Sunday, July 22, 2007

"This is us!"

Yesterday, Leah cried. A sweet 70 year old conservative Orthodox Jewish educator let the tears soak her face: "This is us. It's us!" We were on the women's side of the Eyüp Sultan Mosque, originally built in 1458, now the holiest Muslim shrine in Istanbul, just feet away from the tomb of Eyüp Ensari, a companion and standard-bearer of the Prophet Mohammed killed during the Arab siege of Constantinople in 670, and feet away from the street of tombs and Mausoleum of Eyüp, where many illustrious Muslims have been interred since the mid 1400s. Leah, finding it difficult to sit on the floor, looked for a place to lean and "compose" herself while a group of us surrounded her. We wanted to know if she was alright. She said: "This is us, just like us when we go to synagogue. The sounds, the rituals--they are us." Later, Leah assured us that she was okay, that she'd been overwhelmed by the realization that the practices in a mosque and synagogue, that Islam and Judaism, are so very similar. She was overcome. I will always remember Leah's aged face, tears flowing freely, wise words barely audible: "This is us!"

These Muslim boys in their festive dress played in the courtyard of the Eyüp Sultan Mosque while awaiting their circumsicion ceremony. The day is a holiday for the family (like it is for Christians when they Baptize their babies, or for Catholics when their children receive the sacraments of First Communion and Confirmation, and like it is for Jews during Bris rite and Bar Mitzvah; all of these events symbolize admission into the community of believers). Later, while walking around town, I saw this store that sells all of the clothes that boys need for that special day.

Today, we visited the Museum of Turkish Jews located (in a building restored by Jews in the late 1800s) in Galata, where, starting with those who were deported from Spain in 1492, Jews have made a thriving neighborhood. There I learned that the presence of Jews in Turkey predates the arrival of Sephardim from Spain; in fact, the historian Josephus Flavius told Aristotle that he "met Jewish people with whom he had an exchange of views during his trip across Asia Minor." Ancient synagogue ruins have been found that date back to 220 BC.
Turkey has always welcome Jews: early in the 14th century Karaites came from Europe and settled in Edirne; Jews expelled from Hungary in 1376, from France in September 1394, and from Sicily and Salonika early in the 15th century found refuge in Turkey. A most interesting display shows an original letter written by Albert Einstein to the President of the Cabinet of Ministers of the Turkish Republic on September 10, 1933. He writes:

Your Excellency,

As Honorary President of the World Union "OZE" I beg to apply to Your Excellency to allow forty professors and doctors from Germany to continue their scientific and medical work in Turkey. The above mentioned cannot practice further in Germany on account of the laws governing there now. The majority of these men possess vast experience, knowledge and scientific merits and could prove very useful when settling in a new country.

Out of a great number of applicants our Union has chosen forty experienced specialists and prominent scholars, and is herewith applying to Your Excellency to permit these men to settle and practice in your country. These scientists are willing to work for a year without any remuneration in any of your institutions, according to the orders of your Government.

In supporting this application, I take the liberty to express my hope, that in granting this request your Government will not only perform an act of high humanity, but will also bring profit to your own country.

I have the honour to be,
Your Excellency's obedient servant

After the Jewish migration to Israel, the community diminished and today it is estimated at around 25,000. The vast majority live in Istanbul; about 2,500 live in Izmir and other smaller groups are dispersed throughout the country. Sephardim make up 96% of the community, and Ashkenazim account for most of the rest; there are about 100 Karaites. In Istanbul, there are 18 synagogues in active use.

I'm always interested in the individual stories, in people's versions of their own realities, because, essentially, that's what truly constructs both single and collective identity and thus so very much else. At the Jewish Museum I also found a most moving testament by Melvin Fingerut. (Here's a picture of his passport.) He writes:

My paternal grandfather Joseph, who owned a sort of carriage factory in Rusia--before the Bolshevik Revolution--arrived in Philadelphia (USA) in 1913 and opened a grocery store in the Tolga district. My grandfather and some close cousins named Fingles, sent money to support the family while they were still in Russia. His wife, my grandmother Anna (46) and my father's siblings; my uncle Godel* (9), my aunts Malte* (11) and Rosa* (15), arrived from Southampton (UK), on December 18, 1923. As my father Nathan had had a bone surgery on his leg, the family did not think he would pass the health check at Ellis Island. He had a long, big and dark purple scar on his leg. They thought he would have to stay in Russia, for a while. Meanwhile, the family devised a plan to get him in Istanbul through Odessa. A bank account may have been established there for him or money sent to someone trusted. He was 19 and thus he could not enter the US on his father's papers. But he succeeded to get a Turkish Passport as a Russian Political Refugee, showing him as 17 years old. To escape the health check at Ellis Island, the family got him enough money to buy a ticket to go to Cherbourg through Marseilles and Paris, then to travel to New York on a First Class--as the First Class passengers by-passed the health checks upon arriving in New York. That's how my father Nathan Fingerut assured entry to US, as a minor under his father's papers. The Turkish passport saved his life and allowed me being ever born.
*Names changed upon arrival to USA: Godel = Gordon, Malte = Mae, Rosa = Rose

Talk about going to extremes in order to make it into the "land of opportunity"! The cycle continues...

For me, today ended with a walk up and down Istikâl Caddesi (street) in Taksim Square, the hub of activity in the modern Beyoglu area of Istanbul. (Well, the day's not quite ended; I am sitting up on the roof terrace of the hotel, overlooking the gorgeously lit Blue Mosque, listening to Sezen Aksu, the "Queen of Turkish pop," out of my laptop, writing and sipping delicious white Cappadocian wine.) Istikâl street was known as the Grande Rue de Pera, because it is lined with grandiose apartment buildings, gates, European embassies, and tucked in the background many churches that still serve the Christian community. I spent a long time inside the Church of Saint Anthony of Padua, Istanbul's largest Catholic church. Apparently, I had just missed Sunday mass, so I inspected the glorious stain glass windows and then found a corner from where I watched people.

No comments: