Multiculturalism versus Assimilation:
Memoirs of a Sephardic Turk
Bension Varon [1]

Last year, I published my memoirs under the title Cultures in Counterpoint: Memoirs of a Sephardic Turkish-American.[2]   The theme, which is reflected in the book’s title, was the premise that I--and of course others like me--am the product of multiple cultures which reside in me without any one dominating the others, as with different voices in musical counterpoint.  The purpose of this article is to test this premise and to elaborate on it further, prompted by some of the reactions to my book.  Before I note the responses, let me offer a clarification.

The book’s title referred to the role of three cultures—Sephardic, Turkish and American—in my life.  I was also shaped to a significant extent, if not equally, by  French culture, to which I was exposed since my early teens.  I could have subtitled the bookMemoirs of a Sephardic Turkish Franco-American.  I did not do so because that would have been awkward.  Besides, when I was growing up, Turkish Sephardim, at least those of my entourage, spoke French and adopted French ways so widely that, in a way, their “Frenchness” was almost an integral part of their Sephardic identity.  I took that for granted during my years in Turkey, but I became increasingly and keenly aware of the French influence in me as the years passed, especially during the second half of my career at the World Bank in Washington, D. C.  During that period, I worked on and visited most of North Africa and the Francophone countries of sub-Saharan Africa, and I interacted with colleagues from those countries almost daily.   Our communication was invariably in French and our frame of reference was France and its culture, even though we lived in Washington, we worked mostly in English, and most of us had attended American universities.  The French language and culture served as a bridge between our native cultures, which differed so vastly.  The French and American cultures were nevertheless acquired cultures for me.  In this article I shall focus mainly on my native Sephardic and Turkish cultures.


Dr. Minna Rozen is Professor of History at the University of Haifa, a prolific writer, an eminent authority on Ottoman Jewry, and a close friend.  After reading my memoirs, she remarked that I was more Turkish than she thought.  She seemed surprised by it because I had left Turkey nearly fifty years earlier, and because although Ottomans and their successor Turks had been kind to Jews throughout history, this was less the case during the Second World War.  She felt, for example, that I exaggerated the assistance that Turkey provided Central European Jews trying to transit through Turkey to Palestine during the war, and she pointed to a critical account of that role in one of her books. [3]

Dr. Albert de Vidas is the editor of Erensia Sefardi, a well-respected newsletter on Sephardic heritage.  In his review of my memoirs, Dr. de Vidas echoed one of Prof. Rozen’s observations.  Referring to my account of the forced conscription of non-Muslim males (Jews, Armenians and Greek Orthodox) in Turkey during the Second World War, he remarked that I “treaded very gently with this shameful episode of the Turkish Republic.” [4]  

Taxi drivers are capable of wise and insightful remarks not just in New York City or Washington, D. C., but also in Istanbul. I remember one who drove my German-born wife and me in Istanbul many years ago.  Hearing me talk to him in Turkish and to my wife in English, he asked, “Sir, are you an American who speaks Turkish well, or a Turk who speaks English (Amerikanca) well?” He thought one must be either one or the other, but not both, or half and half.  I don’t remember how I replied.

I don’t take issue with the above observations.  I may indeed be more Turkish than at least Rozen and de Vidas expected. Below, I will simply explain the reasons for it, drawing entirely on my personal experience. I will avoid generalizations and value judgments, and conclude with some observations about the question of assimilation, which never goes away for Jews.  This question was a focus of Amos Elon’s The Pity of It All (2002), which documented the emancipation of German Jews that, however, could not prevent the tragedy of the Holocaust. The concern about assimilationhas been coming up recently in connection with the evolution of Turkey’s dwindling Sephardic community to which I belonged.


Although I come from a long line of rabbis on my father’s side and had a religious upbringing, from a young age on I identified with Turkey strongly and in several respects.  The modern Turkish republic, created in 1923, was just nine years old when I was born.  Turkey was at that time in the process of redefining or reinventing itself, led by Atatürk.  Several aspects of that period are noteworthy and, with hindsight, relevant to my story:

First, the self-reinvention was presented, sold to the Turkish people, and achieved with the help of clear and simple concepts, anchored on modernization, a simple language, and simple slogans understandable and appealing to the masses, including the young…  which speaks to the genius of Atatürk, modern Turkey’s architect-in-chief.   I was introduced to the Turkish language, literature and history through new textbooks which had been drafted this way in the immediate post-republic years. 

