In Memory of Jak Kamhi
Minna Rozen; October 8, 2020. Sukkot 5781.
Yesterday, I was informed of the passing of Jak Kamhi. Over my years of work, I’ve met many individuals of many different kinds, members of various nations and residents of any number of places. There are some whom I remember vaguely, some I’ve forgotten, a few I remember for good or ill, but a handful left a powerful, indelible impression on me. Jak Bey was one of those. I always called him Jak Bey, even though I knew that was outmoded. He was just that type. One of those individuals of whom the British would say, “He commands respect.”
In the winter of 1987, the late Professor Bernard Lewis called to tell me that on a visit to Istanbul, he’d met a prominent Jewish businessman by the name of Jak Kamhi who had put forward the idea of celebrating the five hundredth anniversary of Spanish Jews’ migration to the Ottoman Empire. That was a time when the Republic of Turkey had a poor image in the Western world. Jak Bey’s idea was that the world was unfamiliar with the humane face of the Ottoman and Turkish history , and an emphasis on that point in time (1492) would help shine a different light on his country. The fact that he chose to go to Professor Lewis was self-explanatory, since Professor Lewis was then the world’s preeminent historian of the Ottoman Empire and had just been appointed director of the Annenberg Research Institute for Judaic and Near Eastern Studies (today part of the University of Pennsylvania) in Philadelphia. Professor Lewis told me that the idea appealed to him. He suggested to Jak Bey that in addition to the festivities, ceremonies, and PR exercises that go without saying in such a plan, he consider a number of sustainable projects—projects that would remain, continue to function, and help incorporate the history and culture of Ottoman and Turkish Jewry in both Turkish and Jewish historical memory. One of the proposals that he made was to document the ancient cemeteries of Turkish Jewry, some more than four hundred years old. These cemeteries contained extraordinary treasures representing Jewish society and culture, and they were in danger of being eradicated by relentless urban expansion. Professor Lewis assessed that this would be an extensive project with which he would be able to help through the institute that he headed. Jak Bey bought into the idea and encouraged Professor Lewis to develop it. In that telephone call, Professor Lewis asked me whether I would be willing to take on the project. We agreed that I would travel to Istanbul for two months and see what could be done there. This is how I met Jak Bey, and this was the beginning of a chapter in my life that lasted eight years. Throughout, I spent long periods in Turkey, always coming and going. That whole time, the attitude that Jak Bey showed toward the project, which ate up quite a bit of money, could be described as nothing but that of a Renaissance patron. Nothing that I could write about the breadth of his knowledge, his generosity, or his nobility would be an exaggeration. Not a single request that I made in his presence was not granted. You need to understand—and Jak Bey understood this very well—that this was a very long-term investment. There was absolutely no guarantee that it would bear fruit in 1992. That was the target date, but a target date that existed mainly on the plane of PR and diplomacy. He had the vision to see beyond that, and a desire to contribute money and energy to things beyond the temporal and the physical. The final result of the project, the bulk of which he financed, was the digital archive of Turkish Jewish cemetery monuments, which recently went live online (https://jewishturkstones.tau.ac.il/). It took thirty years to finish the project, and this would have been impossible without his commitment, his connections, and his material contribution.
Over the years, I got to know Jak Bey as more than just the noble figure who commanded respect everywhere he went. He was a real Turkish patriot, and he wanted what was good for his country. He subscribed to the Kemalist vision, in which he also had a place as a non-Muslim. Being a Turkish patriot didn’t conflict with his Judaism. He worked hard, drawing on all his resources and in various ways, to forge ties between Israel and Turkey. He once said to me, “I know very well what the State of Israel has given me.”
He was very Jewish, and very proud of his Judaism. Remembering his youth in one of our conversations, he told me that from 1942 to 1944 he’d been a member of a group called Ne’emanei Tzion (Faithful of Zion), which worked to save refugees who escaped occupied Europe and reached Turkey’s shores. He was seventeen then, when he went with his friends in the dark of night to Silivri to help the refugees disembark from their ships and bring them to places of refuge in Istanbul. In a conversation that I witnessed at the twilight of his life, when an American Jew told him, “I’m first of all an American and then a Jew,” he didn’t hesitate to say, “I’m first of all a Jew, and then everything else.”
The Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz gave us an apt description of the void left by a person’s death. His description is often quoted, and may already be trite, but it’s still so true:
“The death of a man is like the fall of a mighty nation / That had valiant armies, captains, and prophets, / And wealthy ports and ships over all the seas, / But now it will not relieve any besieged city, / It will not enter into any alliance, / Because its cities are empty, its population dispersed, / Its land once bringing harvest is overgrown with thistles, / Its mission forgotten, its language lost, / The dialect of a village high upon inaccessible mountains.” (Czeslaw Milosz, “The Fall,”)
Jak Kamhi truly was a mighty empire. He touched the lives of so many people—but no longer. He had a long, full life in which, like everyone, he experienced both glory and grief. I won’t forget him. He will be missed.