Thoughts from Turkey, Day 3

“Religion is personal but not private.”

Day three was perhaps my most stressful day, if only because I was tasked with arranging the Jewish elements of the trip.  I had instructions to arrange a visit with the Chief Rabbi of Turkey and to set up a visit to Neve Shalom synagogue.  Throughout the last month, I have been in regular contact, trying to confirm exact start times and to adhere to the necessary requirements to make the visit a meaningful one.  As of last night, I still did not have confirmation of an exact time to visit the synagogue.  In order to see why this would be a problem, read the next paragraph, lovingly titled, “A Beginner’s Guide to Jews in Turkey.”

Jews have lived in Turkey since 4 BCE and thrived under Byzantine rule.  When the Ottoman’s occupied Turkey in the 1300s, Sultan Mehmed II wanted to rebuild the ruined city of Constantinople.  So, he “invited” Jews, Christians and Muslims to move to the city.  The Jews viewed this as an expulsion and relocation from their homes, but still resettled.  When Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492, they were invited in to Turkey and were welcomed into the business class of the country.  By the 1500s, the Jewish community reached 30,000 and there were 44 synagogues.  While Jews were taxed at a higher rate, they lived in relative security in Istanbul, even while Jews in other locations in the Ottoman Empire were being persecuted (Yemen, Jerusalem and Sefat especially).  By the start of the 20th century, there were 500,000 Jews in the Ottoman Empire, though as the Ottoman Empire began to decline after WWI, that number began to decrease.  In 1942, Turkey instituted a Wealth Tax that forced all non-Muslims to either pay a huge tax or lose every possession and be deported.  This impacted the Jews very hard.  There were some sad stories about the Jews in Turkey during WWII (google the Struma disaster) and pogroms as late as 1955, and today there are only 23,000 Jews in all of Turkey.  The most recent wave of anti-Semitism occurred against the synagogues, specifically Neve Shalom.  On September 6, 1986, a gunman killed 22 Jews during Shabbat services in the sanctuary; in 1992, Hizbollah bombed the shul (nobody was hurt), and in 2003, two synagogues were targeted with bombs exploding, killing 20 and injuring 300, most of whom were Muslims.

Okay, so that is the history part.  Now let me explain what was so : I was tasked with presenting this history and introducing the major components of the day to our group.  The problem is that the last two days have been wonderfully positive Masjid tours, understanding the beauty of Islam and the beauty of Turkey, and here I am, tasked with introducing the group to Judaism and to the Jews of Turkey.  I was unsure how I could do so without turning the day into a sad report about a dying and dismal community.

We began by going to Neve Shalom synagogue, and I relayed much of the history from above to the group.  I also asked them to think about their identity in their Muslim American/Jewish American/Christian American identity, which is the noun and which is the adjective?  I painted the story of the Jews of Turkey as a story of identity and safety.

It took our little group of 18 people 30 minutes to clear security at Neve Shalom, and when we got to the sanctuary, I was skeptical.  But that’s when it hit me- I saw my fellow pilgrims entering our sacred prayer space; the Jews looking with awe at the ritual objects that are both familiar and foreign; the Muslims and Christians, many of whom had never stepped foot in a synagogue, treading lightly so as not to offend but looking around with eyes that conveyed excitement, not unease.  That was the moment when I learned my most important lesson of the day: that all I needed to do was to sit back and trust that my fellow travelers would narrate their own experience.  Jewish tradition has a concept of tzim-tzum; that when God wanted to create the world, the universe was filled with God’s presence and there was no room to create. So God willingly retracted to leave an empty space and in that empty space God began to create.  For me, I needed to educate and fill the space with some information, but then I needed just to close my mouth, step back, and have faith in my friends.

And it was truly a lovely visit.  The synagogue is pretty and were it only for the architecture I would have been satisfied.  But my friends asked questions… and then asked more questions… and then more.  Their curiosity was inspired; the knowledge possessed by my fellow Jewish pilgrims affirming as they offered to answer many of the questions themselves.  Tzim-tzum: step back and see what fills that space.

Following they synagogue we met with the Chief Rabbi of Turkey, a kind and energetic gentle man who relayed to us the story of the Jews of Turkey and his involvement.  this proved to be a highlight for my fellow pilgrims and for me; this wise man authored the quote that began this blog and has an approach to interfaith relations founded upon a layer of pain.  See, the rabbi was attending Beit Israel synagogue when the bomb went off in 2003.  By chance, he was resting his book on his lap and it fell to the ground.  He bent down to pick it up when a truck bomb outside was detonated, sparing him (he would have been killed) but injuring his son.  In fact, his son almost died and required more than a dozen surgeries to function again.  The rabbi considered responding with rage or sadness and decided that those emotions would not ultimately be effective.  So in his pain and guilt he reached out to Muslim colleagues to heal the rift between the communities.  Since that day, he was been dedicated to bridge-building between the faiths.

Allow me to share three other small teachings of the rabbi with you:

1. America “gets it”- we understand the link between our secular society and our spiritual life.  In fact, we put it right there on our money: In God We Trust.  We must rely on currency but we must use it to forward Gods will.

2. The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict is not a conflict between Jews and Muslims; it is a conflict over land.  And we must not allow others to make it a holy war- it is a turf war.

3. Our tears can give way to positivity and beauty.  Consider the cemetery, bastion of tears yet filled with flowers.  Our tears provide water to the grass and flowers- we must recognize that a sad history does not necessarily mean one needs a sad present and future.

We left the Rabbi and went on a boat ride and tour on the Bosphorus River, giving us an opportunity to process the rabbi’s visit and our own journey before heading into the Grand Bazaar.  With over 4000 stores, this is the largest Bazaar in the world (or it used to be) and is a prime location for bargaining.  It was truly amazing- tons and tons of everything one could ever want!  I did not make a purchase… but we will return on Monday. 🙂

We then returned to the hotel for dinner and conversation, followed by a trip (for some of us) to yet another bar in Istanbul.  We had a great time, filling the night air with real philosophical and religious discourse.

Today was a hard day.  A good day, but a hard day.  And the take away is this: God gives us laughter and tears, laughter and tears.  Both go hand-in-hand.  My group did a lot of laughing today, and in our reflections this evening there were a lot of tears.  I realized that today I learned less about religion and less about the other pilgrims.  Today I learned a lot about myself.

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Also check out for another perspective.

Published in: on April 22, 2010 at 10:59 pm  Comments (1)  

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  1. When a place is holy – and many are, not only places of worship – the atmosphere is permeated with the reverence, awe, love, and peace of all who have been there before. The breath, and sweat, and voices, of all who labored in the physical creation of the place, remains bound in its walls. Every tear and heartache, every laugh from every simcha, is captured, as if distilled into a bottle of the finest perfume. And when carefully opened, and delicately sought, one will be moved and changed forever by its fragrance. Such is the story of man’s relationship with the force that is beyond naming.

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