Second, Turkey’s reinvention was far-reaching and encompassed the many social actions known as the Kemalist reforms, after Atatürk’s given name.  The reforms concerned the alphabet, the fez, the veil, women’s rights, religion (the separation of church and state), and other areas.  Remarkably, there was practically no opposition to the reforms as a group or individually.  Admittedly, this was partly due to the fact that the opposition that may have existed had already been eliminated, silenced or turned around.  The fact was, nevertheless, that there was no national ideology competing with Kemalism as I was growing up. 

Third, Kemalism was likewise not in conflict with the Sephardic culture or value system.   Rather, it overlapped or coincided with it in several respects.  Sephardic women, for example, had never worn the veil.  I thus internalized Atatürk’s reforms easily, willingly, quickly, and totally.  I became, in the process, more Turkish than my parents, culturally at least. This happened to many Jews of my generation.

My Turkish identity is for the most part intellectually and ideologically based and may have remained strong for that reason.  I have become, in fact, and continue to be a staunch  ‘Kemalist Jew’.   To illustrate its extent, let me note that, despite my religious upbringing, I have evolved into and consider myself a secular Jew.  I won’t go as far as suggesting that my secular Judaism was inspired by or modeled on Kemalist secularism, but I am increasingly conscious of the parallelism between the two.  I associate Kemalism with Turkishness, my Turkishness, so much that I have become more Turkish as Kemalism and its secularism in particular have come under attack by Islamists in recent years, in other words, as I became radicalized by those attacks.  This, I believe, is partly behind what Prof. Rozen has observed.

After attending the local Jewish lycée, I was enrolled in Robert College, an American institution established in 1863, in Istanbul.  I described my experience there and the school’s impact on me as well as on my fellow-students in my memoirs in detail. The impact, in essence, was to widen our perspectives—to open our “windows on the world,” as I titled the chapter I devoted to it. Here, I would like to highlight three things about my college years.

The decision to send me to Robert College was not a routine or easy one for my parents, especially for my father, a religious man, because I would have to attend classes on Saturdays.  Yet he took it without much hesitation.  Implicit in his action was acceptance that certain things could justify breaking religious taboos, one of those things being education.

It is well known that Jewish identity is passed on through the mother.  Yet the education of a son in particular is the responsibility of the father—a responsibility assigned and specified in the paragraph following the recitation of the Shema—which may seem inconsistent with the preceding.  In my case, my attendance of Robert College was initiated mainly by my mother.  Yet my father went along with it because of his strong belief in the value of education, religious and secular.

At Robert College, and for the first time in my young life, I made friends with Muslims, Armenians and Greek Orthodox Turks, going in and out of their homes, interacting with their siblings, etc.  This was in sharp contrast with my parents’ practice.  While they had non-Jewish acquaintances and even associates, they did not have non-Jewish friends.  I don’t remember their visiting or being visited by non-Jewish people.  This was true of most of the members of the Jewish community.

While my Robert College years did not make me more Turkish per se, they made me more multicultural—not less Jewish either, but less Jewish-focused.  My models, for example, like my friends, became more diversified, and this had lasting impact.

Of the various phases of my life, the one which forged my Turkish identity the most, next only to my World Bank years, was my military service. The overwhelming reason is that I served as an officer.  Other Jews, including many in my family, had served in the military, too, but as privates.  As an officer, I had authority, and I commanded as many as one hundred, mostly Muslim, soldiers. The Turkish army is known for its discipline; therefore, being in command in it translates into near total power over subordinates.  The power I had came with full trust from my commanding officers.  I had an identifiably Jewish given name--Bension stands for “son of Zion” in Hebrew.  Yet I experienced no discrimination by my peers or my superiors.  What mattered were my uniform, status and rank, nothing else.

