Visit to an Istanbul
Synagogue: August 2001
The fraying of the long-standing relationship between
Turkey and Israel is a late irony ofn an ironic age. Until recently,
friendship between the two nations seemed a constant, a beacon of peace
in an otherwise tension-wracked Middle East. It was also a modern
manifestation of the historic connection begun the summer of 1492 when
the ships of Sultan Bayezid II arrived at the Spanish port of Cadiz to
rescue Jewish exiles. "I cannot understand why the monarchs of Spain
would impoverish their kingdom while allowing me to enrich my own," the
monarch reportedly said.
Out of this magnanimous gesture of sanctuary, some
100,000 Jews immigrated to the lands of the Ottoman Empire, and the
great Sephardic communities of Turkey, North Africa, the Balkans, Syria
and Lebanon were born. In 1910, half the population of the Greek city
Salonika was Jewish. At the onset of Shabbat, all commercial activity
would have ceased, and a shammashin would walk up and down the streets
crying, "Shabbat, Shabbat, the hour of Shabbat has come." Such activity
in the city Lucy Dawidowicz referred to as "the most eminent Sephardic
settlement in Europe" ended along with Jewish life throughout the
Balkans in the wake of the Nazi menace. But the Jews of the Maghreb and
Middle East were spared annihilation. When asked to supply a list of his
country's Jews, the King of Morocco is said to have responded: "Would a
father betray his own child?"
Late in the summer of 2001, my husband and I, on a
visit to Istanbul, met a thirty-year-old Jewish woman whom I'll call
Sara Mizrahi. Sara's Turkish roots can be traced back to the Spanish
expulsion, and as she grew up, she told us, the account of this exodus
was repeated so many times by her parents and grandparents in the
musical cadences of Ladino, the fifteenth century Spanish she continues
to speak, it is part of her inner core. “There was a huge intellectual
migration into the Ottoman Empire,” Sara said. "It was the most
beautiful thing that happened in those times because it meant freedom.
Turkey is one of the best behaving countries in the world to its Jews.
It is one of the happier stories of the Diaspora. "
We were having dinner with Sara on the terrace of the
Hyatt International on a beautiful June night, and as darkness slowly
fell and candles on tables were lit, she warmed to her subject.
"Overall, the Jews of Turkey have lived a generally peaceful and
prosperous life through the centuries," she said. "During the Second
World War not a single Jewish family was disturbed. Turkey was the first
Moslem nation to recognize Israel, and especially in the last decade,
the relations with Israel have been very close."
She showed us a brochure of Istanbul's synagogues that
revealed the depth and variety of Jewish culture in this city. The
oldest pre-dates the Spanish expulsion and served Romanoites, Jews
whose ancestors had lived here during Roman times. There is a synagogue
built during the Byzantine period, another in the mid 15th century by
Jews from Macedonia, a single Ashkenazi temple founded by Austrian Jews
in 1900, and a nineteenth century Italian synagogue which was re-built
in 1931. The largest and most renowned is Neve Shalom, site of the
infamous 1986 bombing. That attack, widely believed to have been carried
out by Hamas terrorists and deplored by the Turkish authorities and
populace, is the single example of an act of hostility against the many
synagogues that have existed in this nation through the centuries. It
remains a statistic many European nations would be hard pressed to
As a consequence of that act of terrorism, security in
Istanbul's synagogues is tight, and arrangements for visits must be made
in advance with passports submitted ahead of time. And so when Sara
offered to cut through the complications and arrange for us to see her
temple, we readily took her up on it.
Together with our guide Chassan, we took the ferry
across the Bosphorus to the Asian side of Istanbul and stopped for lunch
at a waterfront restaurant where the young and genial proprietor helped
us through the process of selecting fish from a display that would be
grilled to order. As we were finishing with baklava, strong Turkish
coffee, and little glasses of crème de menthe which the host provided,
Chassan told him where we were headed. "Let me take you there," he said.
"I know exactly where the synagogue is, but I've never been inside."
And so, in the company of these two men, we set off,
climbing some hilly streets through a leafy residential neighborhood
before stopping before a heavy wooden door framed by marble pillars of
classical design with a carving of the Ten Commandments above the
lintel. The restaurant owner banged on the door until it was opened by a
wizened little man who wondered who we were. But when Chassan explained,
he broke into a wide smile. He was expecting us, he said.
This Moslem man was the caretaker of the synagogue, a
position he'd held over the past 25 years. Now he led us through a small
marble-clad hallway to a cubicle that served as office and featured the
omnipresent photo of Attaturk, the secular Turkish leader who brought
his nation into modern times, and into a sunny courtyard where an arbor
of blooming roses fronted a carefully tended garden filled with
hydrangeas, geraniums, and lilies.
From here, we entered the stucco chapel where 150
people regularly attend Sabbath services (for the High Holy Days, a
second chapel off the courtyard accommodates the overflow crowd).
Stained-glass panels filtered the sunlight casting rays onto the
opposite walls. Heriker carpets lay across portions of the marble
floors; chairs were covered in plush red velvet. From the dome of an
extravagantly decorated ceiling hung a sizeable chandelier surrounded by
eight smaller ones, a modest echo of the wealth of Baccarat, Murano and
Bohemian chandeliers we had seen in Topkapi and the Dalmabachie Palace.
Using an elaborately carved brass key, the caretaker
opened the gate before the Torahs. When we asked if it were possible to
make a contribution, he produced a similar key and unlocked a
compartment beside the altar. From there he removed a brass box and
handed it to us to make a deposit.
That this world of Jewish spirituality was being
maintained by an elderly Moslem man whose attitude was marked by such
respect and reverence affected us deeply as it did our two companions,
themselves Moslems, who looked about with a sense of awe, absorbing the
orderliness and serenity of the setting.
It brought to mind other Sephardic synagogues we'd
visited through the years whose floors were covered not with fine
Turkish carpets but sand, reminders of a Marrano past where sand served
to muffle sounds of prayer in fear of discovery. One in Curacao was
particularly memorable. We'd met a man there who, like Sara Mizrahi,
could trace his roots back to 15th century Spain. Only the path of exile
led his ancestors to Portugal, then Bayonne, and ultimately the Dutch
Caribbean island with fear and persecution their constant traveling
companions. When invited by the Spanish government to take part in the
much publicized Quintcentennial Celebration of the expulsion of 1492,
this man angrily refused. “There is nothing to celebrate,” he told us
expressing a sentiment shared by many Sephardim throughout the western
world. At that same moment, the Jews of Turkey were celebrating half a
millennium of sanctuary and freedom.
A lasting consequence of the destruction of the World
Trade Center, which occurred just a few weeks after our return home, was
a fraying -- even a rupture -- of some inherent sense of trust and
tolerance once taken for granted. It lends our brief afternoon visit to
an Istanbul synagogue in the company of three Moslem men added
significance becoming a cause, indeed a mission for celebration.
# # #
About the Authors: Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer are a wife and husband
team who successfully bridge the worlds of popular culture and traditional
scholarship. Co-authors of the critically acclaimed interactive oral histories
It Happened in the Catskills, It Happened in Brooklyn, Growing Up Jewish in
America, It Happened on Broadway, It Happened in Manhattan, It Happened in
Miami. They teach what they practice as professors at Dartmouth College.
They are also travel writers who specialize in luxury properties and fine dining
as well as cultural history and Jewish history and heritage in the United
States, Europe, and the Caribbean.
about these authors.
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This Article is Copyright © 1995 - 2012 by Harvey and Myrna Frommer. All rights