Visit To An Istanbul Synagogue: August 2001

May 9, 2012

By Myrna Katz Frommer

In the tempest of the Middle East, one tends to lose sight of the long-standing friendship between Turkey and Israel. It remains – even in the face of some recent friction — a beacon of amity, the modern manifestation of a 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 Salonika was Jewish; the Greek city (then controlled by Turkey) supported 36 distinct congregations At the onset of Shabbat, all commercial activity would cease, and  a shammashin would walk up and down the streets crying, “Shabbat, Shabbat, the hour of Shabbat has come.” Of course, in the wake of the Nazi menace, all this had ended in the city Lucy Dawidowicz called “the most eminent Sephardic settlement in Europe” along with Jewish life throughout the Balkans. But in the Maghreb and Middle East, Jews 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 whose roots can be traced back to the Spanish expulsion. 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

August 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 Muslim nation to recognize Israel, and 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 match.

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 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 pressed upon us, 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 Muslim 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 blooming roses climbed an arbor before carefully tended garden beds filled with hydrangeas, geraniums, and lilies.

We entered a stucco chapel where 150 people regularly attend Sabbath services, we were told (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, a sizeable chandelier was suspended surrounded by eight smaller ones, a modest echo of the wealth of Baccarat, Murano and Bohemian chandeliers we had seen in Topkapi Dalmabachie Palace.

Using an elaborately carved brass key, the caretaker opened the gate before the Torahs. We asked if it were possible to make a contribution, and he produced a similar key and unlockeda 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 Muslim man whose attitude was marked by such respect and reverence affected us deeply as it did our two companions, themselves Muslims, 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, it was hoped, the sounds of prayer would be muffled in fear of discovery. In particular, we recalled the famed Mikve Israel in Curacao where we met a man who was able, like Sara Mizrahi, to trace his roots back to 15th century Spain. Only his ancestor’s path of exile brought them to Portugal, then the French city Bayonne, and ultimately the Dutch Caribbean island with fear of persecution their constant traveling companions. He had been invited by the Spanish government to take part in the much publicized Quincentennial Celebration of the expulsion of 1492, he told us, but had vehemently refused. “There is nothing to celebrate,” he said, 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.

Several weeks after our return to the United States, the World Trade Center was destroyed and some inherent sense of trust and tolerance once taken for granted was deeply shaken. From such a perspective, our brief afternoon visit to an Istanbul synagogue in the company of three Muslim men takes on added significance becoming a cause, indeed a mission, for celebration .


Myrna Katz Frommer, a travel writer who focuses on Jewish themes and the author of six oral histories, is a professor at Dartmouth College.

Myrna Katz Frommer

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