I remember vividly being engaged with my unit in exercises south of Ankara, where I was stationed.  While inspecting an observation post I had set up over the hills overlooking the designated battlefield, I ran into an ex-classmate who was doing the same for his own unit.  He was Greek Orthodox and wearing the same battle fatigues I was.  We chatted for a while, after saluting each other the military way—a Jew and a Greek Orthodox in command of Turkish troops.  The symbolism of that moment has never left me. 

The timing of my military service accentuated its effect on me.  In 1952, the memory of the notorious Wealth Tax of 1942, a tax imposed discriminatorily on non-Muslim Turks, and of the equally discriminatory conscription of males, was still alive.  Those events, many believed or wanted to believe, were the result of uncharacteristic acts by Turkey.   My service in the Turkish army as anofficer less than ten years later represented, in my mind, a return of Turkey to its true self…to the Turkey I believed in, I wished to believe in, and it increased my identification with it.

And there was more.  I spent the last third of my military service as an interpreter between senior Turkish officers and their American advisers or counterparts in Ankara, including on sensitive matters.  This was during the closing phase of the Korean War in which Turkish troops participated in large numbers.  No security clearance was necessary; my uniform was enough.  I try to look at myself in that function through the eyes of the American officers I served.  They saw me as a Turkish officer mainly—not as a descendant of Spanish Jews, although this was not a secret.  

The army exposed me to Turkey—the Turkey few in my family or community knew--in a myriad of ways, big and small.  I lived in Ankara, the capital, for nearly two years.  Ankara was a very Turkish city, certainly compared to Istanbul.  It had no ethnic communities or neighborhoods to speak of.  And its main industry was government.  My service was divided between the Ankara garrison and the Reserve Officers’ Academy where I was trained and later served.   I traveled on assignment through the hinterland to places few members of my community, if any, had ever stepped in.  And I socialized with a segment of Turkish society—the civil servants and army professionals—unfamiliar to my friends or relatives back home.

In short, I had a rewarding experience in the army, and I retain pleasant memories of it.  The latter puzzled my wife; German-born, she hated the military, any military, and was allergic to anybody in a uniform of any kind.  When we lived in the mid-seventies in New York City, my children and I would make fun of the fact that her dislike of uniformed people extended to the uniformed porter of the high-rise apartment building we lived in.  She was not the only person surprised by my sympathetic attitude toward my army experience.

Rifat Bali is a contemporary Turkish researcher-historian and a Sephardi like myself.  He is the author of nine books and numerous articles on the history and experience of Turkish Jewry and selected prominent Jews, including the “dark days” [my quotation marks] such as the riots against Jews of 1934 in western Turkey, the forced conscription of Jewish and other non-Muslim males in 1941, and the imposition of the discriminatory wealth tax of 1942.  Bali has been working on a new book dealing with Turkish Jews’ experience with serving in the military.   When he heard about my memoirs, he contacted me to inquire about my own experience.  I strongly suspected—and I still do—that his interest in the subject was motivated by the desire to document through case studies and interviews what must have been a broadly negative experience.  I sent him my chapter on the subject, alerting him that my experience had been overwhelmingly positive.  I repeated this when I met him in person shortly thereafter in Istanbul. 

I now jump to attending graduate school in the United States.   I chose to come to the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia partly because I had a friend from Turkey living there.  He was Sephardic like me but quite Americanized.  He helped me to integrate into the U .S. rather than to preserve my Turkish identity.  I remained quite Turkish, nevertheless, at least outwardly, for several reasons.

I was studying foreign trade for a Master’s degree and economics for a Ph. D.  My experience and frame of reference in both areas were Turkish.  My doctoral dissertation dealt with the Turkish economy and was based on a paper on it which I had prepared earlier. [5]   Besides, nearly all of the personal or professional questions I was asked at the university and elsewhere concerned Turkey and my Turkish background.

Penn’s graduate school was largely a commuter school; that is, most of the students had other occupations and lived away from the campus.  The few who lived on campus were the foreign students, like myself, who survived on tight budgets.  I formed close friendships with fellow-students from the Middle East. They included a Berber from the Atlas Mountains of Algeria and a Palestinian who later became foreign minister of the Palestinian Authority—a post he no longer holds.  I also had friends who were Jewish American, but it didn’t take me long to realize how different their Ashkenazi culture was from my Sephardic one, which overlapped so much with my Turkish culture, as I shall illustrate later.


