If you’ve been curious about the contemporary descendants of the followers of false messiah Shabbetai Zvi, this book review will explain about today’s Turkish doenmeh.
“A Scapegoat for All Seasons: The Doenmeh or Crypto-Jews of Turkey” (Isis Press, 400pgs, $45) is by Rifat Bali, and the review is by Dan Yardeni in Haaretz.
Three and a half centuries ago, a young, charismatic rabbi, Shabbetai Zvi, declared himself to be the Messiah and promised that the Jewish people would soon be redeemed and would return to Palestine, the ancestral Jewish homeland.
Masses of Jews believed in him, and the events of that epoch, which are among the most turbulent in Jewish history, culminated in tragedy: In 1668, forced by the Ottoman sultan to choose between death and conversion to Islam, Shabbetai Zvi opted for the latter.
Although most of his disciples abandoned him after his conversion, several thousand emulated their leader by outwardly accepting, though they continued to see themselves as Jews.
The historical and theological aspects of this episode in Jewish history have been extensively discussed by Jewish and non-Jewish scholars, including Gershom Scholem. However, little is known about the present-day descendants of the Sabbateans.
A distinguished scholar who writes about Ottoman Empire Jewish life, Rifat Bali covers hundreds of historical documents depicting the past and present of the Doenmeh, along with personal testimony by today’s doenmeh.
The book describes the status and history of the Sabbateans in contemporary Turkish society.
“Doenmeh” translates as “convert” in a pejorative sense. They refer to themselves, however as ma’aminim (believers, Hebrew). They are the Turkish version of Crypto-Jews, who willingly converted to Islam but also see themselves as Jews.
The present generation may well be the last one to retain the fragmented memories of the living members of this sect. A Doenmeh friend of mine told me his father had informed him that his father’s mother used to go to the beach every Friday to recite a prayer in Ladino. My friend’s father remembered only
the phrase “Esperano a-te” (I will wait for you [O Messiah]).
Bali covers their attempts to assimilate into Turkish society, and younger members who are trying to return to the Jewish people.
Both are motivated by increasing anti-Semitism in Turkey, and lessening of Kemal Ataturk prestige. While not proven, evidence supports the theory.
Bali also refers to various conspiracy theories that seem to blame Jews for Turkey’s problems, and discusses the Doenmeh preventing Turkey from aligning with Hitler. As rulers of Turkey, the Doenmeh knew that it wouldn’t be good if Nazis entered the country.
By 1720, the ma’aminim were divided into three subsects: Karkash, Yakubi and Kapandji.
Most of today’s Doenmeh are descendants of 20,000 Doenmeh residents of Salonica who were exiled to Turkey in the 1920s as part of a population exchange between Greece and Turkey. Their exile came in the wake of a ruling of that city’s rabbis, who refused to recognize them as Jews, something that would have allowed them to remain in Greece as a minority. The historical irony of that decision is that it actually saved their lives; nearly every member of the Jewish community of Salonica was ultimately annihilated in Auschwitz or Majdanek.
The review goes on to include a moving letter written by a Doenmeh friend of Yardeni, describing the plight of the Sabbeteans today.
Read the complete review at the link above,