Jew in Constantinople (Istanbul) in 1618

There are between 17,000 and 18,000 Jews in Turkey today. During the first half of the twentieth century, the Jewish population remained relatively stable at around 90,000. Following the establishment of Israel in 1948, an estimated 30,000 Jews immigrated to the new state. An average of 1,000 Jews annually left for Israel during the 1950s and early 1960s. By 1965 the Jewish minority had been reduced to an estimated 44,000, most of whom lived in Istanbul, where many Jewish men operated shops and other small businesses. [Source: Library of Congress, January 1995 *]

Unlike the Armenians and Greeks, the Jewish minority is neither ethnically nor linguistically homogeneous. Most of its members are Sephardic Jews whose ancestors were expelled from Spain by the Roman Catholic Inquisition in 1492. They speak Ladino, a variant of fifteenth-century Spanish with borrowings from several other languages. The Ashkenazic minority — Jews from central and northern Europe — speak Yiddish, a German-derived language. Both languages are written in the Hebrew script. Most Jews also speak Turkish. The Karaites — viewed by most other Jews as heretics — speak Greek as their native language. In general, the different Jewish communities have tended not to intermarry and thus have retained their identities. *

Since 1948 the Jewish population of Turkey has decreased steadily. The Jewish population in 1965 numbered about 44,000, all but a tiny fraction of whom were urban residents. In 1995 the Jewish community, estimated at 18,000 to 20,000, consisted primarily of Sephardic Jews. At least 90 percent of Turkey's Jews live in Istanbul, where a chief rabbi presides. In 1995 the Jewish community maintained one high school and four elementary schools offering limited courses in Hebrew. Legislation passed in 2002 gave religious minorities in Turkey such as Greeks, Armenians and Jews greater rights over religious properties such as churches and synagogues.

In September 1986, terrorists under the Palestinian leader Abu Nidal shot up the Neve Shalaom synagogue in Istanbul, killing 22 Jewish worshipers and injuring 6.

Websites and Resources: Virtual Jewish Library ; Judaism101 ; BBC - Religion: Judaism ; Yivo Institute of Jewish Research ; Jewish History: Jewish History Timeline Jewish History Resource Center ; Center for Jewish History ; Jewish ; Internet Jewish History Sourcebook

Jews Under Ottoman Rule

Ottoman rule could be arbitrary and despotic yet tolerant and fair. Subjects were required to pay taxes and submit to authority but merit was rewarded. Although Armenian and Jewish comminutes were segregated, Christianity, Judaism and other religions were tolerated and people were not required to conform. [Source: Library of Congress, January 1995 *]

Turkish Jews

People of different religions and ethnic groups lived peacefully for centuries under the Ottoman rule. The historian Karen Armstrong wrote: “The sultan did not impose uniformity on his subjects nor did he try to force the disparate elements of his empire into one huge party. The government merely enabled the different groups—Christians, Jews, Arabs, Turks, Berbers, merchants...and trade guilds—to live together peacefully, each making its own contribution, and following its own beliefs and customs. The empire was thus a collection of communities, each which claimed the immediate loyalty of its members.” *

Muslim leaders have traditionally tolerated people from other faiths living in their territories. Under Islamic rule and Islamic law, Jews and Christians lived with Muslims in relative harmony, and were allowed to practice their religion and run their own affairs as long as they met certain obligations, namely paying a poll tax, which Muslims did not have to meet. In some places many, Jews had their own legal system and social services and Christians had their own religious authorities. Under the millet system, Christians were tried under their own laws. Millets were groups with their own legal codes and places of worship. *

Doctors and long distance traders were often Jews. In Egypt, the financial services were dominated by Coptic Christians. Armenians were heavily involved in the silk trade. Syrian Christians were major players in the Middle East caravan trade. *

Ottoman Empire and Sephardic Jews

In 1492, the same year Columbus discovered America, 150,000 Jews known as Sephardim were stripped of their possessions during the Spanish Inquisition and kicked out of the Spain. Some 100,000 of these refugees were welcomed to Istanbul by the Ottoman Sultan Bayazit II, who dispatched the Ottoman navy to rescue many Jews.

Some of the most famous Muslim designs on Turkish rugs have their origins among Jews living in Spain. "The exiled Sephardim," wrote journalist Melanie Menagh, "brought with them the glories of Spain's golden age and made major contributions to Turkish life. Many were physicians and they introduced modern European medical techniques to the court.”

