The Jews of the East

Originally published in
The Occident and American Jewish Advocate

Volume I, No. 1 Nisan 5603 / April 1843

Note from the FASSAC: This article is provided to show a contemporary view of the Sephardim, even so, the present-day reader should understand this is a highly subjective account. It was originally written in French by a correspondent of the "Universal Jewish Gazette," who was in Constantinople. It had later been edited by the Rabbi Isaac Leeser, minister of Kahal Kadosh Mikveh Israel (the Spanish-Portuguese synagogue of Philadelphia) 1829 to 1850. At the time of the writing 159 years ago, the Jews in the Ottoman Empire, though essentially cousins of the Spanish & Portuguese Jews in America, were considered exotic.

After having established the fact of the entire absence of mental progress in the eastern Jews as a nation, he adds: "The Jews have no conception of any other state of society different from that in which they now exist. What eastern Jew can imagine that he has a right to expect any thing but the rod--the oppression--the contempt of those around him? Our ancestors said: 'We are now in exile;' the Hebrew of the East knows not even the conso­lation of this thought; for it supposes the consciousness of past happiness--it breathes of present misery, it is true, but looks to a future blessedness. The Jew of the East; however, knows only that he is a Jew, and therefore doomed to wretchesness. The first step towards the amelioration of his condition, is to inspire him with the pride, the dignity of manhood."

To accomplish this desirable end, two means are proposed. Either to open schools among them for the instruction of the young, or to send them to Europe to receive a liberal education. The correspondent does not approve of the first of these plans; he does not think it could be successful. Their masters would have either to be all Jews, or else they must be taught by missionaries, in whom they could not feel that unbounded confidence, which is so essential in the relative position of teacher and pupil. The correspondent of the Gazette prefers the plan of sending the young eastern Hebrews to Europe, to receive there their education; after which they should return to their home, and thus establish a sympathetic bond of union between the European and eastern Israelites. It would be requisite, during many successive years, that fresh candidates for European instruction should replace those who return to their native country; thus, by degrees, the condition of our eastern co-religionists would be greatly ameliorated.

It is a great mistake for Europeans to regard the late persecution at Damascus as an isolated occurrence. In 1839, more than two hundred Jews were put to death in a small town in Central Asia, because, a short time before Passover, a Jew was seen dipping his hand. in a vessel containing blood. It was afterwards ascertained that the poor man was suffering with rheumatism in his hand, and had been advised to bathe it in the warm blood of a dog, which he had killed for the purpose. A few days before the sad occurrences at Damascus, the sixty thousand Jews residing at Constantinople were in the greatest peril from the following incident:--A Turk, with his little son, was in a store kept by a Jew; having occasion to leave for a few moments, he begged the Jew to take charge of the child; but being busily occupied, in attending to his customers, he forgot the boy, who ran out. The Turk returned, and asked for his son. The Jew laughed, and jokingly said, “I have killed him for the Passover." The Turk immediately fell upon him; a tumult ensued, the guard was called, and the poor Jew, under a shower of blows, was carried before the cadi. The Greeks and the Armenians, (sworn enemies to the Jews,) loudly vociferated, "throw him into the Bosphorus."

The cadi immediately ordered an inquiry as to the cause of the alarm, and soon learned that the child had quietly returned to his home, unconscious of all the trouble his short absence had excited. The Jew was released, and the crowd soon dispersed. The Grand Rabbi sent for the Jew, and reprimanded him for his frivolity, and sentenced him to receive two hundred stripes; "for," said he, "if the child had been lost, who knows what might have happened?" This event, however, was not unproductive of a good result; for a few days afterwards, when tidings came of the reported occurrences at Damascus, the Turks, remembering their too hasty decision in the previous case, were not disposed to give a too ready belief to an unauthenticated report."I have lived with the Jews of the East," continues the correspondent, “I have felt all that they feel, and more; for the worst feature of their deplorable condition is, that they feel nothing."Three hundred years ago the Jews came from Spain to Constantinople, and begged permission from the Sultan to reside there.

The request was granted, but restricted, by a singular condition. They might live at Constantinople, and there enjoy the privilege of observing all the forms of their religion; but they should not revenge an insult received from a Turk. If a Turk should choose to throw the carcass of a dog at a Jew, he should not dare to throw it back; but were the dog alive, he might do so if he were willing to pay a fine for the privilege. These unfortunate outcasts, driven from place to place, were obliged by their necessities to accept these humiliating conditions. They either bought or built houses at Chashioi, and were declared to be on an equality with the other Rajahs (not Turks). They were then, and still are, obliged to pay a capitation tax. Fortunately they brought riches with them from Spain; for their Greek brethren, consisting of about a hundred families, were very poor. Among the Spanish Jews were many distinguished physicians, astronomers, bankers, &c.; but in 1827, Kamonho, who was quite a remarkable person, was put to death one Friday afternoon by the order of the Sultan, because he had thwarted him in the execution of a sentence of death. the corpse of this unfortunate man remained before his door all, the Sabbath day.

From that date the position of the Jews has become worse and worse; they have been persecuted by all around them, particularly by the catholic Armenians, who are under the protection of the French government. The Jews are without influence, and deprived of all protection.

