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Urban Sephardic Culture in the Ottoman Empire

An overlooked golden age of Jewish culture flowered in the cities of Istanbul, Edirne, Salonica, Izmir, Aleppo, Damascus, Baghdad, Cairo, and Alexandria—where almost no Jews live today

Yaron Ben-Naeh
September 18, 2017
Photocollage: Tablet Magazine; original images: Library of Congress
Studio portraits of models wearing clothes from Istanbul and Salonica, 1837, Pascal Sébah (1823-1886). In both photographs, the figure at center wears Jewish dress.Photocollage: Tablet Magazine; original images: Library of Congress
Photocollage: Tablet Magazine; original images: Library of Congress
Studio portraits of models wearing clothes from Istanbul and Salonica, 1837, Pascal Sébah (1823-1886). In both photographs, the figure at center wears Jewish dress.Photocollage: Tablet Magazine; original images: Library of Congress

The Ottoman state encompassed vast territories in Europe, Asia, and North Africa. At its peak, the Danube was its northern border in Europe, Tunisia its western strongpoint, the Caucasus and Iraq in Asia, and the Arabian Peninsula in the south. Above all local differences, there was a certain cultural uniformity in the main cities, the administrative and commercial centers in which Jews tended to reside. As many other Jewries since the early middle ages, that of the Ottoman Empire was also an urban society par excellence. Jews were attracted to the major economic centers such as Istanbul, Edirne, Salonica, and Izmir, Aleppo and Damascus, Baghdad, Cairo, and Alexandria, whose communities constituted the vast majority of this Jewry.

The actual size of the Jewish population remains an open question and is estimated at 150,000. Death rates were high and prevented growth before the 19th century. Moreover, recurrent plagues reduced the number in one city or another significantly, but it would stabilize again within a few years. As the barriers between the various Jewish congregations collapsed and their members mixed one with the other, much of the particularistic customs disappeared, and the pluralism in custom and halakhah was replaced by a new eclectic local “Sephardi” custom. The Judeo-Spanish (Judezmo, Ladino) became the common language among them. Division and tension between Jewish communities followed other lines since the second half of the 16th century—internal strife with Jews of Iberian descent (Sephardim), and social class and economic factors—between guild or mostly poor vs. the rich, instead of Karaites or Ashkenazim vs. Sephardim. or between local and itinerant merchants. We have very little information about actual tension between Jews and non-Jews—Muslims, Christians, and Gypsies. Feelings of kinship and fraternity were reserved, first and foremost, for relations between an individual and his extended family and only after that for relations between the individual and other members of his ethnic-religious group, guild or other. There were close and at times often ties between the Jewish communities of the empire, manifested in family relationships, business contacts, the mobility of rabbis and correspondence on religious legal matters, the tendering of political and monetary aid, and naturally, a constant sense of solidarity and mutual responsibility. There were also ties between the Ottoman Jewish communities and those outside the empire, mainly in northern Italian cities and the western Sephardim, mostly those of Amsterdam.

The multi-ethnic and multi-religious Ottoman state considered all taxpayers within its borders to be its protected subjects. The principle of justice guided the ruler with regard to all his subjects, and the dhimmi communities generally received fair treatment in accordance with the conditions established by Muslim law and tradition. The Islamic legal system determined the inferior status of the dhimmis and imposed upon them the poll tax (jizye) and other restrictions that were intended to degrade and visually mark them as non-Muslims. There was no uniformity or consistency in the enforcement of the restrictions within this vast empire. As a rule, the central authorities usually did not initiate the enforcement of the restrictions, and constantly protected the rights of the dhimmis. The Muslim masses generally expressed contempt towards non-Muslims and strangers of all types. Greek and Armenian Christians demonstrated towards Jews hatred that had both religious and economic origins. This general state of affairs did not prevent the existence of daily peaceful encounters in the economic sphere and occasionally also of friendship. Only rarely did hatred burst forth violently.

Some Cultural Attributes

In the wake of the 17th century, a hundred years after the expulsions from Iberia, Ottoman Jewry appears to bear several cultural attributes that were maintained, in changing form and intensity, until modernity won in the late 19th, early 20th centuries. They can be summed up as follows.