Turkish Jews in the late Ottoman Era

By the the 16th century a large portion of the population of Istanbul was made up of Spanish-speaking Jews. The first printing press in the Ottoman empire was established by two Spanish-Jewish refugees. Sephardist prudence was so highly regarded by the sultans that many Ottoman diplomats were Jews. The Sephardim language, Judeo-Spanish or Ladino, was thought to be especially melodic and lent itself to poetry and sacred and secular songs. Ancestors of the Sephardim still live in Istanbul and Ladino is still spoken in some neighborhoods.

Jews who were expelled from Hungary in 1376, from Sicily in the the 15th century, from Bavaria in 1470, from Bohemia in 1542, and from Russia in 1881, 1891, 1897 and 1903 also were provided with sanctuary by the Ottomans. During World War II, Turkey accepted some Jews who were fleeing Nazism.


The Dönme are descendants of the Jewish followers of a self-proclaimed messiah, Sabbatai Sebi (or Zevi, 1626-76), who was forced by the sultan to convert to Islam in 1666. Their doctrine includes Jewish and Islamic elements. They consider themselves Muslims and officially are recognized as such. Their name is the Turkish word for convert , but it carries overtones of turncoat as well. [Source: Library of Congress]

The Dönme have been successful in business and in the professions, but historically they have not been part of the social elite because neither Jews nor Muslims fully accept them. Experience with prejudice inclines some Dönme to hide their identity to avoid discrimination and also has encouraged the Dönme to become a tightly knit, generally endogamous group. Since the early 1980s, however, overt discrimination has lessened, and intermarriage between Dönme and other Muslims has grown common.

Kurdish Jews

Kurdish Jews live predominately in mountainous areas of Kurdistan in Turkey and Iraq. They have traditionally been isolated from other Jewish groups and spoke Kurdish and a Neo-Aramaic language related to Aramaic, the language spoken throughout the Middle East before being superceded by Arabic after the Muslim conquest in the 7th century. [Source: Encyclopedia of World Cultures]

Kurdish Jews have traditionally worked as farmers, shepherds and loggers, jobs usually not associated with Jews. Many had vineyards or orchards. Some also worked as traders and artisans. Those that worked as peddlers and traveled from town to town by donkey, trading basic goods, were the targets of raids by Kurdish brigands. Over time the Jews moved from villages, which were often raided, and moved to more secure cities. Few got rich.

Jewish Kurds are not known for being very religious or even very Jewish. Marriage customs of Kurdish Jews have traditionally matched those of Muslim Kurds. Not many have spoken Hebrew. Emphasis was generally placed more on the spoken word at sermons at synagogues than among the written word, with a strong emphasis on Biblical stories to make moral points and discussions of miracles and coming messiahs. The religious life of Kurdish Jews also included wearing of amulets, help from mystics and visit to shrines that promised to help cure the sick and help barren women have children.

Kurdish Jewish storytellers and bards are known among Jewish and non-Jewish Kurds alike for their oral skills. The stories were often well known to the audience and the storytellers skill was measured in term of expressions, gesture and ability to make sound effects and a variety of voices. , Kurdish Jewish women were famous for the elaborate jewelry, including nose rings and foot bracelets they wore on their wedding day.

History of Kurdish Jews

Kurdish Jew

According to tradition Kurdish Jews are descendants of Jews from the Lost Tribes of Israel who were exiled from Judea by the Assyrian kings. Scholars that have looked into the matter have said there is some evidence to back up these claims. Some are also believed to be descendants of Jews that fled to Kurdish areas when Crusaders persecuted Jews in the Middle East in the 12th century. [Source: Encyclopedia of World Cultures]

At the end of World War II there were about 25,000 Kurdish Jews living scattered across Kurdistan in about 200 villages and small towns. Because these communities were scattered and isolated from one another by rugged terrain, the inhabitants of each village spoke a different dialect. What little unity they had was often via Jews living in the cities of Turkey and Iraq. Often there were small Christian Kurdish communities living side by side with the Jewish ones.

Most Kurdish Jews emigrated to Israel in 1950 and 1951. The number of Jewish Kurds living in Israel is about 100,000. These include the dwindling number of those who emigrated and their descendants. Many live in the Jerusalem area. Some Israelis regard the Kurdish Jews as the lowest of the low. Many Kurdish Jewish women work as maids and the men work as manual laborers, masons and stone cutters. A few worked their way up from humble beginning to be some of the wealthiest people in Israel, owning restaurants, hotels and supermarkets. The construction business in Jerusalem has traditionally been dominated by Kurdish Jews.

