The Turkish Paradox

am standing outside the Ortaky Synagogue in Istanbul, waiting to daven Shacharit and staring at the barrel of a submachine gun. Security officials need to check our passports. Again. No passport, no religion.

This is only one of the paradoxes of Turkey, the country where the army issued a statement threatening to interfere in elections if a religious Muslim is elected. Yet armed police guard the synagogues protecting freedom of religion.

Turks take their secularism very seriously. Mustafa Kamel Ataturk’s frowning face looks down from signs on every building, silently watching, reminding Turks that patriotism is God now.

Even the Jewish community, which has its fair share of deeply rooted traditions and unique attitudes, has not escaped Ataturk’s glare. When being a Turk manifests itself in ways that are contrary to Judaism, Ataturk always wins. Kippot are never worn, not even in the company of other Jews or in a Jewish school, only in synagogue and only during services.

Rabbi Jacob J. Schacter, professor and senior scholar at Yeshiva University’s Center for the Jewish Future, said that “[Turkish Jews] want to be accepted as part of the larger Turkish republic and so have adopted its fundamental value system,”? but do not necessarily believe in it. Instead Turkish Jews desperately try to fit into a society that – between its Muslim majority and secular government – has little room for them.

Religious fanaticism takes on a new significance in Turkey. To the secular Turk, religion itself is considered fanatical. Anyone seen praying in a synagogue is labeled as strange. There is no concept of modern, thinking people involving themselves in religion; these concepts are mutually exclusive. It is impossible to live in both worlds.

The new secular elite needs malls and Starbucks. A young Jewish Turk we met told us Starbucks tastes better than Turkish coffee anyway.

But the Turkish Jewish community is slowly changing this misconception. Today, Turkish Jewry is growing by leaps and bounds. There is a renaissance of Jewish learning. Turkish Jews who would never be seen in a synagogue are now going and staying for classes and programs.

The Jewish community in Turkey has existed in some form since the 4th century BCE. Jews attained high positions in the sultan’s court as physicians and treasurers. After the expulsion from Spain in 1492 the sultan welcomed the Jews and their business to the Turkish Empire where the Jews who could get there settled and generally lived comfortably.

After the Turkish War of Independence the modern Republic of Turkey was founded on Oct. 29, 1923. Ataturk became the first president. “Our country has some elements who gave the proof of their fidelity to the motherland. Among them I have to quote the Jewish element; up to now the Jews have lived in happiness and from now they will rejoice and will be happy,” President Ataturk said in February 1923.

Seventy years later, the Beth Israel and Neve Shalom synagogues in Istanbul are blown up by al Qaeda truck bombs. Twenty-seven people, mostly Turkish Muslims, are killed and over 300 injured.

The Neve Shalom Synagogue, located in the Beyolu district across the Golden Horn from the old city, holds Jewish weddings almost daily. The bride and groom stand together under a wedding canopy framed by bits of shrapnel still stuck in the wall.

Aaron Ashkenazi, a Jewish teen whose family has lived in Istanbul for over 500 years, was there that fateful day, Nov. 15, 2003. He rescued the Torah scrolls from the remains of the synagogue. Aaron says that despite all this he has never been in a situation where he felt unsafe among the mostly Muslim population. He simply believes that there are “crazy people in every country” and that Turkey is no exception.

I take my obligatory tourist photo. Today we will tour 10 of Istanbul’s synagogues, get our passports checked ten times, and say teshekkar to 10 heavily armed police officers.

The Ahrida Synagogue in Balat, the Jewish quarter on the European side of Istanbul, is the oldest synagogue in use today. It is famous for its tevah, an ark-shaped platform in the middle of the synagogue where the cantor stands.

We were very late for the tour and two older women with a big brown dog begrudgingly opened the gate for us. There are no lights; the floors are coated with dust and in the middle stands a beautiful wooden boat.

Before the thought even enters our mind the old woman appears “No photo!” she screams. We jump. “No photo,” her friend repeats. No photos indeed.

We begin scouting out the scene, waiting to pounce when they are not looking but the women are quick and confiscate one of our cameras. We sit down in desperation, if nothing else we will get a mental photo. But they shoo us out.

Once in the courtyard one of the women mumbles that she will allow us to take a photo from the outside. No one else hears, but I decide to take her up on the offer and steady my camera for the shot.

The flash goes off, the dog pounces. I am on the ground, the dog has my leg. I kick, get away, and run towards the exit. The women are amused.

The dog has knocked some sense into me; I am beginning to understand.

From the perspective of the women of the Ahrida Synagogue, we are simply a group of camera wielding Americans. We can feel no connection to the place they guard, we can have no part in it. They are stuck in the classic Turkish frame of mind where religion and modernity cannot coexist.

The struggle of the new Turkish Jewry and indeed all of Turkish society, is to find a feasible balance. With the growing size and influence of Islam in Turkey, it is likely that the balance will be shifted far to the other side towards religious fanaticism and an Islamic state. It is yet to be seen exactly how these two forces will interact in the long term.

Murat Bildirici, a leader of Istanbul’s Jewish community, says that while living this paradox day in and day out the two diametrically opposed influences simply blur. When asked to describe which he felt more significantly-religion or secularism-he simply answered, “I believe it is both.”

Turkey will not survive as a society of extremes. The only hope for a modern Turkey and the only hope for the Jews is to stare right back at Ataturk and bravely charge down the middle road.

Yoni Teitz
Grade: senior at the Marsha Stern Talmudical Academy in Manhattan.


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