Home page The Occident and American Jewish Advocate Jews in the Civil War Jews in the Wild West History of Palestine The Occident Virtual Library


The Jews of the East

(Continued from issue #2)

The Jews of Constantinople are generally speaking not rich. Some few are affluent, some in moderate circumstances, but very many are in great poverty. A hospital for those infected with the plague is the only public institution for the benefit of the poor. One of the wards of this establishment is reserved for the insane, who are regarded with superstitious care by all astern nations. But it is a remarkable fact that a case of insanity has never yet occurred among the Hebrews of Constantinople.

The Jews of Constantinople enjoy, and a careful examination confirms the justice of their reputation, a much higher character for probity than either the Greeks or Armenians. It has become quite a proverb to place the Jews in the first rank for probity, the Armenians in the next, and the Greeks in the last.

The Jews wished to enter the army, but the Greeks and Armenians would not allow them to do so. The Chacham Bashi has promised to furnish three thousand men at any time they shall be allowed to be admitted.

We have said that the Jews of each quarter form a community (congregation). Each congregation has its principal Synagogue, around which are several houses for prayer. All the rich merchants have Synagogues in their houses. Each Synagogue has a Chacham, but in the private Synagogues the Chacham is under the control of the proprietor of the Synagogue. The number of Chachams is considerable; those among them who are distinguished are highly esteemed; those who are nothing but common men, do not receive much consideration. The seats of the Synagogue do not face the East, but are placed round the reading-desk, and face the centre. The long Piutim, otherwise called Machsor, that are recited in other countries on the festivals, are omitted at Constantinople. Fervent and sometimes sublime prayers are substituted in their stead. The prayers are not chaunted, but read slowly and distinctly. The reader commences the prayers and the congregation join in with him, and this is done always with so much exactness that no one is ever one syllable too slow or too fast. "I must confess," continues the correspondent, "that I greatly prefer this mode of worship to that usual in our German Synagogues." The ceremonies throughout are according to the Portuguese [Sephardic] ritual.

A school is attached to every Synagogue, where the children are taught, but it is only to read Hebrew; yet care is taken to make them pronounce it in a very correct manner. They are kept at this school until they are about eight years of age; at which time they either enter the Beth Hamidrash to prepare themselves for the office of Chacham, or else are put to some sort of occupation. * * * * If those who determine on becoming Chachams are independent and can maintain themselves until they are able to enter the Sanhedrin of the Chacham Bashi, they may hope to rise to renown, otherwise they never become distinguished. The children of the rich are taught by a Chacham, but instruction is very little diffused among the Israelites of Constantinople.

The Jews of Constantinople are very particular in their religious observances. They never openly transgress the Sabbath, nor any of the laws relating to eating, although the latter differ in some respect from ours. Thus they eat rice during the Passover, and often mix their Matsoth or biscuit with eggs and oil, and make it into cakes. The Chacham Bashi and his Sanhedrin may punish with the bastinado the rich as well as the poor transgressor of any religious rite.

There are about 200 families of the sect of Caraites at Constantinople. They are mostly Cohanim, or descendants of Aaron. They always take off their shoes before entering the Synagogue. On their entrance they kneel and repeat a prayer, very similar to the "Mah Toboo." They kneel occasionally during their prayers, which are all taken from the Scriptures, also when the Sacred Rolls are taken out, or when called up to the reading of the law.

They literally obey all the requisitions of the law, but they do not recognize any of the rabbinical constructions of it. Thus, they allow no fires in their dwellings on the Sabbath, even in the midst of the winter; nor lights on the Sabbath eve. They eat fowl cooked with butter, and do not keep the second days of any of the festivals. their day of atonement generally comes one day after ours.

There are about 400 European Jews at Constantinople, mostly vagrants from Russia or Poland, and the neighbouring countries; their moral state is but little commendable, and their gain their livelihood by menial employments. Their places of worship are unpretending buildings.

Let us enter into the interior of the family circle. It is well known, that the Israelite finds in his domestic life, in the intimacy with his own kindred, in their fidelity and attachment, his greatest support, his happiness, and that which repays him for all else he suffers. It is therefore the more to be regretted to find that we cannot assert the same thing of the Israelites in this place. This evil arises from their marrying too early. A young man marries as soon as he is thirteen years old, and before that period he is already engaged. He either remains with his wife some years at his father's house, or he goes to live with his father-in-law. It thus happens that a narrow space contains several families. Early in the morning, the husband, if he is a mechanic, hastens to his work, and if a broker, to his business. The whole day he stays from home; because the Oriental, naturally temperate, does not come back to his house during the day to take his meals. The wife remains unemployed. Supper requires but little preparation. The women remain together the whole day for the sake of talking and smoking; and those who are lately married fill the pipes and make the coffee. If the young wife has a good understanding with her mother-in-law, peace is maintained between the couple; but in the contrary case they are at times tired of each other at the age of seventeen or eighteen, and from this circumstance a divorce and a new marriage often result. There is naturally in this absence of proper sentiments not the least idea of domestic life. Women are but little esteemed here; they do not even make for them the complimentary offerings in the synagogue. The degree of Jewish civilization in this country is very low, equally with that of the Turks and Greeks by whom the Israelites are surrounded.