Edirne and Its Jewish Community at the Turn of the 19th Century

By Erol Haker - -
Edirne (Adrianople) is a city in the Balkans in the Turkish Republic, located at the confluence of the Meriç River and its two principal tributaries, the Tunca and the Varda. The town had a population of 99,000 in 1901, consisting of 40,000 Turks, 6,000 Albanians, 30,000 Greeks, 10,000 Bulgarians, 9,000 Jews and 4,000 Armenians.
Jewish public life was organized around sub-communities, 13 in number, each with its own synagogue. The first synagogue was the Poli Yashan, belonging to Romaniots Jews of Byzantine origin. There were two synagogues of European Ashkenazi Jewish origin, namely Budun of Hungary and Küçük Alman or Ashkenazi belonging to Jews that immigrated to Edirne from France and Germany over the centuries. The remaining ten were those of the communities of the Spanish exile, named after the town or region they hailed from, such as Toledo, Cordova and Catalonia.

According to Jewish sources, there were 12,000 Jews living in Edirne in 1873 and 17,000 in 1902. Their numbers reached a peak of 20,000 in 1912 on the eve of the first Balkan War.

The community elected its own Chief Rabbi and so did the Edirne Community. In fact, between 1722 and 1902 there were two of them that officiated simultaneously, with one representing seven of the thirteen sub-communities and the second the remaining six. The provincial Governors informally recognized the Chief Rabbis of the Edirne Province as the heads of their communities. Their election by the Jewish community was only a formality as there were two ruling rabbinical dynasties, the first the Givret, and the second the Behmoires from whose rank the chief Rabbis always came.

Chief Rabbis played a dominant role in shaping the affairs of their communities. This was because all community members observed their religion and most believed in its written word. Against any one committing transgressions, the Chief Rabbi had a powerful instrument at his disposal, called herem. Literally translated it means boycott. The community members would ostracize a person who was subjected to such punishment. He would not be admitted to a synagogue. No one except possibly close members of his family would socialize with him, and worst of all he could not earn a living, as no one would buy his products and services, or employ him. Enforcing a herem was not difficult in a society where everyone was religiously observant. In such a society the threat of a herem was sufficient to cause strict religious observance to a Chief Rabbi’s ruling.
The community established, for the first time in its history, a council (Meclis-i-Cismani) to run the affairs of the community. During the first years of the 20th century The Community Council of the Edirne Jewish Community was composed of 36 members. The males of the community above a certain age that held regular employment, elected thirty-three of them. The remaining three were Rabbis, including of course, the Chief Rabbis. An Executive Council of seven members elected by the Community Council ran its daily affairs. The senior one of the two Chief Rabbis was appointed in an ex-officio capacity to the Municipal Council of the city and was formally recognized as the head of the Jewish Community that lived in Edirne. In this capacity he had the authority to countersign all the decisions of the municipal council on subjects that were of common interest to the different Millets (ethnic groups) that made up the city population, for example infrastructure projects, their location and scope.

During the second half of the 19th century and the first decade of the 20th, many associations were established and flourished. In each such association three main activity types merged with varying emphasis in any one of them. They were welfare, social life, and intellectual or ideology related activities.

El Circlo Israelito was founded in 1859.  Its main objective was to encourage the formation of welfare institutions and the development of community related projects. The Edirne Jewish elite patronized it.  El Circlo Israelito fulfilled a coordinator’s function on behalf of the community on welfare related subjects and acted when requested by community members as an instance of appeal on behalf of parties which had grievances against the Community Council and the Chief Rabbinate.
The Bnei Brit club was established in 1911. The club was active in giving relief to small businesses that suffered as a result of wars. It founded and patronized an orphanage, and acted as a channel for the transfer of donations to it.

El Circlo de la Fraternidad Skolar also known as L’Association des Anciens élèves D’Andrinople (The Circle of Scholarly Fraternity): This association was established in 1902. Its membership consisted of graduates from Alliance schools. Its objective was to assist them in their post school intellectual development. It organized lectures and participate in welfare activities. This organization had a well-stocked library.

La Sociedad de Bnei Leon (The society of Young Lions): This association was supported by an organization called “Los Mansevos del Moviemento Nasyonal” This was a club for young adults in the 20-25 age group. Its main purpose was to spread the study of the Hebrew language and maintain ties with Zionists.

