Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

January 23, 2012

Eurovision, Turkey, and the Jews

Filed under: anti-Semitism,music,Turkey — louisproyect @ 6:55 pm

(Hat tip to David Shasha of the Sephardic Heritage mailing list.)

Eurovision, Turkey, and the Jews

By: Rachel Amado Bortnick

I first heard of Can Bonomo less than a year ago, in an interview with him in the Istanbul Jewish weekly Şalom on the occasion of the release of his first CD, Meczup (Lunatic). But what drew my attention then was not that a Jewish boy was a popular musician (there have been, and are, many Jews that are popular musicians in Turkey) but that he was from Izmir, the city where I was born and raised. I thought, in fact, that he was probably the great grandson of the Mr. Bonomo who owned a bicycle repair shop in our neighborhood, as there was only one Bonomo family in Izmir. When later on, in June of 2011, I read that Can (pronounced as John) got a prize in the musical competition Altin Kelebek (golden butterfly) organized by the Turkish daily Hurriyet, I was happy, as I would be for a young relative who had done well.

But when I learned, on January 10, 2012 that Can Bonomo was nominated by the Turkish Television Network TRT to represent Turkey at the next Eurovision song competition – to be held in May in Baku, Azerbaijan – I was truly proud.The buzz about Bonomo’s nomination continues daily with the posting of a widely-seen You Tube video of his performances, and on Turkish websites, articles, TV and radio features and commentaries and interviews. In most cases, the commentators or interviewers are kind and happy for him, ignore or downplay his Jewishness, and just ask him about the songs he will submit, about his musical training, and so on, and wish him good luck.But unfortunately there has also been a barrage of Anti-Semitic articles and comments, some going as far as accusing the musician of being part of the Jewish conspiracy to dominate the world! Can has been very dignified, and to all those that bring up his Jewish background as an issue, he has replied that “Music has no language, religion, or race”, and explaining that his family has been here for 540 years, he is a Turk, and can represent Turkey.

The Eurovision song contest, though not well known in America, is a big deal every year among the participating nations (its website states that approximately 125 million people watch it on TV) and winning it is a cause of national pride, akin to winning a “Miss Europe” contest. Jewish Americans probably heard about it in the years that Israel won (it did 3 times: 1978, 1979, and 1998) and are reminded of it especially when the popular song “Halleluyah” is introduced as “the Eurovision winner of 1979.” But this year Eurovision is in the Jewish media because a Jewish boy is going to represent a Muslim country!But it is not pride in a Jewish person’s achievement that is motivating the coverage, but rather criticism of Can’s statements regarding his Judaism, and countering the possible notion that Turkey is a tolerant country. At least this seems to be the case in the recent JTA article titled, “Turkish Jews celebrate country’s Eurovision pick, but singer would prefer quiet about his religion”


The article objects to Bonomo’s statement, citing it as: “My family came from Spain 540 years ago. I am Turkish and I am representing Turkey, I will go out there with the Turkish flag … I am an artist, a musician. That’s all that everybody needs to know.”

The writer, Ron Kampeas (who is probably Sephardic also, judging by his last name) writes:

“Should Bonomo, who was born in the coastal city of Izmir, decide one day to shuck off his hesitancy about his Jewish roots, he might discover how they informed his music.

Jewish cafe singers drew crowds in the 1920s and 1930s with their modernized versions of their parents’ aching and ancient Ladino love ballads. A number of their modern Israeli interpreters, including Hadass Pal-Yarden and Yasmin Levy, have taken their acts to Turkey and won acclaim.”

The fact is that Bonomo’s statement, which even referred to his people’s history in Turkey, had no “hesitancy” about his Jewish roots. Nor has he ever tried to hide his Jewishness. Even though his first name, Can, is Turkish (it means “soul”), his surname is clearly is Sephardic, and, as probably everyone knows by now, means “good man” in Italian. (Some have mused that he may be a relative of the famous American clarinetist Benny Goodman!)

Mr. Kampeas has never interviewed Bonomo to find out what the musician knows about what “informed his music.” And who were the “Jewish cafe singers [who] drew crowds in the 1920s and 1930s …?”

There is no tradition of Jewish café singers in Turkey! Perhaps Mr. Kampeas was thinking of Roza Eskenazi, star of Rebetiko music, who is the subject of the movie “My Sweet Canary.”

[You can read her story in: http://www.mysweetcanary.com/PDF/bio.pdf ]

Roza is not typical of Sephardic women, who traditionally did not perform in public. The many Jews who were Turkish classical musicians and composers in Ottoman times were not “café singers” either.  Nor did Mr. Kampeas have to refer to Israelis who sing in Ladino today. There are wonderful Ladino musical groups and singers in Turkey, including Los Pasharos Sefaradis, Janet and Jak Esim, and the world’s only Ladino children’s chorus, Las Estreyikas d’Estambol. Additionally, the group Sefarad, made up of Jewish musicians, performs in Ladino and Turkish, has recorded several CDs, and remains extremely popular. But none of this adds or detracts from Bonomo’s personality as a Jew or a musician.

I agree with the interviewee Saporta in the article, who said that the antisemitic verbal attacks on Bonomo come from “political factions that deride minorities in general,” but unfortunately their pronouncements concerning Jews are as Anti-Semitic as one finds anywhere. Yet, Can Bonomo‘s popularity has prompted thousands in Turkey to express outrage at the racism and discrimination in the country, and to promote the traditional kindness and humanity of the Turkish people. As Jews, we have had a long history of living peacefully with and among Turks. We hope that Can Bonomo will win first place with his song in the 2012 Eurovision contest, and bring glory to Turks and Jews, with ripple effects for good will everywhere.


  1. The original article being discussed sounds rather patronizing, but I must say this article sounds a bit naively rosy, as well. Minorities in Turkey exist in a very narrowly circumscribed territory. They can get along just fine so long as they are Good Jews, Good Armenians, etc. If they step outside those boundaries, though, we know very well what can happen.

    Comment by James — January 24, 2012 @ 10:44 am

  2. I think his name derives rather from catalan Bonhom or Bonhome.

    Comment by J.T. — January 25, 2012 @ 1:19 pm

  3. Why is it whenever there is a discussion about an achievement of a Jew, someone will always use the opportunity to put them down? I went on a website discussing the vandalism and firebombings of synogogues in NY and NJ and was completely shocked at the blatantly anti-semitic replies and referrals to white supremacist websites. I wish this musician continued success and not to listen to the ignorant.

    Comment by Deborah Jeffries — January 30, 2012 @ 4:42 pm

  4. I liked the article, and I think it is not rosy. I am Turkish and Muslim, and I have lived together with minorities all my life. They have been getting along fine in all circumstances just like me. We are no different. As a matter of fact, I find it really strange that people are still amazed at a Jewish singer representing a Muslim country. I never thought something like “He has an interesting surname. What is his religion?” As Can said, “Music has no language, religion, or race.” People should stop caring too much about these, too. I do wish him the most success.

    Comment by Ayşe (Öz) Güneş — March 15, 2012 @ 10:33 am

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