The Donme - Marc Baer
The Burden of Silence - Cengiz Sisman

Sabbatai Tzevi Revisited: Two Books about the False Messiah

Marc David Baer. The Dönme: Jewish Converts, Muslim Revolutionaries, and Secular Turks. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2010.
Cengiz Sisman. The Burden of Silence: Sabbatai Sevi and the Evolution of the Ottoman-Turkish Dönmes. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015.

Reviewed by Bension Varon *

Sabbatai (or Shabbatai) Tzevi (or Sevi) was a religious Jew who lived in Izmir, Turkey, part of the Ottoman Empire, in the first half of the 17th century. As a young rabbi, he proclaimed himself Messiah—a false one, as it turned out—in 1665, but converted to Islam shortly thereafter under the threat of death by the ruling Ottoman sultan. What happened after his conversion has attracted more attention than what happened before it and is the major focus of the two books reviewed here. Briefly, Tzevi’s conversion was followed by the mass voluntary conversion of his followers, who went on to establish a secret religious order and identity, based on mystical beliefs inspired by the Jewish Kabbalah and the Islamic spiritual movement known as Sufism. Their descendants, concentrated for nearly three centuries in the northern Greek city of Salonika, went on to play a supportive role in the founding of the Turkish Republic in 1923—a role still being debated—through their active participation in the Young Turks movement. They are also noted for giving the new republic its secular character. The enduring interest in Sabbatai Tzevi’s messianism is explained by more than interest in Turkish history or even Jewish history. It owes to endless fascination with mass conversion, group behavior, secrecy, and religious beliefs and practices, in general.

The last six years have seen the publication of two scholarly books on Sabbatai Tzevi long in preparation. The author of the first, Marc David Baer, was a professor of history at the University of California, Irvine, when his book, which broke new ground, was published in 2010. He is currently professor of international history at the London School of Economics, specializing in the shared histories of Christians, Jews and Muslims in Europe and the Middle East. The author of the second and more comprehensive book, Cengiz Sisman (pronounced Shishman), a Harvard graduate, is professor of history at the University of Houston-Clear Lake.

Although his book was published in 2015, his interest in the subject is at least as old as Prof. Baer’s. Both books are the products of extensive archival research and rely greatly on oral history, that is, interviews with the descendants of converts to Islam, called dönmes in Turkish. The dönmes’ vows or “burden” of silence, as Sisman calls it, made both authors’ tasks difficult. The two authors shared the same objective: to explore the nature of the beliefs of Tzevi’s followers, the reasons for the preservation of the movement, and its impact over its history of approximately 350 years.

Before discussing what the authors covered and discovered, it is important to trace the key events in Tzevi’s life and its immediate aftermath. Sabbatai was born on August 1, 1626—a Sabbath, hence his name—in Smyrna, today’s Izmir in Turkey. Although he belonged to and identified with the Sephardic community of Jews expelled from Spain in 1492, he was a descendant of so-called Romaniote Jews who had been living there before the Ottoman conquest and whose everyday language was Greek. He had a religious education at a yeshiva and a grounding in the Jewish Kabbalah, in which he showed keen interest starting in his youth. He was ordained rabbi at the young age of twenty. He began having messianic aspirations and visions shortly thereafter but shared them initially only within a small circle.

As he grew up, Sabbatai showed evidence of superior intelligence and other gifts, including debating skills and a sharp memory. At the same time, he displayed some strange tendencies for his age, such as asceticism (including fasting and immersing himself in cold water frequently), hermit-like self-isolation, acts of penance such as self-flagellation, and frequent changes in mood bordering on the behavior of a manic depressive. Despite this odd combination, by the time he was twenty-two, his messianic pronouncements grew stronger and his circle, now of adherents, broader. Threatened by both, and after issuing him several warnings, in 1651 Izmir’s religious (Jewish) leaders excommunicated him and banned him from the city for seven years. Sabbatai spent that period visiting the Jewish communities of Greece, Albania and the rest of Turkey, spreading his messianic message and gaining more adherents. Despite considerable success, he was received coolly on his return to his native city at the expiration of his ban.

Sabbatai resumed his travel a few years later, this time farther and more ambitiously, visiting Egypt and Jerusalem. He returned to Izmir to a much warmer reception than previously. Emboldened by it, in May 1665, he proclaimed himself Messiah amid a great celebration by his followers. Sabbatai was just 39 years old then. Baer and Sisman ably provide the historical context for this quick coalescence of his messianic ambition. I shall return to it shortly, but some explanations and amplifications are in order first.

