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 A Story Worth Celebrating
The Jews of Istanbul 

Over the past fifteen years, we have written about Jewish life and history in places we have visited ranging from Finland to Scotland to the Azores. But the resurgence of a Jewish consciousness and presence throughout Spain, a process of collective remembering we witnessed in eight journeys starting in 1993, was the theme we were drawn to more than any other.

Last June, we spent eight days in Istanbul where the story of Iberian Jewry took off  just as the one in Spain seemingly ended some 500 years ago. It was the first time we were in a predominantly Moslem nation. In view of the disastrous events of September 11, that experience now seems invested with particular significance.

“In 1492, Sultan Beyazid II sent his ships to the Spanish port of Cadiz and brought 100,000 of the exiled Jews to the Ottoman Empire. ‘I cannot understand why the monarchs of Spain would impoverish their kingdom while allowing me to enrich my own,’ was what he said.”

Thirty year-old Teri Meir tells us this with such a sense of immediacy, you’d think she actually boarded one of those ships. We understand. It’s like the admonition in the Haggadah: all Jews must regard themselves as having personally experienced the Exodus from Egypt. Except Teri traces a latter-day exodus of her ancestors from Toledo to Istanbul. As she grew up, its account 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.

Teri has joined us for dinner on the terrace of Istanbul’s Hyatt Regency Hotel. It is early in the evening of a June night. Darkness falls slowly here, and as candles are lit and the flaming torches cast reflections into the swimming pool below, the vibrant young woman warms to her subject. “There was a huge intellectual migration into the Ottoman Empire at the time of the Spanish expulsion,” she says, “to Istanbul and Izmir in Turkey, to Salonika in Greece, to Bulgaria, Rumania, Syria, Lebanon, Morocco, along the North African coastline. It was the most beautiful thing that happened in those times because it meant freedom.

“Jews have done well in Turkey,” she adds, comfortably compressing half a millennium of a cultural and religious presence into an evening’s conversation. “There is a Turkish saying that the Jews always have their tails straight up which means they are proud. Some are more intellectual while others are more commercial. The standard of living has traditionally been above average, I would say. 


Teri Meir traces her ancestry to the 1492 expulsion of the Jews from Spain - Click to Enlarge
Teri Meir traces her ancestry to the 1492 expulsion of the Jews from Spain

“The doctors to the sultans were Jewish as a rule. There were queen mothers from France and Italy who were of Jewish descent. In the 1600’s, a woman named Esther from a Toledo family sold jewelry to the harem and became a good friend of the queen mother and very powerful. But this story has a sad ending. There was a devaluation of the lira around that time.  The soldiers were looking for someone who was responsible, and the sultan, who was very cruel, had her hanged as a scapegoat.”

Fortunately the recent devaluation of the lira has not had such dire consequences, although it has caused some of Turkey’s Jews to emigrate to Israel or America seeking greater economic opportunity.  Previously many had moved to Israel in the wake of the creation of the Jewish state, Teri tells us.  Her brother Salvadore is one of them. Still 25,000 remain in this overwhelmingly Moslem land, 20,000 in Istanbul. Among them are Teri and her mother (her father, who managed a chemical company, died in 1985); they have no plans to leave. 

“We call ourselves Turkish Jews; we feel a part of the national community because Turkey is one of the best behaving countries in the world to its Jews,” she says. “It is one of the happier stories of the Diaspora. Overall, the Jews of Turkey have lived a generally peaceful and prosperous life through the centuries. During the Second World War not a single Jewish family was disturbed, and refugees from other places found sanctuary. Turkey was the first Moslem nation to recognize Israel. Especially in the last decade, the relations with Israel have been very close

"We are a cohesive community, most of us know each other, attend each others' simchas, ” Teri adds.  She gestures in the direction of one of the waiters. “That’s how I know Ergun. I’ve seen him at so many bar mitzvahs here.”

With this revelation, our conversation turned from the weighty aspects of Jewish history to the more mundane realm of Jewish “affairs.” We mentioned that on the morning we checked into the Hyatt Regency, a circumcision “affair” was getting underway. We saw the new parents and two sets of grandparents at the head of a long reception line in an antechamber receiving kisses and handshakes. Beyond in a ballroom festooned with blue and white balloons, the actual circumcision would be performed followed by an elegant brunch. In the United States, a bris is generally a more low-keyed and private event, we said to Teri. In Turkey, she told us, they do it up big.

