Turkey: The plight of the Doenmeh

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A distinguished scholar who writes about Ottoman Empire Jewish life, Rifat Bali covers hundreds of historical documents depicting the past and present of the Doenmeh, along with personal testimony by today’s doenmeh.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,

4 Responses

  1. 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.

    Just by looking at this passage the author lost any chance for me getting this book. Things in Salonica were much more complicated and this statement simply isn't true.

  2. I have to correct the claim made in the previous post so that your readers are not misled.

    It simply is true that some Doenmeh in Salonika appealed to the Jewish authorities there to be recognized as Jewish (between 1912-24) and that they were REFUSED by the rabbis who claimed that the Doenmeh were "mamzerim." (legally defined bastards)

    The following verse from Deuteronomy 23: 3 was brought forward to deny them their Jewish status: “A bastard shall not enter into the congregation of the Lord; even to his tenth generation shall he not enter into the congregation of the Lord.”

    The foremost Turkish Jewish scholar, Abraham Galante, wrote about this historical incident in his book: "Nouveaux documents sur Sabbetai Sevi; organisation et us et coutumes de ses adeptes, 1935"

    And how do I know all this; because I am a Doenmeh in 2009 who is STILL refused his Jewish status based on this nonsensical verdict…

    Just because you haven't read anything about this historical fact (or that you were unaware of it) doesn't make the statement false.

    By the way, this ruling, ironically saved almost all the Doenmeh from becoming victims of the Holocaust, as they were forced to immigrate to Turkey in 1924, less than 20 years before the Nazis took over Salonika and wiped out %96 of the Jews there.

    Unintentionally the rabbis saved us from total extinction by not recognizing us as who we actually were!

    • The Bet Din of Saloniki discriminated between Shebsels who voluntarily aposticized, as opposed to those who were directly ordered by Shabbtai to go through the “process” for cathartic and escoterical reasons. The former dissimulated, while the latter never solicited such recognition, and beat it out of Sloniki quite on their own. The Bet Din picked up the distinction quickly. Unfortunately, it is the former group that is so eager to “inform” naive “scholars” about the “faith”, because so little is known about the actual dialectic — Scholem’s inanities not excluded.

  3. Thank you for writing. There is much to be learned abut this history. Perhaps it is the job of the younger generation to share it so that we may all learn more.


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