Sabbatai did not rely on miraculous deeds or achievements to demonstrate and spread his messianic claim. He relied rather and mostly on antinomianisms—the principle that certain people (Christians initially) are freed from the moral law by virtue of the grace as set forth in the gospel. Transposed to Jews, the principle means that certain people close to or favored by God are released from the obligation to observe the Law of Moses. Sabbatai started building on and exploiting this principle when he was barely twenty by uttering openly and publically the Tetragrammaton—the four letter Hebrew name of God whose pronunciation is prohibited to all Jews, except the High Priest on Yom Kippur. If this were not shocking enough, he went on a campaign of breaking religious taboos, including against the cooking of lamb in its own fat or the mixing of meat and dairy products. He turned days of fasting into celebrations; combined three holidays into one; and abolished some days of fasting and holidays while introducing others. One bizarre, scandalous action followed another. The intended message was “I am entitled to do this, because I am the Messiah.”

In 1662, while traveling from Cairo to Jerusalem, Sabbatai stopped in Gaza, where he met a young kabbalist named Nathan. The latter quickly became a strong believer in and promoter of Sabbatai’s messianism—perhaps one stronger in either respect than Sabbatai himself. While this may be an exaggeration, there is little doubt that, as Sisman put it, “Nathan accelerated the pace of the movement.” (Sisman, 41)1 He did this by speaking publically, especially to defend Sabbatai’s antinomian behavior, drafting pamphlets, sending out letters (including circular letters) to Jewish communities in Ottoman lands and European countries, and acting as Tzevi’s right-hand man in general. As a result of these and other initiatives, by the time of Sabbatai’s proclamation of himself as Messiah in 1665, the belief in his claim turned into frenzy, with growing members of the community reportedly attempting to sell their properties in preparation to moving to Jerusalem with the Messiah.

During the crucial years of 1665-66, the Ottoman ruler was Mehmet IV, a 23-year old who spent more time hunting for pleasure than governing. He had, however, the benefit of two successive great Grand Viziers—the father-and-son Köprülü Mehmet and Fazil Ahmet Pashas. The Ottoman authorities did not show much concern with the Tzevi phenomenon as it was taking shape. This changed after Sabbatai’s self-proclamation as Messiah. Very likely at the instigation of Istanbul’s anti-Tzevi Jewish leaders, the authorities imprisoned him there for a while. As support for him continued to grow, threatening internal security, Sabbatai was transferred to an old castle near Gallipoli. He was kept there, though as if merely under house arrest. He maintained numerous privileges, including physical comforts, a near-princely lifestyle, servants, and entitlement to visitors, Jews and non-Jews, from as far away as northern Europe. This brought the authorities’ concerns to a head. At the heart of it was the fear of sedition. Sabbatai himself contributed to it through careless, irrational behavior, not only acting but even dressing like one who fancies himself a sultan-like ruler. As a result, he was brought for interrogation to the Sultan’s alternate palace in Edirne, where he camped when hunting.

Much of what is known and written about Sabbatai Tzevi has aspects of myth, exaggeration and embellishment. What transpired next is an exception, however, having been recorded promptly by an eyewitness, probably under instruction by the Sultan. Baer starts his book with such an account. According to it, the highest Ottoman officials present at the interrogation or trial were: the deputy Grand Vizier, as the grand vizier was away on a military campaign; the leading religious authority, or Sheikhulislam, of the empire; and the Imperial Preacher. Sultan Mehmet IV followed the proceedings unobserved from a latticed window. The Imperial Preacher led the interrogation. Soon into it, after Tzevi made an attempt to defend his actions, he offered him in the name of the Sultan a choice between conversion to Islam—acceptance of “the true prophet”—and immediate death. Tzevi accepted conversion on the spot. He was given promptly a Muslim name, Aziz Mehmet Effendi, an honorary title or position, “Keeper of the Middle Gate,” entitlement to a salary or pension, garments appropriate to his new faith and position, including a turban, and other privileges. (Baer, 1-2) In the following days and weeks, Sabbatai’s Jewish followers, estimated at 200-300 families, converted to Islam as their leader had done.