(a) Ottoman Jewry was a traditional and an observant society. Judaism and Jewish heritage were central factors in defining individual and group identity and in shaping patterns of behavior and lifestyles for the majority of Jews, at least as they knew and understood it. This traditional society included very few individuals (perhaps former marranos) who purposely transgressed religious and communal laws, and showed an ambivalent or even antagonist attitude toward religious scholars and erudition. Yet it was never as serious as in the western Sephardi diaspora.

(b) Private and collective identity: A sense of local pride developed side-by-side with a particularistic identity based on country of origin, this already in the 16th century, after the first generation took root in their new homes. It may be that this was more than mere identification with a geographical location and that the Jewish public expressed a sense of belonging to the city of its residence and of sympathy towards the Ottoman state. This local patriotism reinforced existing competition between communities such as Jerusalem and Safed, Istanbul and Salonica.

The autobiography of Sasson Hai Kastiel of Istanbul written at the turn of the 18th century is a good example of one’s consciousness: His memoir is replete with pride in his city, the glorious capital of a great and flourishing empire and the seat of the sultan’s court. Kastiel is also proud of his community: “And the mother of all cities in Rum [i.e., Europe, or the former Byzantine Empire] and all its borders is the excellent city of Istanbul, and within it are found 36,000 Jewish households.” He notes Istanbul’s antiquity and size and later boasts of its large number of synagogues, their beauty, and the riches they have accumulated. He then goes on to relate the economic status of the Jews in the Empire: “And all have wealth and honor, particularly the nation of the holy seed of Israel, for they control it verily like princes.”

Salonika’s Jews, too, were proud of their city, its Jewish majority, its yeshivot, and famous Talmud Torah. They had good reason to call it “a city and mother in Israel” and later on “Jerusalem of the Balkans.” The Ottoman traveler Evliya Çelebi wrote that the Jews relate to their city as “Our Salonica.” Similar feelings were widespread among the Jews living in the Holy Land—especially in Jerusalem and Safed—which maintained their mythical status as centers of learning long after they had ceased to be centers of religious creativity and real influence.

An individual’s identity was in practice a cluster comprising religious, ethnic-communal, family, local, class, and cultural identities. Similarly, collective identity, too, was multifaceted. One’s religious identity almost absolutely dictated lifestyle, legal status, social and familial relationships, and more. The form given to individual Jewish identity in the Ottoman Muslim environment was not unequivocal. One attitude, generally found in the rabbinic literature, displays pride in Judaism and faith in its supremacy while looking down upon others and referring to them, within closed Jewish circles, in a demeaning and humiliating manner. Thus, it is understandable why Jews were sometimes warned to stay aloof from local non-Jews who have many vices, are lecherous, and so forth. Private and public life was conducted to a great extent on the basis of the Hebrew calendar. The annual cycle also dictated the rhythm of public life in the congregation. Calendars were also dotted with days that were “dangerous” calling for special attention, but also with anniversaries: birthdays, and commemorative ceremonies for family members. To these were added state holidays and those of other religious communities, especially Muslim holy days, first and foremost among them the period of Ramadan and its concluding festival. Some days were set as festive days by the state, celebrating victories, or events in the sultan’s family.

(c) The Jews were a semi-literate society, in contrast to the widely accepted image. The elementary schooling provided by the community in the framework of the Talmud Torah schools resulted in a high percentage of literate males, but most of them were at best able to read the prayers. Only some men knew how to write and many were even unable to sign their names. Until the mid-19th century, women received no formal education and almost all were illiterate. Not surprisingly, the great majority of the diverse types of popular literary works were oral, as was the manner in which they were handed down and consumed.

(d) Jewish culture was a hybrid, with two dominant components: Jewish-Iberian and Jewish-Ottoman added to the early local one, of which we know little. A few more sentences about the first group: Jews whose provenance was in the Iberian Peninsula accounted for the majority of Ottoman Jewry, especially in Anatolia and the Balkans. The exiles brought their written and oral cultural heritage with them, and their descendants preserved it. The continuous stream of immigrants from the Iberian Peninsula to the Levant, and their return there to Judaism, served to reinforce the memory of the past and to preserve the ties to the old homeland among the veteran Sephardi population. Those who arrived during the 17th century undoubtedly contributed to keeping those who preceded them abreast of developments in Iberian culture, such as poetry and theater, stories, and the language. Graduates of universities in Spain and Portugal brought with them scientific knowledge, particularly in the field of medicine, together with religious skepticism and a tendency to reject rabbinical authority. With time, the memory of the expulsion, murders, and persecutions faded and nostalgic longing increased for their imagined Iberian past, painted in glowing colors, and more so as time passed. The Spanish heritage could be discerned in several cultural spheres: First and foremost the Judeo-Spanish language that became one of the unifying outward signs of the Sephardi diaspora in the Orient until the 20th century. Other aspects are various genres of folklore, the literary output in various genres, halakhah and customs, beliefs, values and manners of behavior, political and organizational patterns, and to a minor degree material culture and cuisine.