I worked for about forty years at the World Bank, interrupted only by two years at the United Nations in New York.  Thirty of these years were as a full-time staff member, until my retirement, and ten were as a consultant.  My experience there had a great influence on the preservation of my Turkish identity.  I shall describe that experience in some detail because it was unique in many respects.  At the heart of it was the nature of the institution and the role I played in it.

The World Bank is an international organization with a multinational staff, devoted to the development of the still-developing, poor nations.  While I was not hired because I was a Turk, I was hired as a Turk.  I traveled to developing countries on business frequently and met with a broad array of government officials, including ministers, prime ministers and higher.  Although nationality did not matter, it was upfront, that is, known by both one’s associates and one’s interlocutors.  This was particularly true at the United Nations, which had a strict quota system by nationality and was a much more political, indeed politicized, organization than the Bank, largely because of the membership of the Soviet Union, China and their allies.  I can illustrate how that affected me anecdotally.

In the mid-seventies, while at the UN, I accompanied a senior UN administrator (a former personnel director of the U. S. Justice Department) to the Soviet Union on a recruitment mission.  The Soviet Union Office at the UN had to pre-approve my trip, which they did.  I have no doubt that they had a file on me, fed partly by the Russian staff who worked for me or with me.  Before leaving, I informed Turkey’s UN office of my trip in order to be assured of double protection, the UN’s and Turkey’s, in the event anything bad happened to me, as this was at the height of the cold war.   On arrival with my colleague at the designated hotel in Moscow, the first step after registering was being assigned a table in the huge restaurant where we would be having our three daily meals.  The practice was to do so with a desk-flag.  Unable to locate a UN flag or a US one, they settled on a Turkish flag, which identified our table for a week and attracted the attention of the Soviet generals sitting at the neighboring tables.  I remember that event fondly.

I retained my Turkish nationality throughout my long career at the World Bank, even though I could have become a U. S. citizen at any point, being married to an American citizen since 1965.  I did that because of a nearly obsessive desire to maintain credibility toward my interlocutors.  For most of my career, my work as an economist at the Bank involved evaluating the economic performance of designated developing countries and advising their senior government officials on it.  It was very important for me to be able to say—and project—“I know your problems, I understand your constraints, because I belong to a country like yours.” Being able to say this and to act accordingly paid off in terms of gaining the confidence of government counterparts, as well as access to information, including sensitive information.

My strong feeling of national identity owes quite a lot to the fact that I worked first and longest on the former Belgian Congo, then Zaire, Mobutu’s Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of Congo, which was one of the most corrupt countries of Africa, if not the world.  Government officials and the country’s elites stole the country blind, much like the colonial powers had done before, with no one saying, “Basta, enough, this is my country.”  I was shocked by the lack of nationalism and went around pronouncing privately that a dose of chauvinism would do the country wonders if it translated into pride, the kind Atatürk had instilled in a country that had lost so much.

Incidentally, Zaire brought out such feelings of pride in me regarding not just my Turkish identity but also my Sephardic heritage.  Zaire had a remarkable, vibrant Sephardic community, consisting mostly of Jews who had immigrated there from the island of Rhodes in the thirties.  I got to know it well, as I visited the country 4-5 times a year for 5-6 years, interacting with community members each time.  I described my impressions of the community in an article entitled “Congo’s Rodesli Community: An External View”. [6]

My work at the Bank provided me rich opportunities to meet also senior officials of the Turkish government, both in Turkey and abroad, and both officially and socially, which was highly uncommon for members of my Sephardic community.  I visited the Turkish embassies in many of the countries my work took me to and established personal relations with the ambassadors in the countries I visited frequently, such as Zaire.  I ate with Turkey’s ambassador to Zaire, Rwanda and Burundi at his residence in Kinshasa at least once on each visit—more than a dozen times in total.  Earlier, a close friend and former World Bank colleague of mine became Turkey’s minister of commerce and industry, and another, deputy prime minister for economic affairs.  I visited both while they were in service, and stayed (together with my wife and children) at the house of one of them.  Did these opportunities produce, among other things, a sense of obligation toward Turkey in me?  The answer is, yes.


I have tried to describe above the personal circumstances which may have made me more Turkish than some may have expected. But there were broader factors at play.  For example, while my family was not spared the notorious conscription of males and the infamous wealth tax, it did not suffer from them as much as other families did.  My father was forced to serve in the army at age 41, but he was able to pray several times a day, as he had done all his life, and to maintain a kosher diet.  The wealth tax forced my family to sell or to mortgage assets, including jewelry, but we did manage to pay it, and my father did not have to go to the labor camps, like those who could not.   With hindsight, we may have owed this outcome to my father’s religiosity.  His religiosity helped him, rather than hurt him—this, in a Muslim country-- as it had his ancestors who had been rabbis for at least five generations.  They were known as hahamoglu, or sons of rabbis, and treated with reverence rather than derision. [7]   My father was known as sofu,an endearing term meaning religious, he was treated kindly because of it in the army, and the wealth tax may have been less punishing because of it as well.

Had my family suffered more from these acts, would I have felt differently toward Turkey?  I do not know.

I also had the good fortune of meeting and getting to know—in the army, at college, during my professional life—countrymen and women easy for me to identify with, because of similarities in education, socioeconomic status, family background and other characteristics which transcended or offset differences in religion or culture.  Among these characteristics were identification with Istanbul, a city which is like a country, a world: a city that defines you, transforms you, inhabits you, and sustains you…as Venice, Salonika (for Jews), Sarajevo, and Brooklyn did or do.   The Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk grew up in that city not far from where I did, physically and culturally. [8]    I could have grown in his family and he could have grown in mine.  Most of my Turkish friends at Robert College or the World Bank could have been his siblings—one was his classmate.  This sustained my Turkish identity without taking away my Sephardic one. 

As I hinted earlier, the demarcation line between the Sephardic culture and the Turkish culture is a thin one, and the overlap is significant.  The elements in common include food, traditions, humor (Hodja,Djoha), family values, crafts (embroidery), fetishes (evil eye), reveries, and music, to name a few.   It is impossible to distinguish the synagogue hymns unique to Turkish Jews, known asmaftirim, from classical Ottoman music… and for a simple reason—there is no difference. [9]    It is therefore easy to function in both cultures at the same time, and this was particularly so for me.

I grew up in a very Sephardic household.  I spoke Ladino exclusively at home.  My parents, unlike my other close relatives, were not fluent in French.  My father never attended the Alliance Israélite School in Çanakkale, and my mother did for just 3-4 years.  I was brought up partly by my widowed maternal grandmothers neither of whom spoke Turkish beyond a few words.  Not only was Ladino my only means of communicating with them, the Ladino they spoke and exposed me to was purer, more Spanish, than the one spoken by my parents.  I discovered this years later when I interacted with colleagues from Latin America.   My grandmothers were also better guardians of Sephardic ways.  I include in this not just food and songs but also traditions and religious practices.  The fact that one of my grandmothers had been a rabbi’s wife helped.

We lived, as I was growing up, in a family-owned six-story apartment building, occupied by close relatives in a communal, compound-like environment.  And I spent more time at home than other Sephardic boys or girls of my age because of our religious observance.   Practically all entertainment took place at home because of the kashrut rules which we observed.  I was confined to home more than some of my friends also because of the combination of frequent sickness and the attention I was given as my parents’ only son, born 8-10 years after two daughters.  I described in my memoirs several aspects of that culture such as our communal way of life, our celebration of holidays, the courting and marriage customs, and the story-telling, a popular means of entertainment, all of which had a mixed Sephardic-Turkish character.  A few years ago, I put down on paper the stories my father was fond of telling on happy occasions. [10]   Humor, everywhere, is a natural, spontaneous indicator of what’s on people’s minds and hearts.  And so with these stories, which are at once Sephardic, Turkish and Ottoman.  