Sabbatai. who had married previously, moved with his family to Salonika. He was later allowed to resettle in Istanbul and associate with its Jewish community on the basis of his claim that he would help Jews to convert to Islam. The authorities became increasingly suspicious of his intentions and behavior, however. As a consequence, they banished him to Dulcigno (Ulgün in Turkish), today called Ulcinj, a small town near the Albanian border in today’s Montenegro, where almost no Jews lived. He died quietly of natural causes there on September 17, 1676. He was fifty years old. The exact place of his tomb is not certain.

The entirety of Baer’s book and three-fourths of Sisman’s book are devoted to what happened to Sabbatai’s followers. Their accounts are broadly similar, although they differ, in places, in coverage, approach, focus, and depth of analysis. Broadly speaking, Sisman covers the history of the Dönmes from the beginning, while Baer focuses on the period from the late nineteenth century to the early twentieth century. Baer’s book is written from the perspective of the Ottoman lands’ minority Jewish population, whereas Sisman looks at the same events from the perspective of the ruling Muslim majority. Baer asks: “To what extent is it appropriate to refer to these descendants of Jewish converts simply as Jews? If their beliefs and practices placed them outside the Jewish fold, by what means did they maintain their distinction from Jews and Muslims, and why? How did they view themselves, how did others view them, and how did these perceptions change over time? What role did the group play in late Ottoman and early Turkish republican history?” (Baer, x) In contrast, a major objective of Sisman’s book is “to provide a comprehensive social and religious history of the [Sabbatean] movement and its sectarian development by bringing the missing Ottoman-Turkish context [my italics] into the broader picture.” (Sisman, 4)

The loci and modi of the two authors’ research varied accordingly. While both engaged in archival research in Greece and Turkey, Sisman, a Muslim Turk, invested more heavily in Ottoman-Turkish archives, helped by his knowledge of the language, the culture, the Muslim faith, and government institutions. He also spent an extended period of time in Israel, home to some of the leading Tzevi experts and where many of the original documents pertaining to Tzevi are found. He gained in the process a vital knowledge of the Jewish faith, traditions and history, which he put to excellent use. Both authors invested, too, in interviews with Dönmes in both Turkey and elsewhere. Baer was as successful in this as Sisman was. One wonders if his being an American ‘foreigner’ might not have contributed to the interviewees’ opening up to him. Another thing the authors shared was a near obsession with their subject and an admirable sense of neutrality toward it.

The difference in the two authors’ focus shows up starting with their explanation regarding the timing of and receptivity to Tzevi’s messianic claim. Both cite three factors: the Kabbalah-based mystical calculation or prophesy regarding a ‘big event’, such as the arrival of the Messiah, in a year corresponding to 1648; the pogrom of 1648-49 in Poland, led by a Ukrainian named Chmielnicki, in which 100,000-200,000 Jews perished, seen by many as a precursor of doomsday; and the prevailing deterioration of the social, economic, religious, and political conditions of Jews in Ottoman lands, compared to the preceding century.

However, Sisman dwells on the Ottoman context at greater length in his book than Baer does, arguing that it was “one of the most important factors in shaping the reception, dissemination, and trajectory of the Sabbatean movement.” (Sisman, 15) He discusses in detail (over nearly an entire chapter) the evolution of the Empire’s rule, its seemingly unending wars, the evolution in the military system, including the Janissary institution, and the changes in the land tenure system. He also points to the Great Fire of 1660 in Istanbul in which some 280,000 homes, many of them belonging to Jews, were destroyed. (Sisman, 34) Last but not least, he mentions “the Little Ice Age” —as he put it, “a period of global cooling that occurred after a warmer era known as the Medieval Warm Period and lasted from the fourteenth to the nineteenth century” and affected the Ottoman capital, too. (Sisman, 37) While these events are noteworthy in themselves, and Sisman presents them authoritatively, their link to the Tzevi’s phenomenon seems over-stretched, compared with the much greater relevance of what Tzevi actually preached, to which I shall return later. Had Tzevi made his Messianic claim today, we would have poured over transcripts and recordings of what he said, more than over the context.

Baer and Sisman paint a largely similar picture of what happened next, the broad lines of which were as follows. Far from criticizing and abandoning Tzevi after his conversion, as many did, his followers viewed conversion as an act of strength—a confirmation of his identity as Messiah. Many theories were advanced to support this view. Some considered the conversion as a deliberate attempt by Tzevi to test the strength of his followers’ belief in and loyalty to him. The two authors agree that the beliefs and rituals adopted by the followers after Tzevi’s death in1676 were neither entirely Muslim nor entirely Jewish; they were rather ‘syncretic’ in the true sense of the word, combining different, often contradictory, beliefs while blending practices of various religions. For the following three-plus centuries, the Dönme viewed Tzevi, or Mehmet Aziz Efendi, if not as the Messiah, as a prophet, if not as a prophet, as a holy man. Many among them continued to believe in his messianic calling. This explains, among other things, his followers’ frequent pilgrimage to Salonika, where Tzevi settled after his conversion, or to Dulsigno, where he died.

