Turkish delights

A book by an Istanbul accountant reveals the secrets of an orgiastic Jewish sect.

Published May 14, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Ilgaz Zorlu, a 30-year-old accountant from Istanbul, has written a tell-all about the Sabbateans, a Jewish sect that takes its name from the self-proclaimed messiah of the 17th century, Shabbtai Tzvi. Following Tzvi (who ultimately chose conversion over death), the Sabbateans converted to Islam but continued to practice Judaism in secret.

Now in its sixth printing, "Yes, I Am a Salonikan" has some of Zorlu's fellow Turks steaming. (The title refers to the city of Salonika, a Sabbatean center until 1924, when the Greek government took it over and expelled many Turkish nationals.) Zorlu, who claims to be descended from Tzvi's brother, says that he wrote the book to gain the acceptance of the mainstream Jewish community; his detractors say he is simply out to spread the Sabbatean gospel.

Sabbateans are a secretive bunch. They mostly marry among themselves, and traditionally their children don't even find out about their Sabbatean origins until the age of 18. And members are rumored to practice some strange rituals, among the more eccentric of which is the notorious festival of the lamb, at which married couples commemorate the beginning of spring by feasting on newborn lamb, then turning off the lights and pairing off randomly. (Mainstream Jews were forbidden to marry Sabbateans, who, the rabbinate feared, might have been conceived in these shady circumstances.) While young Sabbateans deride the festival of the lamb story as a myth, the true facts -- like so much about the sect -- remain in the dark.

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William Shinker, president and publisher of Broadway Books, is stepping down. Shinker has led the publishing house since its inception in 1995. Random House calls the decision "a mutual agreement."

By Craig Offman

Craig Offman is the New York correspondent for Salon Books.

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