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The museum has moved up from the 17th-century Zülfaris Synagogue to just next to the Neve Shalom Syanagogue – from a balcony it is possible to see the interior and observe religious ceremonies. The museum tells the story of the 500-plus-year Jewish presence in Turkey through a collection of objects, documents and photographs, divided thematically between the history and cultural heritage of Turkish Jews and their contributions to the social and governmental life. It also illustrates the intermingling cultures of Jewish and Muslim Turks and delves into the ethnographic traditions of Turkish Jews, as well as the historical accounts of the Jewish odyssey from Spain to Turkey.
At the entrance is a metal sculpture by Nadia Arditti erected in memory of the Turkish Jews who fought in the Balkan, Dalmatia, Caucasus, Palestine, Tripolitania, Dardannelles, Korea and Liberation wars. In the main hall are information panels related to the history of the Zülfaris Synagogue, the Hahambaşı institution, the daily life of Jews living in Istanbul and Anatolia, as well as artefacts such as letters, maps, tallits and firmans (imperial decrees). A copy of the Lausanne Treaty that recognised the sovereignty of the Republic of Turkey and with which Turkish Jews relinquished their minority privileges is also on display. The ehal (ark) on the same floor holds two torah scrolls.
Another information panel narrates how Jewish academics fled to Turkey from Europe during the Second World War and the Turkish diplomats who helped Jews escape the Holocaust. Osman Streater recounts this in ‘The Monsignor and the Minister’ in Cornucopia 24, an account of the wartime friendship between the future Pope John XXIII and his great-uncle Numan Menemencioğlu, Turkey’s Foreign Minister from 1942 to 1944, who together saved about 100,000 Jews from the Nazis.
The balcony, which used to be the prayer section for women when the building was a synagogue, holds paintings depicting the daily lives of the local Jewish community. The lower floor is organised chronologically as an ethnographic section with photographs, paintings and objects pertaining to birth, circumcision and wedding traditions, as well as examples of clothing and jewellery.
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