Baer and Sisman show that the Dönmes’ religion was far from homogeneous or static. This heterogeneity accounted for the division of the group into three sub-sects, depending on the Sufi lodges (Bektashi, Mevlevi, other) they were inspired by, and the strength of their beliefs. Space does not permit discussing their differences here. On the whole, one wishes that the two authors had discussed the prophesy, theosophy, cosmology and mysticism of Tzevi, as well as the 18 commandments he drafted for his followers, more fully. Perhaps they could not or did not find it worthwhile. For example, the 18 commandments dealt with Tzevi’s concern with his image and legacy more than with religious or moral issues. Still, one is surprised by the apparent failure of the authors to interview Dönme religious leaders such a clerics (hodjas), as distinct from Dönme believers.

Salonika soon became the center of the Dönmes both geographically and spiritually. This owed in large measure to the city’s history and fame as a Kabbalistic center. Many of the Dönmes were highly educated and belonged to the socio-economic elite of wherever they lived. It did not take them long to become a dominant force in Salonika, controlling commerce, especially international trade, and banking, and playing a leadership role in the city’s educational and legal institutions. They also occupied high-level positions in administration, including the post of mayor. They valued outside contacts, foreign education, travel, and knowledge of foreign languages. They set trends in arts, including architecture, lifestyle, and even dress. In all of these areas, they outdid the Jews who had long been associated with the same likes and values. The Dönmes were the first to epitomize cosmopolitanism, multiculturalism and multilingualism. And they did this starting before the advent of the Alliance Israélite Universelle schools in Ottoman lands in the 1860s—an event which greatly spurred the orientation of the Jews toward France and the rest of Europe.

As told by Baer and Sisman, the Dönmes functioned from the beginning as a cohesive, well organized, tightly led group held together by solidarity and the preservation of beliefs and values. They lived close together in a self-segregated way, practiced endogamy even within religious sub-sects, had their own schools (Atatürk attended one in Salonika, where he was born in 1881), places of worship (mosques), cemeteries, and clubs. Secrecy was a key and distinguishing characteristic of the Dönmes from the start, and one which has lasted until today. Their secrecy differed greatly from that of the forced Jewish converts to Christianity during the period of the Spanish Inquisition. Briefly, it was not brought about by fear of cruel punishment, such as being burned at the stake, as the Dönmes were not subjected to victimization and punishment of the same order. It was, rather, akin to that of Freemasons—prompted by a sense of loyalty to and pride in the faith, and sustained by readiness to accept the “burden” that that imposed. Baer offers the observation that “secrecy and sacredness go together. Secrecy helps create sacredness and maintains it. Secret initiation, rites, and rituals preserve it.” (Baer, 8).

How about the relations between the Dönmes and the Jews and the Muslims among whom they lived, forged an identity, and prospered? The first is addressed at length by Baer. He shows that the Dönmes did not consider themselves Jewish; they had little contact with them, except for attending the same schools or dealing with the same commercial institutions. The Dönmes caused schisms within the Jewish communities in the beginning but were not a subject of special attention for most of their existence. The Jews considered them Muslim and neither sought nor eschewed them. The Dönmes, on the other hand, avoided relations with Jews.

Dönmes’ relations with the Muslim majority were more complicated, unstable and at times problematic. Sisman takes the reader systematically through the maze-like relationship. For two hundred years after Tzevi’s death, the advent and spread of the Dönmes did not pose a problem. Ottoman society was inherently pluralistic. Besides, conversion to Islam was quite common. It produced not only some of the military elite but also viziers and sultanas, such as Sultan Süleyan the Magnificent’s beloved Hürrem, or Roxelana. A key event that changed this was the launching of a program of modernization and improved governance, including the adoption of a constitution, by the Ottoman rulers in the 1870s. Baer saw the event as marking the involvement of the Dönmes in national politics for the first time, and Sisman as the period when the Muslim rulers began viewing the Dönmes as a Muslim but “different” group. The Dönme history that followed developed in parallel with three important trends: the growing identification of the Dönmes with modernism and modernization; the increasing secularization of their religious beliefs and rituals; and a strong and novel nationalism—a Turkish one!