It is true that they occupy the same position as the other Rajahs,--for the Turks despise all Rajahs,--but there is this essential difference:--Christian governments are interested in the Christian Rajahs; the Greek, the Armenian will ever find a protector; but to whom shall the poor Hebrew look? who will watch over his interests?

As soon as you deprive one of the right of protection, you expose him to attacks from every quarter. The Jews do not suffer so much indignity from the Turks, as from the idle Europeans and the Christian Rajahs, to whose insults and mockery they are ever subject. Even in passing through the streets they are annoyed by them. The yoke they have so long been obliged to bear has destroyed their powers of resistance, and imbued their enemies with the most daring effrontery. The "hatti sheriff" promises protection to the Jew; but while the dauntless Christian will demand his rights, the shrinking Jew will suffer without pleading for relief. He has lost even the feeling that would make him conscious of his abjectness, and has not the energy to arouse himself from his sad state.

To the manner of estimating the population in that country, there are about 60,000 Jews in Constantinople; they reside in distinct quarters of the city, mingling but little with the other inhabitants. Their houses are easily recognised by their old appearance, their broken panes of glass, and the linen that is ever hanging before the windows. Fires being of such common occurrence, they make up but few linen garments at a time, and thus are ever washing and drying them; but the other inhabitants hang theirs before their doors.

The Oriental Jew is quite a different being on the Sabbath day, from what he appears at other times. He then seems to rise above his degradation, and to assert the dignity of his national pride; his countenance appears cheerful; he is clothed in clean garments; his house is in order, and all around him looks bright and joyous. It would be pleasing to associate with him on that day; but on his Sabbath he leaves hot his home--he remains in his house, and no one knows him as he then is. It is unfortunate that such should be the case; for the Jew and Jewess of the East, thus known, would be very differently appreciated.

When the Sabbath is over, the Jew sinks back into sadness, and before the next day all traces of brightness have passed away; the women look careless and dirty as well as the men; and if you ask them why they are not more neat, their only answer is, "Our fathers, according to tradition, did not change their clothes while in Egypt; then why should we here?"

Among the 60,000 Jews of Constantinople, there are artisans of every description, and every thing required by the Jews is made by them. There are some few trades in which they particularly excel; such as the art of cutting on stones and of polishing glass. Among them are carpenters, masons, bakers. Many of them are employed by Christian merchants as brokers; they are very able and adroit in that capacity, and without their aid the Christians would be sadly at a loss. They sell provisions, and deal in almost every species of merchandise. The Jews are obliged to wear blue shoes, while the Greeks wear black, the Armenians red; the Turks alone wearing yellow. In order times they wore "kalpaks," but as they are very dear, the rabbis only wear them. They have also a head-dress called fesz. They are obliged to wear dark clothes. The dress of the women is very ugly and slovenly. They are seen in their slippers walking through the streets, talking loudly in a sort of corrupt Spanish, interlarded with scraps of other languages, particularly the Hebrew.

" The dress of the women is very ugly and slovenly. They are seen in their slippers walking through the streets, talking loudly in a sort of corrupt Spanish, interlarded with scraps of other languages, particularly the Hebrew."

All the Jews of Constantinople are under the control of a Grand Rabbi, (Chacham Bashi,) who, to distinguish him from other rabbis, is called "Chacham Hakolel." He represents the whole nation at the Ottoman Porte, receives the capitation tax, and is judge in all the civil and religious controversies of the Jews. The Christians even, in their quarrels with the Jews, always refer to him, this functionary having, for ages past, enjoyed a character of strict impartiality in all his decisions; his verdict is irrevocable; he has the power to order the infliction of the bastinado, but not to pronounce a sentence of death.

Government allows him two soldiers to execute his commands; he may ask for more assistance, if it be required. He enjoys the privileges of the other functionaries of the country, and stands on the same footing as the patriarchs of the other Rajahs. In council his place is above theirs, and the pipe is first offers to him; a courtesy highly appreciated among Eastern nations. He is assisted by a sanhedrin of rabbis, who, however, have only a deliberative voice. It must not be presumed that the Grand Rabbi is always chosen as being the most intelligent and the most pious. When he is to be elected, the representatives of the different communities (each quarter has a community) assemble to elect him, and their choice is generally approved by the Porte. The other Rajahs have a political influence, and in the election of their patriarchs disputes and cabals often occur, particularly among the ambassadors of foreign powers. But not so in the election of the Grand Rabbi. The representatives generally choose a man whom they think they can influence; they even exact a promise of him to that effect. If he should afterwards refuse complying with it, an application for his dismissal from office can easily be made, and will be most generally complied with. The Grand Rabbi does not receive a very large salary, it being only about 500 francs; but he gets many presents.

"The Grand Rabbi does not receive a very large salary, it being only about 500 francs; but he gets many presents. "

He has the power of excommunicating, and of relieving from a sentence of excommunication; he cannot interfere with the "shechita," or prescribed manner of killing animals, nor with the marriage rite. But politically and judicially he has unlimited power. Unhappy is the Jew who neglects any of his religious observances; he cannot hope to escape the bastinado.

