The Jews of Ottoman Izmir
A Modern History
Dina Danon



In 1899, the Jewish community of Ottoman Izmir came to a near standstill. The death of Chief Rabbi Abraham Palacci in January led to the first transfer of rabbinic power in over thirty years, and the ensuing turmoil over the appointment of a successor as well as a range of problems that had long plagued the communal administration now polarized the community. The most contentious issue was management of the local kosher meat industry, which, through its levy of a sales tax known as the gabela, generated the vast majority of the community’s revenue. Warring factions advanced competing visions of how a new chief rabbi might improve the system, lessening its inefficiencies and distributing its burden more equitably.

In the spring, La Buena Esperanza, then Izmir’s longest-running Ladino newspaper, published a fictional, quasi-Talmudic dialogue between “Simon” and “Reuben” distilling the arguments circulating in the community regarding payment of shohatim, or ritual slaughterers. While Simon remained skeptical about changing the traditional system, Reuben insisted that slaughterers had monopolized communal coffers for too long. The two engaged in a protracted debate:

S: But that goes against the [religious] rulings.
R: I beg you, enough! The rulings were made in other times. Now our public is poor. If it cannot support itself, should it die to help others?
S: Is this something new? There have always been shohatim and we never complained. What has now changed that we should pick a fight with these good people?
R: It is true that this evil is quite old. If we pick a fight with them now, it is because of how [the situation] has spun out of control! What would you prefer? That they exploit the people, cost us more than one hundred thousand kuruş a year, cause conflicts and, as they say, ignite the community? Until now we tolerated it, but we no longer want anything to do with them!1

Reuben’s position pivots on a keen awareness of a changed socioeconomic reality. Indeed, while the Jews of Ottoman Izmir had greatly prospered during the city’s early modern period, playing an essential role in its emergence as a major port in the seventeenth century, by the nineteenth century a constellation of global and local factors had combined to dramatically destabilize their position. By the time La Buena Esperanza published the above-cited dialogue in 1899, the Jews of Izmir were no longer the customs agents, tax farmers, and translators they had once been but rather greengrocers, tailors, peddlers, and beggars. So dramatic had been their downfall that in the late nineteenth century, it is reported that nearly one-third of the Jewish community in Izmir subsisted solely on charity.2

Yet as this book demonstrates, most significant about Reuben’s reading of Jewish poverty was not its prevalence, nor its exacerbation in the nineteenth century, but rather its position in a larger rupture between agora, or “now,” and otros tiempos, or “other times.” Reuben’s understanding of the fundamental difference of agora and its ability to necessitate new solutions to age-old problems such as that of Izmir’s shohatim was framed by numerous assumptions. For Reuben, Izmir’s Jewish poor constituted a collectivity that might intervene in communal affairs and advocate for itself. This collectivity represented its interests through the vehicle of el puvliko, a new entity that might not only check abuses but also mount a lasting challenge to traditional religious authority. Moreover, Reuben’s palpable indignation suggests that the agora of 1899 had ultimately compelled a reconsideration of poverty itself, betraying a sense that its unchecked persistence and expansion was not only undesirable but fundamentally unacceptable.

It is Reuben’s understanding of how the modern age had reordered such social hierarchies and relationships that animates the central interpretive claim of this book. By 1899, the marked impoverishment of Izmir’s Jewish community had come to stand painfully at odds with modern attitudes that recategorized poverty as a social ill, as well as with the local triumph of middle-class values. I argue that it is this disjuncture, this rupture with a centuries-old worldview that cast poverty as a natural, acceptable, and even stabilizing force in society, that propelled Izmir’s Jews to engage in a series of modern reforms. Jewish leaders rallied to remove beggars from the streets and reorganized their collection and distribution of charity. They experimented with a range of anti-poverty initiatives such as vocational training, apprenticeship programs, and rudimentary education in commerce and began to adopt decidedly bourgeois patterns of associational life, residence, leisure, and philanthropy.

Communal leaders typically denounced the community’s socioeconomic decline as a source of weakness and decay. Yet this book demonstrates the reverse, capturing how the growing empowerment and self-awareness of Izmir’s poor and lower classes catalyzed a dynamic reimagining of Izmir’s kehillah, or semi-autonomous Jewish community structure, which was often referred to as the kolelut. Through the lens of two crucial elements of Jewish self-government, namely its financial and leadership structures, I explore how “progress” demanded the reordering of social hierarchies along modern lines. This book traces ongoing efforts to rid the community of its most critical yet increasingly controversial source of revenue, the regressive gabela sales tax on kosher meat, which disproportionately burdened the poor. It tracks the elaboration of rationalized statutes and representative assemblies that would better address the needs of the poor and working classes and reconstructs the reversal of the longstanding rabbinic alliance with the wealthy. Undergirding all of these initiatives, as the book demonstrates, is the evolution of a vibrant and robust Ladino public sphere where the needs of el puevlo or “the people” were constantly debated with recourse to an expanding modern vocabulary of “rights.”

