Notes From a Jewish Traveler in Turkey
 
KAHRAMAN MARAS: NOVEMBER 6, 1996

We started to work this morning in the town of Kahraman Maras - a small town in southeastern Turkey where Jews have not lived since 1960. We found the Jewish quarter by asking an older gentleman - a very friendly barber, who left his shop to guide us. He did not know if a synagogue still stood. It had been so many years since the Jews had left, he reminded us - why would there still be a synagogue?

Once we arrived in the quarter, he led us to an older lady who was a native of the Quarter - the Yahudi Mahallesi - a charming area of picturesque houses and narrow, winding streets. Dressed in conservative Muslim garb, yet without veil, this woman seemed to be in her late 50's. She was extremely friendly and open to us and our somewhat-unexpected questions. I suspect she enjoyed the chance to reminisce a bit.

She still lived in the same house in which she lived as a young girl - across the street from where the synagogue stood. Unfortunately, nothing at all remained of the synagogue. A new building had taken its place. The place where the synagogue courtyard once stood is still a courtyard, but completely transformed.

This woman had spent her childhood playing with her Jewish girlfriends - often in the synagogue courtyard. Although it turns out that the building was demolished many years before, this woman could recall in startling and convincing detail many aspects of the synagogue - with great consistency and credibility. She could describe the tevah (pulpit), the Ark, location of windows and many other details. She remembered especially the beauty of the curtain (parochet) in front of the Ark.

This lady gave me a short tour of the former Jewish neighborhood; she pointed out the houses in which the Jewish friends of her childhood lived. She led me to the house where the rabbi once lived - a large and prominent stone house with a projecting semi-circular second-floor balcony from which the rabbi could address the citizens of the Jewish Quarter.

As we strolled through the cobblestoned streets of the Jewish Quarter, all this lady's friends and neighbors, peering out from behind their windows, would ask her (in Turkish) who we are and what on earth we were doing. After her explanation, we would the get inevitable smile and nod of approval.

In recalling her youth, she recounted that these neighbors would ask her to tend to their lights and ovens on Saturday. She recalled how her neighbors would build a sukkah once a year and she remembered the slaughter of chickens for big holidays.

She recalled, by now smiling from ear to ear and really animated, "the crispy, flat crackers" that Jews would eat once a year. When I asked if she was talking about Matzah, she became ecstatic. She asked excitedly if I had any with me.

Unfortunately, it is November.

 
ANTAKYA: NOVEMBER 2, 1996

The ancient city of Antakya (Antioch) is not far from the Syrian border - much closer to Jerusalem than Istanbul. It a city whose past glory has faded. It has a tiny community of 60 Jews.

We arrived here on Thursday afternoon with Selim (an extremely kind shopowner from neighboring Iskendurun - where only three Jewish families remain) who had come with us to make sure things went smoothly) . We had a small feast on Thursday night in a large restaurant on the edge of town, where we stuffed ourselves silly.

On early Friday morning, we began photographing and drawing the synagogue - which straddled two courtyards. The Jewish school was once found in this complex.

Most unusual in the small synagogue is the large half-circular ark. One enters inside the chamber to remove a Sefer Torah. On the outside, it protrudes from the building, the way a mihrab (niche in a mosque denoting the direction of Mecca) protrudes from a mosque.

Even more remarkable are the contents of the Ark: round Sifrei Torah in the traditional Sephardi style (see photo). Each case was covered with a richly-colored velvet and adorned with intricately detailed silver plaques each with their own inscription.

I finished working in Antakya that afternoon and took a walk through the town. On Friday evening, I returned to the synagogue expecting to find a crowd of eight or nine old men.

I was surprised to find not only old men, but many in their 40's and 50's and a few in their 30's. There was a "choir" of six children shouting out the prayers with great fervor and joy.

The service was being led by a man in his late 30's. After services, I went up to this man to wish him Shabat Shalom. Thankfully he spoke English. He asked me who I was and I explained to him what I was doing. I asked him his profession. He answered that he was a Rabbi --- as if I should have known! How could such a small community ever maintain a Rabbi?

He answered that he lives in Istanbul - 1000 km away. Every Thursday afternoon, boards a bus for a 22 hour ride to Antakya to lead Shabat services and teach the kids. And on every Sunday, he returns to Istanbul.

I know that when we get back to the States, people will be amazed by the work we have done here. Yet the story of this man - traveling such a trip every week so this community would not be alone on Shabat and so that there would be someone to teach the kids - is the real story.

