At a breaking point in Turkey: Should Jews stay or should we go?
The gold and gray city of Istanbul spent Valentine’s Day bracing for snow. Under angry clouds, Turkish couples huddled around tabletops in the cafe quarter of Ortakoy, a historically posh neighborhood along the Bosphorus Strait. Jewelry-makers had set up stands along the alleyways to sell gleaming valentine trinkets. Crowning the scene — visible from nearly every spot in the neighborhood — were the ornate minarets of the Ortakoy Mosque, one of the city’s proudest monuments. When the mosque’s loudspeakers blasted a Saturday morning call to prayer throughout Ortakoy, all cafe chatter paused for a moment; one got the feeling its holy vibrations could split ice.
If any of Ortakoy’s lovers noticed the line of well-dressed men and women who, meanwhile, were ducking through a miniature green door in a stone wall on the quarter’s edge — just across from the Shakespeare Cafe and Bar — they didn’t let it show.
A guard at the green door checked IDs before ushering those men and women into a dark, airtight hallway. A keypad on the wall inside unlocked a second armored gate.
A small, armored door at the edge of Istanbul's Ortakoy neighborhood leads to a hidden synagogue.
Beyond the high-security passageway, the group entered a separate world invisible to neighbors — a grand courtyard and synagogue painted a fresh, Mediterannean white and dotted with stained-glass Stars of David. Inside the shul, Ortakoy’s resident rabbi, Nafi Haleva, belted the week’s Shabbat sermon in Turkish, tailoring it to the Western holiday that had captured Istanbul’s consciousness.
“We’re not against Valentine’s Day,” the rabbi told the 100 or so Turkish Jews in attendance, seated separately by gender, as required by Turkey’s Orthodox rabbinate. “But it can’t just be one day of gifts.”
Haleva spoke on lasting love and marriage and the roles of a Jewish man and wife. “Women are superior to men,” he said. “Women and men have to be the same, so men have to study the Torah.”
Seated in the front row of the women’s balcony was a special guest: Amira Oron, 48, the newly appointed chargé d’affaires at the Israeli embassy in Ankara, Turkey’s capital city. Oron is the latest diplomat to stand in for a true Israeli ambassador since the position was recalled in 2010 following the infamous Mavi Marmara flotilla raid in which Israeli soldiers attacked a Turkish aid and activist ship heading toward Gaza, killing 10.
Oron had traveled hundreds of miles Feb. 14 to spend Shabbat in Istanbul — no doubt to mingle as much as to pray — and, looking poised in a pretty scarf and pixie cut, she listened patiently to the sermon, though she couldn’t understand the parts in Turkish.
The rest of the crowd was less attentive. Friends whispered noisily; children monkeyed across empty chairs. Men in robes at the front of the shul had to constantly shush the congregation back to attention.
“The new generation in Turkey doesn’t know anything about Judaism,” Abraham Haim, an Israeli-Turkish rabbi who makes biweekly trips to Istanbul, would later tell the Journal. “In Tel Aviv, you can take someone from Dizengoff Street, and he’s ultra-Orthodox by comparison.”
When the Torah had been tucked back into its cupboard, Ortakoy’s Jews spilled gratefully into their synagogue’s leafy courtyard. They picked from heaps of Turkish pastries, fruits and cheeses laid out on banquet tables. A few also indulged in a late-morning glass of raki — Turkey’s national anise spirit, served with a splash of cold water. Warmed by all those bodies and the breath from their conversation, Ortakoy’s sealed-off synagogue complex felt at least a few degrees more welcoming than the outside world.
Denis Ojalvo, 64, a stout Turkish-Jewish businessman who lives in the hills above the synagogue, chose to skip Shabbat services Feb. 14. (“I’m more of a cultural Jew,” he explained.) Ojalvo instead waited along Ortakoy’s shoreline, in the glacial breeze that was whipping off the Bosphorous, for services to end — and for a close friend and a reporter to emerge through the green door and join him for an afternoon chat.
Ojalvo chose a restaurant so far down on the docks, it behaved like a houseboat. He ordered hot salep, a Turkish drink made from rosewater and ground orchid tubers. As he sipped, a Chinese freighter chugged by; the view felt huge, historic.
