Turkish Jewry’s secret medieval messianics survive

Followers of Sabbatai Zevi and modern Jews united by centuries of persecution.

Supporters of the ruling AK Party wave Turkish national and party flags at an election rally for Turkey's June 7 parliamentary election, in Antalya, Turkey, June 6, 2015 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Supporters of the ruling AK Party wave Turkish national and party flags at an election rally for Turkey's June 7 parliamentary election, in Antalya, Turkey, June 6, 2015
(photo credit: REUTERS)
ISTANBUL – A few years ago, artist Memo Kösemen found himself wandering through graveyards in Istanbul while soul-searching after a bad breakup.
“I was looking at these tombstones for consolation,” he said, speaking to The Media Line in his shared studio in Istanbul’s upscale Beşiktaş neighborhood.
But he started noticing something peculiar about some of the graves. Though they were located in Muslim cemeteries, the tombstones had photographic portraits at a time when Muslims considered this to be forbidden, and most of them were done by the same artist, Osman Hasan. His curiosity stirred, Kösemen started doing research that eventually led him to discover a little-known secret community with members among his own ancestors.
During the last centuries of the Ottoman Empire, a small religious minority called the Dönme lived primarily in Salonika (present day Thessaloniki, Greece), a predominantly Jewish city known as the ‘Jerusalem of the Balkans.’ The members, who numbered about 15,000 by the early twentieth century, were disciples of Sabbatai Zevi (also known as Shabbtai Tzvi), whom they considered to be their Messiah. Zevi was a Sephardic Jewish Kabbalist who publicly converted to Islam in 1666 after the Ottoman authorities gave him the choice of conversion or execution, but continued preaching his Jewish mystical beliefs until his death in 1676. Zevi’s acolytes surreptitiously continued to follow his distinct form of Kabbalah but lived publicly as Muslims, and Ottoman authorities didn’t pry into their private lives.
At first they spoke the Sephardic language Ladino, using Hebrew for worship, but those languages were eventually superseded by Turkish.
Following the First World War and dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, the Salonika Dönme, officially considered Muslims, were forced to move to Istanbul in a Christian-Muslim population exchange between Greece and the newly established Turkish republic. They had to leave most of their wealth behind in Salonika and didn’t meld into the young Turkish republic, where they were viewed with suspicion and soon tarnished with scurrilous conspiracy theories. Most of them assimilated into republican society, losing their unique culture, while the few that retained their religion hid their identity from the public. “In this climate, the Dönme were extremely secretive,” Kösemen says. “Years passed, [and] these people either died, forgot their [religious practices], or hid them.”
After much research that eventually became a book, Kösemen realized that on his father’s side, he himself was one of the thousands of Turks who unknowingly have Dönme ancestry. There are still perhaps 2,000 Dönme remaining in Turkey who have maintained their identity and beliefs, though many of their religious practices have evolved with time. Due to rampant discrimination and religious obligations of secrecy, most extant Dönme conceal their identities and don’t speak to outsiders about their communities. However, The Media Line was able to meet two of their members, who spoke on condition of anonymity. Cem is from the more secularist and Judaic Kapancı sect, and Osman is from the more spiritual Karakaş sect. Both are in their forties, and neither speak for the Dönme in any official capacity.
Cem and Osman agreed that, although the Dönme have been victims of discrimination since the early days of the republic, the rise of the currently ruling and ardently Sunni Justice and Development Party (AKP) has made them feel more uncomfortable than ever before.
“With the 2002 election of the AK Party, everything changed,” Osman says. “There’s a new kind of disturbance with this government.”
Cem supported the AKP’s liberal reforms in its early years, but stopped around 2009 due to its authoritarianism and other troubling practices. He says the AKP has tried to socially engineer society in favor of pious Sunni Muslims, and this new model excludes religious minorities and secularists.
“You have to be one of them in order to be a good citizen,” Cem says. He and other Dönme are trying to gain Spanish or Portuguese citizenship, since their ancestors are Sephardic Jews who fled religious persecution in those countries in the late fifteenth century.
“This is like Plan B [so that] if things go sideways I have another place to go to,” Cem says.
After their Messiah’s death, the Dönme eventually split into three sects, each with quite different beliefs. “The differences between the sects were so visible, so strong, that by the second half of the nineteenth century, there were almost no social connections between them,” says history professor Cengiz Şişman, one of the few Dönme experts in the world and author of a book about them, The Burden of Silence.
Cem goes even further.
