The Underground Believers: Descendants of the followers of the false Messiah Sabbatai Tzvi in Turkey
They are known for their weekly Sabbath walk to the river, secret ceremonies in concealed apartments and celebrations on the Ninth of Av. The descendants of the Sabbatean “Donmeh” sect that converted to Islam in the 17th century in the wake of their false messiah from Smyrna (Izmir), nonetheless continued to practice Jewish customs. Many are becoming assimilated into Turkish society. But there are also those amongst them who wish to return to the Jewish people.
Asher Flori was a child in Kosovo and he noticed that he was a bit different from the rest of his classmates. His mother, who was born to a family that emigrated from Turkey, behaved on the surface like everyone else, but inside the home she observed other customs. Every Friday she would light candles, cook fish, and make sure that everyone in the family would bathe. On Saturday morning, she would walk to the edge of the river, to stand and wait for the “Messiah” to return.
After a brief investigation, Flori discovered that he was the son of descendants of the Jewish Sabbateans that believed in the False Messiah, Sabbatai Zevi. Flori began to research the topic after his mother passed away a few years ago and since then he has become closer to Judaism. “I have a partner and we want to get married with a Jewish wedding ceremony,” he says, and he understands that this will probably require him to undergo conversion. “We have a two and a half year old son, and we want to educate him according to Jewish values.”
Flori’s story is not rare: Apparently, several thousand Jewish Sabbatean descendants live today, mainly in Turkey. Even if most of them no longer maintain the unique lifestyle of the group, which includes clear-cut Jewish motifs, they clearly were raised in that type of household and remember their underground experience. Many of them have assimilated into the general Turkish society, so that their number is decreasing, but there are some amongst them who would like to fully return to Judaism.
An amazing account of the existence of the “Donmeh” sect, as they are known, is found in a news item that was advertised in the 1932 Jewish-American news agency JTA. “In Istanbul there is a ‘Donmeh’ community of 15,000 members that believe in the False Messiah Sabbatai Zevi.” According to the article, despite the Turkish appearance of the Donmeh, they gather in secret apartments, read Jewish articles, and observe Jewish customs in their home. It is also noted that, “the men have two names; one is a religious name in Hebrew, and they keep this one a secret, and the second is Turkish. They believe that the Messiah will appear on the Sabbath, and therefore they send their wife and children to the edge of the sea to see if there is a ship on the horizon. The rabbis of the Donmeh are very familiar with the Bible and know the mystical Jewish text of the Zohar almost by heart.”
Excellence in Kabbala (Jewish Mysticism)
Sabbatai Zevi was the most prominent and influential messianic character in the history of the Jewish people after Jesus. During a short period in 1665 he enraptured many Jewish communities who believed he would redeem the nation of Israel and return them to their land. As a result of Sabbatai Zevi’s conversion to Islam, after the Ottoman Sultan threatened him with death if he would not convert, most of those who previously believed in him then deserted the disillusioning Messiah.
But a small group of steadfast Maaminim (Hebrew for “the believers”; historians often refer to them as Sabbateans or by the Turkish term Donmeh) converted together with Sabbatai Zevi, while developing different Kabbalistic teachings about the mystical role of the messiah who existed specifically through his conversion to Islam and his descent to spiritual impurity (“klipot”-peels).
Michael Freund, the founder of the Shavei Israel organization, is in contact with some of those Sabbatean descendants, as well as other lost tribes and hidden Jewish communities. He described the way of life of the Donmeh as extremely complex. “Even though outwardly they observe the laws of Islam, they have observed the mystical customs differently from their Muslim neighbors,” he said. “Many of them continue to observe customs such as the Jewish holidays, learning the Zohar and reciting chapters from the Psalms daily. They observe Sabbatai Zevi’s ’18 commandments’ that were passed down for generations, and among those ‘laws’ is a prohibition against marrying outside the group.”
