[...] a small group of Sephardic Jews, many of them descended from conversos, did not think that Zevi’s apostasy invalidated his mission. On the contrary, they decided to follow him by converting to Islam themselves, while continuing to believe in their messiah and follow his commandments. This group, totaling about 300 families, became known in Turkish as Dönme, “converts,” though they referred to themselves in Hebrew as Ma’aminim, “believers.” By the 1680s, the Dönme had congregated in Salonika, the cosmopolitan and majority-Jewish city in Ottoman Greece. For the next 250 years, they would lead an independent communal life—intermarrying, doing business together, maintaining their own shrines, and handing down their secret traditions.
In The Dönme: Jewish Converts, Muslim Revolutionaries, and Secular Turks, Marc David Baer has produced the first scholarly study of this group. That it is a scholarly work, limited in its scope and sticking closely to written archives, is something that Baer insists on, and with good reason. For while the Spanish conversos are now seen as an interesting historical phenomenon, and it is even rather fashionable to claim converso ancestry, Turkey is still a part of the world where the anti-Semitic imagination runs wild.
And because the Dönme played an outsize role at key moments in modern Turkish history, the myth of their secret Jewish power has itself become powerful. As Baer writes in his introduction, there have recently been bestselling books in Turkey claiming that everyone from the current prime minister, the religious Muslim Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the revered founder of modern secular Turkey, are secretly Jewish. “Ghost Jews haunt the Turkish popular imagination,” as Baer puts it.
This makes it a delicate matter to write about the Dönme. In fact, Baer says, most of the descendants of Dönme whom he interviewed for the book asked him not to use their names. “Although many believe conspiracy theories about the Dönme,” Baer writes, “very few know the real character and history of the group.” His book, perhaps deliberately, will not raise the profile of the Dönme very much. Not only is it an academic book, published by Stanford University Press, but Baer says very little about the origin of the Dönme, or about their religious beliefs and practices—matters that many Jewish readers would be curious about.
Posts Tagged ‘Dönmes’
by Dan Yardeni
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.
During my last visit to Istanbul, I met Rifat Bali, the author of “A Scapegoat for All Seasons,” through a mutual friend. A distinguished scholar who has written articles and books about Jewish life in the Ottoman Empire, Bali leans more toward documentation than analysis in his historical studies. In the book’s 400 pages, he cites hundreds of historical documents depicting the past and present vicissitudes of the Sabbateans’ descendants, who in Turkey are called the Doenmeh.
Aubrey Ross is an unusual man with an unusual pastime. He’s looking for Jewish Muslims. In Turkey. With the help of the Internet. And he’s convinced he has found some.
In a book entitled “The Messiah of Turkey,” due to be published this winter by Frank Cass Publishers in Great Britain, Ross reveals that there are a number of key figures in the present government of Turkey who are Sabbateans - i.e., followers of Shabbtai Tzvi, a Jew who, in the 17th century, claimed he was the messiah, God of Israel, and later converted to Islam.
Ross, an Orthodox Jew from London who has lectured on mysticism at Hebrew University in Jerusalem - but has university degrees in economics and the history of political thought, and is an adviser on pensions at the National Health Service in Great Britain - became intrigued by the subject when he was reading the chapter about false messiahs in Gershom Scholem’s “Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism.”
“I was fascinated by a short sentence that said `many of them were still around in 1970,’” he says.
Shabbtai Zvi was born in Izmir, Turkey in 1625 and became a Muslim in the 1660s, Ross explains, when he was challenged by the sultan of Turkey for declaring that his mission as messiah was to take back the land of Israel, then under Ottoman rule. The sultan offered him three alternatives: make a miracle and become the true messiah of the Jews; be killed; or become a Muslim. Shabbtai Tzvi chose the latter.
by Jacob M. Landau
The dönmes (converts) are a community descended from the disciples and adherents of Sabbatai Tsevi, who abandoned Judaism and adopted Islam in the late seventeenth century. Wary of their Muslim neighbors, they kept to themselves, maintaining strict secrecy in all their religious practices and general behavior. Our knowledge of the dönmes is therefore rather limited.
The main dönme center was in Salonica, where they had a real impact on social and economic life until 1924, when, as a result of the population transfer, the dönmes moved to Turkey, chiefly to Istanbul and Izmir. This migration caused their communal institutions to break down, and growing assimilation into the Muslim Turkish environment (including intermarriages) diminished the dönme population considerably. The hostility of sections of Turkish ultranationalists and extreme Islamists also affected the community.
Dönme (convert; also apostate, a pejorative term) was the common appellation used by Muslim Turks to designate the Jewish adherents of Sabbatai Tsevi who embraced Islam in the last third of the seventeenth century, imitating their prophet’s conversion in Istanbul in 1666, and their descendants. The dönmes themselves preferred to be called ma’mīnīm (”believers” in Hebrew), indicating the conviction that they had inaugurated a new sect within Judaism that reinterpreted messianic Judaism, at the same time insisting on strictly Muslim behavior in public.
Text and photographs by Albena Shkodrova
Neither Muslims nor Jews, but rather a bit of both, Thessaloniki’s Dönmeh were the most influential group in the city over a period of almost 400 years. The rumours that the founder of modern Turkey, Kemal Atatürk, was one of them remain unconfirmed. But spending a few days in present-day Thessaloniki makes one wonder whether the city has really managed to rid itself of the influence of the eclectic, and often purely extravagant, tastes of the now extinct sect.
East of the park behind the White Tower, Thessaloniki’s colourless, new residential blocks surround the streets, blocking the way of the fresh sea breeze.
Barber shops, pastry shops, garages and stores string by in their usual rhythm. Women hang laundry out on the balconies, motorbikes whiz past with a deafening noise – altogether everything is going about in its usual manner, until suddenly – in the middle of the little neighbourhood, a small square opens up. The building in its middle instantly grabs the attention.
This is Yeni Jami, the ‘New Mosque’. A strange mixture of Art Nouveau and Moorish architecture from the time of the Arab Khalifate in Spain, it starts out with a stained glass window above the door and continues with rounded arches, ending with a sharp-edged, ornamental roof frieze and two wooden clock towers, decorated with multiple Stars of David.