“I would call them different religions even,” he says. The two other Dönme sects are largely a mystery to him, keeping their practices secret even from other Dönme sects.
“We didn’t inter-marry; we didn’t believe in the same theology […]; we had different places of worship; we had different neighborhoods we lived in,” Cem explains.
The Dönme developed a unique Kabbalist culture that was partly influenced by Sufism, a form of Islamic mysticism. “They borrow some ideas from Sufism, but only so long as it fits into the Jewish mystical framework,” Şişman says.
Cem considers Sabbatai Zevi a kind of reformer, comparing him to Martin Luther and saying that he made Judaism more inclusive to women.
“He kind of spiritualized Judaism,” he says.
Osman says that, at least for the Karakaş, the Sufi-influenced practices aren’t just to blend in with Muslims, but are genuine.
“The important thing about these Dönme Muslim rituals is that they aren’t some sort of fake display. They’re all honest and heartfelt.”
However, Cem says his sect, the Kapancıs, hasn’t been influenced by Islam at all, and is now completely secular.
“We never really considered ourselves true Muslims at any point in history,” he says. “To me, it’s an ethno-cultural identity, not a religious identity.”
The Ottoman Dönme would purposefully break traditional Jewish and Islamic rules, eating non-kosher foods, working on the Sabbath, and breaking the Ramadan fast five minutes early. They developed their own liturgy and beliefs, reading from tiny, easily concealed prayer books, and following a unique religious calendar based upon Jewish and Sabbatean holidays and respecting Muslim ones. The Dönme holidays are more festive than Jewish ones, with no mourning. For instance, even on Tisha B’Av, (the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av), a sad commemoration of the destruction of Judaism’s two sacred temples in Jerusalem during which observant Jews fast for 24-hours, is a time of rejoicing for the Dönme since it’s Sabbatai Zevi’s birthday.
“We only have joyous holidays because there’s no reason for having observances of grief after the coming of the Messiah,” Osman explains.
“We’re not so much of a fast people; we’re more of a feast people,” Cem adds.
The Dönme used to gather together in the Yeni Camii (New Mosque), their house of worship in Salonika, as well as in some members’ homes. They would recite prayers and supplications, sing hymns and eat symbolic food. The Dönme would also do chanting and ecstatic practices similar to the Sufi Zhikr.
“It’s a mystic gathering, basically,” Şişman says.
Osman explains the complex mystical beliefs of his sect.
“We’re all creatures that are endowed with these cosmic sparks of the tree of life,” he says. “We Dönme consider ourselves richer in this vitality, this force, and for us, perfection and bliss aren’t some sort of paradise or these seven virgins or whatever, but it’s the establishment of order, balance and harmony in the universe. It’s the most ecstatic joy and bliss that one can derive from the world.”
Most Turks today have either never heard of the Dönme, or are wildly misinformed from anti-Semitic pseudo-history propagated in several best-selling books. “They started writing brick-sized books, one right after another. It just became like an industry,” Cem says.
The Dönme are at the heart of many pervasive conspiracy theories, associated with Israel and Freemasons and portrayed as masterminds behind all kinds of evil chicanery. “In [Turkish] people’s minds, Israeli is equal to Jew, is equal to Dönme, is equal to Mason, is equal to this and that,” Cem says.
Osman says he doesn’t want to be considered an enemy of his own country.
“I’m sick of being seen as a secret Jewish ritualist who works to destabilize the country.”
Usually referred to as ‘secret Jews,’ or ‘crypto-Jews,’ Dönme are caught up in the anti-Semitism endemic in Turkish society.
“Yahudi is almost like an insult,” Kösemen says, referring to the Turkish word for Jew. “In [the average Turk’s] mind Yahudi is like this sort of demon creature who’s killing people in Israel.”
Jewish people also discriminated against the Dönme, and Ottoman rabbis accused them of apostasy.
“Subconsciously, the Jews would probably think that we’re untrustworthy, that we left their religion, integrated into another culture, we’re kind of deceivers and stuff like that,” Cem says.
However, today he says the enmity has decreased, as Turkey’s persecuted religious groups feel a sense of solidarity.
“After the 2000s, because there was so much hostility and so many conspiracy theories against both Jews and the Dönme, I think they’ve kind of started sticking together,” Cem says. “They saw that there was a common threat.”
The Dönme and Turkish Jews have no formal relations.
“Individually, we get along very well. But as a group, there’s no relationship,” Cem says.
Caption: Memo Kösemen works in his studio in Istanbul. (Photo: Nick Ashdown/The Media Line)