ottoman era painting 311.
(photo credit: Mya Guarnieri)
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
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
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
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.
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.
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