Inside a Turkish Synagogue

Our island has a Greek monastery and a mosque, both of which I’ve seen, but the synagogue’s always been closed whenever I’ve passed. That’s not unusual, as getting into a Jewish temple in Turkey isn’t particularly easy. Most are hidden, set back off the street – and even if you can find the buildings, you have to get past the iron gates which always seem to be padlocked, even when there would normally be a Saturday service. Last Sunday night was Rosh Hashannah, and we knew it just had to be open, so we gave it one last try – and it was.  The people inside (about 35 of them) spoke Hebrew and Ladino, a Hebrew/Spanish dialect – no English or Turkish.  They gave me a Yarmulke and a prayer book which was in Hebrew, with adjoining transliterations (the “Sh”’s transliterate well into Turkish, but they haven’t solved the guttural “H” problem).  Since there was no translation, and since being able to pronounce Hebrew is a far cry from understanding it, I had no idea what was going on.  There was a kadosh – I know this because they stood on their heels three times and held out their hands in a boon-bestowing gesture (but adding a unique hip twist that was more James Brown than Shalom Aleichim). As for the rest: I had no clue, because all the melodies were different from the songs and prayers I learned in my youth.

But despite or because of the language barrier, I loved it. There was no ostentation, no modern milquetoast neo-cultural quasi-spirituality, no moralistic platitudes offered up by a disinterested, overpaid rabbi, no selling tickets to high holy services to support a bloated staff and execrable Hebrew “school,” no fur-wearing zaftig princesses, no dark suit and hat-wearing fanatics – instead, it was just a few dozen of my “Uncle Abie” and his comrades, shlumpy old guys with noses hanging down to their ankles.

I loved that the leaders were casually-dressed, hanging out at the Bimah and then, without warning, pomp or circumstance, the rabbi shlumped up to the stand and then started the service by rapidly mumbling some Hebrew text.  I loved how one of them checked up on me to see if I knew where we were in the text.  I loved the fact that it looked like an abandoned classroom, with fans blowing, and buzzing fluorescent lighting, with fluorescent lights even surrounding the Torah.  I loved the fact that the floor was tiled like bathroom tile, complete with a figure-ground Necker cube pattern that you could play with by squinting your eyes.  And I loved that the seats and walls were completely devoid of “Dedicated to the memory of Solomon Schwartz, whose family gave money to the noble cause of making the room look pretty and support the board’s lifestyle.”  All of these good vibes even made me enjoy the fact that the sexes were separated like in American Orthodox temples. Elif sat upstairs with the women, among about eight wives who were extremely friendly to her and asked her why they hadn’t seen her before.

My own personal convictions have led me to turn away from the religious beliefs of my ancestors, but for a brief instant, I felt at home here, as if among the elders of my childhood.  They, their language, and perhaps their religion, are dying, and I felt as if I had unexpectedly happened upon an extinct species, or that I had the rare chance to visit a crumbling city before it sank into the sands.

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