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Turkey's Jewish community longs for the past

With only 18 members remaining, Antakya's Jewish community struggles to hold onto its rich history and culture.

Last updated: 14 May 2014 11:16
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Synagogue caretaker Harun Cemal, 60, gives tours to visitors in Antakya [Danya Chudacoff/Al Jazeera]

Antakya, Turkey - Early on Saturday morning, Saul Cenudi sits on a hardwood bench in Antakya’s 250-year-old synagogue. The president of the city’s Jewish community, Cenudi is punching numbers into an old Nokia phone, one by one, calling to make sure that at least 10 men show for the morning prayers, without which the service cannot start.

It was not always so hard for the congregation to muster up the right numbers.

Seventy years ago, Antakya’s Jews counted about 350 people, and on holy days like the Sabbath, one would be lucky to find room to stand. But today, Antakya’s 2,300-year-old Jewish community is down to no more than 18 members, and with this decline, so disappears one of the last original communities of Syrian Jews.

Those who remain saw relatives and friends leave during waves of political and economic pressure. And in the context of the Syrian war that rages no more than 30km away across the border, the same cycle is being repeated.


RELATED: Syrian war transforms Turkish border towns


Once part of historical Greater Syria, a term coined in Hellenic days to denote a region that stretched across present-day southern Turkey, Lebanon, Israel/Palestine and much of Jordan, Antakya is today the capital of Turkey’s Hatay province.

Antakya's 2,300-year-old Jewish community is down to just 18 members today [Danya Chudacoff/Al Jazeera]

It is a lush, mountainous region on the eastern Mediterranean, rich in the diverse ethnic and religious groups that have long called Antakya home. Christians, Greeks, Armenians, Jews, Muslims and Alawites have lived side-by-side for centuries in the city.

After prayers, Harun Cemal, 60, a retired textiles vendor, sits quietly in the synagogue’s fragrant white courtyard. "When I was young, the beit knesset [synagogue] was always full. But today… everyone is gone," Cemal said.

On most days, Cemal can be found shuttling in and out of the synagogue, where he now works as its caretaker. On the weekends, he gives tours to curious visitors, spelling out the community’s history and proudly displaying the seven 500-year-old Torah scrolls still safeguarded in the ark.

"My family, they came from Aleppo. We are Arab Jews," Cemal told Al Jazeera. "After [WWI], when the republic [of Turkey] was formed, my grandparents chose to stay here, but many of my relatives stayed in Aleppo."

Most of Antakya’s elderly Jews can speak of a time when the group still depended on ties with Aleppo’s once large and prosperous Jewish community. They conducted business across the Turkish-Syrian border, sent their children to Aleppo for religious education and inter-married.

After the creation of Israel in 1948, and in the decades that followed, virtually all of Syria’s Jewish population was displaced. There were an estimated 30,000 Jews in Syria in 1947-48, but by 1958, that number was down to about 15,000. As the Jewish population of Aleppo receded, so did the anchoring support for Antakya’s Jews.


VIDEO: Fall out in the Mediterranean


The brutal three-year Syrian war being fought on the other side of the border, no more than half an hour away, has also had a tremendous impact on Antakya.

The UN refugee agency (UNHCR) estimates that some 30,000 Syrians are currently seeking refuge in the city of 200,000, often sleeping in parks and begging in the streets. Given its proximity to the border, Antakya also serves as a base and gateway into Syria for armed opposition groups. 

For Antakyans, the presence of such armed groups raises fear and anxiety. One in three of Antakya’s residents is Alawite. Many fear that the anti-Assad sentiments of incoming Syrians could spark violence on the Turkish side of the border.

If there were still 40 or 50 [Jewish] families in Antakya, I would move back today.

- Isaac Somo, 63, Tel Aviv

What precipitated the decline of Antakya’s Jewry in the late 1970s was the violent political unrest in Turkey between left- and right-wing groups. 

"Until 1979 everything was good. We had such a wonderful life in Antakya," said Isaac Somo, 63, whose name has been changed. 

Isaac, his wife Jana (also a pseudonym) and their young son fled Antakya that same year to Israel, where they have lived for the last 35 years. The couple, who previously ran a successful textiles distribution company, now own a colourful spices and dry goods store in Tel Aviv’s bustling Carmel market. "I love Antakya very much. We didn’t want to leave, but we were afraid that [the violence] would come to us," Jana told Al Jazeera.

"One day, there was a shooting at the university and they killed a woman. The police came to look for the gunmen, and one of them ran into my house to hide," she said. "We had young children. Every day there was something - bombs, killing."

Isaac and Jana, along with several dozen other young couples, left Antakya believing they would find safety in larger Jewish communities. "Our life in Antakya was very, very good. We had good neighbours, work, income… if there were still 40 or 50 [Jewish] families in Antakya, I would move back today," Isaac said.


RELATED: Syria's conflict raises Turkey tension


The 1979 exodus catalysed a decline that the community has not been able to reverse. As the group dwindled, the younger generation moved to cities like Izmir and Istanbul, with larger Jewish populations, to study and find partners.

"We have very close relations with the Jews, we have no issue with them. But this is an old population. Their children leave, and then the parents leave too," Mehmet Ali Ediboglu, Hatay’s deputy member of parliament for the People’s Republican Party (CHP), told Al Jazeera.

Today, among Istanbul’s nearly 20,000 Jews, there are some 250 transplanted Antakyans. However, Istanbul’s Jews - like those from Izmir and Ankara - are by and large Sephardic, having originated in Spain. While Syrian-Jewish communities like Aleppo had integrated with Sephardic Jews in the past, there are major differences between the two communities in terms of food, traditions and language.

For those Jews who remained in Antakya for personal or economic reasons, watching their community’s disintegration has been difficult. "It makes us very sad," said Harun, the synagogue's caretaker. "They leave and don’t come back. There are no more children at the synagogue."

On the days when no tour groups come by and there is no reason to round up the congregation, the synagogue remains empty, a hollow relic of the past. "I am afraid that when I die, there will be no one left to bury me," Harun said.

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