In and out of Islam and Judaism

HIS STORY/HER STORY: The Levis and Benezras were Sephardi families of exiles from Spain that relocated and flourished in the Ottoman Empire for centuries.

June 20, 2013 13:58
3 minute read.
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ottoman era painting 311. (photo credit: Mya Guarnieri)


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The Levis and Benezras were Sephardi families of exiles from Spain that relocated and flourished in the Ottoman Empire for centuries. Our account begins in the mid-19th century when Miryam, who would live to the age of 96, was born. She was the great-grandmother of Güler, who still resides in Istanbul today.

Miryam Levi only had one daughter, Ester, who married an Ottoman Sephardi named Moshe Benezra. The Benezras were from Çannakkale, which is located on the Dardanelles; the young man sold textiles. The couple had nine children, one of whom was Güler’s mother, Neama, born in 1900 (and lived until 1997). Neama was a volunteer in the Jewish hospital in Istanbul and she encountered another volunteer, Henri Nassi, when he passed her the accounting books. They met once again, some months later, during a rainstorm in Istanbul when the young man offered her his umbrella; the romance began.

Unfortunately there was a logistical problem to overcome, because Neama’s beau was a Romanian Sephardi Jew. His father, Izak David Nassi (1855-1936), worked in a bank in Constanza on the Black Sea. The family had moved to Turkey when Izak was transferred to the Istanbul branch of the Marmarosh Bank. Because his son had fallen in love with both Neama and with Turkey, he converted to Islam and became a citizen of Turkey in order to remain in the country and wed Neama. The couple opted to convert together. Henri went into business, becoming a successful importer of aromatic oils. They resided in Istanbul and had one daughter.

The daughter, Güler, known affectionately as Gülerika, studied at the English High School for Girls in Istanbul. At the age of 17, she met a Jewish young man named Ceki (Jacky) Karasu who was a student at the university. Since she had been born as a Muslim to formerly Jewish parents, in order to marry Ceki, the young bride had to convert to Judaism.

In 1954, they were wed in the Neveh Shalom Synagogue. Unfortunately, the marriage did not last long because Ceki wanted to study abroad and Güler did not want to leave Turkey; the couple divorced.

Güler worked in her father’s business; she eventually met a Muslim man named Günel Orgun. Once again, the world of Islam and Judaism were crisscrossing; the two chose to marry by means of a civil ceremony.

A son and daughter were born to this mixed couple, who, by 1971, had purchased a farm in a Polish Catholic village – where they raised their children as well as cows, sheep and chickens. Once grown, the siblings pursued their respective doctoral studies and moved to California and Scotland, where they are raising their families.

In the meantime, Güler decided to return to Ladino, the language of her forefathers, which she had heard and understood as a child, but had not spoken in her mother’s household. As a matter of fact, because she never spoke the language, her family assumed that she did not understand it. They had a rude awakening one day when her mother and her neighbors related a dirty joke in her presence and the eight-year-old Gülerika laughed out loud. She regretted this slip as from then on, she was no longer privy to any more juicy anecdotes.

At the age of 65, as her grandchildren were studying Spanish, she decided to begin speaking the language as well and enrolled in the Cervantes Institute. Her expertise ultimately enabled her to join the editorial staff of Istanbul’s Ladino newspaper, El Ameneser, where she carefully prepares pieces for publication. In addition, she has helped numerous Ladino scholars track down meanings of obscure words or terms, generous with her time and knowledge. Güler has contacts throughout the Ladino-speaking world, and when she doesn’t have the knowledge at her fingertips, she knows to whom to turn.

It is ironic that despite the topsy-turvy nature of her and her parents’ religious lives, her cultural ties to the Sephardi world remain incredibly strong. She is a Jewish woman married to a Muslim whose children married Christians, but is well-known in the Turkish Jewish community because of her knowledge, her high standards and her devotion to the Ladino language. ■

The writer is a professor of Jewish history at the Schechter Institute and the academic editor of Nashim. She is currently on sabbatical.

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