The Jews of Constantinople are generally speaking not rich. Some few are affluent, some in moderate circumstances, but very many are in great poverty. A hospital for those infected with the plague is the only public institution for the benefit of the poor. One of the wards of this establishment is reserved for the insane, who are regarded with superstitious care by all astern nations. But it is a remarkable fact that a case of insanity has never yet occurred among the Hebrews of Constantinople.

The Jews of Constantinople enjoy, and a careful examination confirms the justice of their reputation, a much higher character for probity than either the Greeks or Armenians. It has become quite a proverb to place the Jews in the first rank for probity, the Armenians in the next, and the Greeks in the last. The Jews wished to enter the army, but the Greeks and Armenians would not allow them to do so. The Chacham Bashi has promised to furnish three thousand men at any time they shall be allowed to be admitted.

We have said that the Jews of each quarter form a community (congregation). Each congregation has its principal Synagogue, around which are several houses for prayer. All the rich merchants have Synagogues in their houses. Each Synagogue has a Chacham, but in the private Synagogues the Chacham is under the control of the proprietor of the Synagogue. The number of Chachams is considerable; those among them who are distinguished are highly esteemed; those who are nothing but common men, do not receive much consideration. The seats of the Synagogue do not face the East, but are placed round the reading-desk, and face the centre. The long Piutim, otherwise called Machsor, that are recited in other countries on the festivals, are omitted at Constantinople. Fervent and sometimes sublime prayers are substituted in their stead. The prayers are not chaunted, but read slowly and distinctly. The reader commences the prayers and the congregation join in with him, and this is done always with so much exactness that no one is ever one syllable too slow or too fast. "I must confess," continues the correspondent, "that I greatly prefer this mode of worship to that usual in our German Synagogues." The ceremonies throughout are according to the Portuguese [Sephardic] ritual.

A school is attached to every Synagogue, where the children are taught, but it is only to read Hebrew; yet care is taken to make them pronounce it in a very correct manner. They are kept at this school until they are about eight years of age; at which time they either enter the Beth Hamidrash to prepare themselves for the office of Chacham, or else are put to some sort of occupation. * * * * If those who determine on becoming Chachams are independent and can maintain themselves until they are able to enter the Sanhedrin of the Chacham Bashi, they may hope to rise to renown, otherwise they never become distinguished. The children of the rich are taught by a Chacham, but instruction is very little diffused among the Israelites of Constantinople.

The Jews of Constantinople are very particular in their religious observances. They never openly transgress the Sabbath, nor any of the laws relating to eating, although the latter differ in some respect from ours. Thus they eat rice during the Passover, and often mix their Matsoth or biscuit with eggs and oil, and make it into cakes. The Chacham Bashi and his Sanhedrin may punish with the bastinado the rich as well as the poor transgressor of any religious rite.

There are about 200 families of the sect of Caraites at Constantinople. They are mostly Cohanim, or descendants of Aaron. They always take off their shoes before entering the Synagogue. On their entrance they kneel and repeat a prayer, very similar to the "Mah Toboo." They kneel occasionally during their prayers, which are all taken from the Scriptures, also when the Sacred Rolls are taken out, or when called up to the reading of the law.

They literally obey all the requisitions of the law, but they do not recognize any of the rabbinical constructions of it. Thus, they allow no fires in their dwellings on the Sabbath, even in the midst of the winter; nor lights on the Sabbath eve. They eat fowl cooked with butter, and do not keep the second days of any of the festivals. their day of atonement generally comes one day after ours.

There are about 400 European Jews at Constantinople, mostly vagrants from Russia or Poland, and the neighbouring countries; their moral state is but little commendable, and their gain their livelihood by menial employments. Their places of worship are unpretending buildings.

Let us enter into the interior of the family circle. It is well known, that the Israelite finds in his domestic life, in the intimacy with his own kindred, in their fidelity and attachment, his greatest support, his happiness, and that which repays him for all else he suffers. It is therefore the more to be regretted to find that we cannot assert the same thing of the Israelites in this place. This evil arises from their marrying too early. A young man marries as soon as he is thirteen years old, and before that period he is already engaged. He either remains with his wife some years at his father's house, or he goes to live with his father-in-law. It thus happens that a narrow space contains several families. Early in the morning, the husband, if he is a mechanic, hastens to his work, and if a broker, to his business. The whole day he stays from home; because the Oriental, naturally temperate, does not come back to his house during the day to take his meals. The wife remains unemployed. Supper requires but little preparation. The women remain together the whole day for the sake of talking and smoking; and those who are lately married fill the pipes and make the coffee.

If the young wife has a good understanding with her mother-in-law, peace is maintained between the couple; but in the contrary case they are at times tired of each other at the age of seventeen or eighteen, and from this circumstance a divorce and a new marriage often result. There is naturally in this absence of proper sentiments not the least idea of domestic life. Women are but little esteemed here; they do not even make for them the complimentary offerings in the synagogue. The degree of Jewish civilization in this country is very low, equally with that of the Turks and Greeks by whom the Israelites are surrounded.


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