The Hevrat Dorshei Haskalah or Sociedad de la Progresistas was established in 1879. Its aim was to spread the ideas of the Haskalah (enlightenment) movement. By 1889 the society numbered about 200 members, had established a reading room, and subscribed to Hebrew newspapers such as Hamagid as well as Ladino publications. The society sponsored lectures on history, geography, science and literature, and encouraged the teaching the history of the Jewish people.

The Hevrat Hapoalim: (Workers Corporation) was established in 1883. It was composed of artisans and craftsmen of all kinds, typically tailors, shoemakers, carpenters, tinsmiths, carriage repairers, installers, repairers of stoves, painters, whitewashers, blacksmiths, and makers of lockers and safes. The objective of this organization was to represent the interests of the Jewish artisans of Edirne in their relations with municipal and government authorities, and be of financial assistance to retired artisans. A mutation of this entity was established in 1909 that sponsored activities associated with leisure, operating a theater and running a library
Zionist Associations: The oldest Zionist association on record is the “Macabbi”, established some time between 1898, the year of the first Zionist Congress, and 1908, the year of the declaration of the Second Ottoman Constitutional Monarchy. The Association regularly met on Saturdays to hear lectures on Zionism. During the years of the occupation, following the end of World War One in 1918, Zionist Associations surfaced to the open. In 1921, there were four: Shivat Tsiyon The return to Zion), Bnot Tsiyon (Daughters of Zion), Tseirey Tsiyon The young Men of Zion), and Bnei Tsiyon (The Sons of Zion). They organized conferences, literature reading evenings, and balls.

Most of the Spanish exiles that settled in the Ottoman Empire congregated in large numbers in relatively few centers, bringing together scholars who in the Iberian Peninsula would have been scattered in many localities. Istanbul, Salonika, Edirne, and later Izmir emerged as the sites of a rich intellectual and cultural life. Under the liberal disposition the Ottoman State showed towards Jews, Edirne became a center of a blossoming Jewish intellectual life. The following were some outstanding contributors that lived in Edirne.

Hekim Yakup became the personal physician of Sultan Mehmet II, the Conqueror, when Edirne was still the capital of the Ottoman Empire. In addition to his professional function, he made available to the Ottoman court his extensive diplomatic connections. With the conquest of Byzantium, he settled in it and became a member of the Sultan’s court.

Salamon Ibn Verga, who lived in Edirne during the second half of the 15th century and the first quarter of the 16th, was a Rabbi, judge, and historian, and became widely known for his history of the persecution of Jews in Christian countries.

Joseph Caro came to Edirne from Toledo as a young person and wrote part of his book Beit Joseph (The house of Joseph) in which he codified Jewish Rabbinical Law in all its intricacies and practice across centuries. A summary of the book, called Shulhan Aruh (The Set Table), was adopted by all the Jews of the world as the most authoritative statement on the practice of the Jewish religion.

Edirne was a center of Jewish music. A choral society was founded in Edirne in the 17th century. The society succeeded in making the city a center for hymn writers. The best known among them was Aron Isaac Hamon, known as Yahudi Hamon in Turkish musical circles. Hamon composed Turkish music after the style of the Dervish brotherhoods, though still retaining Iberian themes in his compositions, and this makes him unique.

The first Hebrew press in the Ottoman Empire was established in Istanbul in 1493, and was followed by the presses in Salonika in 1510, in Edirne in 1554, and in Izmir in 1646. The Ottoman Levant emerged as a major center for Jewish publishing, printing a multitude of works composed by Jews outside the Ottoman Empire.
The Torah academies in Salonika, Edirne, Istanbul, Tsfat and Jerusalem provided the institutional setting in which sages could discuss and debate the wide range of issues deeply embedded in the various layers of rabbinical culture. From the mid 17th through mid 19th centuries, Edirne was an important center of rabbinical law whose writ covered the Jewish communities of Edirne Vilayet and beyond.

In the mid 19th century, an intelligentsia appeared on the scene, consisting of a small group of educated persons that aimed at extricating the Jewish religion out of the rut it had got itself into. The Haskalah movement that was doing the same thing on a European scale was their source of inspiration, but the one located in Edirne was more nationally oriented, as expressed in their support for the revival of Hebrew as a living language, for day-to-day use, and to express thinking not always associated with religion.