Bukharan Jews

The Bukharan Jews are group of Jews that have lived in Central Asia for centuries and are so named because they were originally based in Bukhara in present-day Uzbekistan and were associated with the city when it was capital of the powerful Bukhara Khanate. Culturally and linguistically they are most similar to Jews of Iran and Afghanistan. They speak a Jewish dialect of Tajik and have traditionally lived mostly in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Many now live in Israel. Some live in the United States. [Source: Encyclopedia of World Cultures: Russia and Eurasia, China, edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond (C.K. Hall & Company, Boston), The New Yorker and New York Times]

Bukharan Jews at an immigrant camp at Atlit

There are believed to be around 60,000 Bukharan Jews in Central Asia. As of the late 1980s there were about 30,000 of them in Tashkent, 15,000 in Samarkand, 10,000 on Dushanbe, 9,000 in Bukhara and small numbers of them in Kokand, Andigan, Margelan and other towns. There have never been more than a few tens of thousands of Bukharan Jews. A traveler to Samarkand in the Middle Ages said there were around 50,000 Jews living there at that time. Surveys and estimates counted 16,000 in 1900, 20,000 in 1910, 30,000 in the 1920s, 40,000 at the end of the 1950s, 50,000 in the 1970s and 60,000 to 75,000 in the 1980s.

There are about 120,00 to 160,000 Bukharan Jews in Israel: many more than Uzbekistan, where only 1,500 to 2,000 remain. A large number of Bukharan Jews live in Rego Park in Queens. Some of the them are gangsters.

Mansur Mirovalev of Al Jazeera wrote: “Bukhara was once a focal point on the Great Silk Road, a powerhouse of Islamic learning. It was also the capital of one of the world's oldest and most isolated Jewish communities that barely survived centuries of persecution and is now facing extinction because of an exodus to Israel and the United States. [Source: Mansur Mirovalev, Al Jazeera, May 6, 2015]

Afghanistan Jews

The Jewish population of Afghanistan was 5,000 in 1948. By 2000, they had for all intents and purposes left Afghanistan. They had traditionally lived in urban centers. By 1985 virtually all Jews had emigrated. In 2013, Reuters described Kabul’s only synagogue this way: “Much of the whitewashed building’s interior, including the synagogue’s floors and walls, are covered in a black film. It survived the Taliban, but the contents were ransacked.”

Afghan Jews in Israel in 1917

There were once a community of 40,000 Jews in Kabul. They were active in business and had a distinctive Torah design. Most of them descended from Jews that came from Iran around 1800.

In 1948, most of the 5,000 Jews that remained migrated to Israel. Most of the 70 or so families that were left in 1979 fled after the Soviet invasion. After the Taliban came to power their lead Omar lashed out at Christians and Jews in particular for trying to convert Muslims and demonize “pure Islam.” “The enemies of Muslims are trying to eliminate the pure Islamic religion throughout the world,” he said in a radio message.

By 2002 there were only two Jews left. That lived on opposite of Kabul’s only synagogue and had a long-standing feud and refused to speak to each other. They continued to stay in Kabul even though people in Israel had promised to pay their air fare to Israel. Of them said he continued to stay because he wanted to take care of the synagogue and religious books there.

Reuters reported: “Little is known about the origins of Afghan Jews, who some believe may have lived here more than 2,000 years ago. A cache of 11th century scrolls recently discovered in the north provided the first opportunity to study poems, commercial records and judicial agreements of the time. The community was several thousand strong at the turn of the 20th century, spread across several cities but having limited contact with fellow Jews abroad. They later left the country en masse, mostly for the newly created state of Israel. There are no Afghan Christians left, at least none who is open about it, and the only permanent church is inside the Italian diplomatic compound. There is a small Hindu population, but it is shrinking rapidly.” [Source: Jessica Donati, Mirwais Harooni, Reuters, November 12, 2013]

Last Jew in Afghanistan

The last Jew in Afghanistan is Zablon Simintov (born 1959), an Afghan carpet trader and restaurateur and caretaker of the only synagogue in Kabul. His name has also been transcribed in English as Zebulon Simentov, Zabolon Simentov and Zabolon Simantov. Simintov had lived with the second last remaining Jewish man in Afghanistan, Ishaq (Isaac) Levin, who died on January 26, 2005, aged around 80. The story of Simintov and Levin was the basis for a British play. Simintov deprecated Levin in an interview with British journalist Martin Fletcher. Levin had initially welcomed Simintov but the two fell out permanently when Simintov offered the caretaker help to emigrate to Israel to join the rest of the former Kabul Jewish community. Simintov was adamant he made the suggestion only as he thought Kabul was too cold for the old man, but the older man took umbrage, claiming Simintov was trying to take over the synagogue. A feud ensued, with the Taliban becoming involved after both men reported each other to the authorities for alleged wrongdoings ranging from running a brothel to misappropriating religious objects. [Source: Wikipedia +]