“You see how nice?” Ojalvo asked. “Can you leave such a country?”
A few nights earlier, though, speaking in his friend’s living room, Ojalvo described the dark isolation he often felt living as a Jew in Turkey. “Here, you are like somebody who watches,” he said. “You are not in the stream. Because even if we don’t want to admit it, here, we live in a Muslim country, and we are somehow second-class citizens.
“I mean, we have rights,” he continued. “But we are unable to take real advantage of those rights because we feel like we are under a … glass ceiling.”
‘Hope is fading’
Turkish Jews often speak of the warm welcome the Ottoman Empire gave their ancestors when they were expelled from Spain some 500 years ago. But in the century since the strict secularist Mustafa Kemal Atatürk founded modern-day Turkey, Jews and other ethnic and religious minorities have been subject to waves of severe discrimination — in terms of property rights, freedom of language and education, upward mobility and more. “Since the fall of the Ottoman Empire [in the 1920s], the transformation to a nation-state created a dynamic where non-Muslims were not welcome and couldn’t fit into this model of Turkish nationalism,” said Louis Fishman, an assistant professor at Brooklyn College and Middle East analyst who splits his time among the U.S., Israel and Turkey.
When the Republican People’s Party (CHP) passed a discriminatory “wealth tax” in 1942, about 30,000 Jews reportedly fled the country. The creation of the State of Israel a few years later encouraged tens of thousands more to leave, and anti-Semitic riots and attacks in the following decades drew out the trend.
Today, only about 17,000 Jews live in Turkey, most of them in Istanbul — a sad sliver of the 500,000 welcomed from Spain by
Ottoman rulers and the 200,000 that remained at the turn of the 20th century.
Their numbers continue to shrink. Although no one is keeping an official tally of annual departures, community members estimated that their net loss is now up to 300 people per year, in large part because more Jews are dying than are being born.
Nearly 40 percent of the community’s college-aged demographic chose to study abroad last year — a figure twice as high as the year prior.
“Since this summer, there has been more and more talking in the community about living in another country, mostly between the young Jews,” said 31-year-old Mois Gabay, who writes for Salom, Turkey’s Jewish newspaper. M. Namer, a 33-year-old Istanbul entrepreneur active in the Turkish Union of Jewish Students, said in meetings, “Everybody’s talking about, ‘Should we stay or should we go?’ ”
Both young men said economic opportunities abroad — coupled with the difficulty of starting a Jewish family in Turkey — are helping drive migration. “One issue is finding a partner, the other is feeling comfortable about your future,” Namer said.
Pervasive anti-Semitism in the public sphere also has played an undeniable role.
A poll commissioned by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) last year showed that around 70 percent of Turks harbor anti-Semitic attitudes. A grand majority of the respondents believed Turkish Jews are more loyal to Israel than to Turkey, that Jews have “too much power in the business world” and that Jews “don’t care what happens to anyone but their own kind.”
“Most Turkish people will never ever meet a Jew in their life,” Fishman said. “That’s where their conspiracy theories can really take hold.”
In September, a cellphone store in downtown Istanbul hung a sign in its window that read, “The Jew dogs cannot come in here.” In November, unknown activists posted a mock demolition notice on Istanbul’s Neve Shalom synagogue.
In December, 31-year-old Sabay wrote in an op-ed for Salom: “We face threats, attacks and harassment every day. Hope is fading. Is it necessary for a ‘Hrant among us’,” he asked, referring to Hrant Dink, a Turkish-Armenian journalist assassinated in 2007, “to be shot in order for the government, the opposition, civil society, our neighbors and jurists to see this?”
Various other members of the Jewish-Turkish community told the Journal that within the past decade, and especially the past few years, anti-Israel and anti-Semitic rhetoric from Turkish politicians and media personalities has become so constant and overblown — and vague in its distinction between Israelis and Jews — that they no longer feel comfortable in their home country.
“It’s so flagrant, it’s so visible, and we are not idiots,” Ojalvo said. “We can see it. We can feel it.”
Ojalvo is the rare member of the community who keeps close tabs on these remarks and criticizes them publicly: He writes an occasional column for ŞSalom, and leaves lengthy comments on anti-Semitic articles in pro-government papers he reads on the Internet. Sometimes he contacts the authors directly.