Later in our stay we met the Hyatt Regency’s banquet manager Sibel Ipeker who told us kosher affairs comprise a big part of the hotel's business and the fact that she is Jewish is an advantage in helping to plan them. "We offer a menu prepared according to the laws,” Sibel said. “The wine is kosher; the meat is from a kosher butcher. We separate dairy from meat. Usually people hire a private decorator to decorate the ballroom, and the functions are very extravagant and beautiful. But our only problem is that for a sit down dinner with a proper dance floor, we can hold a maximum of 280 people. This is a small crowd. Four to five hundred for a wedding or bar mitzvah is more typical.”

Affairs of a “more typical” size are often held at the Ciragan Palace- Hotel Kempinski, a fairy-tale locale on the banks of the Bosphorus that incorporates an actual Ottoman palace. Its elegant French chef, Fabrice Zanelle, who trained in Paris, worked in Maxim’s and the Tour d’Argent, and came to Istanbul by way of the Russian Tea Room in New York, has learned all about kosher catering. “For circumcision brunches, we do tartellette of smoked salmon, mixed crepes with eggs, smoked salmon,” he said. “For weddings, chicken or sea bass, very simply done, fruity desserts, dairy substitutes. We get all the ingredients here. The rabbi knows there is a kosher wedding and he’ll check with his butcher to make sure we’ve ordered from the right place.”

Seen from the Bosphorus: the Ciragan Palace-Hotel Kempinski where many Jewish weddings are held - click to enlarge
Seen from the Bosphorus: the Ciragan Palace-Hotel Kempinski where many Jewish weddings are held

Having lived on Long Island for many years, it seemed to us we had witnessed the ultimate in “over-the-top” simchas. In Istanbul, Teri assured us, they take it to the next level. But, she added, a wedding in Turkey involves more than planning an “affair” at an upscale hotel. “There are actually two ceremonies,” she said. “First a couple must be married in a civil ceremony after which they continue to live at home with their parents for a month. Then there is a religious ceremony which for Jewish couples is always in the synagogue.” 

Twenty-one synagogues remain in Istanbul today and reviewing them in the colorful brochure the Jewish Community of Turkey puts out which Teri had brought along gave us some sense of the depth and variety of Jewish culture in this city. The two oldest, which pre-date the Spanish expulsion and served Romanoite Jews (whose ancestors lived here during Roman times), are Yanbol built during the Byzantine period by Jews from Bulgaria and the Ahrida built in the mid 15th century by Jews from Macedonia. There is 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, the site of the infamous 1986 bombing. Ironically 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, a statistic European lands would be hard pressed to match. 

As a consequence of that disaster, security is tight; arrangements to visit a synagogue must be made in advance with passports submitted ahead of time. When Teri offered to cut through the complications and arrange for us to visit her temple, we eagerly took her up on it.     

Beth Yacov is one of four Istanbul synagogues on the Asian side of the Bosphorus which we crossed in a crowded commuter ferry boat, one of many that regularly shuttle between two the continents. It deposited us and our gentle guide Chassan Erdogan on the shores of Iskatar. From its bustling wharf before a huge mosque where blind musicians played in small combos and young shoe-shine boys hustled passerbys, we took a taxi to the next suburb, Kuzguncuk, a leafy residential area of winding streets that climb from a dreamy waterfront to a wooded area striped with hiking trails. There was time for lunch at Ismet Baba, a cheerful restaurant Teri had recommended  that squats on stilts in the bay and is accessed via a rickety dock.  Murat Yilmaz, its young and genial proprietor, escorted us through the process of selecting from among the fish on display which are grilled to the diner’s specifications and accompanied by a cornucopia of Turkish appetizers. 

Murat Yilmaz, proprietor of Ismet Baba - click to enlarge
Murat Yilmaz, proprietor of Ismet Baba

As we were finishing the strong Turkish coffee and the little glasses of crème de menthe our host pressed upon us, Chassan asked for directions to the synagogue. “Let me take you there,” Murat said. “I know exactly where it is, but have never been inside.” 

And so in the company of these two Moslem men, we walked down the dock, crossed the main thoroughfare, and climbed a bit up the hilly street when Murat stopped before an entry bordered by classical pillars and banged on a heavy wooden door painted a vivid shade of kelly green. Only later did we discover the only visible clue to this building’s purpose: a set of tablets in classical design inscribed with the Ten Commandments in Hebrew high above the portal. 