So, as a result, culturally speaking, and leaving my French and American sides aside, am I a Sephardic Turk or a Turkish Sephardi?  The answer is I am both, and being more of one does not make me less of the other.  This was the key message of my memoirs after all, namely, that different cultures can and do co-exist in a person as in a quilt. I should stress that questions of this nature are dangerous; they should be avoided, indeed, rejected.  They are loaded with presumptions about loyalty, patriotism, and duplicity, and they presume that a third party is capable of, and has the right to sit in, judgment of an individual’s true identity.  The people who have suffered the most from attempts by others to weigh the relative weight of one identity versus another have been the Jews.


When Jews raise the question of identity or mixed identity the concern or fear is not persecution but assimilation.  This is a serious and complex subject: addressing it even superficially requires a separate article.  I shall close with it, nevertheless, to offer some clarifications and caveats regarding the situation in Turkey.  For several years, there has been concern both inside and outside Turkey about the assimilation of Turkish Jews in response to the Islamist in-roads and about what this bodes for the dwindling, historic Jewish community.  Observers have pointed to trends in intermarriage, synagogue membership and attendance, celebration of Jewish holidays, adoption of Turkish names, etc.  These are indicators of mixed value and the data on them are not firm.  One must therefore use caution in interpreting them, and avoid making generalizations and painting bleak scenarios.  Let me illustrate why.

Recently, the Istanbul Jewish community’s flagship weekly newspaper, Shalom (English spelling), published on its front page an analytical article bemoaning the downward trend in the celebration of Bar-Mitzvahs the traditional way, namely, in two steps: strapping of the tefillin (phylacteries) to the head and arm during a week-day morning service, and being called to read the Torah at the following Saturday’s service, followed by celebration by family and friends. [11]    It estimated that only ten percent of the boys reaching the Bar-Mitzvah age celebrated the event in the synagogue on a Saturday.  This number, which was not supported by data, would be truly alarming if correct, and even if it were twice higher.  The article merits attention because it was based on interviews with half a dozen rabbis, including the Chief Rabbi of Turkey, community leaders, and parents of boys who had recently celebrated their Bar-Mitzvah or who were approaching the Bar-Mitzvah age.  They all confirmed the trend and regretted it.  The explanation offered by all, without exception, was economic, rather than loss of interest, namely, the high cost of the usually sumptuous, budget-wrecking parties that the parents were expected to give following the Saturday event.  Many of the interviewees cited the cost not just of securing the locale and the food, but also of the clothes, which had gotten out of proportion. This, rather than religious indifference, was the reason, all believed, that many parents were limiting marking the birthday to the so-called Tefillin-day, which took place on a week day and in the presence of just the closest, usually male, relatives.

Of all the symptoms of Turkish Jew’s assimilation the weakest, or the easiest to exaggerate, is their adoption of Turkish names.  Besides, the sensitivity to it often reflects the application of double standards.   I have known more Jews named Jean-Louis, Jean-Pierre, Jean-Paul, Edmond, and Clément than I can count.  Albert is no more Jewish than Ibrahim is; Jacques no more than Yakup; Leon no more than Aslan; and Rose no more than Gül.  There is greater sensitivity to adopting Turkish names than French, Italian or American names.  Yet, as far as I know, today’s Turkish Jews have not been adopting Islamic names, such as the names of the Muslim prophets, like Abubekir, Omer or Ali, nor of their wives or mothers.  They have been taking on modern, secular, Turkic (rather than Arabic) names.

This said, it is undeniable that there has been and continues to be assimilation by Jews in Turkey, regardless of the indicator one uses and the reason or reasons one attributes it to.  There is evidence, however, that this has not been accompanied by a significant loss or erosion of identity--that, in fact, the opposite may be occurring.    Assimilation seems to have led to greater self-confidence, less defensiveness on the part of Turkish Jews…a readiness to say—at least, to believe—“We are better Turks now and better Jews, too.”  I am not talking about being better in terms of religious observance; I am talking, rather, about being upfront with one’s religion and identifying with one’s heritage, both individually and as a group.  There is today, in Turkey, a strong interest and investment in protecting as well as opening up the community’s rich archives, in preserving and indexing its old books and manuscripts, and in systematizing its vital records with the help of new technologies and an army of volunteers.   More research is taking place on the community’s past, including the hurtful past, than at any time in recent memory, and more scholarships are being offered for that purpose.  There is a broad and revived effort to preserve, teach and use the Judeo-Spanish language known as Ladino.  A recently established Jewish museum is being continually enriched.  Old synagogues have not been crumbling; they are being renovated tastefully. 