Integration and Acculturation

Whereas from the aspects of social standing and their religion the Jews were a sub-group in the heterogeneous Ottoman society, in effect they formed an integral part of the urban population and were well-integrated into city life. The dynamic reality in the cities encouraged minority cultures’ integration into the majority civilization and the process of borrowing from it. Several factors were responsible for the deep and variegated influence of Ottoman urban society and its culture on Jewish culture in the domains of Ottoman Islam, notwithstanding the fact that some of them were huge communities, centers of Torah learning, power, and wealth; which might have wished to ghettoize themselves.

First and foremost is the daily encounter with the “other.” Ottoman cities were definitely a Muslim space, but at the same time the larger cities were arenas of diverse religious and cultural encounters: There was a constant and ongoing social interaction in residential neighborhoods, in the markets, in the harbor, and in guild gatherings, and at the bathhouses (hamam) and coffee houses – the last two were the loci of recreation. There are several reasons for this fruitful encounter:

(a) The economic activity of the Jews: In the absence of legal restrictions, and making full use of their knowledge and abilities, Jews were involved in a wide variety of occupations. These included local, national and international trade; acting as intermediaries particularly with European traders; small manufacturers, in which textiles, were especially important; financial and other services to high-ranking officials, among them – leasing the collection of taxes and custom duties, providing supplies, minting currency, banking, diplomatic consultation and other services. Many provided more mundane services to the general public including medical care and various entertainments—as jugglers, acrobats, dancers, singers, and puppeteers; or rendered services within the Jewish congregation.

Ottoman Jews were involved in diverse occupations and it had a few implications, one of which was creating close ties with the majority population. Special emphasis should be placed on the role of guilds whose members were of different religious faiths, at least until the 18th century. In addition to being the scene of social interaction, the guilds functioned also as an agent of acculturation. Cooperation and relations between members of each guild were not limited to routine commercial negotiations, and there is evidence of dhimmis participating in the guilds’ Muslim religious ceremonies.

Two types of cultural agents can be identified among the Jews themselves: Members of the economic elite with access to the sultan’s court and the households of leading members of the elite, and—on a completely different level—multitudes of Jewish craftsmen and suppliers of services, especially in the areas of entertainment. The latter served as a viaduct for the transfer of diverse cultural influences (folklore, songs, stories, music) from Ottoman urban society, the target population for most of their activities, to Jewish society, which consumed similar products and services.

(b) The legal status and the social atmosphere: Though legally and politically Jews and Christians in the Middle East belonged to a social category that was set apart from and inferior to Muslims, this generally had no practical effect on daily life due to a general laxity in enforcing the sharia restrictions, and the ongoing obligation of the Sultan to retain the holy law in matters concerning his dhimmi subjects. The fact that Jews trusted the system and knew how to cope with momentary difficulties added to their sense of wellbeing.

In their first encounter with the preponderant culture, Jews in the major cities of the empire sensed security and stability to an extent that they allowed themselves to open up toward the Muslim environment, feel at home within it, and adopt some of its practices, customs, and beliefs. The process of assimilation was irreversible and did not end even when religious zealotry and Islamic isolationist tendencies increased, such as during the last two decades of the 17th century, or in the mid-18th century.

(c) The strong assimilating power of Ottoman civilization was an eminent force in the lives of the non-Muslims. Many, mainly in the European provinces, converted to Islam. The syncretistic and pluralistic character of the Ottoman state encouraged minority religions and cultures to integrate into the majority civilization and the process of borrowing from it was accelerated. It is clear that there was a constant flow of Jewish converts to Islam, but we cannot assess the dimensions of this phenomenon—with one outstanding case, that of Sabbatean believers in the last third of the 17th century: A few hundred families converted, and became the core of the dönme group whose base was in Salonika until the early 20th century.

