Anatolian Sephardic traditions through the eyes of a Jewish woman

Karen Gerson Sarhon

Originally living in and later expelled from Spain in the 15th century, Istanbul’s Sephardic Jewish community is also a part of the city’s multicultural scene. Karen Gerson Şarhon, the head of the Ottoman-Turkish Sephardic Cultural Research Center, talks about the life of Sephardic Jews, their cuisine and religious traditions through her own experiences

Toward the end of the 1400s, the infamous Queen Isabella I of Castile and Ferdinand II of Aragon, known as the “Catholic kings,” decided to make Spain a Catholic kingdom. The monarchs ordered all Muslims and Jews who refused to adopt Catholicism to leave the Spanish lands. Ottoman Sultan Bayezid I welcomed a large majority of them to the empire. These people whose migration continued until the end of the 16th century called themselves “Sephardic,” which is the Hebrew word for “Spain.”

Karen Gerson Sarhon (L) and Daily Sabah’s Merve Baran

The mother tongue of the 15th century Sephardic communities featured certain dialects of Spanish that had been spoken in the regions they came from. All these dialects, the most popular of which was Castilian, merged into one and took its own form in the following 500 years. This language is called Judeo-Spanish, meaning the Spanish of the Jews. The Sephardic community lived in Edirne, the former capital of the Ottoman Empire, as well as İzmir for centuries and migrated to big cities – especially during the Republican era.

Since the 15th century, the societies and cultures have interacted with each other. Yet many people are unaware of the Sephardic culture that still lives in Turkey, followed by around 15,000 people in the country. Although these communities have coexisted for centuries, modern politics, geographical discourses and the reluctance to learn about each other are the main reasons that this unique community is separated from Turkish culture.

Istanbul’s Galata quarter was home to a significant Jewish population from the early 1900s until the 1940s and 1950s. Previously, the Jews in the Ottoman Empire settled in Istanbul’s Balat, Hasköy, Ortaköy, Haydarpaşa and Kuzguncuk neighborhoods. Kuzguncuk was considered to be the “Jerusalem of Istanbul” at that time. Many shoemakers, grocers and butchers in the districts were run by Jewish people and the shopkeepers spoke a language called Ladino. During our interview with Karen Gerson Şarhon, the head of the Ottoman-Turkish Sephardic Cultural Research Center, we talked about how the interactions between different cultures over the centuries are reflected in Turkish-Jewish traditions. Şarhon was born into a Sephardic family, studied at Robert’s College in Istanbul and Boğaziçi University’s Department of English Language and Literature, and she prepared her social psychology master’s thesis on Ladino. She continued her activities through the “Dostluk Yurdu Derneği” (the Association of Friendship Land) and grew interested in art during the 1970s. After her retirement from academia, she founded the Istanbul Sephardic Centre in 2003 to keep the unique culture alive. Şarhon also received the medal of Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres from the French government for her efforts to document and preserve the Judeo-Spanish language.

Daily Sabah: Could you talk about Sephardic cuisine and “kashrut” (kosher), referring to Jewish dietary rules?

Karen Gerson Şarhon: There are foods eaten only by Jews and unfamiliar to other communities. For instance, “Atramuz” is a kind of chickpea known as a “Jewish bean” in Turkey. Only fishmongers sell it and it is still consumed in Spain. There is also a fish that Jews frequently prefer eating. We call it Gaya fish; however, it is generally called rockling fish. When we were little, fishmongers used to visit our neighborhood on Thursdays as they knew that the Jews would buy the fish for Friday dinner. Traditionally, we ate fish on Fridays. I do not know why rockling fish is preferred among Jews. Spanish Jews consume that fish, yet it is not a tradition among other Jewish communities.

I have always wondered whether the name of “kashar” cheese is related to our culture or not. Once I directed this question to history professor Rena Molho, who came from Greece. She told me that this cheese is called “kashkaval” in the Balkans. Moreover, she said this type of cheese was introduced to Anatolia by the Jews. She also said the cheese stays fresh for a long period of time and is halal. During our travel to Cordoba, we were offered “kashar” cheese, which is similar to the “kashar” in Turkey. The only difference was that they served the cheese with olive oil. They said the cheese is called “queso manchego” and it is unique to their region. However, I told them that we have the same cheese in Turkey.

The Jews who escaped the Inquisition passed through the Bay of Gibraltar and settled in Morocco. Some mentioned a specific fish consumed by Moroccan Jews that is also considered kosher. When I learned this, I talked to historian Naim Güleryüz. He said the Jews that migrated to the Ottoman Empire during that period settled in Thrace. According to him, they ran dairy farms and produced cheese that was called “kashar,” meaning “halal” in their language. In addition, the sponge cake known as “boyoz,” which is a pastry unique to İzmir, was also brought to Anatolia by the Jews. The name “boyoz” is derived from the Judeo-Spanish word “borekas.” This pastry had a profound impact on İzmir’s culture. Furthermore, almond paste obviously belongs to our culture. You can come across almond paste anywhere from Toledo to Masapan; however, the paste in Turkey tastes better. When people move from one place to another, they bring their culture’s cuisine with them and it becomes more refined over time, as we have seen with almond paste and peanut butter. Namely, Antalya’s special paste made with almond and peanut tastes better than anything.

Also, drinking wine is a tradition in our festivities, while we consume rakı (a strong Turkish spirit flavored with anise) at funerals. Since rakı is a strong alcoholic beverage, it is believed to eliminate sorrow. At funerals, cookies are prepared with rakı. The foods to be served at a funeral are shaped in a circle, referring to the symbol of “Ouroboros,” (the cycle of life). We consume olives or eggs at funerals as well.