For many years the Donmeh lived in the Greek city Salonika, until they were exiled to Turkey in 1923 as part of the population exchange between the two countries following World War One. “That saved them from the fate of the Greek Jews, a majority of whom were murdered by the Nazis,” said Freund. “Even though more than 300 years have passed since the Donmeh converted, the Muslims from Turkey still look at them suspiciously. The local media accuses them at times of being part of the international Zionist conspiracy. It is no wonder that they decided to descend to the underground and lead a double life in order to survive.”
A number of years ago Freund visited Istanbul and asked to meet the young generation of the Donmeh. One of them, named Uri, asked that we not use his full name out of fear for his safety. He agreed to meet Freund because of his desire to return to Judaism.
“I met him in the lobby of a small hotel, and he looked very stressed,” described Freund. “He was constantly looking around and was afraid that someone who knows him would see him meeting with a Jew wearing a yarmulke from Israel. He told me ‘I am sick of hiding, I have had enough of acting deceitfully. I want to return to my people and be a Jew.’ I was surprised at the level of knowledge he had regarding Kabbalistic concepts, and I am not referring to the type of Kabbalah that Madonna and those from Hollywood study – I am talking about the real thing.”
Hope is all we have
Uri took Freund for a trip around the city, and showed him the cemetery of the Donmeh, which is very different from the Muslim one. Since then, Uri returned to Judaism in America, with the assistance of Freund. When we offered to interview him, Uri asked that we send the questions by email to Freund in order to protect his identity.
The term ‘Donmeh’ is considered derogatory (the group members called themselves ‘Maaminim,’ or in Ladino ‘Los Maaminimas‘). In answer to our first question, Uri tried to explain the world in which he grew up. “The Maaminim consider themselves to be from the Israelites and they consider the Jews to be heretics. When the Jews were in Egypt they were not the only slaves, even though they were the majority. The other slaves also left Egypt together with them. The Maaminim believe that because of the bad influence of the Jew, the sin of the Golden Calf took place. The Maaminim believe they are the continuation of Moses, Aaron and the sons of the tribe of Levi, and that they are the real Jews.
The ‘Donmeh’ celebrate the Ninth of Av, rather than fasting on that day, which is a custom that began in the time of Sabbatai Zevi because of the belief that the Messiah had already come. On Purim, Uri relates, there are special customs: “the Maaminim place an empty dish on the table and leave a room with an empty bed for the possibility that the Messiah will return, because Purim is a day on which miracles occur. Once a year there is a special day called the ‘Holy Sabbath” which is meant to compensate for the rest of the Sabbaths that we can’t observe because we look like Muslims. In parallel, we maintain the Jewish calendar as it is.”
They study Kabbalah and believe in its practical power. “I’ve been told that Sabbatean rabbis can move tables and chairs in the air,” relates Uri. “In order to participate in prayer, a man must marry a woman from the Maaminim, and it is forbidden to divorce. Men and women participate in prayer together. All of the ceremonies take place in special apartments whose location is kept secret, where both history and religion classes for the youth are given.”
The followers of Sabbatai Zevi, claims Uri, do not believe that he actually converted to Islam. They believe that he acted outwardly as if he converted, but in secret he maintained his Judaism. “The Sabbateans’ explanation for his conversion is ‘a descent for the purpose of ascending.'”
“We have different laws, such as, for example, that it is not possible to become a member of the Maaminim but one must be born that way, and vice versa. If they ask you why you do not fast or pray together with the other Muslims, you can reply “I am a secular person and I follow Ataturk” (the founder of the Turkish Republic and the first president). “As you can see,” said Uri, “we have no historical connection to the Muslims or to the Turks, and on the other hand it is reasonable to assume that my father’s fathers built pyramids together with your father’s fathers in Egypt. Therefore it is hard for me to define myself as a Muslim or as a Turk. We have nothing in common.”
“The majority of Sabbateans have no expectations from Israel. Returning to Israel or to Judaism is impossible for them. There are those that are happy when someone from the Maaminim group marries a Jewish male or female, but they are afraid to express that. When I married my wife, who is a Jew, my parents told me that I am an exiled person and will become excommunicated. Perhaps a while ago I’d consider that a type of threat, but today it does not bother me at all. Nothing has changed in my life, and I am still in touch with most of them. They are curious to know about what I have done, but they don’t have the courage to do it.”