“I don’t care; I say my name,” he told the Journal. “I don’t believe in anonymous people shooting from behind a wall.”
But among his peers, Ojalvo is the exception.
For 10 days in February, this reporter traveled between Istanbul and Ankara in search of rage and panic among the country’s remaining Jews. What was there instead was a profound and private sadness — one that Turkey’s last Jews dutifully carry among themselves but were hesitant to share with an outsider.
Most members of the Jewish-Turkish community contacted by the Journal did not wish to talk to the press. “We have enough people trying to exploit us,” one man wrote in an email, suggesting the Journal visit France instead. Another expressed frustration that foreign Jewish organizations such as the ADL have gotten involved in their affairs and subjected them to added danger.
Most community members who did agree to be interviewed didn’t want their names in print. They gave various reasons for this: A few said they didn’t want to stir internal drama within Istanbul’s tight-knit Jewish circle; others said they’d rather stay off the government’s radar.
“I don’t want to think I should be afraid,” a 55-year-old Jewish-Turkish textile manufacturer said, “but maybe I should.”
The man’s son and daughter, both in their 20s, are currently living abroad. “Young people at that age, they study in U.S. or in Israel, and many of them don’t come back,” he said. “As [the population] goes down, people are moving faster. The youth have less chance of meeting each other. Nowadays, it’s much easier to go to the States for studies, and they find good jobs, and they stay for two years, three years, 10 years — and then they just stay.”
In Bursa, an old green building across from Turkey's oldest synagogue was once the site of a thriving Jewish school.
A report published last year by the Hrant Dink Foundation, a Turkish nonprofit tracking anti-democratic sentiment in the media, showed that during Israel’s war with Hamas in Gaza last year, a full half of media reports were flagged for “hate speech” specifically targeted Jews — up from around 25 percent in 2012.
The foundation found that when discussing the war, pro-government newspapers such as Yeni Akit and Milli Gazete often used the words “Jews” or “Israelis” in place of “State of Israel” or “Israel Defense Forces.”
Just last year, in the span of a few months, Yeni Akit, the conservative and Islamist newspaper closely aligned with Turkey’s ruling political party, ran: 1) a column demanding Turkish Jews to publicly condemn Israel for its assault on Gaza or risk facing a pogrom like those against Greeks in the 1950s; 2) a crossword-style puzzle linking a portrait of Hitler with the slogan, “We are longing for you”; 3) an op-ed calling on Turkey’s Jews to be taxed for Gaza reconstruction; and 4) a headline blaming a deadly mine collapse in Turkey’s Soma province on the mine owner’s Jewish ties.
Burak Bekdil, a non-Jewish journalist and restaurant owner in Turkey who often reports on injustices against minorities for the left-wing Hurriyet Daily News, told the Journal: “For the government or for the average Turk, when I write the same things about [minorities such as] Alevis or Christians, they say, ‘You’re a stupid liberal.’ But if it’s about Jews, I’m a Zionist.”
Bekdil said that in the 12 years since the Justice and Development Party (known locally as AK Parti or AKP) came into power, he has watched anti-Semitic rhetoric edge into the mainstream.
Bekdil spoke to the Journal over a bottle of red wine in his Ankara restaurant, which he modeled after taverns on the Greek island where he now spends six months of every year laying low. Just before the AKP took parliament, Bekdil was handed an 18-month suspended prison term by Turkey’s then-powerful court system for “insulting the judiciary.” Although he has yet to be arrested by the AKP, the fear is always with him.
Bekdil said that compared to past decades, “This is a more dangerous thing that we go through today,” because all state power is in one set of hands: the AKP’s.
None of the myriad AKP politicians and pro-AKP newspaper columnists responded to emails and voicemails from the Journal requesting comment — with one exception.
Yasin Aktay, vice chairman in charge of foreign affairs for the AKP, invited the Journal to his stately office, located on a top floor of the new AKP skyscraper in Ankara, for a face-to-face interview. From the window in his hallway, visitors have a grand view of the president’s new, 3-million-square-foot palace.
