Another trip to Israel and another opportunity to meet and speak with yet another extraordinary Israeli woman, one of many in my life. It blows my mind how strong, assertive, intelligent, and multi-faceted Israeli women are. Unlike counterparts in other parts of the world, Israeli women channel their knowledge and energy toward the betterment of humankind. Their intrinsic capacity to open minds and sharing knowledge is in their DNA. An extraordinary combination of tenacity and compassion.
Judith Kiriaty-Matalon sits across the table from me in downtown Tel Aviv, in the house she was born in. In the hour or so conversation she opened a door to a world I never knew existed. I also presumed that most of the world was equally ignorant. A story of persecution, expulsion, relocation, and faith unfolded in quiet determination and hopeful optimism. I was not only drawn to the narrative but immersed in a journey that started in Spain and Portugal some 500 years ago, when European Jews faced systematic obliteration just because of who they were.
The story starts in the beautiful coastal town of Izmir, Turkey. Nestled among the old district of Kemeralti, where a throve of Judaic treasure was unintentionally stumbled upon. A thread of historical significance was slowly and deliberately stretched from 15th Century Spain & Portugal to Turkey. Clustered amid modern day Izmir, was a synagogues quarter dating back to the Ottoman Empire and beforehand. Over 50,000 Jews lived in harmony, freedom, and relative safety in Islamic Ottoman while their counterparts in Europe during those times were being expelled, killed, or forced to convert to Christianity primarily through the Inquisition.How did this journey start?
When Judith (fondly known as Dita) first made the discovery, she was overwhelmed and perplexed as to what the next step should entail. There was never any doubt that there would be a next step. This discovery moved history in another direction into an unknown that had never been considered. The initial shock and surprise were suddenly replaced by a quick assessment of what, how, and when these places of historical Judaic significance and relevance will be restored and introduced to the world. Such a task is not for the fainthearted, but she immediately responded to the challenge she posed on herself. She contacted the local Jewish community and the Turkish local authorities who gave their consent and supported the project she proposed for them.
A December 2, 2020 article in the Jerusalem Post (Looking to the Future from Izmir’s glorious Jewish past), author Barry Davis spoke with Ms. Judith Kiriaty and locally born Nissim Ben Joya who was working at that time on this project for the Kiriaty Foundation International. Judith Kiriaty is the President of the Mordechai Kiriaty Foundation, a foundation named after her father, a man still predominant in Judith’s life. His love of Israel and entrepreneurship in improving Jewish lives and keeping generational Judaic culture alive by bequeathing part of his assets to a foundation in his name for educational and cultural purposes, seems to have found a niche in his daughter’s psyche and determination to follow in her father’s footsteps. After much soul searching and deliberation, Judith decided to start the monumental task of repairing, conserving, and re-opening these century-old sleeping places of worship to the world. Jews are entitled to discover another facet of their past, and non-Jews should feel obligated to learn about a people who journeyed through Europe in an attempt to find refuge in a place of freedom and safety after being exiled from their homeland by the Romans some 2,000 years ago.
Kemeralti is one of the oldest districts of Izmir, dating back to Byzantine times with a historic population of Jews. The 15th-16th century Ottoman Empire had no love for either Spain or Portugal and less for Christians. When Ferdinand, the King of Spain started the Jewish cleansing through persecution, forced conversion, and deadly torture, the Sultan asked the King to allow the Jews to leave unharmed and settle in the Ottoman Empire, currently known as Turkey. The long journey brought Jews from Spain and neighboring Portugal to Izmir, where Jewry already had a predominant presence since the destruction of the Second Temple in the Land of Israel.
In the Ottoman Empire, the Jews were allowed the freedom to worship, live, and also hold their own judicial system. Jews could punish their own without the Ottoman authorities interfering. A Jewish jail cell was discovered in the basement of ‘Bikur Holim’ Synagogue in Izmir. Jews however did have to pay poll tax, and the synagogues could not be built higher than the local mosques. Small compromises for the freedom to live in peace and safety. Jewish life, culture, tradition, and community flourished, building synagogues in Spanish/Portuguese architecture similar to the ones that were left behind. The closeness of some of the synagogues, often side by side, gives a sense of closeness to the community. The synagogues are small and intimate, throwing one back in time when neighborhoods formed small communities of families who relied on one another and bonded in prayer in “their” synagogues.
