained secret Jews, they led double lives – but the Doenmeh were voluntary Marranos. They never integrated into Muslim society, and continued to believe that Shabbtai Tzvi would one day return and lead them to redemption. In 1924, when Saloniki became part of Greece and ethnic Turks left the city in a forced population exchange, almost all the Sabbateans were deported to Istanbul. Many, seeking to stay in their city, sought recognition from the local rabbis as Jews, which would have exempted them from the expulsion of Turks. The rabbis refused – and, inadvertently, rescued them from the Nazi extermination that struck Greece’s Jews a few years later. The Doenmeh themselves estimate that 15,000-20,000 Sabbateans live in Turkey today.

The community is divided into three subgroups, who have little interaction with each other: the Karakas, Kapanci and Yacobis. Each group has its own agon (rabbi) and synagogue. The synagogues are kept secret – usually just rooms in private apartments or basements – and constantly change location; no outsider has ever been allowed to see one, and not even all the Sabbateans know where they are. Zorlu’s two companions, who will identify themselves only by their first initials – S., his 25-year-old cousin and a student of business administration, and Y., a 23-year-old student of graphic design – trace their genealogy to the early 18th century. Zorlu gives his Hebrew name as Shimon Tzvi and claims he is a descendant of Shabbtai Tzvi’s brother, on his mother’s side.

Zorlu, S. and Y., Kapanci members, go to their synagogue as often as they can. Zorlu has recently been told by community leaders that he is no longer welcome there, and Sabbatean youths are warned not to come into social contact with him. Many of the younger Sabbateans, he says, don’t settle for just the traditional Sabbatean prayers; they want the “real thing.” S., who spent most of his childhood in Michigan, where his father did business, tried twice to pray in local Jewish synagogues, but was kicked out both times. “The last time I tried was a few years ago,” he recalls. “I really wanted to see what it was like. I took a yarmulke with me and put it on as soon as I got inside. Most of the people there were very old. After a minute or two somebody came up to me and asked me who I was. I told him my name, and he demanded to see my ID. When he saw that I’m a Muslim, he told me to leave immediately. I felt humiliated and upset. That’s more or less what happened the first time I tried to get into a synagogue, and I was hoping that the attitude would change. I guess I was wrong.”

S. and Y. are secular but want to retain their separate Sabbatean identity. Y. remembers growing up differently from his friends, and not knowing why. “I only discovered who I was when I was 18,” he says. “That’s the Sabbatean tradition, to wait until you’re at marriageable age before telling you, whether your family is devout or secular. But I always felt a little different from the other Muslims around me. For example, there’s a Turkish dish that combines kebab and a kind of yogurt. I was never allowed to eat it, and I never knew why.”

“We’ve always lived near Jews,” adds S., “and my father always knew a lot of Jewish jokes. Even now most of my friends don’t know that I’m a Sabbatean. I don’t know why I haven’t told them. They probably just assume I’m a Muslim, because we’re all secular and atheists.”

Zorlu asserts that the Israeli rabbinate refuses to recognize the Sabbateans as “special Jews” for political reasons. “There are good relations between Turkey and Israel right now,” he says, “and the rabbis in Israel are under pressure not to stir things up. They fear that if the Sabbateans are recognized as Jews, it would cause problems in Turkey and hurt relations with Israel.

“What the rabbis don’t understand,” he continues, “is that we are a case similar to the Ethiopian Jews. It’s unfair to demand that we convert. We’re already Jews. True, we’re not ordinary Jews. We’re Sabbateans.” Like the Ethiopian Jews, he insists, members of his community should need only gi’ur lehumrah (a technical conversion for those whose Judaism is in doubt).

TURKISH MUSLIM SOCIETY TOLerates Jews as long as they are out in the open and do not attempt to convert Muslims. Hidden Jews, claiming to be Muslims, are something else entirely. This is one of the reasons Zorlu’s book caused such a commotion. Fundamentalist Islamic groups question the loyalty of these “secret Jews” to the faith, and Zorlu, who publicly exposed the Sabbatean separateness and stressed that they have an undying connection to Judaism, provided the fundamentalists with ammunition.

Jews and other minorities can advance only so far in Turkish society; because they keep their identity secret, Sabbateans, on the other hand, can and do enjoy high positions in almost every field. The Sabbatean cemetery, which is ostensibly Muslim, offers ample evidence: The tomb of a Supreme Court judge lies next to that of an ex-leader of the Communist party, and near them stand the graves of a general and a famous educator. Zorlu freely adds more big names to the list of prominent Sabbateans, including Foreign Minister Ismail Cem, who, claims Zorlu, used to have a Sabbatean surname (Cem has denied being a Sabbatean). Zorlu also claims that former prime minister Tanso Ciler is a Sabbatean, as is the wife of the current prime minister, Bulent Ecevit.

