Four Corners: Postcards from the Jewish World

Protecting Our People and Our Identity: Istanbul, Turkey

Jilda Abravay was 20 in 2003 when terrorists set off car bombs near two Istanbul synagogues, Beth Israel and Neve Shalom. Twenty-four people were killed, including Jewish synagogue-goers and Muslim police officers, and over 300 people were injured. Jilda’s father, who attends Neve Shalom, was not inside the synagogue at that moment.

After the attack, synagogues closed for a while, with community members praying in people’s homes and not sharing the addresses widely. The Jewish community also intensified its security efforts, ensuring that the city’s only Jewish school had armed guards protecting it 24 hours a day. Many parents pulled their children from the school and decided not to enroll their younger children there. Tuition rose to cover the new security costs, and now, most students receive scholarships in order to attend.

While men are advised not to wear kippot on the street and tourists must register with the Jewish community before gaining entrance to local synagogues, Jilda continues to be open about her Jewish identity.

“When people hear my name – which is not a Muslim name, they often ask me where I’m from. I tell them that I’m a Jew, who was born in Turkey and is 100% Turkish. I’ve never been afraid to say that I’m Jewish,” said Jilda. “I’m very lucky that my parents instilled a sense of Jewish pride in me growing up, and that I’ve met so many people who have helped me expand my knowledge, too.”

Many of the Jews who currently live in Turkey can trace their Turkish roots to the late 1400s. Expelled from Spain and Portugal, Sephardic Jews settled in Turkey and continued to pass on their traditions. During kiddush, Turkish Jews often add water to their wine. On Hoshana Rabba, the seventh day of Sukkot, they hang their lulav’s willow branches on their mezuzot. They also enjoy traditional Turkish Jewish cuisine, like almodrote, a delicious baked dish, which includes cheese, eggs, oil, and zucchini, and is best served hot.

After marrying her husband, Jilda relocated to his hometown, Izmir. But the Jewish community there was very small, so when their daughter was a toddler, they decided to move to Istanbul. They wanted their daughter to attend the Jewish day school, and today, she does.

Jilda is also very active in the Istanbul Jewish community, which is home to about 15,000 Jews, a few butchers, several synagogues, and a Jewish hospital. A professional psychologist, Jilda writes a column about psychology for the weekly Jewish newspaper, Shalom, which has been in print for 70 years. Her husband recently stopped driving on Shabbat and now he walks the nearly-hour-long walk to synagogue each week.

“He is my hero because he has decided that this is important to him and he does what it takes – even though it’s not easy,” said Jilda.

Many of their friends and family members have left Turkey and now live in Israel, the United States, Canada, and England. Jilda’s daughter is learning Hebrew at school, and Jilda has a private Hebrew tutor, too.

“I love my country and feel very connected to Turkish culture,” said Jilda. “But the Jewish community in Istanbul is getting older, and we have fewer children with each passing day. In 20 years, my daughter will be 25. How many Jews will be here? Who will she marry? I’m just not sure that she has a future here.”

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