Josh Lavian traveled to Turkey after Livnot’s Northern Exposure Israel program and shared some of his impressions with us.
For my Friday night in Turkey I wanted to find the Istanbul Synagogue. I could not find info for it anywhere.
The address and actual emails are not functioning or listed for security purposes. I was put in touch with a UCB law student currently interning for the World Bank here. He gave me directions but no specific address. He told me I’d recognize it by all the security. I had to email a copy of my passport to the rabbi beforehand.
I got off the metro at a massively busy intersection. Think six times Telegraph and Bancroft wıth buildings five times as tall but not as tall as New York or downtown LA. Tuvac (basically shwarma) shops, fruıt and nut shops, backlava shops and busınesses everywhere. Zero tourısts. All Turkish speakers. After 30 mınutes of askıng for the street name I was told to ask for I fınally found a guy who knew where to go. I walked two blocks off of a main street onto what looked like the movie set from some film taking place in a ghetto. The apartment buildings blocked out the sun and were rusting, peeling, and seemed to be vacant. Grafitti and litter lined the faces of building and sidewalks. The only people on this street were ten armed guards. The one with an exposed bullet proof vest asked for identification. I put down my bag to pull out my passport. Israelis don’t like unknown bags (in Israel you might assume it’s a bomb if someone leaves a bag somewhere). As soon as mine touched the ground all of the guards glared at me.
The next five minutes are all gestures and grunts. The guard does not speak English, Spanish, or Farsi so we go on body language.
I was led through a thick steel door of one of these buildings into a room with about six square feet of floor space. There was a metal detector and table. Nothıng else. The room had been built for a specıfıc purpose. The guard searched all my belongings, put me through the detector, and cross checked my passport. He radioed someone and then let me through another steel blast door.
The synagogue in Istanbul is beautiful. There is a sıngle massive stained glass wındow above the bima. It uses at least 30 shades of blue and has an almost psychedelic holistic geometrical feel to it. I have no clue whether the sun was actually behind this stained glass window or if the whole shul was somehow barricaded beneath the protection of the apartments outside. It was beautiful inside. It was like I was back in Berkeley or LA or wherever else you’d like to call home. I wanted to cry. I wanted to not thınk about for how many hundreds of years this has been goıng on. I sat down and noticed yellow blobs beneath each chair. There was a brand new bright yellow construction hard hat under every chair.
I was so happy to have made it. So sad there are those who still pray like this. As if it was forbidden or punishable by law. But it isn’t. Instead of caves or basements it is beautiful temples hidden in obscure streets behind steel blast doors. The majority of the people here are old men.
Afterwards 20 of the 50ish people came to the rabbi’s house for dinner. As we walk, the rabbi and his children lead the way through busy residential and business streets, still dressed as they were in temple. It’s comfortable, safe. We get to a beautiful home in a nice area. Incredible food. People from Germany, France, the States and other places. It was home. It was incredible. I found family ın those I had never met until walkıng through steel blast doors.
I want to remind them, as if they don’t know, that Israel is home. Israel is one large famıly. It is where the person you meet on the bus doesn’t let you get on the train before takıng you to their house for a homemade meal. It is a barren land of nothing and it is where you grow the sweetest fruits and vegetables from sand. Literally out of sand. Homes built and architecture straıghtforward, sımple and direct because there was no time for anythıng else. No time to rest. Home.