The elitist cultural outlook/standpoint of Muslim Ottoman society also had a negative result: Until the early 18th century the Ottomans looked down upon anything European. Disregard of the European achievements and discoveries in science and in industry, in commerce as in the arts, was a sure recipe for intellectual isolationism and contributed to stagnation and degeneration in several spheres among the empire’s subjects.

(d) The Iberian legacy of openness towards the cultural milieu in which it lived (either Islam or Christianity), and the willingness to receive, to borrow, to adopt, and to acculturate. The arrival of the exiles, and later of many former Marranos from the Iberian Peninsula and Italy, occurred during a time of economic growth, expansion, and prosperity for the Ottoman state. Their first encounter with the preponderant culture had occurred at the best timing, that is the heyday of the Ottomans, mainly the Suleymanic period—when culture reached new peaks in literature, music, and fine arts. We do not find restrictive orders, either in Jewish law or in communal regulations, that forbid close contacts with non-Jews or that try to distinguish Jews from their surrounding by various barriers. The dominant Muslim character of Ottoman cities was not conceived by Jews as being as hostile as that of Christian cities, and their atmosphere was more inviting.

The absence of a significant polemic literature, especially after the 16th century, is yet another issue. While in the 16th century we find anti-Christian Hebrew tracts (against the Catholic faith), and in the 19th century, against the Protestant missionaries, we hardly know of similar works against Islam, even though there are remnants of Islamic anti-Jewish polemics. These remnants might attest to the higher status of Jews and Judaism in the 16th century. Throughout the period there were spontaneous discussions between laymen. The only documented high-level formal polemic was initiated by Shabbetai Zevi, who summoned Jewish rabbis to the court of Mehmed IV (r. 1648-1687).

If during the first decades of encounter the Jewish immigrants looked upon Ottoman culture as something altogether foreign or inferior, by the mid-16th-century things had changed. During the second half of that century, Ottoman Jewry became increasingly assimilated into Ottoman urban culture, so much so that by the 17th century it played a leading role in all facets of the individual’s daily life. Upper and lower echelons of the Jewish society seem to have been more adaptive, and more apt to acculturate. Thus, increasing involvement in Ottoman society and its culture, unparalleled in Europe, had a far-reaching influence on the character of Ottoman Jewry.

The Ottoman Legacy

Ottoman cities, particularly the larger ones, were arenas of diverse religious and cultural encounters. As mentioned before the intimate acquaintance of wide sectors of Jewish society with Ottoman urban institutions as well as with various strata of Ottoman culture had deep and long-range implications for individual lifestyles and also for Jewish society. It is these contacts that forged the Jewish public into “Ottoman Jewry.” Recent research reveals more to what extent and how deeply Ottoman society and culture influenced Jewish society, its organizational frameworks, and individuals at all levels of the social hierarchy. Ottoman culture exerted an influence on the Jews’ way of life, the language they spoke, their folk beliefs, ideals, mentality, and norms, and even on their religious practices. The following are some of the major areas of cultural influence and their most outstanding manifestations.


Ottoman Jews were multi-lingual, or at least bi-lingual: Judeo-Spanish or several variants of Judeo-Arabic were used by both men and women as the common language within their ethnic group. Hebrew was the men’s language of prayer, but only scholars were truly fluent in Hebrew, which served them as the language of correspondence and for writing their literary works. There is much evidence that Jewish men spoke some Turkish, and a few could even read and write it with various levels of proficiency. Basic command of Turkish and Greek served the men and women who had dealings with Muslims, Greeks, and Armenians in the daily lives—in commerce, as well as for communicating with the authorities, etc. We notice a gradual adoption of words and terms into Judeo-Spanish reflecting many aspects of daily life—foodstuffs, taxes, architectural terms, names of dresses, objects and furnishings, professions, the titles of officials, and more. Many men and women had Turkish and Arab names and sobriquets, as is mainly attested by literature connected with divorce (“shmot gitin,” and lists of divorce acts) as well as documents in Ottoman Turkish. Some used Turkish curses while arguing with other fellow Jews.

The high level of proficiency in Turkish among a small circle of Jewish intellectuals in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries is reflected in surviving remnants of lexicographical works and translations from Turkish to Hebrew or the opposite, including the Bible and the Quran, and works on astronomy, medicine, and history. Historiography needs a special emphasis, as we find more and more works that were composed in this field in the Crimea and in the heart of the Ottoman Empire in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Poetry and Literature

The folklore of Ottoman Jewry has not been systematically collected and recorded, and with the exception of a few genres of folk literature, it has almost not been the object of academic research. Nevertheless, I may make some remarks on acculturation in this vast field (see also below).