Is there a chance that you will move to Israel in the future?
“I hope so; hope is the only thing that we have. Michael Freund and the Shavei Israel organization helped me to return to the Jewish people. I am happy to officially be a Jew and I am proud of what I am. I am not embarrassed about my Sabbatean heritage, but I also have no desire to pass it on to my son. We are the last generation that remains. Even though in the US, and apparently also in Israel, I am considered a Jew, in Turkey they don’t view me as such.
“There is a question that bothers me very much,” finishes Uri. “If heaven forbid I would die today, where would I be buried? In Istanbul? Not in a Jewish cemetery, and also not in a cemetery of the Maaminim. Perhaps in a Muslim one. And that frightens me more than death.”
Surveillance in the cemetery
Professor Marc David Baer, who currently lives in Britain, thoroughly researched the Donmeh and even lived in Turkey for that purpose for a number of years. In 2010 he produced the first research book dealing with this unique sect, entitled The Donme; Jewish Converts, Muslim Revolutionaries and Secular Turks.
“Two groups are very interested in the Donmeh ‒ Jews and anti-Semites,” said Prof. Baer. Over the years there were different groups of the Donmeh. There were central figures in Turkish politics that came from a Donmeh family background. The Muslims that supported the Sultan Abdul Hamid II were said to be Donmeh descendants. They were also said to be atheists and Jews, because the Sultan protected the Jews. The Muslims blame the Donmeh for taking down the Muslim reign, and there are rumors that Ataturk was from the Donmeh. Even Erdogan, the current Turkish president, in a number of remarks, connects the Donmeh to the anti-Turkish conspiracy. Sometimes such theories begin from a small seed of truth. One of the Sultan’s finance ministers was a Jew, and he helped to bring down the Sultan. According to anti-Semites, the Jews control the world, and they have the power to rule any country.
“It took me 13 years to write the book,” related Prof. Baer about the unique process of the research. “I spent a lot of time in the cemetery in Istanbul. I would hang around for hours. It was a bit frightening, but when I saw a family coming close to a grave in the ‘Donmeh’ section I would follow them. I read Ottoman Turkish and I would stand by them while they were praying and introduce myself and say: ‘I can read what is written on the grave.’ They had a hard time believing me, but when I read to them, they told me that I read it correctly. They understood that I was useful for them and then the family said ‘We have pictures and documents, perhaps you can read them to us.’ That is how I met them and Iearned about their culture.
“I don’t know if they still say their prayers as they did until the 30’s and 40’s of the last century. In the 50’s they began to intermarry with Jews and Muslims. Many emigrated to the US, to Israel and to Europe.”
The duality and secrecy were an inseparable part of the life of the Donmeh. “They would fast on Ramadan, but break their fast early so that it would not be considered as if they really fasted. Some Israeli researchers publicized the Donmeh prayers in Ladino, and they were fascinating. At a quick glance it seemed like something Jewish, but there are all many instances of the name ‘Sabbatai Zevi’ ‒ and a combination of beliefs that the Jews do not have. They were always in a dialogue with Judaism and Islam. They left Judaism, but always remained with it.
“They had their own holidays, like the birthday of Sabbatai Zevi or his circumcision. They have a holiday in the spring, where they eat a meal with animals that the Jews and Muslims do not eat. They also intentionally mix milk and meat. That is part of the Sabbatean perception of the mystical corrections which are achieved by sinning. I was there on the Ninth of Av and they were celebrating. There was actually a party with various sweets.”
According to Baer, the Turkish Jewish community does not want to be in touch with the Donmeh. “They don’t want any connection with them at all. Mainly, they don’t want them to say that they are Muslim converts even though it is legal, as the Donmeh are outwardly identified as Muslims. If the State of Israel will publicly recognize them as Jews, it could have tragic consequences. It could seriously hurt them. They want to live their life quietly.”
This article appeared originally in the Makor Rishon Weekend Magazine – October 2, 2015. Here’s the original (in Hebrew).