Passover in my family has rarely been a formal affair. At one point, when I was a child and my family still observed a few watered-down traditions plucked out of the Jewish canon, we would gather round a makeshift Seder table to read selections from the ShopRite Haggadah. A Seder plate and stack of supermarket matzos would be placed on the table symbolically and I, being the youngest, prompted the ritual by asking the Four Questions as necessary.
As a child, this tradition (unglamorously lacking in bunny mascots and pastel candy) always seemed like more trouble than it was worth. I felt that those tedious procedures — the eating of the chalk-flavored, unleavened bread; the sharing of the Kiddush cup with relatives — were done mainly to appease my father, the observant member of our largely secular clan. Nonetheless, I would sit through the grueling ceremony until my mother permitted my escape, upon which we children bolted from the kitchen to scavenge for hidden matzo, fueled by promises of glorious bounty to be granted upon its discovery.
It wasn’t until my college semester abroad that I truly appreciated this holiday for what it’s worth. I was studying in Tel Aviv at the time, but my Passover break was spent in Turkey’s enormous capital city, Istanbul.
Two friends and I ended up in Turkey after another friend and Istanbul native opened his home to us. Alp had been in Israel for several months, rooming with my American friend, Alan. I was astonished by his unconditional hospitality and tentatively accepted his invitation, wary that I’d be spending a week in a foreign country, with a family I did not know, that speaks a language I cannot understand. Needless to say my mother wasn’t too keen on the idea — but I felt this opportunity was one I could not afford to miss and weeks later was on a plane bound for Istanbul.
After a day’s journey via train, plane, and taxi, over roads that sprawled out miles from the city center, we arrived at Alp’s lifelong home — a charming apartment where his mother, father, and younger sister still lived since he made aliyah. I stepped in and was in sudden awe of the luxurious décor — detail and furnishings that appeared to me exotic yet inviting; Anatolian touches garnishing the apartment like nothing I’d ever seen outside of a book or movie. This was quite a departure from the shabby bachelor pad I was used to, where Alp and Alan resided back in Tel Aviv. His parents greeted us warmly, and we sat down to a formal Shabbat dinner that very evening. I couldn’t understand a single word exchanged between his family members, but it didn’t seem to matter much at all.
Alp explained that Jews comprise less than one percent of Turkey’s population, and this number is steadily dwindling. Anti-Semitism has a strong presence in Turkey, and the Jews that remain are fleeing to Israel and the West in staggering numbers to escape discrimination. Still, in a city as big as Istanbul, Jews are not hard to come by, and Alp’s family appeared to know most if not all of them. The community was immensely tight-knit and every night there was an array of relatives and friends from around town laughing and catching up with Alp, who swiftly abandoned his quiet composure once surrounded by loved ones.
The night of the Seder, we drove to Alp’s grandparents’ house and sat down to a kingly four-course meal of braised meats, tender vegetables, and staples of Sephardic cuisine that were wildly flavorful to my bland Azhkenazi palette. An uncle (and skilled English speaker) started chatting me up on his knowledge of Israeli and Russian culture. A celebratory toast was had, and I found through the grapevine that someone announced a new baby on the way. By the end of the night, when enough kosher wine had been guzzled to incite inhibition, the entire table of older relatives joined in on an emphatic rendition of a traditional Sephardic tune, sung in Ladino —a dying language derived from Hebrew and Spanish, passed from generation to generation by the refugees that fled Spain following the expulsion of the Jews in 1492.
That moment was unreal to me — hearing Spanish words in the middle of Istanbul, surrounded by a Turkish family and their soon-to-be Israeli son. This was my first Passover not surrounded by Russian speakers, without my family, without anyone I’d ever met before. And somehow it felt oddly familiar. Somehow I felt at home.
Samantha Shokin, 22, is a senior at N.Y.U. Gallatin, concentrating in literary journalism. She was born in New York City and lives in Brooklyn with her mother and father, who emigrated from Ukraine and Lithuania, respectively.
Touches of Home at an Istanbul Seder