Salonika’s Jewish community was destroyed during the Holocaust. But in the Islamic world the debate about whether or not the Salonikan-born “Father of Modern Turkey” was a Jew still rages—which is fitting for a city that was home to more Kabbalists, secret Jews, and charlatans than most.
What’s In a Name?
When the Ottoman Empire’s rule over Salonika came to an end in 1913 and the city was annexed to Greece, much more was involved than changing the city’s name back to Thessaloniki. It was also the beginning of the end for the city’s ancient Jewish community, which had arrived in the region in 513 BCE, approximately two centuries before King Cassander of Macedonia founded the city.
Jews continued to live in the area throughout the Roman and Byzantine periods, and during the medieval period they became known as Romaniote Jews. The term “Romaniote” referred to residents of the Eastern Roman Empire, another term for the Byzantine Empire.
If all this sounds like Greek to you, it would have made perfect sense to these Jews, who Hellenized their names, spoke Greek and were distinct from both Sephardim and Ashkenazim. When Benjamin of Tudela traveled to the area in the 12th century, he visited several Romaniote kehillos and noted that these prosperous Greek Jews were mainly engaged in cloth dyeing, weaving, making silk garments and producing silverware.
Two centuries later, Jews began to arrive from Central Europe, Italy and Sicily. But the most significant change in the Jewish population occurred after 1492, when some 15,000 exiles from Spain and Portugal settled in the city. By this time, the city had been captured by the Turks, an event that occurred in 1430, and it was part of the Ottoman Empire. One reason the new Muslim rulers welcomed the Jews with open arms was because they wanted to turn the remaining Greek Orthodox residents into a minority. This was accomplished by the year 1519, when an astounding 54 percent of Salonika’s population was Jewish.
A Spectacular Century
It was during the 1500s that Salonika became known as a Mother City in Israel, as well as the Jerusalem of the Balkans. Commerce boomed, thanks to the location of the port city, which allowed it to take advantage of trade routes linking the Near East to the Western world. While many of the city’s Sephardic Jews continued to ply the traditional trades of weaving, dyeing and silk manufacturing, others opened export businesses.
Jews from other countries also found a refuge there, including Ashkenazim from Austria, Transylvania, and Hungary. While each group retained its own rites and rituals and maintained its own synagogue, it was the Sephardic scholars who turned Salonika into an outstanding center of Torah. For instance, before Rav Yosef Caro left for Eretz Yisrael, he lived in Salonika from 1532 to 1534, where he served as a rosh yeshiva and continued to work on Beit Yosef, his commentary on Arba’ah Turim. Rav Shlomo Alkabetz, author of Lecha Dodi, was born in Salonika and remained there until he married. Then he and his wife also left for Eretz Yisrael.
Rabi Yaakov ben Shlomo ibn Habib was among the exiles from Spain who settled in Salonika. In his new home he had access to the libraries of the Benveniste families, where he collected aggadic passages from the Talmud for his work Ein Yaakov. The first two orders (Zeraim and Moed) were published in 1516—just four years after the first Hebrew printing press in the Near East was opened in Salonika. Rabi Yaakov passed away soon afterward, but his son, Rabi Levi, completed the work, which became one of the most popular aggadic collections ever compiled.