No attempt to describe what followed can do justice to Sisman’s meticulous, scholarly account of it. Briefly, the constitutional reforms and modernization attempts of the last quarter of the 19th century failed for a variety of reasons; the disintegration—in terms of both power and governance— of what was by then an empire in name only continued; and a second constitutional reform was introduced in 1908. Rather than improving the situation, the latter was followed by a revolution against Ottoman rule, spearheaded and aided by the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP) and its offshoot, the Young Turks (YT), opening the door to the deposition of the reigning Ottoman sultan. Turkey then faced in quick succession the loss of the Balkan Wars against Bulgaria, Greece and other regional states (1912-13); its disastrous participation in the First World War on the side of Germany; the “War of Independence” led by Atatürk (1919-1922); the abolition of the Caliphate, which rested with the Sultan for nearly 400 years; and the creation of the new, secular “republic” in 1923 to replace Ottoman rule for good.

The events compressed into the 15 years between 1908 and 1923 mentioned above, and others, are of utmost importance in Dönme history. They mark both a peak in the Dönmes’ influence and the beginning of the long process of what Baer calls their “”dissolution,” in how others viewed the Dönme, and how they viewed themselves. Baer and Sisman, therefore, devoted a great deal of attention to this period in their books. The attention is both appropriate and welcome, since the events noted have been used by some groups to portray the Dönmes’ influence in exaggerated, negative terms, more so in recent decades than at the time. At the heart of this view is the claim that the Dönme were a dominant force in the CUP and the YT, and played a big role in the overthrow of the Ottoman Sultan, as part of a conspiracy to replace Islamic rule by a secular government. The Dönme were represented—perhaps over-represented—in the activities of the anti-status quo forces and may have inspired the secular orientation of the new republic, as defined by Atatürk, although their role may be exaggerated.2 But assigning them responsibility, even small and indirect, for the collapse of the Ottoman rule would be a gross exaggeration. They simply did not have the power necessary to bring this about.

Three historic events contributed to and accelerated the dissolution of the Dönmes. The first was the loss of Salonika to Greece at the conclusion of the first Balkan War (1912). While some Dönme accepted Greek citizenship and remained in their historic home, many moved with their wealth, businesses and families to Istanbul. The second was the Salonika fire of historic proportion in 1917, which decimated many Dönme homes and businesses, causing a second wave of Dönme emigration to Istanbul. Third and most important was the compulsory population exchange of Greeks and Turks agreed to by Greece and Turkey as part of the Treaty of Lausanne ending the War of Independence and recognizing the new Turkish Republic. Salonika’s remaining Dönmes were forced to leave, completing the group’s exodus from Greece.3 With this final wave, the center of the Dönmes was transported effectively to Istanbul. The majority settled in a section of the city (Osmanbey-Nisantas-Tesvikiye) where I spent my last ten years in Turkey. There they re-established their schools, their mosques, cemeteries, places of mutual assistance, and started newspapers and other publications of their own. They were nevertheless regarded with suspicion and subjected to hostilities. Their religious beliefs had been weakening for some time. As a result, they began to intermarry with non-Dönme Muslims as well as non-Muslims, ending a policy of endogamy which had lasted for more than three centuries. They slowly lost both pride in their identity and their self-confidence.

Where do the descendants of Sabbatai Tzevi’s adherents stand today and what is their portrait as painted by Baer and Sisman? First the numbers. Tzevi’s initial adherents (those who converted practically with him) consisted of about 300 families and numbered about 1,500 people. According to Baer, within a century, the size of the community grew to around 600 families (perhaps 3,000 people). By the end of the 18th century their number increased to 5,000; and by the turn of the 20th century their number was in the 10,000-15,000 range.

Sisman believes that there are 60,000 to 70,000 persons “of Dönme descent” in Turkey today and perhaps another 10,000 in other parts of the world. (Sisman, 288) The number may be exaggerated due to definitional problems. What is striking is the continued growth of the group, rather than the reverse. The dissolution of the Dönmes owed less to abandonment of the faith (there was no mass exodus from it) and more to the weakening of the beliefs. Sisman estimates that “of all Dönmes, only 3,000-4,000 are thought to remain actual believers who hold on to their ethno-religious identity, as reflected in their neatly prepared religious calendars, cookbooks, tombstones, and cemeteries. For the majority of Dönme descendants, the Dönme past is limited to family history, memory and nostalgia, devoid of sacred connotations.” (Sisman, 288-289) Baer shares this view. He argues that the Dönme religion has become a foi de souvenir, a faith of memory.

