The Fabric of Jewish History: Ottoman Jews

Jewish women of Thessalonika Ottoman Empire
Last week, two obscure words made news in Iraq and Syria: dhimmi and jizya. Both words relate to non-Muslims living in some strict Muslim societies. And because this blog is not just about sewing patterns and tutorials but also about the role of sewing in Jewish culture and Jewish history, I thought I’d offer a historical footnote to the news out of Iraq and Syria that is –maybe improbably– about Jews in the Ottoman Empire and the fabrics they made. This post is a bit on the academic side, but for many religious communities, including Ottoman Jews, the concepts dhimmi and jizya impacted their very existence.

First, a quick background: The term dhimmi refers to non-Muslim people –Jews, Christians an others– in some strictly Muslim societies through history. It’s a political designation rather than a strictly religious term. Within these Muslim societies, dhimmis were not considered full citizens, but they lived under the protection of the government and were allowed to practice their religions as long as they complied with some restrictions on their religious observances and paid the dhimmi tax, called jizya.

Not all Muslim societies through history have designated non-Muslims as dhimmis or imposed the jizya tax, and in the last hundred years the terms have nearly been relegated to history. But they’re in the news again, and here’s why: ISIS, the radical Islamic group currently taking control of areas in Iraq and Syria, made the disturbing announcement that it would force Christians in areas they control to pay jizya or else convert to Islam or face death. It’s important to note here that several prominent Muslim leaders in the region strongly denounced the ruling.

I haven’t seen any recent pronouncements specifically impacting Jews in these countries –about fifty Jews currently live in Syria, according to the U.S. State Department’s 2013 Report on International Religious Freedom, and “a very small number” of Jews live in Iraq. However, through history, a number of Jewish communities that were part of Muslim-governed areas in North Africa, the Middle East, and Persia lived as dhimmis and paid the jizya tax.

And here we come to the footnote that combines jizya, Jewish life, and sewing. Because for a time during the nineteenth century, the Jewish community on the Mediterranean island of Salonika, part of the Ottoman Empire, met its jizya obligation with payments of fabric.

Why fabric? Because Ottoman Jews made their own fabric to ensure that it confirmed to Jewish law, and the fabric was of especially high quality. Michael Menachem Laskier and Reeva Spector Simon explain in The Jews of the Middle East and North Africa in Modern Times:

Because of the Jewish observance of the biblical proscription against mixing linen and wool, Jewish agents purchased wool in the countryside, and Jews spun, dyed, wove, and finished the cloth. In the midnineteenth century seventy of the five thousand Jews of Damascus were dyers of cloth, a Jewish occupation renowned from Central Asia to North Africa. In Salonika Jewish textiles were in such demand by the Ottoman sultan’s janissaries that their annual delivery of one thousand blue and two hundred red pieces of fabric (to be sewn into military uniforms) replaced the jizya tax on dhimmis. As the numbers of troops increased with time, Jewish community leaders had to renegotiate the quota of goods, converting it to a monetary tax, because production for the corps became too onerous an obligation for the community to support.

(Image: Ottoman postcard showing Jewish women of Thessalonika dancing via Wikimedia Commons)