Jewish survivors

Posted: Sep 09, 2004 12:00 AM

 ISTANBUL, Turkey -- Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year's Day, begins at sunset on Sept. 15, and in this historic city Turkish Jews again plan to worship at the recently bombed Neve Shalom Synagogue. Twenty-five people died, which was four more than died during a 1986 attack on the synagogue by three terrorists armed with machine guns.
 Istanbul's 20,000 Jews, by continuing in worship, may be of tougher stuff than those Spaniards who voted for appeasement when terrorists struck in Madrid -- but Jewish leaders here are also realistic. They are trying to avoid martyrdom by rebuilding Neve Shalom with strong, wide walls, and using only five synagogues out of 17 in Istanbul -- the others are too hard to defend.

 As Lina Filiba, executive vice president of the Jewish Community of Turkey, put it: "We need to build forts. ... Even our homes for the elderly and youth facilities have to be mini-forts." She was happy to report that Turkey's Muslim government is being helpful: "Our security corps and the Turkish police work together closely."

 It hasn't always been that way. Under Roman rule, Jews in what is now Turkey sometimes suffered persecution and often were harassed by being forced to appear in court on the Sabbath or on holidays, or by having funds they had collected for the Temple in Jerusalem diverted to Rome. Nevertheless, they persevered, as excavations of the synagogue at Sardis, a day's drive south of Istanbul, show.

 The pillars, mosaic fragments and other remnants excavated at Sardis make it the second largest ancient synagogue excavated anywhere, and the second earliest known (after the synagogue of Masada). The Jewish community of Sardis even received Old Testament mention, with verse 20 of the OT's shortest book, Obadiah, referring to "the exiles of Jerusalem who are in Sepharad." (Sepharad is Aramaic for Sardis.)

 It's awesome to walk through the colonnaded hall that once connected the synagogue to Sardis's main street. Three doors lead from the courtyard to a large rectangular meeting hall with circular stone benches at the end, where the synagogue's elders sat. In front of the benches stood a table from which believers read Scripture.

 By the time Christ was born, the Jews of Sardis had become a semi-autonomous community with the right to reside in the city and manage their own judicial and religious affairs. Fatih Cimok, author of "Biblical Anatolia" (Milet Publishing, 2002), notes that "the Jews of Sardis must have been very powerful people politically to obtain such a building and also rich enough to afford its maintenance."

 But the Jewish community of Sardis, except for its wealth, was not all that unusual. Archeological and literary evidence has confirmed a Jewish presence in Ephesus, Smyrna, and many other cities and towns. Jews apparently comprised about 10 percent of the vast Roman Empire's first century A.D. population of 80 million. Many attracted by Judaism (which was actively looking for converts at that time) and then Christianity became known in Greek as theosebeis, "God-fearers" or "God worshippers."

 The Jews were survivors. They put up with criticism such as that of the Roman historian Tacitus, who wrote that the Jewish religion was "perverse and degraded. ... Among the Jews all things are profane that we hold sacred." They endured the attack of the Roman poet Juvenal, who complained that Jews dedicated one day of the week "to idleness." Jews were called atheists because they denied the existence of pagan gods, but persecution made most hold on even more tightly to biblical faith.

 What did change the Jewish community, apparently, was a debate about what that biblical faith was. "Biblical Anatolia" notes that some Jews "were absorbed into the Christian Church," and quotes a mournful Talmud passage about a rabbi's visit to Jewish Christians in Sardis: "Rabbi Eleazar ben Arak visited the place. He was attracted to them, and his learning vanished."

 Or maybe he gained a new perspective.