What an experience. I think I like Istanbul. It’s a very busy city.
For me, Istanbul is a bit of a transition point. Not only is it physically a city that spans two continents (Asia and Europe), literally two sides of a river, it also somewhat represents my shift from doing more individual exploration trips to the next stage of my fellowship.
Up until this point, I’ve visited places on my own to learn, research, and experience the Jewish communities. I’ve also visited places where JDC actually has physical offices and staff. Istanbul, along with some other upcoming trips is a bit different. So, as my mom and I like to say about many moments in my life (like all those years I moved every single summer), it’s transition. (Can be sung like “Tradition, Tradition!” from Fiddler on the Roof.) Let’s be honest, this whole year is constant transition but it’s very apparent here.
I flew into Istanbul’s brand sparkling new airport, which is gigantic and has over 25 baggage claim belts, which in my opinion is a bit much, given that another flights bags were also on our belt.
I stayed in Ortakoy a part of the city near the river, which is a bit outside the typical touristic areas, but close to the two Jewish Service Corp fellows (through JDC) who have been living there for two years. Ruthie and Tuli, the fellows, are a lovely couple who were able to give me the lay of the land, and share their experiences of working in the Jewish community in Istanbul for the past two years. They were wonderful hosts and together we had many deep conversations about Jewish life abroad, their experiences, my experiences, and more.
As with other places I’ve visited I often feel I am not enough of a history buff to know all there is to know about the important history of a place. Istanbul and Turkey is no different. It has a deep and rich history and on top of that an interesting Jewish history as well. Again, feel free to research.
The Turkish Jews are primarily Sephardic. To explain Sephardi Jews simply is difficult, but they are primarily descendants of Spanish Jews, and today Sephardi often refers to those that are non-Ashkenazi that come from Mediterranean type places. This explanation is near impossible to do in one line, but just know Sephardic Jews often have differing customs and traditions and their traditional foods are often different (if you figure they also had different access to foods than Eastern European Jews based on the land they lived on). I’m not sure I did this definition justice, but ask questions if you are interested, for some reason it’s complicated.
The Turkish Jewish population is fairly spread through the city with a number of synagogues, a school, old age home, Chabad, and other services. Most organizations and institutions have a board, of which reports up to a community board that is run by the Chief Rabbi and helps to govern the community.
I was in Turkey for Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day), so there was a service event at one of the synagogues. It happens to be the only Ashkenazi Synagogue in Istanbul (they switch the venue with the Sephardic one each year). It was a beautiful synagogue, and granted I couldn’t understand the bits in Turkish, it was a nice event. Things I noticed about the community through this even:
Security. There were no less than six security guards at the door to come in, a full pat down, and secure doors. Also, if I had wanted to go into any of the synagogues or other Jewish places I definitely needed to have my passport on me and send it ahead of time. Istanbul has had its own fair share of synagogue tragedy, so it’s not a huge shock that this security is in place. Keep in mind it is not even a response to what has happened around the world or in the States recently. When we talk about welcoming spaces this type of security is always a big question. It’s still a big question, but the norm in this community.
Song across the world. I didn’t understand the program which was in Turkish, however I was able to follow because of the nature of the program, and the Hebrew songs that were sung. I’m always in awe of the ability to connect to something in a faraway place despite not knowing a language. It’s the commonality of song and language (Hebrew) that does keep us connected.
Balconies. The men were on the main floor, the women on the first balcony, and then teens sitting together were on the second balcony. I will say there was something special about having it set this way. I look down and across (I was in the first balcony), and saw some elderly men and women, and then was able to look up and see the future. I’m not sure the right way to describe it but I sort of had a moment of just seeing the future in the teens who were there. I appreciated being in the middle, sort of looking down and seeing the foundation of a community, and looking up and seeing the future. (I’m sure there is something to be said about the separation of the men and women and differing views of what this means, but in this moment I’m commenting on looking up and seeing the future…
Local young people.
I had a chance to go out for a drinks with a few of the guys that are involved locally and happened to be at the event. In Istanbul, like elsewhere there is a challenge of young people moving away. A few mentioned friends moving away to Israel and elsewhere. While Istanbul has a strong Jewish community, it does come with its own challenges, even in the opportunities for young people to get involved.
The same challenge exists as these young people are getting married, having children, and life just starts getting in the way of the events and programs that they used to be able to do. There are also initiatives and efforts to do new innovative projects outside of the official community, which comes with its own challenges, and far less funding support. I appreciated being able to hear from these guys about their own opportunities, why they are involved and how they are connected Jewishly.
Taking a breath.
You’ll notice - maybe - I have less thoughts and details about Istanbul. I arrived in Turkey and it hit me how tired I was. I spoke about this in my last post, but it really happened in Istanbul. I was overwhelmed by the number of people in the city. Had a day of getting lost (in a frustrating, decent, and tiring way) in the Grand Bazaar, and really dreading all the lines I saw to get into the beautiful mosques, and more “must see” tourist sites.
So I decided I didn’t need to do it all.
I put a lot of pressure on myself to see things and be in motion and make sure to soak up each place I am. Once I get to places that have tons of tourist attractions, history, and unique stories to tell that I realize it’s a lot. So in Turkey I allowed myself to remember that this year is not a sprint. I’m not on a one week vacation to any of these places. Instead it’s more of a marathon, or maybe a really long trek. I need to pace myself, and I won’t see everything, it’s not the point of the year. Additionally, I have work to do. I’ll share more about the work later (I promise Dad I have projects!), but I found in Istanbul that everything was catching up with me – and becoming more real.
When the majority of my “work days” don’t actually happen inside an office, or even in front of a computer, it’s hard to find the time to do that work.
So that’s what happened in Turkey. One day I walked along the water, saw a fortress with cool views, then made my way slowly back and stopped to do some major writing and work. It was lovely.
I also had an amazing Shabbat lunch with Ruthie and Tuli and two of their expat friends, two amazing women who are living abroad indefinitely, and reminded me that there are people all over the world traveling all over the world, living different ways, finding challenges in other countries and connecting in new ways all the time. It’s a small thing, but was a really good reminder for me.
I say this about most of the places I go, I’ll be back. I’ll go back to Istanbul to see the sites one day. So that transition to the next stage of my year, a few places without formal JDC offices and touchpoints, but interesting Jewish histories.
Stay tuned for Mallorca!