One of the earliest on record was Yehuda Nehama, [who] wrote in Hebrew and Ladino, producing biographies, poetry, and history. He corresponded with other maskilim in Europe, and created a newspaper in Judeo-Spanish, El Lunar (1865/66,) which aimed to educate people. After him, the two leading lights among those who were active during the third quarter of the 19th century were Joseph Halevi and Baruch Mitrani. A generation later Avraham Danon appeared.

Joseph Halevi was a maskil who was a leading force behind the movement for a new school. Halevi was a Hungarian Jew who made Edirne his home for some years. He started his public life in Edirne in 1856. Halevi became the director of the Talmud Torah of the Portuguese congregation of the town. He slowly began to introduce reforms at his school, teaching Hebrew grammar systematically, and introducing the teaching of French. A group of reformers coalesced around him.

Baruh Mitrani: This student of Halevi in Edirne was passionately concerned with the revival of the Hebrew language as a living medium. He combined religious, messianic, and moderate Haskalah ideas into an ideology which prefigured many of the elements of religious Zionism.  “Baruh Mitrani fought for modern methods of education, founded a school for this purpose in Edirne, Akedat Yitzhak, and devoted many years of his life to teaching. He wrote books on education in Hebrew and a grammar of spoken Judeo-Spanish, contributed to Hebrew periodicals such as Hamagid (1856-1913) and Havatselet (1863-1914) published in Istanbul. He also wrote poetry”.

Avraham Danon: A later figure, to whom the title of “Giant” can be rightfully attributed, is Avraham Danon. He was born in 1857 and belonged to an important rabbinical family in Edirne. Avraham Danon began his public life in 1878; a year after he had established the Hevrat Dorshei Haskalah referred to earlier. Avraham Danon translated the poems of Virgil, Hugo, and Saadi… and also Jewish Historian Reinach’s Histoire des Juifs into Hebrew and published this version with extra additions by himself under the title of Toldot Bnei Avraham (The History of the Children of Abraham, Pressburg 1897). He wrote many of his works on the folklore of the Jews of the Spanish exile. Also, he published in Hebrew a history of the Jews of the Spanish exile.

In a publication containing a bibliography of newspapers and periodicals in Hebrew and Ladino published in the Ottoman Empire, a newspaper and three periodicals published in Edirne are mentioned. Their contents are briefly presented below.

Yosef Deat (The Knowledge of Joseph): This is a remarkable periodical, which Avraham Danon published starting in 1888. Two main types of articles appeared in the periodical. The first was articles on Ottoman history and they were written in Hebrew. The second covered the history of the Jewish Community of the Ottoman Empire. These were invariably in Ladino, written in Rashi script. A few of the articles were in Turkish using the Arabic alphabet as it was written during those years.

Some characteristics are worth noting about both types of articles. Preceding each article there was an abstract of usually two to three short sentences describing in succinct form what the article was about. Unlike traditional Jewish scripts, all dates appearing in the article were reported in the Julian calendar while their Hebrew equivalent was given only occasionally. Abbreviations and exclamations with religious meaning were almost entirely missing in them. The articles contained orderly footnotes, including references in Latin and sometimes in Greek script.

The outlook of the articles, though strongly Jewish and traditional, was essentially secular. The Hebrew used was rich in vocabulary, concise, and clear, almost identical with contemporary Hebrew used by Israeli scholars of our present day. At the time of their publication a battle was raging among the ranks of the Alliance and the Jewish Community of Edirne, and in fact all over the world, as to whether Hebrew should be taught as a living language or a language of prayer only; and here was a periodical publishing articles in perfect, and close to modern Hebrew! That the authors of these articles and many of their readers must have spoken Hebrew fluently, and with whom any educated Israeli person of our time would feel entirely at home with, there is no doubt. The Ladino used in the articles written in the language is rich in vocabulary and clear in its style.

La Boz de la Verdad, Andrianople, (Kol Haemet): The paper was published in Ladino using the Rashi script. The headings over the various news items, articles and commentary, though mostly of secular content, were invariably in Hebrew written in Hebrew letters. This suggests that both the newspaper staff that wrote them and the readers who read them knew Hebrew to a satisfactory extent, and not just prayer Hebrew. Its publication started in 1910 and ended in1922. This was a newspaper that assumed the role of spokesman for the ”Haskalah” movement of Edirne. The paper supported education reform but of a variety which gave more weight to the learning of Hebrew, including its spoken variety, and to the study of Turkish, and was not in favor of completely abandoning Ladino as both a spoken language and one of learning. The paper had Zionist leanings.