This case study’s emphasis on socioeconomic factors as primary agents of change invites a reconsideration of assumptions that have long governed the study of modern Jewish history. Prevailing conceptual paradigms such as assimilation, acculturation, integration, and secularization, among many others, are largely the intellectual legacy of extensive reflection on the Jewish experience in numerous modern European contexts. While European communities differed in many respects, across nation-states and empires alike Jews in Europe were often confronted with the notion that their religious and cultural distinctiveness was somehow incompatible with the modern age. From the absolutist Russian Empire, to the nascent German nation-state, to the secular French republic, among other polities, European Jews had to contend in some way with a homogenizing pressure resulting from a relentless tension between the “universal” and the “particular”—a tension they negotiated in countless ways.

The view from Ottoman Izmir reveals these categories to be of little interpretive value. While never static, the prevailing social hierarchy as refracted through the Ottoman interpretation of sharia law, coupled with the profound ethnic and religious diversity characterizing the empire itself, cultivated a social fabric that was not only tolerant of difference but predicated upon it.3 The legitimation of religious and ethnic distinctiveness persisted in the nineteenth century despite and even in concert with efforts to promote other forms of shared belonging, such as the Ottomanism of the Tanzimat era and the constitutional fervor of the Young Turks.4 Notably, this continued affirmation was especially the case for Ottoman Jews as opposed to their Greek and Armenian neighbors, as their position in the Ottoman landscape was not complicated by the rising tide of various nationalisms sweeping Europe. While the emergence of Zionism in the years after 1908 did spark controversy, for the Ottoman Sephardi community Jewish nationalism functioned largely as a vehicle for cultural and religious revival and was frequently cast by its proponents as beneficial to the empire’s interests.5 For the long arc of Ottoman history, the legitimacy of Jewish difference was simply not in question.

As this book demonstrates, this context requires a different set of questions: What happens when Jewish distinctiveness is wholly unremarkable? What happens when Jewish communal autonomy is not only tolerated, but affirmed, amplified, and even cast as a necessary precondition for the modern age? What types of change might we anticipate when there is no “Jewish question”? Following Izmir’s Jews on the street and in the marketplace, in the home and in the synagogue, from the mid-nineteenth century to the end of empire, the view from Ottoman Izmir suggests that it was new attitudes to poverty and class, not Judaism, that most significantly influenced this Sephardi community’s encounter with the modern age.


Although formally incorporated into the Ottoman Empire in 1424, the port of Izmir did not rise to prominence until more than a full century later, when a confluence of local and international circumstances led to its emergence as a major entrepôt. By the early seventeenth century, European traders had succeeded in circumventing long-standing spice and silk trade routes operating through Bursa, Aleppo, and Alexandria. Regrouping after the resulting decline of their local markets, Ottoman merchants found attractive alternatives in the agricultural products of the rich Anatolian hinterland of Izmir. Although Istanbul had traditionally regarded Izmir not as a center for international commerce but largely as a center for provisioning the capital, a series of countryside rebellions, known as the celali revolts, had dramatically weakened the authority of the imperial center and enabled provincial notables to shirk its directives. Thus the state did very little to intervene when the agents of Dutch, English, French, and Venetian merchants began to arrive in the area in the early seventeenth century. By 1640, the port of Izmir, which had the advantage of a well-protected harbor, had become the main hub for all European trade in the region.6

Although Jews had been scattered across western Anatolia since antiquity, there is no solid evidence of a formal Jewish community in Izmir prior to 1605.7 Like European merchants as well as Ottoman Greeks and Armenians, Jews then began to flock to the port in order to participate in its economic boom. The first Jewish migrants arrived in Izmir from surrounding areas in western Anatolia, and they were soon followed by significant numbers of Jews from Salonica, where the local textile industry had collapsed in the late sixteenth century, propelling many of its Jewish workers to search for opportunities elsewhere.8 The brisk activities of the European Levant trading companies also facilitated the migration to the city of Portuguese Jews, who were valued for their mercantile connections and often benefited from consular protection. While late-sixteenth-century Ottoman records make no mention of Jewish taxpayers in Izmir, a 1661 survey found that the city was home to 271 Jewish households.9