Once 34 synagogues stood testimony to a large Jewish presence in Izmir. Now only 13 remain. Nine of them are located in the Kemeralti district of Izmir’s old city. Some of these nine old synagogues were in various stages of disrepair and damage, while others were intact. This site is one of its kind in the world, as there is no other such place worldwide with nine adjacent synagogues, built one next to the other in the Sephardic and Ottoman motifs, and in the most unique architecture which Jewish deportees and their descendants from Spain adopted and built in Izmir. Once the decision was made to move forward with the restoration project, the how was obvious. The project will be sponsored by the Mordechai Kiriaty Foundation with the monetary assistance of international philanthropic organizations for heritage preservation, local Turkish authorities, and local Turkish organizations.
It was obvious from the start that the project required the assistance and support of local authorities. The first hurdle was overcoming local bureaucracy. Although the buildings belonged to the community, they were not registered as being owned by anyone. Judith insisted on the need to register the ancient synagogue buildings in the name of the community as a basic condition for starting their restoration and conservation work, and it took three years for the Jewish community to register these buildings in the name of the community before starting work on them.
The synagogues reflected the former Sephardic Jewry of Spain and Portugal. Each building resonates of beautiful architecture from Spain popular in 15th century Spain. Each synagogue has a unique story, unique history and brings a symphony and extravaganza of color, marble, frescos, and artifacts
The 1724 Bikur Holim Synagogue founded by Shalom de Chaves is such an example of beauty. Although it caught twice on fire, it was restored by the de Chaves’s descendants every time. In contrast, the Shalom synagogue believed to have been built in the 17th century is subdued but with a noticeable interior design whose uniqueness cannot be ignored. Arched recesses along walls and unusual bench cushioned seating, and the “Teva” (from which the Torah is read) shaped like a ship, as a reminder of the ships that brought the Jews of Spain and Portugal to the Ottoman Empire, make this particular synagogue worth mentioning. Also worth mentioning is the great fire that destroyed most of the city, reached the entrance of Shalom Synagogue and stopped there. This synagogue also provided access to an Ashkenazi synagogue adjacent to it. The Sephardic Shalom Synagogue was saved and restored but unfortunately the Ashkenazi Synagogue could not be saved. The connection between the two is another historic lifeline of Jewish expulsion that besides the Sephardic, the Ashkenazi Jews were also compelled to leave. This is often overlooked, because a while after they arrived in the Ottoman Empire, they adopted Sephardic prayers and customs and integrated into the local Sephardic communities.
As repairs, restoration, and conservation efforts continued, a spectacular picture of past Judaic life slowly emerged. A past vibrant Jewish community resurrected from rubble and neglect. What Spain and Portugal obliterated some five hundred years ago has been given a second chance at life in Izmir. The lost Jewry world of Spain and Portugal has been resurrected in Izmir.
One may ask, as I did, what next? What’s the objective? Without a pause, Judith told me that the ultimate goal is to combine the nine repaired and restored synagogues clustered on one complex into a historic Jewish Visitor’s Center. The preservation of these buildings is a rare opportunity for both Jews and non-Jewish visitors to learn and appreciate not only the Jewish history of the Izmir Jewish community and their expulsion from Spain and Portugal, but also an architectural treasure that was lost and unknown to many of us, but which was relocated and reconstructed in Izmir.
The Visitor’s Center will not only concentrate on the buildings but also, on the unique Spanish Jewry experience that transported a culture across Europe to the shores of the Aegean Sea seeking a better life and living it. The discovery of these synagogues transcends into other areas of Judaic history. The discovery of ritual textiles (parachot) that covered the Holy Arks, ancient Judaic books, and artifacts articulate the various worship rituals some of which are still followed today. Some textiles had to be repaired and then climatically stored for conservation. Artifacts restored, tagged, and logged for safe keeping and posterity. In 2013, the Moderchai Kiriaty Foundation initiated a salvation project of the old ritual textile collection with the assistance of the Helsinki University Textile conservation department, to clean, repair, tag, and document the textiles deemed salvageable.
