Me’am Lo’ez, perhaps the best-known work written in Ladino, the language of the Jews from Spain, was also written in Salonika. Its author was Rav Yaakov Culi, who wrote this commentary on Tanach in 1730 as a response to one of the biggest debacles to shake most of the Jewish world.
Dreams and Disappointments
The year 1648 was supposed to have been a momentous one for the people of Israel. Based upon a passage in the Zohar that predicted “In the sixth millennium, in the 408th year, all those who dwell in the dust will rise…,” many kabbalists believed that 1648, or 5408, was going to be the year of the Final Redemption. Instead, the year brought tragedy. Bogdan Chmielnicki and his Cossacks went on a two-year killing spree that resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of Jews and turned many of the survivors into penniless exiles.
The massacre left many despondent—and ripe for the message of renewed hope espoused by a charismatic young Torah scholar named Shabbetai Tzvi some two decades later. Shabbetai Tzvi was born in Smyrna in 1622. From an early age he showed an interest in Kabbalah—and began to display a dual personality: Sometimes he was a serious Torah scholar, at other times he was a religious ecstatic who engaged in bizarre practices. Thus, wherever he went, he both attracted and repelled. But even though he was kicked out of Salonika in the 1650s, after he staged a wedding service where he was the bridegroom and the Torah was the bride, his popularity continued to grow.
Shabbetai Tzvi eventually traveled to Eretz Yisrael, when he met Nathan of Gaza, who had a reputation as a mystic and a seer. When Nathan of Gaza proclaimed that Shabbetai Tzvi was the Messiah, the news quickly spread throughout the Levant and Europe. But once again the people’s hopes were dashed. Shabbetai Tzvi had returned to Turkey in triumph in 1666. Not long afterward, the Sultan had him arrested, and he was given two choices: death or apostasy. He chose to convert to Islam.
Many Jews refused to believe it. Others, including Nathan of Gaza, believed that this had been an act of “Holy Apostasy,” or a one-time necessary tikkun. But in 1683, seven years after Shabbetai Tzvi’s death, some 300 Jewish families who had remained staunch believers of the pseudo-Messiah also converted to Islam. From this core group arose a highly secretive sect that still exists today, the Donmeh, which is Turkish for “apostates.” Their center was in Salonika.
Also known as Sabbateans, the Donmeh retained many traditional Jewish rituals, which they practiced in secret. But they continued to believe that Shabbatei Tzvi was the Messiah, and mostly married within their own sect.
Some of the Donmeh were among the Muslim elite of Salonika. During the early 1900s, they were prominent members of the Young Turk revolutionary movement that brought down the Ottoman Empire. When the Turkish Republic was established in the 1920s, they strongly supported the pro-Western reforms of Kemal Mustafa Ataturk, the new republic’s leader. Indeed, Donmeh support of Ataturk was so strong that there are still rumors that the Father of Modern Turkey was a Donmeh himself—even though his biography proves otherwise.
The Great Fire
As for the Jews, they generally continued to grow and prosper. By the twentieth century, the world knew not to try to dock a ship in Salonika during the Jewish Sabbath. There were so many Jewish dockworkers that the harbor was closed for business. The city’s shops were also closed on the holy day.
But the city wasn’t immune to the winds of change blowing through the Western world. When Greece annexed the city in 1923, it was the turn of the Muslims to be driven out, while Greek refugees expelled from Asia Minor poured into the city. For the first time in centuries, the Jews became a minority in Salonika.