Jewish folk literature in Judeo-Spanish borrowed folktales, proverbs, and sayings from Turkish folk literature. Most instructive is the manner in which stories about Djoha, the counterpart of the Turkish character Nasr-ad-Din Hoja (Nasreddin Hoca), became part of the folktale repertoire of Ottoman Jews. Though it is as yet uncertain when they made their first appearance in a Jewish context, it is hard to believe that such stories came on the scene only in the 19th or 20th centuries. Their adoption almost without change points to Jewish legitimization of this aspect of Ottoman culture. In this case, too, the point should be made that for Jews to be involved in various entertainment spheres such as dancing, singing, playing musical instruments, and operation of puppet theaters and shadow theaters (Karagöz) necessitated intimate knowledge of the language, the literary canon and the taste of the local public. I suspect that the Ottoman milieu had some effect on creativity, especially in the field of poetry, and that its high status among Jewish intellectuals seems to have been a response to mainstream Ottoman culture. The example of a circle of poets in late 16th-century Salonika is well known.

Regarding poetry, there is one more example of parallel genres and phenomena: In the late-16th century Jewish poets in Istanbul, Salonica, Edirne and also in provincial centers such as Damascus, Cairo, and Safed, were involved in an ongoing discourse, exchanging letters which were mostly songs, thus trying to show their creativity and skill. There is evidence that the new poetic genre called coplas was created at the beginning of the 17th century. Fragments from the Cairo Geniza suggest that it might have already appeared in the 16th century The coplas were not intended for use in the synagogue or religious ritual, and were diversified in content matter—dealing with family, public, and (past and present) historical events. They probably combine a tradition of “Sephardi”-Iberian writing with a local Ottoman poetic style. Multi-lingual para-liturgical poetry (in Hebrew, Judeo-Spanish, Turkish, and Greek) was written during the 18th century.


The influence of Ottoman culture on Jewish music appears both in form and in the melodies applied to Jewish texts. Edwin Seroussi has shown that borrowing from Ottoman music was comprehensive, including the form of the maqām, the modi, and technical terms. Ottoman music, particularly that performed in the court in Istanbul or in Edirne and music of Sufi orders (tarikat), completely transformed the para-liturgical music and later on, the liturgical music sung in the synagogues and at other religious convocations, such as special study nights (veglia, nocada, mishmara) or the singing of the maftirin (a special choir of men who used to chant in the synagogue on Saturday afternoon), which had become standard at least from the mid-17th century. Leading examples of collections of poems written in the style of the Ottoman maqām are Zemirot Yisrael by R. Israel Najara (whose songs gained immense popularity and were printed in several editions during his lifetime; d. 1620) and Pizmonim u-vakashot (printed c. 1640) by a liturgical poet of the next generation, R. Joseph Ganso of Bursa. Turkish and Arabic music and singing also infiltrated Jewish folk music, about which we know very little, existing side-by-side with songs and melodies of Iberian provenance. It could be that R. Eliyahu ha-Kohen’s rebuke of women who sang their children songs about love and passion was directed against this type of singing, and not necessarily against the Spanish love romance.

Norms and Values

Among the norms and values adopted by Jews were the maintenance of social order and strict class boundaries, the values of a patriarchal family, of feminine honor and the place of women in public space and society, of masculine honor and the beard as a sign of virility, keeping the body covered, and so forth. Honor was an exceedingly important—and complex—social value. Sometimes these norms reinforced existing Jewish values, while at other times they contradicted them. There were norms of behavior that were not commensurate with Jewish halakhah, especially in what related to sexual behavior—as is evident concerning homosexuality. I already showed that certain homosexual practices were quite widespread, and those involved were not condemned nor punished. Another example was cohabitation of Jewish men with female slaves, which was considered legitimate by the public at large, much to the chagrin of the rabbis, and sometimes their wives. Not a few proverbs and sayings deal with the importance of close and true friendship and loyalty that stand the test and prove firm.

An example of borrowing aesthetic values is the custom of Muslim men, and evidently, the habit of Jewish men as well, to shave off their body hair, against the explicit orders of some rabbis. There are hints of a similar attitude toward the definition of feminine beauty, which also is far from modern Western ideals.

