Sara Liss
The Jews of Istanbul, p.3

Living with the Jewish community I felt admitted to a secret club that was accessible to me as a Jew. And yet living in Istanbul I also felt for the first time like I was a Jew in the Diaspora. I could not freely admit I was Jewish, wear shirts with Hebrew writing, distribute flyers about Jewish events with dates, times, and locations listed, or express Zionism in any public setting. The Istanbul community does not ask that its country treat it differently; Turkish Jews work within the confines of their complicated society because they are attached to it. Descended from Spanish Jews, they are no strangers to maintaining Jewish identities in secret. Through a combination of security concerns and cultural skepticism, that same sensibility has threaded its way through the Turkish Jews of today.

I was surprised how safe I felt, how unnecessary all the security measures seemed, how unlikely it seemed that our reserved Turkish neighbors would target the Jews in their midst. My Turkish friends were proud of the Jewish communities in their country both because their coexistence signified progress and civility in a world where the relationship between Jews and Muslims were increasingly, heartbreakingly deteriorating, and - in yet another contradiction -- because the Jews were exotic and curious, a pocket of nonconformity in a country where Ataturk's portrait graces every office, school classroom, and grocery store. To be religious in Turkey requires a specific brand of skewed logic which only comes to make more sense as one drinks more Raki, the ubiquitous licorice-flavored liquor. I spent many evenings listening to fierce debates between religious Muslim and Ataturkists, who advocated the prohibition of women wearing religious head-coverings in University or government buildings. In Turkey religion itself must be handled delicately, slowly, slowly.

Last month's bombings shattered all of that.

Until last week, the Jews of Istanbul were content to operate their well-organized community quietly. Now they have been forced further underground. The youth groups have stopped meeting, the synagogues have closed down for fear of further attacks, and instead people meet in secret locations for Shabbat services. The funerals are over, but there are still members of the community recovering in the hospital. No one is sure how to proceed.

Though this isn't the first time Istanbul Jews have experienced terror at their houses of worship, these attacks came at a time where the Jews were looking hopefully to the future. Turkey's candidacy for EU membership and the "regime change" in Iraq were seen by the Jewish community as signs that finally, haltingly, the Muslim world was hulking its way to modernity and democracy. That Turkey's struggle to maintain a secular republic would not go unnoticed. That Jews and Muslims could live together peacefully. What's more, these attacks, unlike earlier ones, were perpetrated by Turks -- albeit Turks with "Al Qaeda sympathies." It turns out the enemy is, indeed, next door. So what now?

I thought of the embattled Turkish community recently, when one of the Hebrew school students, in the sleepy Fort Lauderdale suburb where I teach, asked "Ms. Liss, why is there a policeman stationed outside our school?" Even here, we feel insecure -- how does a teacher in Istanbul answer such a question?

The impression I had of the Jewish community last year was that it was slowly declining, a result of assimilation and a lack of affiliation. No one is in a rush to leave Turkey. Many of the Jewish teenagers I worked with in Istanbul loved to visit Israel and had many relatives there, but they did not consider aliyah a real option. I found that most Turks rarely travel; the idea of moving to another country seemed a bit too rash, too risky.

This summer, the friend whose father died at the Neve Shalom attack years ago did make aliyah, after years of deliberation. One conversation we had a year ago about this decision centered around his reluctance to leave Turkey. He was comfortable in Turkey; he felt closer to Turks than to Israelis. "I feel that if I go to Israel it will be a new page for me." Deciding to leave for him was not about safety or security, since, given his experiences, both places could be equally threatening. Daunting though it seemed, he chose to leave his country because he believed he had something to put on that "new page."

Most Jews of Istanbul, however, will probably decide to stay, though with more heavily fortified synagogues and secretive organizations than before. They will be, like so many other Jewish communities scattered around the globe, a source of culture and pride, albeit one increasingly hidden behind walls and security guards.

[1]       [2]       3
Top image: Ankara synagogue (Jewish virtual library)
Lower image: Aftermath of the Neve Shalom Bombing (CNN)

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January 2004

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James Russell

The Jews of Istanbul
Sara Liss

The Truth about the Rosenbergs
Joel Stanley

Thinking despite Doubt, Feeling despite Truth
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Zeek in Print
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From previous issues:

The Gifts of the German Jews
Michael Shurkin

Carrying Light into Dark Times
Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi

The Mall Balloon-Man Moment of the Spirit
Dan Friedman