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Guided Jewish heritage tours can be pricy — up to $300 per person per day. At a much lower price, we made an exception to our no-guides policy when we flew from Istanbul to Izmir, Turkey’s third-largest city, once called Smyrna, on the east coast. We contacted a leading member of the Jewish community, Rozet Alaluf, who sometimes escorts visitors. At first, she was reluctant to accept us without references, but then she relented to our pleading. A community matriarch who donates her fee to the Jewish establishment, Rozet embraced us like a solicitous grandmother and even scolded us for staying in the wrong part of town — a district the Jews long ago abandoned after improving their status.
Our first stop was the Street of Synagogues, a narrow, winding lane that is home to six to eight synagogues, depending on whether you count several burnt-out ruins, most dating back 300 years or more. In keeping with kabbalist tradition, brought from Tzfat, as well as Muslim custom, most of their interiors are blue. The synagogues usually featured a central dome, supported by wooden columns, with tiled walls and floors covered with rugs and stone benches dotted with pillows along the walls. By Ottoman decree, none of the hundreds of synagogues built in Turkey could be taller than any mosque.
One of those on the Street of Synagogues is La Signora Synagogue, which was remodeled after the fire of 1941. It is believed to be one of the few congregations in the world named for a woman, the 16th-century philanthropist Doña Gracia Nasi.
Across town, near the harbor, Rozet accompanied us by taxi to the early 20th-century Bet Israel, where an octagonal central dome and wooden pillar support an upper gallery that is home to a small but well-designed museum. Like Neve Shalom in Istanbul, it hosts major services and social events. Here, as at every other Izmir synagogue we went to, there was a plaque honoring some member of Rozet’s extended family, the Alalufs. At each synagogue, she sternly reminded us to leave at least a small donation to help with maintenance.
Not far from Izmir are the Roman ruins at Ephesus, where a crude menorah can be seen carved into the stone steps of the library, and one of the buildings nearby is thought to be a synagogue. An hour’s drive in another direction, at Sardis, are the restored ruins of a 3rd-century B.C.E. synagogue — including a mosaic floor, Greek and Hebrew inscriptions and a pulpit flanked by Roman eagles.