Simintov says it is not easy to practice his religion alone. However, he has obtained special permission from the nearest rabbi, in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, to slaughter his own meat in line with kosher dietary laws which can normally only be done by a specially trained Jewish butcher. Simintov lives alone in a small room next to an old synagogue on Flower Street in Kabul and receives donations from Jewish groups abroad and sympathetic Muslim locals. His wife and two daughters live in Israel. When asked during an interview whether he would emigrate to Israel, Simintov retorted, "Go to Israel? What business do I have there? Why should I leave?" In a video interview by Al Jazeera on 17 September 2007, Simentov suggested that he may be interested in moving to Israel to join his two daughters. +

He says that he receives special kosher packages for Passover from Afghan Jews living in New York. Sometimes, he says, Jewish foreigners visit his home for the high holidays. [clarification needed] Simintov has also been quoted as saying: "I don't want my Jewish heritage erased. My father was a rabbi, my grandfather was a rabbi. We were a big, religious family..." However he wears his yarmulke only in private and is hesitant to take visitors inside the synagogue he calls home. In November 2013 Simintov announced that he would close his restaurant in March 2014 due to a decline in business, after the reduction of NATO forces, specifically there has been a fall in both the numbers of people eating out in Kabul and hotel catering orders. +

Last Jew in Afghanistan in 2013

last Jew in Afghanistan

In 2013, Jessica Donati and Mirwais Harooni of Reuters reported from Kabul: “Zabulon Simintov always removes his kippah, the skullcap worn by Jewish men, before entering his cafe in a dilapidated building that also houses Afghanistan’s last synagogue. “Let me take off my cap, otherwise people will think something bad about me,” Simintov said cheerfully as he descended grime-caked stairs to the ground-floor café. In his 50s, Simintov is the last known Afghan Jew to remain in the country. He has become something of a celebrity over the years and his rivalry with the next-to-last Jew, who died in 2005, inspired a play. [Source: Jessica Donati, Mirwais Harooni, Reuters, November 12, 2013 *]

“Mindful of Afghanistan’s extremely conservative Muslim culture, Simintov tries not to advertise his identity to protect the Balkh Bastan or Ancient Balkh kebab cafe he opened four years ago, naming it after a northern Afghan province. “All food here is prepared by Muslims,” he said. Now the cafe, neat and shiny, faces closure because kebabs are not selling well - largely because of deteriorating security in Kabul that has made people frightened to eat out or visit the city. *\

“Simintov used to rely on hotel catering orders but even these have dried up as foreign troops begin to withdraw from Afghanistan, further weakening security and investment. “Hotels used to order food for 400 to 500 people. Four or five stoves were busy from afternoon to evening,” he said. “I plan to close my restaurant next March and rent its space.” At lunchtime, a single table was occupied, with a pair of customers ordering tender meat on long skewers and other Afghan dishes. Neither appeared to know about Simintov’s history and said they came only because a cafe next door that made a special dish of Afghan noodles had shut down. *\

“A native of the western border city of Herat, the cradle of Jewish culture in Afghanistan, Simintov displays dog-eared posters and prayer books when he shows visitors around the dilapidated synagogue. He pulled a “shofar” - the ram’s horn used for Jewish New Year and Yom Kippur, the day of atonement - from a dusty cupboard and blew into it with little effect. Simintov also maintains a nearby cemetery, marked by little more than a few broken pieces of stone in an unkempt yard. *\

“Simintov’s personal ill fortune is linked to the increasing risks of running a business. More than a dozen years since the U.S.-led invasion toppled the hardline Taliban movement to end its five years in power, fear of bombs, shootings and crime is still part of daily life. Simintov said the cafe had lost $45,000 and all the valuables collected by his father were stolen before the Taliban were ousted in 2001. He hopes that renting the cafe’s space might generate enough money to renovate the synagogue. However resolute Simintov remains about practising his faith, he is embittered - even enraged - by misfortune and by the failure of the U.S-led NATO force to create conditions for peace and security without the threat of the Taliban. “It is better to see a dog than to see an American,” he said. “If the situation in the country gets worse, I will escape.”“ *\

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons except the last Jew in Afghanistan, Reuters

Text Sources: Internet Jewish History Sourcebook Wikipedia, National Geographic, BBC, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Library of Congress, CNN, The New Yorker, Reuters, AP, AFP and various books and other publications.

Last updated March 2024

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