Izmir’s Jews played a crucial role in the port’s robust activity during the early modern period, as representatives of the European Levant companies relied on them extensively in making their way through the world of Ottoman commerce. Serving largely as intermediaries, Jews were heavily represented among the city’s brokers, translators, agents, and moneylenders. As the state began to take more of an interest in the port’s boom and sought to regulate its trade, Jews also became involved in the collection of customs. As Daniel Goffman has shown, between 1610 and 1650 nearly all customs collectors in Izmir were Jewish.10

The economic prosperity of the community during the port’s early boom enabled it to sustain a robust cultural and intellectual life. While in the early years of the seventeenth century Izmir had only one synagogue, by the 1630s it had five, and by the end of the century it was home to nine, with each congregation likely reflecting a different wave of migration to the port.11 Unlike other Ottoman Sephardi communities, Izmir developed from the outset a centralized leadership structure. The chief rabbinate was initially split between two rabbis, Rabbi Azariah Yehoshua and Rabbi Joseph Eskapa, both of Salonica. Naturally enough in a newly established community, the two differed on matters of Jewish law, each favoring legal precedents from different Ottoman Jewish communities in establishing local custom.12 They were constantly at odds, but after Yehoshua’s death, authority was consolidated in Joseph Eskapa, who set forth numerous financial and administrative codes for the new community that remained authoritative in Izmir through the modern period.13 So robust was the religious and cultural life of Izmir’s Jewish community that we find it categorized in the Ladino responsa literature as ir va-em be-Yisrael, or a “mother-city in Israel.”14


1. “Un poko de aktualidad—siempre los shohatim,” La Buena Esperanza, May 5, 1899, 1.

2. Cazès, October 26, 1873, AAIU I C I–7.

3. Aron Rodrigue, “Difference and Tolerance in the Ottoman Empire,” interview with Nancy Reynolds, Stanford Humanities Review 5 (Fall 1995): 81–92; Karen Barkey, Empire of Difference: The Ottomans in Comparative Perspective (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), especially 109–53.

4. The complex mutuality between ethnoreligious belonging and ideologies such as Ottomanism has received significant attention recently. For a study of this relationship through the prism of Palestine, see Michelle Campos, Ottoman Brothers: Muslims, Christians, and Jews in Early Twentieth-Century Palestine (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2011). For a case study of Ottoman Sephardi Jews, see Julia Phillips Cohen, Becoming Ottomans: Sephardi Jews and Imperial Citizenship in the Modern Era (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014). For a comparative treatment of Ottoman Armenians, Arabs, and Jews, see Bedross Der Matossian, Shattered Dreams of Revolution: From Liberty to Violence in the Late Ottoman Empire (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2014).

5. Esther Benbassa, “Associational Strategies in Ottoman Jewish Society in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries,” in The Jews of the Ottoman Empire, ed. Avigdor Levy (Princeton: Darwin Press, 1994), 457–84; Esther Benbassa and Aron Rodrigue, Sephardi Jewry: A History of the Judeo-Spanish Community, 14th–20th Centuries (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000), 121–29.

6. See Daniel Goffman, Izmir and the Levantine World: 1550–1650 (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1990), especially 1–76; and Daniel Goffman, “Izmir: From Village to Colonial Port City,” in The Ottoman City Between East and West: Aleppo, Izmir, and Istanbul, eds. Edhem Eldem, Daniel Goffman, and Bruce Masters (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), 87–90.

7. Abraham Galante, Les Juifs d’Anatolie: Les Juifs d’Izmir (Istanbul: Imprimerie Babok, 1937), 12. For more on Jewish settlement in western Anatolia, see Feridun Emecen, Unutulmuş Bir Cemaat: Manisa Yahudileri (Istanbul: Eren, 1997), 1–42.

8. Jacob Barnai, “The Origins of the Jewish Community in Izmir in the Ottoman Period,” Peamim: Studies in Oriental Jewry 12 (1982): 51 (in Hebrew).

9. Goffman, Izmir and the Levantine World, 83.

10. Ibid., 80–83, 88.

11. Barnai, “The Origins of the Jewish Community,” 51–57.

12. Jacob Barnai, “Organization and Leadership in the Jewish Community of Izmir in the Seventeenth Century,” in The Jews of the Ottoman Empire, ed. Avigdor Levy (Princeton: Darwin Press, 1994), 279.

13. For example, Seduta no. 47, 24 Nisan [5]645, Prochesos verbales, CAHJP, Tr/Iz. 28 (soletreo).

14. Salomon Rosanes, Korot ha-Yehudim be-Turkiyah ve’Artzot ha-Kedem (Sofia: Defus ha-Mishpat, 1934–35), 5:127.