 
GAZIANTEP: NOVEMBER 3, 1996

…Often, we would be escorted and overwhelmed by scores of kids following us around, wondering what on earth we are up to, and of course offering to help…. Perhaps today was the most extreme, here in Gaziantep.

Joseph (in Adana) had given us the name of a friend of his who lives here; she is a food journalist who speaks fluent English - a very proud Turkish woman. She had us for dinner, among the best meals we have eaten since we arrived five weeks ago.

It turns out that she had grown up in the Jewish Quarter, in a house with windows looking into the synagogue (not uncommon as all of the houses were once Jewish-owned). She took us to the site in the older part of Gaziantep. After tracking down all sorts of leads trying to find a key, we, we were finally allowed in by a young man who happened to be son of the religious authority, who had jurisdiction over the property. It was probably the first time anyone had entered this property in years.

He let us into the site, and of course, his privileged friends. By then, dozens of others had gathered outside the walls of the courtyard. Not many foreigners make it this far into Turkey (Gaziantep is fairly far east in Turkey in a zone that many consider dangerous) and it must have puzzled the people of this small town when a white minivan full of people and equipment pulled up to this derelict building.

The first thing that struck me about this synagogue was its size. The courtyard stretched between two streets and the synagogue itself must have accommodated hundreds. Although most had collapsed, enough remained for us to reconstruct what the synagogue must have been. We spent the better part of the day working here.

In the mean time, we had about a dozen kids surrounding us. Some were helping hold the other end of the tape measures that Ceren and I were using. Others were eyeing the photographic equipment. None could possibly understand why we were there, yet all were helpful and smiling.

At the end, we swapped addresses and drove off. I turned around to see, behind us and fully occupying the width of the narrow dusty street, dozens of kids all waving to us and wishing us good luck in our travels.

What sticks with me most was the young man who had let us into the synagogue (the son of the religious authority). He is proud of this synagogue and the fact that it is still standing. In fact, he showed me, a certain stone Hebrew plaque had fallen down and had been glued back up. (I did not have the heart to tell him they had reattached it upside down.)

Before we left, we gave out a few cassettes and pens. I thanked the young man profusely. He implored me, as we were leaving, to be sure to tell everyone in America that Turks are good people - hospitable, good-hearted and kind to strangers. He seemed to think that most westerners look down on Turks and it was very important to him that we do not think poorly of his people. He repeated his message a few times.

 
CANNAKALE: NOVEMBER 23, 1996

Our contact today is affectionately known as Yahud Yasar (the Jew Yasar), an extremely likable fellow in his 50's and one of the most popular people in this town. Every street we walk down, people rush to the front of their stores, smile, wave and call out "Yahud Yasar"

He owns a sporting good store and is one of about four Jews who still live in Cannakale - on the Dardanelles - not far from the great WW1 battlegrounds and cemeteries of Galipoli.

Sipping that bitter Turkish tea in his small and crowded store, he tells us a little about the history of the Jewish community. He also tells us that his mother had just died a few days ago. Even though she was born in this town and spent her whole life here, she could not be buried in the local cemetery. They had to take her to Istanbul because there are not enough Jews to form a minyan.

After taking us to the two cemeteries - the new and the old - we finally arrived at the Jewish quarter, a rather charming area of pastel-hued houses. Yasar showed us where he grew up and where his mother had lived.

Arriving at the synagogue, dating from 1886, surrounded by a wall with a gate at the corner of the property, we entered the front courtyard: ahead of us stood an extremely solid stone building with a very elegant and dignified entrance. (A second synagogue once stood next door, but after searching through the scrap metal yard which is now there, I found absolutely nothing).

Thanks to an older man who served as guardian, the synagogue and the courtyard were impeccably maintained, although the entrance to the women's gallery - the stairs to it began in the rear courtyard had been boarded up years before (as had a second entrance to the synagogue directly from a side street).

My favorite part of the synagogue was the Beit Midrash (small sanctuary) - which one entered before the main sanctuary. Large windows connect to the main sanctuary; the inside of Ark is lined with golden-hued metal.

The building itself, solid and well-maintained, could clearly last forever.

But there are only four Jews here in Cannakale.

And the synagogue is not really in use. (Complicated laws dating from the Ottoman Empire often result in unused places of worship being taken over by the government; this has been the fate of many synagogues).

Yet, this synagogue has been saved by the efforts of a few dozen older men in Istanbul who travel here once a year to spend Shabat together in this town. By doing so, the synagogue is still considered to be in use and it is saved for yet a few more years.

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