Far away from the eyes of the Jewish mainstream, in modern-day Turkey there live hundreds, if not thousands, of crypto-Jews — and today, one of their most sacred shrines is in danger.
his is the hidden, fascinating tale of the doenmeh, descendants of the faithful followers of the 17th-century false messiah Sabbetai Tzvi, who converted to Islam in 1666. Tzvi’s own conversion came under duress: The Ottoman sultan demanded that he don the turban or die after nearly one-third of European Jewry had come to believe he was the messiah and had begun swarming into Turkey, expecting the long-awaited triumph of the Jews.
Tzvi chose to convert, and most of his followers lost hope — but not all of them. Many saw the conversion as a heroic act of tikkun, or repair, and followed their messiah’s lead by outwardly becoming Muslims while secretly maintaining their messianic Jewish faith. They were called doenmeh, meaning “turncoats”— a pejorative term not unlike marrano (“pig.”) Among themselves, they were called ma’aminim, “believers.”...
And then there are the doenmeh, who live on until the present day, in secretive communities, at first primarily in Salonika and today almost entirely in present-day Turkey.
A move to tear down the Turkish home where Tzvi is said to have lived, however, may now disturb the balance the community has cultivated for centuries.
Over the years, most of the doenmeh assimilated into Islam; many more were annihilated during the Holocaust, and still more have, in modern-day Turkey, come to see their background as a curious but largely irrelevant heritage. But even those who did assimilate usually maintained some knowledge of their ancestry, and doenmeh were among the founders of the secular Turkish republic. Today, many doenmeh are among Turkey’s elite, though it is taboo to speak their names; since doenmeh are regarded as traitors by both Muslims and Jews, it is scandalous to accuse a person of being one of them, even if his or her identity is an open, unspoken secret. ...
Surely, though, if this house is what Sisman and Kapandji believe it to be, it is an important relic of a key episode in Jewish history....
Kapandji wants to see the house as some kind of museum, though he acknowledged that openly discussing Tzvi himself is still taboo in Turkish society. Sisman thinks the house should be preserved for Turkish reasons, as a testament to that country’s “multicultural heritage.”
Perhaps the house is of significance to Jews, as well. Sabbateanism was a dynamic, mystical and progressive movement — it was the first to put women in positions of leadership and to question the authority of normative Judaism — that was, according to many, an antecedent of Zionism. (Israeli presidents Yitzhak Ben-Zvi and Zalman Shazar were both scholars of the movement, and Theodor Herzl’s opponents labeled him a “new Sabbetai Tzvi.”) In an age in which many people are seeking alternative forms of Jewish expression, perhaps it is worth remembering those that did not survive.
Or rather, those that still, secretly, endure.
Tuesday, June 5, 2007