The Political Sphere

Intimate acquaintance of various sectors in Jewish society with the Ottoman judicial system and bureaucratic procedures helped shape the communal institutions of the kahal and its political culture. The very fact that there was a group of men who served as head of the congregation (cemaat başı, kahya, ihtiyarlar, all titled after the Turkish) or were candidates to fill such positions in the future points to the existence of several dozen persons in the larger communities, who had a good command of Turkish and were familiar with Ottoman administrative terminology and procedures. Another institution imitated was the Muslim waqf (hekdesh, that is a sacred trust, endowment). Many trusts were established for the benefit of the community. This had already been widespread in the Genizah world and later in Iberia prior to the expulsion, but local influence on the manner in which they operated in Ottoman lands can be discerned.

Religious Practice

Jews, Muslims, and Christians took care to exhibit their piety and practice the commandments of their religion, at least in public and in accordance with the orders of the Islamic law. Even though Muslim religious leaders preferred that the dhimmis convert to Islam, for the moment they and the masses of Muslim believers looked positively upon expressions of religious piety on the part of their neighbors, most likely based on the belief that each community prays to God according to its own religion, and so they are all protected from Divine wrath. Cases of public transgression of religious laws (immodesty, smoking during a fast, false swear etc.) were condemned or at least left a negative impression on the population.

In what relates to religious practices, we find cases in which the decisors (poskim, who interpret the halakhah) were aware of Muslim religious law and of public opinion, for example relating to smoking on fast days, breaking oaths, and apparently also concerning the matter of charging interest on loans. Some of them thought the Jews behave in accord with Muslim practice, e.g. considering smoking as food and thus prohibiting it on fast days. Others thought to the contrary. From time to time, a call would arise to adopt Muslim customs such as removing footwear before prayer and greater strictness in matters of ritual cleanness. Even the quiet and orderly prayers of Muslims were a source of envy on the part of Jewish religious leaders who time and again criticized their congregations in this matter. The ziyara (visits to holy sites) and the pilgrimage to the Holy Land were apparently encouraged by the growing importance of the hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina) and the popularity of visiting tombs of Islamic holy men. Jewish financial support of holy places, religious scholars, and the poor imitated to some extent the custom of the Ottoman elite to distribute such grants (surra), or at least was reinforced by these practices.

Formal religion did not provide appropriate answers to all the spiritual needs of the individual. Popular beliefs and demonological superstitions supplied explanations for certain phenomena and helped the individual contend with the difficulties of his day to day existence. Many believed in the existence of demonic forces and their diverse powers, either of a negative nature (to harm), or such as could be used in a positive way (to heal, to protect, to cause someone to fall in love). Events that could not be explained away, or illnesses, deaths, and other difficult situations characteristic of the hardships of daily life, were attributed to their powers. In order to defend oneself from these powers, or conversely to turn them to their advantage, persons turned to one of two parallel courses of action. The first was prayer or the giving of charity and the like. The second was recourse to talismans and all sorts of charms, some from kabbalistic sources and others of popular origin, that were set down in writing and passed on from generation to generation, and quack medicines, many of which were prohibited by the halakhah. The Jewish rabbinic and popular sources mention superstitions such as belief in demons and supernatural forces, intensive use of talismans to ward off the evil eye or for the fulfillment of wishes, and more. Talismans and charms were supplied by women and men who specialized in supplying them. Jews did not hesitate to turn to non-Jewish practitioners, and Muslims availed themselves of the services of Jewish sorcerers, witches, and fortune-tellers.

Material Culture and Lifestyle

Jewish men and women adopted the lifestyle and material culture of their neighbors together with the significance attached to various status symbols such as expensive clothing, jewelry, ownership of slaves, etc. We have information about influence on diverse aspects of external appearance such as body ornaments (i.e. with henna) or richly embroidered clothes, and the appearance of the home and its furnishings. Some Jews internalized the restrictions on clothing—a well-known means of identification in Muslim lands—and valued them as an advantageous measure. Most interesting is the information about attempts by Jews to hide their Jewish identity by means of apparel that would not disclose the wearer’s religious affiliation. This they did either for the sake of security while traveling or in order to overcome their inferiority, and of course, to boast having the financial means to consume luxury items. Anyone who could afford it tried to climb the social ladder, or at least to show a higher status—adopting attributes (including the manner of dress) of upper classes. A famous Jewish preacher explicitly denounces the practice of many men who did not grow side-locks because they were ashamed to mark themselves as Jews.

