"Rosy, White, and Clean Pages of History": Jojo Eskenazi's "Moiz Plays" and the Politics of Contemporary Jewish Theatre in Turkey


İlker Hepkaner


In lieu of an abstract, the first paragraph of the essay follows:

Approximately 18,000 Jews currently live in Turkey, comprising one of the largest Jewish populations living within a Muslim majority society.1 In this community, there are multiple amateur theatre groups, either housed in clubs open only to Jewish community members based in İstanbul or staging their plays under the auspices of the Jewish Community of Turkey (Türkiye Musevi Cemaati)2 and the Chief Rabbinate. Despite its popularity among members of the community, contemporary Jewish theatre in Turkey has received little attention from scholars working on theatre in Turkey or on Jewish identity in theatre in national and transnational contexts. Among the Jewish theatre groups' activities, Jojo Eskenazi's comedic "Moiz plays" stand out for their consistent performance schedule and the support they receive from Turkey's Jewish community leaders and members, particularly for their political messages and community-building function.3 These plays are centered around İstanbullu Manifaturacı Moiz (Moiz the Draper from Istanbul), played by Eskenazi himself, and Moiz's wife Kleret, played by Fani Bonofiyel. Analysis of the texts, recorded performances, playbills, and introductory remarks by the organizers before performances of these plays unravels their wider functionality within the Jewish community and the theatre scene in Turkey.4 Moiz plays staged in the last twenty years crystallize how Jews of Turkey engage with international Jewish, Turkish-national, and communal identity discourses; partake in the contemporary efforts of preserving Judeo-Spanish through bilingual performances; and contribute to transnational connections among Jews of Turkey in Turkey and Israel.5 When Moiz plays are analyzed in relation to the cultural context in Turkey and not as isolated cultural products only by/about/for the Jewish community in Turkey, the contemporary Jewish amateur theatre proves to be an important part of Turkey's theatre scene, a scene which needs reframing outside mainstream institutions and practices—that is, only consisting of performances in the Turkish language or staged by state institutions.


1. "Turkey" World Jewish Congress Website, accessed January 11, 2018, http://www.worldjewishcongress.org/en/about/communities/tr. The number varies vastly across media reports, but 18,000 is what most English-language media and the officials of Jewish Community of Turkey agree upon. Regardless of its elusive certainty, the number still places Jews of Turkey on top of the list of Jewish communities in modern Muslim contexts, followed by Jewish communities in Iran and Morocco.

2. I use this term in order to refer to the unofficial confederation of charity associations (vakıflar). I capitalize the first letters in order to denote the institutionalized nature of this confederation. The Jewish Community of Turkey has a board and a president, who is elected by Jews in Turkey, but has no legal persona. Jews of Turkey usually refer to this institutionalized community as Yahudi Cemaati, which literally translates to "The Jewish Community" or simply Cemaat (the Community). Today, most Jews living in Turkey are of Sephardic origin, although there are also Romaniots, who trace their origins to the Byzantine Empire in Istanbul and Anatolia; Karaites, a Jewish group diverging from the mainstream Sephardic religious community with its religious doctrine and practices; and Ashkenazi Jews who fled from Eastern Europe to the Ottoman Empire over many centuries.

3. "Welcome Notes by Chief Rabbi Rav Ishak Haleva and President of the Jewish Community of Turkey Ishak Ibrahimzade," Playbill of "Moiz Ne İşin Var Evde?," Judaica Collection, Harvard College Library.

4. While this article will not provide a survey of the plays, I will draw on the playtexts, recordings of performances, and playbills produced between 1999 and 2017, located at Harvard University's Judaica Collection. To understand the reception of the plays, I rely on archival materials.

5. I use the term "Jews of Turkey" when I refer to Jews who live in Turkey, or are immigrants from Turkey in Israel, and/or self-identify as Türkiyeli (from Turkey) as a neutral connotation of being a citizen of Turkey or having born in Turkey without necessarily complying with the Turkish state's identity politics. This term refrains from imposing onto Jews the category of the "Turk/Turkish" that has often been used in an ethno-religious sense, defining people who are ethnically Turkish and religiously Sunni. In the Turkish national context, "Turk/Turkish" has been used to define other ethnic/linguistic groups of Muslims, such as Circassians, immigrants from the Balkans and Greece, etc. This category has often excluded those who were deemed unable to assimilate by the Turkish state such as non-Muslims and Kurds. Türkiyeli (from/of Turkey), on the other hand, is a term that underlines the ethnic, linguistic, and religious diversity of the population in Turkey. At times, the term Türkiyeli (from/of Turkey) represents resistance to assimilationist identification policies while maintaining a claim to citizenship rights. Most publications by Jews in Turkish and English use Türkiyeli Yahudiler (Jews from/of Turkey) rather than Türk Yahudiler (Turkish Jews). Instead of "Yahudi" (Jew), "Musevi" (the follower of Moses) has also been used by the Muslim majority and sometimes in Jewish publications. However, this use is not accurate because the term connotes a religious affiliation rather than an ethnic or communal one. When the term "Turkish Jews" is used, there is more connotation of citizenship or linguistic group. This difference of terminology does not mean that Jews of Turkey are completely out of Turkey's cultural context.

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