“There is no realistic threat against the Jewish people in Turkey,” Aktay told the Journal over Turkish tea and chocolates. “And if, in spite of all this, they have some phobia — good luck.”
Aktay stressed his party has in many ways improved life for Turkey’s minorities since taking power of parliament in 2002 with a sweeping two-thirds majority.
“There is no realistic threat against the Jewish people in Turkey. And if, in spite of all this, they have some phobia — good luck.”
— Yasin Aktay, vice chairman in charge of foreign affairs for the AKP, Turkey's ruling party
For example, Aktay said, the AKP recently returned $2 billon in previously confiscated property to minority groups. “We are proud of this — and nobody can criticize us compared with the past,” Aktay said. “[Some say] we took steps backward. Just on the contrary: In all aspects, in all domains, in all feats, we advanced.”
The Turkish public’s sense of security at street level, too, is at a significant high. The AKP has managed to stave off another of the country’s infamous military coups, and has overseen an ebbing in the mass-casualty terror attacks that roiled Turkey in the early 2000s (including two horrific bombings outside Istanbul’s Neve Shalom and Bet Israel synagogues in 2003, in which 27 were killed and hundreds injured).
Many Turkish Jews who spoke to the Journal agreed with Aktay on this point. “We might not like [AKP] views, but stability is good, and there is no terror on the streets,” said the 55-year-old Turkish-Jewish textile maker and father who wished to remain anonymous.
However, to maintain this stability and to ensure the AKP’s own lasting power, party leaders, in the eyes of many, also have begun transforming Turkey from a true democracy into a shadowy police state. Party insiders told the Journal they’ve watched the AKP’s founding promise of nationwide reform slowly melt under the ambitions of one man: Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Since rising from a small-town football star to mayor of Istanbul to Turkish prime minister and now president, Erdoganğhas earned a reputation among his adversaries as an aspiring “sultan” of his own Ottoman Empire.
Or, as he calls it, New Turkey.
More journalists were jailed in Turkey in 2012 and 2013 than in any other country, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Erdoganğhas repeatedly blocked civilian access to sites such as Twitter and YouTube whenever he’s felt threatened by anti-AKP content. Dozens of anti-government rioters have been killed and thousands more injured by police under Erdogan’s watch. And now, a new “internal security” bill — currently making its way through parliament piece by piece — will give police the right to detain citizens “incommunicado” for 48 hours without a court-issued warrant, among a slew of other powers.
Erdogan also has achieved global fame for his increasingly wild rhetoric — which he more often than not aims at the nearby Jewish State of Israel, once a strong military ally.
“They curse Hitler day and night, but they have surpassed Hitler in barbarism,” Erdogan said of Israel at a July campaign rally. On a Latin American tour in February, the Turkish media reported him as saying: “As long as Israeli oppression and Israeli terror continue, the bleeding in the Middle East and the entire human conscience will never stop.”
Aktay insisted that his party’s anger is directed at Israel and Zionism, not Jews.
“I am criticizing Israel because I am suffering from Zionism,” Aktay said. “I will safely and comfortably criticize jihadism. What is jihadism, and what is Zionism? In some terms, Zionism is the equivalent of jihadism. If jihadism is not good, why is Zionism good? And Zionism … really, it is murder.”
Can Özgön, head of the 30-person Jewish community in Ankara, Turkey, holds the only key to his childhood synagogue, now almost completely out of use.
Anti-Semitic social-media activity by AKP members drew global ire during the war in Gaza. Notably, Ankara mayor and AKP member Melih Gökçek, who has amassed almost 2.5 million followers on Twitter, responded, “I applaud you!” to a Turkish singer who declared, “May God bless Hitler.”
The local Jewish community also was shocked when, at a Holocaust Memorial Day event Jan. 27 in Ankara, parliament speaker Cemil Çiçek went off script to scold Israel for, among other crimes, committing a modern Holocaust in Gaza.
Karel Valansi, a political columnist and former world news editor at Şalom newspaper, witnessed the speech. She wrote: “Don’t we have 364 other days and other platforms to discuss and try to find a solution to the problems of the Middle East, Gaza, Israel, Palestine and the Mavi Marmara incident that torpedoed Turkish-Israeli relations?” Meanwhile, on the same day in Prague, following a roundtable discussion with 30 parliamentary speakers from European countries, Turkey was the sole country that refused to sign a joint declaration demanding “zero tolerance for anti-Semitism.”