Minna Rozen identified a similar influence on Jewish tombstones whose general style and ornamentation are compatible with the artistic style predominant in 18th-century western Anatolia. The Bill Gross collection (Tel Aviv) includes a manuscript prayer book whose artistic style, especially of the opening page, resembles that of Muslim manuscripts, and is similar to that of a rare Karaite book (Seder ha-Tefilot le-Minhag Kehilot ha-Karaim) printed in Kal’a (Crimea) in 1732.

The recreational patterns of Jewish men and women were quite similar to those of the majority society, including the fundamental insistence on gender separation. Women spent their time in the home and in the courtyard, at the bathhouse, and even on occasion outside the city, drinking coffee, smoking, and partaking of sweetmeats and fruit with their female relatives and friends. Men would for the most spend their recreation time in coffee houses, where they also watched various artistic performances, or simply enjoyed each other’s company.


Although one’s religious identity was the dominant factor in his or her life. But Jews, Muslims, and Christians also shared a similar outlook on life, a sense of common fate in times of duress or rejoicing, similar behavioral patterns, and even common folk superstitions, which I mentioned earlier. All attributed every event to the will of God and believed that every event had a reason and a purpose. Catastrophes such as epidemics, fires, and starvation were believed to be Heavenly retribution for sins. The only defense against evils was through religious and moral correction, prayers, charity and other good deeds. Trouble and distress were to be expected; one should not struggle against fate, and nothing could forestall death. There is much similarity in the submissive manner in which those of both faiths accepted their fate—various genres of folk literature recommend and teach acceptance of one’s fate, for there is no logic in bitterness and non-conciliation with the inevitable. Such an outlook on life is discernible in how they related to sickness and death, which was an everyday matter, in the fact that they saw their difficulties as expressions of Divine Providence and reconciled themselves to accepting tragedies as Divine punishment for sins. To a great extent, religious belief dictated how one related to sickness, death, or even poverty and misery, while religious law dictated behavior when death occurred. Preachers put forward various explanations, all traditional-religious, for death, especially in more exceptional cases such as the death of children, rabbis, and so forth.

In recent years, scholars have evinced some interest in the theme of death in Ottoman society. In view of the lack of sufficient works on the Ottoman conception of death and coping with it, we cannot measure the degree of resemblance between Jews and Muslims, but I tend to believe that it exists. With but few exceptions all believed in the world to come, and many prepared for it by following a pious way of life, doing good deeds, and atoning for their sins before death. We find a common concern of the dying for their commemoration and the fate of their souls in the next world. When the day of their passing drew near, the well-to-do would will money or belongings to causes that would ensure eternal bliss for their soul—proper burial, reciting the kaddish prayer, Torah study, kindling memorial candles, and—like their neighbors—aid to the poor, and the like. Owners of slaves tended to release them from bondage as a pious act.


To sum up, a sense of security and stability, the close proximity of dwellings and businesses as well as the close relationship in the market as workers, traders, go-betweens and customers and the cultural openness which characterized Jews in the Ottoman cities, together with the dominant status of Ottoman-Islamic culture being at its peak, created the grounds for speedy acculturation processes which transformed Jewish culture and society in so many ways—ranging from clothing and housewares to synagogue liturgy and adornment and the aesthetics of ritual and ceremonial objects; moreover it manifested in a few literary genres and in popular culture and entertainment. It is important to note that it was not a just one-way influence—Jewish astronomers and physicians were writing scientific treatises which were used by Muslim contemporaries. All in all, we encounter an almost unprecedented acculturation, one that might only be equaled to that of famous “golden age” in medieval Spain under Muslim rule.


This essay is adapted from “Urban Encounters: The Muslim-Jewish Case in the Ottoman Empire,” in The Ottoman Middle East: Studies in Honor of Amnon Cohen, eds. Eyal Ginio and Elie Podeh (Leiden: Brill, 2014). Reprinted with permission.

Yaron Ben-Naeh is director of Misgav Yerushalayim, The Center for Research and Study of Sephardi and Oriental Jewish Heritage, and the Bernard Cherrick Chair in the History of the Jewish People in the department of Jewish History and Contemporary Jewry at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.