The recent publication of the collection of the synagogue hymns known as Maftirim, noted earlier,is symbolic of what I described.  It was the product of a collective effort by a group of more than twenty dedicated people over a period of more than five years.  The work was partly masterminded and coordinated by Karen Gerson Sarhon, Director of the Ottoman-Turkish Sephardic Research Center (Istanbul), a writer and musician, who wears many hats.   It was produced by a team of experts with multiple talents and responsibilities from Turkey, Israel and the United States, and with unusually strong collaboration with experts or performers of Turkish music.  The end product is a two-volume work of art which combines a rich text in three languages—Turkish, English, and Ladino—the lyrics and scores of the hymns, with four CDs and one DVD of their historic performance by rare experts in 1987.  Both the effort and the results are unprecedented.  These are not indicators of a dying community.

I don’t know what the future holds for Turkey’s Jewish community.  I admit that there is reason for concern, perhaps even serious concern.  Regarding the causal role that assimilation may play, what I concluded earlier about my own case is generalizable to the community as a whole, namely, that possessing more of a given culture, Turkish, does not translate into identifying less with another, Jewish.   After all, didn’t our ancestors adopt a whole new language, Ladino, while remaining Jewish?  Is there a more multicultural group than Spain’s pre-Inquisition Jews?  Most of them--at least the business and educated elites—spoke Spanish, Ladino, Hebrew, and Arabic.  Maimonides wrote partly in Arabic, as did many of his peers and followers who also had Greco-Arabic names. Turkish Jews are thus in the mainstream of Sephardic tradition in feeling at home in Turkish culture.


[1] Bension Varon was born into an observant Sephardic family in Turkey and has lived in the United States since 1960. He is an economist by profession, with a long career at the World Bank in Washington, DC. He lives in Fairfax Virginia.

[2] Bloomington, IN: Xlibris, July 2009.

[3] Tuvia Friling, “Between Friendly and Hostile Neutrality: Turkey and the Jews during World War II,” in Minna Rozen, ed., The Last Ottoman Century and Beyond: The Jews in Turkey and the Balkans, 1808-1945, Vol. II, Tel Aviv, 2002.

[4] Erensia Sefardi, 67 (Summer 2009), 8.  My account of the event is in Cultures in Counterpoint, op. cit., pp. 58-62.  Erensia Sefardi covered the event in several previous issues, and Rifat Bali has devoted a book to it: Yirmi Kur’a Nafia Askerleri, Istanbul: Kitabevi Yayinlari, 2008.

[5] The dissertation was: Export Instability and Economic Development--The Turkish Experience, 1948-1960, University of Pennsylvania, 1967.

[6]  Los Muestros, 66 (March, 2007), 42-44. A shorter French version appeared as “Un regard extérieur sur les Juifs du Congo,” in Moise Rahmani, Juifs de Congo: La confiance et l’espoir, (Brussels2007).

[7] I wrote about my Varon ancestors in a monograph,The Varons of Çanakkale, Dardanelles, Migdalim, Kale-I Sultaniye,  (Fairfax, VA,  2008).

[8] Pamuk, of course, wrote about the city.  See his Istanbul: Memories and the City, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005.

[9] The meaning, history, words and music of Maftirim are presented in a magnificent two-volume set of the same title published recently by the Ottoman-Turkish Sephardic Culture Center and the Gözlem Publishing House, Istanbul, October 2009.

[10] Bension Varon, Mixed Nuts, Fairfax, VA, November 1996.  The collection is available on request.

[11] Ester Yannier, “Bar-Mitzva tören gelenegimiz kayboluyor” [Our Bar-Mitzva ceremony tradition is disappearing], Salom, December 2, 2009.

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