You can research the kishkas out of vacation planning and still not be ready for what you find. There I was, boarding my flight with my “Learn Turkish” CD, a basic Turkish dictionary, and a few travel books stuffed into my old blue Greatland backpack. I was going to Turkey, and I had a place to stay that would give me insight into the lives of people going about their daily business.
The language training programs run by the U.S. State Department can offer a benefit to parents of high school and college students who spend time overseas learning languages through homestays and immersion. Sometimes deep and grateful friendships are established between families. Such was the case with my family.
In 2011 my daughter Margaret, a high school junior interested in languages, received a State Department-NSLI scholarship to study Turkish and live in Istanbul with a local family, vetted by State Department. Margaret’s host mom, Aynur, was a fantastic cook and a nurturing mother. She watched over her two teenagers and my daughter like, well, a Jewish mother! The descriptions of her home-cooked Turkish meals had my mouth watering long before I made my reservations.
Images of Istanbul in my mind started with the Byzantine era and included the population gain following the Sephardic expulsion in 1492. (The Ottoman ruler at the time reportedly welcomed the Jews recognizing the great economic gain to be made.)
I was especially excited about attending religious services at synagogues in Istanbul. Seattle is fortunate to have two active Sephardic synagogues where distinct customs and prayers from centuries of Jewish life in the Ottoman Empire are maintained.
Thanks to the efforts of friends I was able to attend two different synagogues during my two-week stay. The office of the chief rabbi of Istanbul must give permission for visitors to attend — just being Jewish doesn’t mean anything. Formal permission, passports, checkpoints and phone calls are necessary.
I’m thankful to be an American and to be Jewish in the United States. Here we have friendly security guards and fences; travel to Turkey, and you’ll see grim-faced security guards facing down terror threats (In 2003, the Neve Shalom and Bet Israel synagogues were bombed, killing 67 and wounding 700). Everyone must be checked before entry to Jewish sites, and non-Jews, even those who help make arrangements, are not allowed in on Shabbat.
Eitz Chayim is a well-known and historic synagogue in the chic Ortakoy neighborhood, on the European side of Istanbul. The interior was cool even on a 95-degree day, thanks to the marble-veined floors and walls and a traditional interior courtyard framed by trees. And though the Caddesbostan Synagogue in Kadikoy, on the Asian side of Istanbul, is described as a newer, mid-century congregation, it too boasted dark wood and a marble interior, along with a breathtakingly beautiful stained glass window shaped like a Star of David.
After final passport checks and much security precaution, I gained entry to the Caddesbostan Synagogue. All synagogues practice Orthodox Judaism, and I sat upstairs in the women’s section to witness a Türk Sefarad Yahudi service. The high point of this particular Shabbat was meeting the rabbi, Rav Yuda Leon Adoni, who wore a head covering much like a turban. He shook our hands, saying how glad he was that we attended.
What Jewish event would be complete without food? An older woman on the balcony invited me to the desayuno, or late morning breakfast. Thanks to the Sephardic food I’ve enjoyed in Seattle, it looked and tasted familiar. Surprising to me, not all the congregants were aware of the Seattle Sephardic community, which came over from Tekirdag, north of Istanbul and from the Greek island of Rhodes, far to the south.
For two weeks, I experienced life in Turkey and beyond, traveling to Istanbul’s Osmanli (Ottoman) monuments, the Aegean resort of Bodrum, the Greek island of Kos, and Ephesus. In each location, I found evidence of Jewish life and culture, ancient and modern, enough to make me hunger for another visit to this scenic, historic and hospitable country.