The Jews of Ottoman Izmir: A Mod­ern History

Dina Danon

January 14, 2020

By the turn of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, the east­ern Mediter­ranean port city of Izmir had been home to a vibrant and sub­stan­tial Sephar­di Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty for over four hun­dred years, and had emerged as a major cen­ter of Jew­ish life. The Jews of Ottoman Izmir tells the sto­ry of this long over­looked Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty, draw­ing on pre­vi­ous­ly untapped Ladi­no archival material.

Across Europe, Jews were often con­front­ed with the notion that their reli­gious and cul­tur­al dis­tinc­tive­ness was some­how incom­pat­i­ble with the mod­ern age. Yet the view from Ottoman Izmir invites a dif­fer­ent approach: what hap­pens when Jew­ish dif­fer­ence is total­ly unre­mark­able? Dina Danon argues that while Jew­ish reli­gious and cul­tur­al dis­tinc­tive­ness might have remained unques­tioned in this late Ottoman port city, oth­er ele­ments of Jew­ish iden­ti­ty emerged as pro­found sites of ten­sion, most notably those of pover­ty and social class. Through the voic­es of both beg­gars on the street and mer­can­tile elites, shoe-shin­ers and news­pa­per edi­tors, rab­bis and house­wives, this book argues that it was new atti­tudes to pover­ty and class, not Judaism, that most sig­nif­i­cant­ly framed this Sephar­di com­mu­ni­ty’s encounter with the mod­ern age.

Discussion Questions

The Jews of Ottoman Izmir offers a glimpse into the lives of Ottoman Jews in the late nine­teenth and ear­ly twen­ti­eth cen­turies. More than any­thing, this book demon­strates how sim­i­lar the expe­ri­ences of Sephar­di Jews, still a mar­gin­al­ized denom­i­na­tion in the schol­ar­ship and in real life, were to their Ashke­nazi brethren, whose his­to­ries have dom­i­nat­ed the field of Jew­ish Stud­ies and Jew­ish lit­er­a­ture for decades. The over­ar­ch­ing ques­tion of moder­ni­ty is inter­twined through­out this study with prob­lems every Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty had to con­tend with: poor relief, com­mu­nal and pri­vate char­i­ty, absorb­ing Jew­ish refugees from oth­er com­mu­ni­ties, the intro­duc­tion of sec­u­lar edu­ca­tion, social mobil­i­ty, and gen­der. The Jews of Ottoman Izmir also demon­strates the many pat­terns of con­ti­nu­ity from ear­li­er times and across the Jew­ish world, most notably in the ongo­ing ten­sions between lay and spir­i­tu­al com­mu­nal lead­er­ship. In the end, the read­er is left with the image of a mar­velous, mul­ti­fac­eted Jew­ish world that would dis­perse (and reemerge in part) only a few years lat­er with the col­lapse of the Ottoman Empire.