Like everywhere else in the Empire, Jews were perceived by Christian communities as part of the Ottoman adversary from whom Greeks, Bulgarians and later Armenians were trying to win their independence. The Christian religion’s “You killed Jesus” tack added fuel to this perception which at times caused much trouble for Jews in general, and more specifically, to those living in Edirne.

As mentioned earlier, the dominant community in the economic life of the city was the Greek one. Relations between Jews and Greeks showed much ambivalence. Jews had close trade ties with Greeks. Members of the Greek Community supplied the majority of the professional services in the city as physicians, various craftsmen, skilled workers, household help, retail food outlets and restaurants. A few Greeks sent their children to the Alliance schools even without the school having to solicit them. The reverse movement, namely Jews sending their children to Greek schools and in particular their girls, was several-fold larger. The Alliance Girls’ School could not do without Greek teachers and other staff, during its early years. In some of these years the director of the school was a Greek woman

Members of the Jewish Community were in daily contact with Greeks, and seemed to get on well with them. An indication as to how close relations were is that among middle to upper class Jews there were many who could speak Greek as well as Turkish. The Jewish Community establishment invited Greek grandee, to all major public and social events, and those invited inevitably attended.

And yet: “It is especially with Greeks that the Jewish communities had a bone to pick even if anti-Semitic prejudice was also frequent among Armenians and Bulgarians. When an incident occurred, Christians without regard to the particular ethnic or religious affiliation they belonged to, forgot their own quarrels, and formed a block against Jews. The correspondents of the Alliance from the 1870’s onwards reported anti-Jewish incidents under Greek initiative practically every year. These upheavals were usually based on the blood libel. About two thirds of the seventeen cases of blood libel reported in the book Leven wrote on the history of the Alliance were committed by Greeks.”

Concerning relations with the Turkish Community, there is no better testimony than the one Narcisse Leven gave in Volume I on the History of the Alliance between 1860 and 1910. The whole of the volume of 545 pages is dedicated to the covering of manifestations of anti-Semitism in European countries and what the Alliance did to fight it. The number of pages accorded to the Ottoman Empire, under the heading of Turkey, adds up to only 14 pages.

“There are but few countries… where Jews enjoy a more complete equality than in Turkey… In every respect Abdulhamit II proves to be a generous sovereign and protector to his Israelite subjects…  The unflinching attachment of Jews to his person and to the Empire is the only way in which they can express their gratitude. In one of his conversations with Theodore Herzl during their first meeting in 1897 Sultan Abdulhamit II reportedly said the following: “I was always a friend of the Jews. I stand byy Muslim and Jewish subjects. As to my other subjects, I don’t have trust in them.” 

During the Balkan wars, when Edirne was under siege, the Community assisted in the war effort by operating the Girls School of the Alliance as a workshop to produce bandages and nightgowns for hospitalized wounded soldiers of the Ottoman army. The school won an award for meritorious conduct from the Governor of Edirne. “The Jews of Edirne welcomed the return of Ottoman rule with delirious joy.” It is not to be wondered that Jews acquired the title of “en sadık millet” (the most faithful nation) among the Ottoman establishment.

Concerning anti-Semitism manifested by the Turkish people or by the Turkish community, generally speaking, compared to European countries and even among the Muslim countries of the Middle East and North Africa, the phenomenon was a rare and muted one. “Relations between Jews and Muslims were on the whole much more satisfactory… The documents examined covering a thirty-year period note only three cases of anti-Jewish riots on the part of Turks.”

Erol Haker was born in Istanbul in 1930. Since 1956, Erol Haker has made Israel his home where he has spent most of his adult years. Since his retirement, Haker spends much of his time researching his family history that of the Kırklareli Community from which his parents hail, and other Thracian towns. He has published three books:  Once upon a time Jews lived in Kırklareli: The story of the Adato family 1800-1934, (Istanbul, 2003), From Istanbul to Jerusalem, the Itinerary of a Young Turkish Jew, (Istanbul, 2004) and Edirne, its' Jewish Community, and Alliance Schools, 1867-1937  (Istanbul 2006)

Last modified onSaturday, 06 May 2017 10:07