A Story Worth Celebrating
The Jews of Istanbul
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.
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
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.”
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.
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.”
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
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.”
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.
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.
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
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.”
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
about these authors.
You can contact the Frommers at:
This Article is Copyright © 1995 - 2012 by Harvey and Myrna Frommer. All rights