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Finding a New Identity: Conversos in the Ottoman Empire Llowell Williams

Turkey and Greece has been home to Jews for centuries, since at least Roman and Byzantium times. Over time a number of Jewish communities have risen in this area of the world. Many different groups of Jewish families came to this region over the course of centuries. With each change, Jewish culture evolvesoften influencing non-Jewish culture and society and in turn absorbing their surroundings, themselves changing. The Ottoman Empire, which dominated the area, may be considered special in that it has seen a wide variety of Jewish cultures and communities over the centuries of its existence. Among the most important Jewish communities in the Ottoman Empire were Salonika, Izmir, Safed and Istanbul. An entire book could be written on the various Jewish groups which migrated to these cities and the Ottoman Empire in general over the centuries (and indeed, there have been). However, for the purpose of this paper one group in particular will be examined in detail: The converso exiles of Portugal and Spain. Before the conversos' arrival in some of these cities like Salonika in the Ottoman Empire, other Jewish groups had already come and established their own communities. How these expelled conversos, new to Eastern Europe and Asia Minor, came to view their own identities as Jews and how they interacted with their brothers and sisters in these communities will be examined. However, to do so requires an overview of the Jewish groups which established their lives in Greece before their arrival. Historians have traced the presence of Jews in the region which includes the countries we know today as Greece and Turkey. Most of this region, however, was under the rule of the Ottoman Empire for hundreds of years, stretching from the fourteenth and twentieth centuries. It was during the Ottoman rule that numerous groups of different Jewish groups converged on economic and cultural centers of the Empire. Their residence preceding the Ottoman Empire, Jews known as Romaniotas could be found in many cities of Greece and Turkey. These Jews had lived under Roman and Byzantine rules; in some cases, vain attempts to convert these Jews to Christianity by force was made by regional leaders. (Lewkowicz:42-55) Most of the time this was met with great resistance and failed to have the kind of impacts similar acts in western areas of Europe had had. Despite their long history in the region, Romaniotas remained a minority group in most cities. The fourteenth and fifteenth centuries saw the influx of small numbers of Ashkenazi Jews from Hungary and Germany to Greece. It was around this time the Ottoman Empire's reach into Greece and Macedonia continued to extend, coming to include several communities, like Salonika, which were to become important centers of Jewish communities in the Empire in centuries to come. The growth of the Jewish population in the Ottoman Empire was to continue exponentially in the early 1500s. Following the Christian Reconquista of the Iberian Peninsula, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabela, of Spain, authored a charter known as the Edict of Expulsion in 1492, which required all Jews in Spain to either leave the country or convert to Christianity.