Presented with these examples, Aktay called them justified emotional responses to seeing “2,300 civilian people” killed by Israel.
“All these reactions come after Israel killed the children in the beach,” he said, raising his voice. “They kill children. They are committing crimes against humanity.”
Asked whether Turkey has a responsibility to make its own Jewish population feel safe despite Israel’s actions, he said: “Actually, we are the guarantee of their life. And there is no problem about that. … The problem of anti-Islamism is more real. The problem of anti-Semitism is not real. Even in Turkey, there is none. It comes out as some reactions to [Israeli crimes].”
Aktay blamed Israel for the sense of insecurity among Turkish Jews.
“The policy of Israel is putting the Jewish people in danger everywhere,” he said. “That is a sort of provocation, and it puts the uninvolved Jewish people in danger because Jewish people become targets. Hopefully not in Turkey, of course. But nobody can protect them afterward.”
Aktay told the Journal that as long as Israel is oppressing Palestinians, the AKP will stay in attack mode.
“When a city is being kept under a siege like a concentration camp, it is not different than the Holocaust,” Aktay said. “Someone should criticize very loudly, and we don’t see anybody [do this] out of Turkey. We are proud in the Turkish role in this — somebody should of course articulate the voice of justice.”
‘Words can be dangerous’
According to left-wing Turkish journalist Bekdil, anti-Israel rhetoric is an easy “vote catcher” in Turkey. “At AKP rallies, there are two flags — one Turkish, one Palestinian,” he said. “It’s not just Turkish Islamism. Even the Turkish left wing feels connected.”
But as Erdogan has swept the popular vote, he has simultaneously alienated many of the country’s secularists, intellectuals and free thinkers — including the last of Turkey’s Jews.
In 2013, when hundreds of thousands of young Turks flocked to Istanbul’s central Gezi Park to save it from Erdogan’s development plans, the riots soon grew into a larger, symbolic fight against the AKP’s authoritarian and Islamist grip on Turkish life. Responding to the protesters on Turkish TV, Erdogan shook with fury — and in the heat of the moment, he and other party members’ red-faced tirades devolved into Jew-bashing.
Erdogan’s deputy prime minister at the time was quoted by local media as blaming Gezi Park protests on the “Jewish diaspora.” And in a videotaped outburst, Erdogan apparently shouted at a protester, although his exact words were hard to make out: “Why are you running away, Israeli spawn?”
Both officials later denied making these statements.
Brooklyn College’s Fishman stressed the importance, as an analyst, of “separating the anti-Israelness from the anti-Jewishness” in AKP rhetoric. However, he added, “Having said that, it’s becoming more and more difficult to separate the two.”
Israel’s embassy in Ankara, the target of a mob attack and flag-burning during last summer’s war in Gaza, closely monitors Turkish political speech and media reports, including for anti-Israeli and anti-Semitic bias. But in public statements and on-the-record interviews, embassy officials, as well as officials at the Turkish Jewish Community foundation, tend to walk on eggshells — careful not to damage the already fragile ties between Turkish Jews and their government.
“We don’t believe in microphone diplomacy,” said chargé d’affaires Oron from her office within the tightly guarded embassy compound.
However, warned the embassy’s spokesman and deputy chief of mission, Nizar Amer: “Words can be dangerous, especially words that come from high officials.” And, he added, “Turkish Jews should feel secure and comfortable in their country, regardless of relations between Israel and Turkey.”
Down the hill from the embassy in Turkey’s parliament building, a single politician from the opposing Republican People’s Party (CHP) has made it his core platform to fight for minority rights in Turkey.
In an interview in his cramped corner office, Aykan Erdemir, 40, an upbeat and outgoing parliamentarian who barely made the cut last election, told the Journal that the dangers of the AKP’s anti-Semitic rhetoric cannot be understated. “Reducing anti-Semitism to simple anti-Israeli sentiment is trivializing the extent of the problem we have,” he said. Erdemir called Erdogan an “anti-Semite, full stop” with “intentional, systematic, anti-Semitic core values that he built his whole career on.”
