August 9, 2023

About J. Habib Gerez

By Suat Baran

Born Yusef Gerez in Istanbul in 1926, the poet signed his artistic work as J. Habib Gerez. He graduated from Kabataş High School, where Faruk Nafiz Çamlıbel—the poet who would later influence Gerez’s work—was a literature teacher. Gerez enrolled at the Istanbul University Law School but was unable to continue due to health reasons. He became known with his first book of poetry, Gönülden Damlalar [Drops from the Heart], which appeared in 1952. Publishing more than ten poetry books, Gerez is one of the few Jewish authors writing in Turkish who had a continuous relationship with poetry throughout their lifetime. Known not only as a poet but also as a painter, Gerez’s principal endeavors revolved around his art, in which he embraced humanity and placed love at the center of life, much in the manner of Rumi.

Gerez’s decision to write in Turkish seems rooted in both his literary heroes and the political context of his era. Two Jewish poets of Istanbul who wrote in Turkish at the beginning of the twentieth century, Avram Naon and Isak Ferara Efendi, served as inspriation for Gerez. However, it’s more likely that his friendship with and admiration of Avram Galanti, the influential Turkish Jewish historian, was the primary reason he chose to write poetry in Turkish. Galanti was a staunch advocate for Jews to adopt Turkish as their primary language, as citizens of the young Republic of Turkey (est. 1923).

Gerez never hid his Jewishness, though it was invisible in his poetry until the 1990s. Beginning in 1952, when he became a presence in Turkish literature, he was noted and appreciated by that period’s authors and critics as a Jewish poet who did justice to the Turkish language. Gerez’s poetic themes, sometimes didactic, generally concern love, passion, life, death, loneliness, humanity, the nation, Atatürk, Istanbul, the past, and existential doubts. Written in plain and clear language and free verse, Gerez’s poetry exhibits the influences of Rumi, the Garip (First New) school of Turkish poetry, and the poet Çamlıbel—his old high school teacher. His poetry developed with the sensibility of an ethnic Turk, rather than a Jew and member of a minority group. Indeed, outside of his later work, a casual reader could reasonably conclude that his poems were authored by a Turkish poet originally from Anatolia, bursting with love for his motherland. His skillful use of the language contributes to this impression. In contrast to this literary and artistic persona, and to the notable absence of Jewish references in his poetry, Gerez was in fact quite embedded in the daily life of the Jewish community: he was employed as the personal secretary of David Asseo, the Chief Rabbi of Turkey, between 1961–1996. 

When considered alongside Galanti, or someone like Munis Tekinalp, a Jew who became a noted Turkish nationalist and changed his name from Moiz Kohen, Gerez’s choices seem quite understandable. Gerez’s relationship with Turkish was not limited to his artistic production but extended to his teaching of the language to foreigners. Alongside his own engagement with the Turkish poetic tradition, Gerez also encouraged other Jews to write in Turkish. Drawing on his own multilingual background, he strove to have his poems translated into languages like Italian, English, and French. Gerez’s visual works were shown at many national and international exhibits.

Habib Gerez died at the age of 94 in Istanbul, the city of his birth, in 2022. His home in the Beyoğlu, Tünel neighborhood has been transformed into a museum named the Habib Gerez Art House. 

Suat Baran is a literary critic, poet, researcher, and translator working in Kurdish, Turkish, Greek, and English. He has a master’s degree in cultural studies from Istanbul Bilgi University, with a focus on linguistic trauma. He is the author of the poetry collection Elbakof (in Kurdish), and has published creative and scholarly work in a range of languages. Presently, he is completing a doctorate at Boğaziçi University in Turkish literature, focused on Ottoman writing during the Armistice Period (1918–1923).