Leon Elnekave, the affable leader of the dwindling Jewish community of Bursa, Turkey’s old Ottoman capital, met my wife and me on a narrow, cobbled lane and unlocked the black wrought iron gate to the 500-year-old Gerush Synagogue. As he led us into the landscaped courtyard, my wife, Sallie, suddenly began to cry. “I don’t know what it is,” she said, “but I feel like I’ve been here before.” An odd reaction, I thought to myself, for an American woman who converted to Judaism from Presbyterianism in middle age. But immersing yourself in a mystical place like this can provoke unexpected emotions.
My own motivation for the visit was more pedestrian than spiritual: I had a suburban, white-bread, Ashkenazi curiosity about our Sephardic cousins and their exotic history. Not that we overlooked any of the great wonders of Istanbul and Turkey — the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque, the Bosphorus, the Roman ruins at Ephesus and the cave churches of Cappadocia. Yet in the end it was this Jewish dimension to our itinerary — more than a dozen synagogues in three cities — that enriched and defined our trip last May.
Some years ago, while in Britain, I heard about a book called “The Guide to the Locked Churches of England,” a literary commentary on Europe’s declining worship. A similar book could be written about the synagogues of Turkey. Once there were hundreds of vibrant congregations made up of Jewish goldsmiths, copper and leather workers, commercial traders and diplomats. Today, many of the synagogues are empty, accessible only by appointment with a caretaker.
Turkey’s Jewish population (between 24,000 and 26,000 people) is slowly diminishing as the younger generation moves to the United States, Israel, Europe and Australia. The ruling Islamist government’s shift away from secularism over the past decade has made life uncomfortable, several Jews told me. Another factor accelerating the decline is spillover from Turkey’s diplomatic break with Israel in 2010. That year, eight Turkish nationals and a Turk with a U.S. passport were killed in a clash with the Israeli military on a flotilla bound for Gaza. The event led to some anti-Semitic incidents in Istanbul and other cities.
Even so, Jewish life still exists in Turkey. At least as meaningful as our synagogue visits were our encounters with the Jews who showed us around and with the others we met at the three Sabbath services we attended, whose homes we visited and whose meals we shared.