The image of the Dönmes that emerges from the Baer-Sisman narratives and analyses depends on the viewer. For this viewer or reviewer, the image is largely positive, except in two respects. The first is the shaky foundation of some of the Dönmes’ beliefs. For example, after Sabbatai’s conversion, and following his death, the leadership of the movement passed on to his brother-in-law, a Jew named Jacob Querido, renamed Yakub Çelebi. Dönmes believed then and some may still believe that Sabbatai’s soul had ‘transmigrated’ to Yakub, who went on to establish the strongest group of followers. It is also difficult to view the group’s secretiveness positively. While justified as a defensive, self-preservation mechanism in the beginning, the Dönmes’ secretiveness, by fueling ignorance about and suspicion of the group, probably contributed to the group’s attrition, if not dissolution.

The Dönmes’ attributes have included a progressive attitude toward social, cultural, economic and political change, a positivist approach to education, based on empiricism and a belief in the supremacy of science over religion. Dönmes have been called radical, enlightened secularists, free-thinkers, innovators, modernists, and social Darwinists. They have combined internationalism with nationalism. They have lived as they preached, even linguistically. (Some adopted French as their everyday language.) They have lived with a pride and self-confidence characteristic of Jews in many parts of the world

An inevitable question is to what extent the trend toward Islamization evident in Turkey today has affected or threatens the Dönme. Baer and Sisman conclude their narrative and analysis with the mid- 20th century, though without a convincing explanation. Their decision may have been prompted by the wish not to come into conflict with the current political winds in Turkey. Yet some messages may be discerned. Baer concludes his book with a postscript devoted to “The Shooting of Ahmet Emin Yalman,” an eminent Dönme writer and publisher who survived an assassination attempt in 1952. The event makes a strange choice for a postscript. Was Baer warning that history may repeat itself?

Sisman, a Muslim Turk, did not come close to addressing the topic of Islamization in his book. Yet in an interview he gave a newspaper subsequently, he hinted at the possible manipulation and scapegoating of the Dönme as follows:

Conservative and lately Islamist ideology [in Turkey] has tried to recreate itself with new terms. In that, the Dönmes have played a specific role of being an ‘other,’ imagined to have helped bring down the Ottoman Empire. Creating such an enemy served this new rising Islamic identity by providing an ‘other’. If they believe that the Ottoman Empire, which was so cherished, was brought down by the Dönmes, and that the Turkish Republic was created by a Dönme elite, they thought it would explain the almost anti-Islamic or radical secularist nature of the Turkish Republic. They can consolidate their identity through criticism of supposed Dönme-linked events. The Dönmes, especially in recent decades, have served as an ‘other’ for Islamist ideology to define itself against.4

I agree.

Reviewing two books on the same subject and at the same time imposes an obligation to offer a comparative assessment and recommendation. Both of the books by Baer and Sisman make a significant contribution to Sabbatai Tzevi historiography. Sisman’s more recent book is more up to date, of course. It is also more comprehensive and reader-friendly. The latter owes to its chronological approach and its coverage of Tzevi’s pre-conversion life in detail. Baer’s book presumes prior knowledge of it. Sisman’s book includes a bibliography for the benefit of future researchers, lacking for no apparent reason in Baer’s work. In terms of substance, the two books complement each other. If one were interested in reading just one book on Tzevi, the choice should be Sisman’s, which had the benefit of Baer’s work. I nevertheless recommend reading both. Together, they offer a comprehensive knowledge not just of Tzevi‘s enigmatic life, faith and followers, but also of a fascinating period of Ottoman, Turkish and Jewish history.

* Bension Varon is a Sephardi born and raised in Turkey, a retired economist, author of several books, and a past contributor to Sephardic Horizons.

1 In the rest of this paper, the page reference numbers preceded by the names Baer and Sisman are for the two authors’ books reviewed here.

2 Baer writes: ”The overrepresentation of the Dönme in the CUP allowed people to believe the revolution of 1908 was a Dönme plot, and later to equate Kemalism with Dönme religion, even though most of the new Kemalist elite were not Dönme and most Dönme were not members of the Kemalist elite,” (Baer, 110).

3 Roughly half a million Turks, including up to 20,000 Dönmes, were exchanged for 1.2 million Greek Orthodox Christians.

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