The most important rule in kashrut is that you should not mix meat and milk. The Torah says that while eating a baby lamb’s meat, it is like you are drinking the milk of the animal’s mother, which is seen as something cruel. Ashkenazi Jews are more devoutly religious than the Sephardic community. Some Ashkenazi Jews have two different sets of tableware and design two different kitchens. According to religious belief, one is allowed to eat meat two hours after drinking milk. Alternatively, you can drink milk six hours after eating meat. We do not make buttered rice when we have meals. However, we can cook something with cheese while having fish for dinner. On the other hand, this rule also applies to chicken although chickens do not milk their chicks. In the past, women were careful while preparing the menu for the festivities. During Passover, oven-roasted lamb, potatoes and sweet peas are served as the main dish, but no meal containing milk is served. When we make pastries filled with spinach we do not use cheese. Considering all these rules, we do not eat “mantı” or “iskender” as they are served with yogurt. Salt, black pepper, lemon, sugar and olive oil are the main ingredients of Sephardic cuisine. We do not have various types of dessert. For instance, “ayva helvası” (oven baked quince in thick syrup) came to our land from Spain. Quinces are pulped and mixed with sugar for one-and-a-half hours. When it becomes hard, it breaks into pieces and is served.

DS: How did “maftirim” emerge?

KGŞ: Maftirim is a kind of hymn that emerged in Edirne in the 16th century. It is performed with Turkish classical music maqams. There used to be a place near the Edirne Synagogue where “hazans” (cantors) used to perform it, especially after Saturday prayers. Sometimes Sufis accompanied them at the synagogue. For years, they visited each other to perform the hymns. The Jewish society in Edirne published a book featuring 500 maftirims. The head of the synagogue choir was responsible for training others, and beginners were later given senior positions. After the 1934 Thrace pogroms, the Jewish people left the area and the choir ceased to exist. Some of them settled in South America and Australia, but a large portion came to Istanbul and continued the tradition. In the early 1980s, three maftirim masters – David Behar, Itzhak Maçoro and David Sevi – gathered to record 63 compositions in a studio established at a synagogue. Until 2003, when our foundation was established, they did not do any other work on this project. Nevertheless, I asked them to release the hymns. It took six years, since some compositions are hand-written and we transferred them to a digital format. We also discovered some makams like “Nühüft,” which we had not known before. The compositions had to be translated because all our publications are released in Turkish, English and Ladino. We learned that there was only one person who could do this. Previously living in Kuzguncuk, Professor Isaac Yerushalmi was an academic and religious man teaching in the U.S. He can speak 16 languages and translated the compositions into Ladino and English. The project was an arduous task because Hebrew is a language without vowels. A friend of mine, Professor Tova Beeri from Tel Aviv helped us add vowels to the piece. The preface was written by the world’s only maftirim expert, Professor Edwin Seroussi, who is also the head of the Department of Music at the University of Jerusalem. Our work was purchased by nearly all universities in the U.S. Along with six-hour maftirim selection, a one-hour DVD was released as well. The project is special for us because we keep 63 mafitirims alive through the album.

DS: What does “entravista” mean? Is it still practiced?

KGŞ: There used to be professional matchmakers called “kazamentra,” who visited neighborhoods to see young girls. They used to decide which girl can be ideal for men in the area. There was also a dowry tradition known as “dota.” Girls used to give dowries to men. If a girl offered a good dowry then she could find many men. Otherwise, girls who were not beautiful enough and without a dowry could not get married. The kazamentras were responsible for organizing them. The term “entravista” refers to the couple’s meeting. In the past, Sephardic girls got married when their menstruation periods began. There was a belief that it was religiously favorable to have the wedding night on a Friday. Until the 1980s, girls without a dota could not get married. Whether or not they had a good job or education, they could not get married. After the 1990s, families gathered to solve the problem. As you know, marriages do not happen at young ages now.

DS: Baby showers seem to be a popular and modern cultural tradition, yet it has existed for years in the Sephardic community. What do you call it? Could you explain how you organize baby showers?

KGŞ: “Fashadura” is a tradition of Sephardic Jews in Turkey. In the fifth or seventh month of pregnancy – generally waiting until the threat of miscarriage has passed – expecting mothers have a women-only party. Men join these parties in the evening. Family members have a special dinner, which is actually an Eastern tradition. In the past, a baby’s sex was not known before the birth but now we organize the parties based on the baby’s sex. First, we buy raw fabric that symbolizes long life and choose someone to cut the cloth to make a snap suit. The parents of the person who cuts it must be alive as we believe that the baby will then live with his parents. The cloth is cut long to symbolize the baby’s long life. We spread gold coins and white sugar on it. This practice is associated with a fertile and happy life. We give our best wishes and the person makes a snap suit, which will then be brought to the hospital when the baby is born. This is the first outfit a baby wears. Other friends also give presents. Fashadura later spread to U.S. and other countries, and the baby shower holds a special place in popular culture.

Different ethnic communities live together in Istanbul. When I was a child, we used to live in a four-story building in Harbiye. Madam Nevart, an Armenian woman, used to live upstairs, while Madam Fofo, a Greek woman, lived above her. Ayşe Hanım, a Muslim woman, was living downstairs. The gardens used to face each other. On the opposite building lived an Armenian woman, Madam Shake. On the other side, there was Madam Rachel. We used to sit on the balcony in the evening. My father had a beautiful voice and we used to sing songs. All neighbors used to make pastries, and our evenings passed with joy. Women were sharing recipes with eac

h other. I was 5 or 6, but I never forgot that atmosphere. I believe Turkey should be like that again; there must still be hope. For me, these are all necessary for being a good person. You must spread joy to other people. I believe this kind of person is the most religious one.


Read more on these topics: