Far Flung: Turkish Delight
Two marble hands clasped in the center of the empty square. Nearby, my mother and I stood with our tour guide, observing the monument in quiet deference. No plaque of explanation adorned the statue.
“The government built this after the synagogue bombings in ‘03 as a symbol of longstanding solidarity between Turkey and the Jewish people,” Akif explained. He spoke with a confident authority, a tone that was both reassuring and slightly dramatic. Akif was a pro.
“Why isn’t there some kind of sign?”
“Well, they didn’t want to make it a target…”
This proved the theme for the rest of our “Jewish Heritage Tour” in Istanbul. As we walked along the cobblestone roads of the Galata quarter, a historically Jewish neighborhood, my mother and I pressed Akif for more information about Turkish-Jewish relations.
“How long have Jews lived in Istanbul?
“Who were important Jews in Turkish history?”
“Have Jews in Turkey been persecuted?”
Akif fielded all of our questions with ease, but his answers did little to satisfy us. This was our chance to talk to a Turkish Jew, and we were letting it slip through our fingers. What my mother and I really wanted know, we couldn’t bring ourselves to ask: what’s it like to be a Jew in Turkey?
Our next stop was Neve Shalom, the largest synagogue in Istanbul. We approached the giant steel walls that protected the building. The doors loomed ominously, suggesting a bank vault more than a place of worship. After we each passed through the metal detector, a burly security guard gave us vigorous pat downs. Once inside, though, Akif donned a yarmalka and was given the run of the synagogue.
We exited the synagogue at noon. Hungry for lunch, my mother asked if there was a kosher butcher nearby. Akif led us down winding roads, unmarked by street signs, until we reached a small store-front. Although there was no indication that the meat inside was kosher, Akif assured us that all the Jews in the area bought their food here. When we entered, Akif warmly greeted the muscular man behind the counter. The butcher sliced pastrami for us with a giant cleaver, chatting energetically with our guide. We offered Akif some of the deli we’d purchased, and he ate with us under a shady tree outside.
As we shook hands and said our goodbyes, I finally found the courage to ask Akif how long his family had lived in Galata. His brow furrowed in confusion.
The three of us laughed, and we parted ways.