Most of these Sephardic Jews opted to live in exile, while some decided to stay. These exiled Sephardim immigrated to many communities in Western Europe and Northern Africa; however, the majority of these people ended up arriving in the Ottoman Empire, to the east. At the urging of the Chief Rabbi of Istanbul, Eliyia Kapsali, the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire allowed these Sephardic exiles into Ottoman cities. Although details of this are disputed, some historians have suggested that the newly exiled Sephardic Jews were given an especially warm welcome to the Ottoman Empire, whose Sultan encouraged them to settle newly conquered European provinces and instructed his regional rulers to welcome them into their cities. Salonika, in the Macedonian region, was to become the most popular destination for the Sephardim, although they settled in a number of other cities in the western regions of the Ottoman Empire. This invitation to the Sephardic Jews by the Sultan was has been seen by some to be a political move, perhaps an attempt to keep the newly conquered Christian citizens from becoming more than a small religious majority in these cities. No doubt the wealth these families would bring with them was enticing to the Sultan as well. More exiled Sephardim were to arrive in the Ottoman Empire only a few years later, this time as a result of their expulsion from Portugal, whose king was to follow in Spain's King Ferdinand's steps. This, however, was not the last of the Spanish Jews to arrive in the Ottoman Empire. Thousands of Sephardic Jews had chosen to stay in their homes in Spain and Portugal following the edicts. As a result, they were forcibly converted to Christianity, and confined to continuing their Jewish practices in secret. These individuals are known as conversos, or crypto-Jews. However, many conversos came under heavy scrutiny and persecution as the Inquisitions began to spread across the Iberian Peninsula. Seeking to escape what many conversos saw as inevitable imprisonment or death, they left, dispersing to a variety of places, often following their Sephardic brothers and sisters to communities all over Europe and North Africa. So what happened when these conversos came to settle in the Jewish communities of the western Ottoman Empire? There was much debate in these communities over how to deal with these people. Where they Catholics? Or were they still Jews? Did these conversos have to convert back to Judaism? This was a question that these communities had to consider. In what was perhaps the most important city to Jewish culture in the Ottoman Empire, Salonika, this was an issue that was especially pressing to the rabbinic authority. The solution many rabbis found was to facilitate a returning to Judaism for these conversos, not conversion. The matter of teshuvah, or returning, became the subject of much rabbinic literature in these days. Some of the most interesting and varied writings on this subject came from Salonika. For in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the rabbinic tradition in the Jewish communities there were considered innovative, and even by some as radical, in their solutions to the converso crisis. Most of the congregations there sought to conduct teshuvah so as to provide the easiest transition for the newly settled conversos. As one author on the subject wrote: All coversos who are coming to do teshuvah: [we must] consider that he whose father is of Israel, his mother must also be assumed to be not a Gentile. This idea frequently extended to individuals who were second or third generation conversos. Rabbi Yosef Ben-Lev, an important religious leader in Salonika during this period, stated that, Those Jews who left their residence in the kingdom of Portugal on their way to Turkeyeven if some of them end up residing in Ancona and Flanders [where they continued to live as Christians]...one can say that they are kosher Jews, because in their hearts they have considered teshuvah. (Fleming:52-53). Without a doubt this made the

conversos' integration with their fellow Jewish citizens much smoother. However, the mass acceptance of the teshuvah did not mean the conversos had become seen no longer as outsiders, or newcomers. The rabbinic authorities in most communities decreed that these returning conversos did not have to change their converso names to Jewish ones; indeed this is often what these people chose to do (after all, these people had been living with these names for generations). Law or not, choosing to retain such names provided a label which reminded native Ottoman Jews that these conversos were different from them. Returned conversos were encouraged to adopt Jewish names; to do so was seen by rabbinic authority to be an act of piety, however if one chose to retain their converso name, Jewish law did not see them as any less Jewish. It was not that simple however. In some communities other issues stood in the way of fully embracing the conversos. In Safed, located in what is today modern Israel, some rabbis took a more conservative approach to dealing with the conversos crisis. One such issue was that of circumcision. Most conversos were not circumcised, and many Jewish scholars agreed circumcision would be required before these conversos were allowed to participate in services at the synagogue. Since most Jewish males are circumcised at a young age, this path was not especially appealing to conversos; many, however, agreed to this requirement. Also in Safed, Jewish scholars argued that these conversos had participated in acts, in their homelands, that would make them liable for excommunication. Although it was agreed that excommunication was not appropriate for the conversos, to return to Judaism, some said, should include some form of punishment, such as flogging. Whether the rabbinic authorities here followed through on such recommendations is still unclear to most scholars. However this attitude towards conversos is important: Despite being almost universally welcomed by other Jews as being Jewish themselves, many still saw them as traitors to the faith, which would require special acts of piety and repentance before such acts were forgiven and forgotten. These types of attitudes reminded conversos of their duplicitous identities, which many had hoped to leave behind in Portugal and Spain. After jumping through these hurdles to become accepted as fellow Jews, however, was not the end of the conversos' (or at this point, rather, ex-conversos') struggle with self identity and their place within Judaism among their Jewish neighbors. The transition from the type of Judaism conversos has been practicing for years and the rabbinic Judaism they found in the Ottoman Empire was not easy. Conversos' style of practicing Judaism involved little or no use of scripture and was devoid of a religious hierarchy and law, in quite a contrast to rabbinic Judaism. Women's role in worship was also very different. In converso tradition, women played a very important role in passing on Jewish traditions. Women, in converso families, were the ones which memorized the prayers, often leading the private worship sessions in their homelands. Rabbinic Judaism, in contrast, required women to practice Judaism on a lower level than men, and did not have women in religious leadership roles; for conversos, this was an especially big issue. This proved to be a difficult crisis for many conversos. Many began to question the rabbinic traditions. Others began to question their own heritage as Jews. In one of the most popular destinations for conversos seeking to escape persecution in the seventeenth century, Izmir, Portuguese conversos took it upon themselves to create their own congregations, which they named Marranos of Portugal and Neveh Shalom. (Ben-Naeh:90-91). Historians observe that

during the seventeenth century several predominately Jewish cities in the Ottoman Empire (like Izmir) were creating unified religious and political bodies which would then deal with Ottoman authorities as a whole. Under this new system, congregations gradually lost their autonomy and importance as separate entities, becoming in essence a single religious community. However, the congregations established by the conversos maintained their separate identity as individual congregations. This is important because it illustrates the ways conversos chose to deal with the problems they had with rabbinic Judaism (by not participating). However, ex-conversos in other Ottoman cities did not necessarily take this route. Some resigned to fully embracing rabbinic Judaism, abandoning many converso traditions and practices. Although some converso Jews decided to abandon their practices, this did not mean they lost their distinctiveness. In fact, there is evidence that these conversos, while modifying their own beliefs to assimilate into Ottoman Jewry, also influenced these groups. One such example is the attitude towards begging and poverty. Most Ottoman Jews deemed poverty to be a consequence of one's fate, and as such begging was acceptable. Conversos, however, had an attitude generally considered more Western towards beggars. Conversos disagreed with the acceptability of begging and instead supported only helping those who had absolutely no means of providing for themselves. (Ben-Naeh:262-63). This had an influence on policy in some communities, especially as economic growth started to slow across the Empire. Although some converso Jews faced difficulty assimilating into Ottoman-Jewish society, others did not. Many were preoccupied with the vast overseas trading networks they were establishing with their converso brothers, many of whom went to places outside the Ottoman Empire, like Amsterdam, Morocco, the Caribbean and London. Some scholars attribute these unique business and trade connections to much of the economic success communities like Izmir and Salonika experienced in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. These same communities also saw a rise in production services, such as printers, bookbinders, and booksellersall professions which became very important in Jewish society. Among the best known printers in this time period was a converso family known as the BatShevas, who lived in Istanbul and Izmir. They are sometimes credited with establishing some of the first printing shops in the Ottoman Empire. (Ben-Naeh:336). This shows that although some communities had difficulty accepting and integrating conversos, many conversos became valued members of many communities and became successful crafters and business people. As we have seen here, the Ottoman Empire became an incredibly important center of Jewish culture, especially in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. It was here that the persecuted Jews of Spain and Portugal , both the exiled Sephardim and later the conversos, found a home. While immigration was fairly simple for many Jewish groups, the conversos' experience is unique. Having lived a lifestyle which required appearing Christian to the outside world, and only following their true faith in secretive and hidden ways, converso culture over the years began to deviate quite a bit from mainstream rabbinic Judaism. Having examined several communities in the western Ottoman Empire to which conversos fled during the Inquisition, we can see not only how these individuals were seen by their Jewish brothers and sisters, but also how these conversos saw themselves as Jews.

Sources cited: Ben-Naeh, Yaron. 2008. Jews in the Realm of the Sultans. Germany: Gulde-Druck Fleming, K. E. 2008. GreeceA Jewish History. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. Lewkowicz, Bea. 2006. The Jewish Community of Salonika. Great Britain: MPG Books Ltd. Wigoder, Geoffery. 1992. The New Standard Jewish Encyclopedia. New York, NY: Facts on File.