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Talking Turkey

May 31, 2007 By:
Aaron Dalton, JE Feature
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The Ahrida Synagogue

 Among the winding, bustling corridors of Istanbul's Grand Bazaar, at one of the thousands of small shops selling carpets, lamps, scarves, artwork and more, I chanced upon a jewelry store whose wares included pendants of the Israeli flag and several Stars of David.

Jews represent only a tiny percentage of the Turkish nation -- perhaps just 25,000 people, mostly Sephardim, within a total population of more than 70 million Turks.

The vast majority of Turks (more than 99 percent) are considered by the state to be Muslim although a number of these nominal Muslims are self-described secularists. Recently tensions have grown between observant Turkish Muslims and those Turks who wish to continue the secularist traditions instilled by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey, in 1923.

In April, when I visited Istanbul -- Turkey's largest city and its financial center -- these tensions spilled over into the street when hundreds of thousands of people rallied in support of the Republic's secularist ideals. Since then, rallies have continued in other Turkish cities including Ankara and Izmir, where crowds on May 13 may have surpassed 1 million strong.

In any case, the secular nature of the Turkish state has enabled the government to maintain good relations with Israel for years. The two countries cooperate regularly on matters related to business, energy and the military. More than 300,000 Israeli tourists visit Turkey each year.

The Israelis find in Turkey a country with a long history of welcoming Jews. In 1492, when the Jews were expelled from Spain, they found safe haven in the Ottoman Empire. Indeed, the sultan of Turkey, Beyazid II, known as "Beyazid the Just," even sent the Ottoman navy to Spain to rescue fleeing Jews.

Some of those Jews who arrived in Turkey in the 15th century may have worshiped at Istanbul's Ahrida Synagogue. Today, Jewish visitors to Istanbul can apply through the office of Turkey's chief rabbi for permission to visit Ahrida. Photography is prohibited inside Ahrida, so travelers will have to take a mental picture of the beautiful bimah shaped like the prow of a ship -- or perhaps modeled after Noah's Ark.

Unfortunately, due to security concerns, tourists are not allowed to participate in Ahrida's Shabbat services at this time. If you wish to join a minyan and pray in Istanbul, the best place to visit is Neve Shalom (www.neveshalom.org), the largest synagogue in Istanbul. Opened in 1951, the synagogue must now operate under heavy security as a result of the three terrorist attacks that have struck the congregation over the last 20 years.

In 1986, 22 Jewish worshippers died after two Arab terrorists entered Neve Shalom during prayer services and laid waste with guns, gasoline and grenades. When security was tightened after that attack, the terrorists resorted to exploding a car bomb in the street outside.

In 2003, such an assault destroyed the front of the synagogue and killed both Jews and their Muslim friends and neighbors.

Strength Despite Numbers
Despite these heinous attacks, the Jewish community in Istanbul remains strong. Deniz Baler Saporta, the press representative of Turkey's Jewish community, says that Jews in Turkey rarely encounter anti-Semitism in their daily lives. The intermarriage rate is believed to be only about 25 percent, relatively low in comparison with the much larger community in the United States.

As a Jew visiting Istanbul, I did not feel like a stranger. I was a minority, but one whose members had been welcomed by the vast majority of Turks as a part of their community for hundreds of years.

I could slip right into the haggling chaos of the bazaar or sit above it all on the terrace of a rooftop restaurant and watch the illuminated minarets cast their glow across the hills of Istanbul.

Info to Go
Turkish Airlines flies nonstop from New York City's JFK airport to Istanbul. For details, visit: www.thy.com/en-US.

As for lodging: The Eresin Crown Hotel (www.eresincrown.com.tr; 011-90-212-638-4428) is conveniently close to the famous sites of Istanbul; the Divan Hotel (www.summithotels.co; 011-90-212-315-5500) is a better choice if you prefer to be closer to the synagogues and the shopping areas of Taksim Square.

Interested in Neve Shalom? If you wish to visit simply as a tourist, phone Neve Shalom for an appointment (011-90-212-292-03-86). Show up at the synagogue with your passport. You will also need to have your hotel or travel agency fax your full name, citizenship information and passport number to: 011-90-212-292-03-85.

To visit Ahrida, make an appointment through Turkey's chief rabbi by e-mailing: info@musevicemaati.com or calling (011-90- 212-243-5166). Again, it is probably best to bring your passport with you to the synagogue.


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