Many of the Sabbateans tend to be left-wing, academics and journalists – members of the cultural elite. They’re also quite affluent. All this puts them at odds with Islamic extremists, traditional opponents of Turkey’s democratic political heritage. One of the leaders of the Young Turks, the late 19th-century reform movement, was a Sabbatean, and the fundamentalists also hold that the founder of the republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who had some Saloniki roots, was part-Sabbatean. “My great grandfather,” Zorlu says proudly, “was Ataturk’s teacher in grade school.”

Rifat Bali, a Jewish businessman and writer, who is well acquainted with the Sabbateans, used to be Zorlu’s friend and patron. They’ve since stopped speaking; Bali wrote a scathing review of Zorlu’s book in an academic newsletter, accusing him of willingly playing into the hands of the fundamentalists, and Zorlu wrote an equally aggressive reply. “Ilgaz is like a missionary,” says Bali. “If he really wanted to be a Jew, that wouldn’t be a problem. He could go to Israel and live as a Jew. But that’s not his real purpose. He wants to spread the word of Sabbateanism. He knows that there isn’t a solution to the problem, that the Sabbateans will never convert and that the Jews will never accept them as they are.

“Ilgaz knows that the Sabbateans are in a very sensitive position,” Bali continues. “They’re prominent, they’re part of the _lite, and that’s why the fundamentalists target them. Even the word Doenmeh has very negative connotations. Obviously they don’t want the issue of Sabbateanism to be out in the open. So why is Ilgaz doing it? He wants the topic to be in people’s consciousness.”

“Rifat said I’m cooperating with the fundamentalists,” responds Zorlu, “but he himself wrote in an Islamic fundamentalist journal.”

Rabbi Haleva denies any political considerations regarding the Sabbateans. “Ilgaz feels he’s Jewish,” he says, “but there’s no way he can be accepted by the rabbinate without an Orthodox conversion. The problem isn’t their beliefs, whether or not they think Shabbtai Tzvi is the messiah. The relations between Israel and Turkey aren’t the issue either. The problem is that the Sabbateans have assimilated among the Muslims.”

Haleva has repeatedly run into signs of the Sabbateans’ sense of connection to the Jews. “No one will ever say that he is a Sabbatean,” he says, “but I’ve had Muslims approach me for all kinds of reasons. One asked me to look for a Jewish mohel, and when I asked why he needed one, he told me that they’re more knowledgeable than doctors. Another Muslim used to greet me with ‘Shabbat shalom’ on Saturdays. When his mother was dying, he asked me to visit her at the hospital. He said that she wanted to die as a Jew.”

Says Zorlu: “Our community has tried to stay pure, and not marry Muslims, but the Jewish rabbinate has pushed our people toward assimilation. That’s what happens when you get ignored for so many years. But some things haven’t changed. A Sabbatean who marries a Jew or a Muslim is excommunicated. There are many Sabbateans who don’t even know who they are; they’re the assimilated ones. The ones who identify as Sabbateans don’t have that problem at all.”

THE YOUNGER GENERA- tion of Sabbateans may be secular, but ancient customs still persist. Every morning, one of the elders of the community, a 92-year-old agon, ventures to the shores of the Bosphorus, shortly before dawn, and recites a short chant in Ladino: “Sabetai, Sabetai, esperamos a ti” (Shabbtai, Shabbtai, we wait for you). He is one of the last to practice this 300-year-old messianic tradition, and it is slowly dying out. Some scholars say that the Sabbateans of Istanbul continue to practice many other of their own peculiar rituals – of which the most bizarre is probably “the festival of the lamb.” Once a year, on the night between Adar 21 and 22 (usually sometime in March), they say, Sabbatean married couples gather to eat that spring’s newly born lambs for the first time. After the meal, the lights are put out and couples have sex without distinguishing between their partners. Children born as a result of these encounters are considered sacred. This ritual is probably the biggest problem the Jewish rabbinical establishment has with the community. Because of the sanctioned adultery in the community’s past, any member could well be a mamzer – a product of an adulterous relationship, or the descendant of such a person, and therefore barred from marrying other Jews. Even the renowned scholar Gershom Scholem, among others, insisted that the Doenmeh continued for centuries to practice promiscuous sex. But the younger Sabbateans just scoff at what they call the “lamb story.” S. says that “the question is not whether the Sabbateans continue to practice that tradition, but whether they ever did. Sabbateans have sex just like everybody else.”

Do they believe that Shabbtai Tzvi is the messiah? S. and Y. say that for them the question isn’t relevant, because they’re atheists. Zorlu, who is not, refuses to commit himself one way or the other. “Sabbateanism is a Jewish mystical tradition,” he says. “Many in the community still believe in him. Just like there are messianic Jews, there are messianic Sabbateans. We may have different rituals, but we are all Jews.”


Related Articles

Archive Search

Search the world's largest online archive of material about Jewish diversity.

Archive Search

Search the world's largest online archive of material about Jewish diversity.