Exterior of Beth Yacov - click to enlarge
Exterior of Beth Yacov

A wizened little old man with a quizzical expression opened the door just a bit. But as soon as Chassan explained in Turkish whom we were, he immediately broke into a wide smile. He was expecting us, he said, motioning us to come inside. This was Bayram Koroglu, the Moslem caretaker of Beth Yacov for nearly 25 years. 

He led us through a stucco hallway to a small marble entry that held a glassed-in cubicle with a desk, telephone, computer, and video screen as well as the omnipresent photo of Attaturk and  into a sunny courtyard enclosed with pink garden walls and paved with stone walkways. A profusely blooming rose arbor fronted a miniature garden so carefully tended not a single faded blossom could be seen among the abundance of hydrangeas, geraniums, and roses of intoxicating fragrance.

Judaic and Ottoman elements merged within the beige stucco chapel trimmed in mahogany. Engraved plates of donors’ names and Yarhtzeit dates were prominently displayed. Jewel-like stained glass panels filtered the bright sunlight casting bright rays on the peach-pink walls lined with fanciful panels, and Heriker carpets covered the marble floor. 

The abimah and central station were of intricately carved wood while pews were individual seats covered in plush red velvet. And from the central dome of an extravagantly decorated ceiling hung a huge 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.

Abimah of Beth Jacov - click to enlarge
Abimah of Beth Jacov - click to enlarge

The central chandelier at Beth Jacov, a staple of Ottoman palaces - click to enlarge
The central chandelier at Beth Jacov, a staple of Ottoman palaces
 click to enlarge

Bayram Koroglu produced an elaborately carved key which he lay on a red velvet cushion and carried over to the arc which he unlocked in order to allow us to examine the Torahs. When we expressed the wish to contribute tzedaka, he produced a similar key and opened a compartment on the abimah lifting from it a gleaming brass box that served as a bank. 

Bayram Koroglu holding the key before the arc - click to enlarge
Bayram Koroglu holding the key before the arc - click to enlarge

One hundred fifty people regularly attend Sabbath services, Bayram said, but many more attend High Holy Day services. The overflow crowd is accommodated in a second chapel which he showed us. It was only slightly less ornate than the first with only five chandeliers and a collection of photos depicting scenes from Jerusalem hung on the walls.

That this world of Jewish spirituality is maintained by an elderly Moslem man whose attitude to the place entrusted to his care was marked by reverence, even love, affected us deeply as it did our two Moslem companions who looked about quietly and in a spirit of awe absorbing the overwhelming sense of  orderliness, security and serenity. 

Three Moslem men in the sanctuary of Beth Jacov - click to enlarge
Three Moslem men in the sanctuary of Beth Jacov - click to enlarge

We stood in the sunny courtyard this June-perfect afternoon and thought of other Sephardic synagogues set in courtyards where the floors were covered with sand instead of Turkish carpets, reminders of a Marrano past when the sounds of prayer were muffled in fear of discovery. 

We remembered a man we’d met in Curacao who, like Teri Meir, could trace his roots back to 15th century Spain. Only his ancestors went to Portugal, then Bayonne and ultimately the Dutch Caribbean island, suffering much persecution along the way. 

When invited by the Spanish government to take part in the much publicized Quintcentennial Celebration of the expulsion of 1492, he  angrily refused. “There is nothing to celebrate,” he said.

Had his ancestors taken the route to the Ottoman lands, he could have celebrated half a millennium of sanctuary and freedom as many did in the Turkish events that marked that anniversary. Ironically, however, greater attention world-wide was paid to the expulsion from Spain than the ingathering to the Ottoman Empire. But the time for celebrating good deeds does not end. For Teri Meir the history of her family’s life in Istanbul is a source of continuous celebration; for us – two Americans who spent a week in Istanbul -- the memory of an afternoon at a synagogue in the company of three Moslem men is one we will celebrate forever.  

Photos by Harvey Frommer


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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. More about these authors.

You can contact the Frommers at: 

Email: myrna.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU
Email: harvey.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU

This Article is Copyright © 1995 - 2012 by Harvey and Myrna Frommer.  All rights reserved worldwide.

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