The Izmir Project gives a voice to the voiceless. The thousands of Jews expelled from Spain and Portugal who silently found a home in the most unlikely part of the world. The project brings to the forefront centuries of hardship but also determination to keep Judaic culture and communities alive. The Kemeralti synagogue cluster gives a clear picture of endurance and tenacity, two characteristics still imbedded in the soul of every Jew in the world. The importance of this project beyond the restoration of several synagogues, lies in presenting the acceptance and tolerance of the Ottoman authorities toward the Jews in previous centuries. A tolerance that Jews unfortunately did not enjoy elsewhere in Europe, but enabled the co-existence and joint cultural relations, joint economic co-creation of Jews and Muslims and other minorities that were part of the general local population in the Ottoman Empire. This constitutes an important legacy that can serve as an example to the current younger generation in the fight against racism and intolerance towards minorities that are prevalent today in many parts of the world.
All this is the conceptual basis for establishing an additional iconic Ottoman-Jewish Museum of tolerance, that will be connected to the location site of the synagogues. Ms. Judith Kiriaty-Matalon together with Mr. Morris Reyna, the honorary president of the Turkey Israel Business Council, are in contact with the Turkish and Israeli authorities for the purpose of establishing this iconic museum.
As the Izmir Project unfolded across the table in downtown Tel-Aviv, I realized that this was not just a “Jewish” story. It was a world story. Jews were persecuted by Christians but found haven in a Muslim Empire. A paradox that left me speechless but nonetheless intrigued. A lesson of tolerance and possibilities in cultural and faith differences that should be emulated in the world today. As I scribbled down some notes, I knew that the story should and must be told. That somewhere in a small corner of the world, tolerance allowed Judaism to nurture and Jews to flourish. That it was and still is possible for true diversity to live side by side and
continue to flourish.
Recently, another major step forward was taken in meetings held last October between the Kiriaty Foundation and the leadership of the Izmir Jewish community with the Turkish Minister of Culture and tourism- Mr. Mehmet Nuri Ersoy, with the Turkish Deputy Foreign Minister-Mr. Sedat Onal, with the Mayor of Izmir – Mr. Tunc Soyer, with Israeli Ministers and members of the Israeli parliament (The Knesset) as well as the Turkish Embassy in Israel and with the Israeli Embassy in Turkey.
Although The Izmir Project is still ongoing, as there are two synagogues left for restoration and conservation (Hevra and Forestros) and the ancient rabbinical house, all of them still in need of massive restoration. some of the Synagogues and artifacts are available to the public. A library of approximately 2,000 old Books dating back to the 16th and early 17th century have been saved. 325 “Parachot” Holy Arc curtains, Torah Coats and Torah binders (among some of the textiles found), embroidered in Ottoman style are also among the treasures being preserved for this and future generations. A work in progress. At the nine synagogues visitor’s site, visitors can already experience the special history of Izmir Jewry, admire the special architecture of the synagogues, and see the sacred utensils unique to the Izmir Jewish
Kiriarty Foundation international relations director Mr.Uri Bar-Ner (firstname.lastname@example.org) summed it up perfectly: “We believe that the museum, … will convey a message that goes beyond the story of Spanish Jewry… a message to the world, to humanity, of acceptance, mutual respect and pluralism… a positive message to the world from this place.” (December 2, 2020. The Jerusalem Post).
*This article would not have been made possible without Ms. Judith Kiriaty-Matalon, who reviewed and edited content for historical accuracy and integrity.
Davis. B. December 2, 2020. Looking to the future from Izmir’s glorious Jewish past. Looking to the future from Izmir’s glorious Jewish past – The Jerusalem Post (jpost.com)
The Izmir project – AEJM