Far away from the eyes of the Jewish mainstream, in modern-day Turkey there live hundreds, if not thousands, of crypto-Jews — and today, one of their most sacred shrines is in danger.
This is the hidden, fascinating tale of the doenmeh, descendants of the faithful followers of the 17th-century false messiah Sabbetai Tzvi, who converted to Islam in 1666. Tzvi’s own conversion came under duress: The Ottoman sultan demanded that he don the turban or die after nearly one-third of European Jewry had come to believe he was the messiah and had begun swarming into Turkey, expecting the long-awaited triumph of the Jews.
Tzvi chose to convert, and most of his followers lost hope — but not all of them. Many saw the conversion as a heroic act of tikkun, or repair, and followed their messiah’s lead by outwardly becoming Muslims while secretly maintaining their messianic Jewish faith. They were called doenmeh, meaning “turncoats”— a pejorative term not unlike marrano (“pig.”) Among themselves, they were called ma’aminim, “believers.” Sabbateanism did not die out in 1666, or even 10 years later when Tzvi himself died. There were subsequent messiahs — largely forgotten men like Baruchiah Russo and Jacob Frank — and, as recent scholarship has shown, Sabbateanism greatly influenced the 18th-century emergence of Hasidism. And then there are the doenmeh, who live on until the present day, in secretive communities, at first primarily in Salonika and today almost entirely in present-day Turkey.
A move to tear down the Turkish home where Tzvi is said to have lived, however, may now disturb the balance the community has cultivated for centuries.