In recent months, Jews in Paris and Copenhagen faced the worst-case end result of growing anti-Semitism in Europe: deadly terror attacks by Islamist radicals against Jewish shops and synagogues.
In Turkey, on the other hand, Erdemir believes “state complicity” is the real danger. “The more an average citizen reproduces this anti-Semitic rhetoric in everyday encounters, the higher the likelihood of, let’s say, an attack against a synagogue or a Jewish citizen of Turkey,” he said.
“I’m concerned about the mainstream individual who is very reasonable in most of her outlook in life, but then has this strange set of core values that are full of hate, prejudice, discrimination, conspiracies,” Erdemir said. “Because, ultimately, I think it’s never the lunatic but always that average Joe who opens the floodgates for pogroms, mass killings and attacks. … They will support the climate that fuels hate.”
During his time in office, Erdemir has relentlessly denounced AKP actions that alienate minorities and has attempted to pass legislation to protect them, including a law against hate crimes.
“We have a half-baked hate-crimes law, which was AKP’s way of responding to pressure by the public — but it’s not comprehensive,” Erdemir said. “So we don’t have comprehensive institutional and legal protection [for minorities].”
Other sources in the Turkish parliament cited a recent surge of violence against women, including the widely protested murder of 20-year-old Ozgecan Aslan, as proof that sexist rhetoric from Erdogan is now taking itself out in the streets.
“Erdogan has sown so many seeds of hate in Turkish society,” Erdemir said. “It will be difficult to unmake it.”
‘If I were Jewish, I would hide’
There’s a word in Turkish used to describe the deep, stabbing — and quintessentially Turkish — type of nostalgia that overcomes an Istanbuli when he reflects on his life and his city: hüzün.
Hüzün is a descendent of huzn, the ancient Arabic word used in the Quran to mean “melancholy” or “sorrow over a loss.” In the present day, Turkey’s most well-known author, Orhan Pamuk, has attempted to redefine hüzün as it applies to his people. In Pamuk’s historical memoir “Istanbul: Memories and the City,” the author devotes an entire chapter to hüzün, which he calls, in part, a “cultural concept conveying worldly failure, listlessness, and spiritual suffering.”
Pamuk notes, however, that the country bears this special melancholy “with honor” — and that, for a Turk, experiencing a wave of hüzün can be as “life affirming” and insulating as it is painful.
“Now we begin to understand hüzün not as the melancholy of a solitary person,” writes Pamuk, “but the black mood shared by millions of people together. What I am trying to explain is the hüzün of an entire city: of Istanbul.”
A Westerner unfamiliar with Turkish hüzün, and that of its Jews, might mistake the mood for blank despair. But spend enough time within Turkey’s Jewish community and it slowly reveals itself as a communal, almost peaceful kind of resignation — the collective nostalgia of a community that has already begun to mourn its own demise.
Leon Elnekave, 70, is the shul keeper and head of the remaining Jewish community in Bursa, the small port city on the Sea of Marmara where Sephardic Jews first arrived in Ottoman times. Only about 60 of them, all elderly, remain. In his office across the alley from Bursa’s 521-year-old synagogue, Elnekave used an index finger to trace the final remaining clusters of Turkish Jews on his wall map of the country. “Thirty in Antalya, 20 in Antakya, two in Çanakkale,” he said, matter-of-factly. Elnekave said the entire Jewish community has died off in many other towns, leaving their synagogues and cemeteries behind to rot. “Nobody is left,” he said.
Amid this soft fade, AKP’s insults are just salt in the wound.
“For the last maybe six months, whenever there’s news, I close the television, because I know what they are talking about, I know what they will say,” said Can Özgön, president of the Jewish community in Ankara, at his office in the center of town. Özgön had dressed his tall build in denim and corduroy, lumberjack style, and gelled his brown curls as best he could into an unruly pyramid. “Also, I will not take a newspaper,” he said. “Because I am nervous — that’s the reason. And I cannot do anything about it.”
Last November, the AKP-appointed governor of Turkey’s far-north Edirne Province, near Bulgaria, announced that the historic Edirne synagogue, currently undergoing renovations, would be turned into a museum as revenge for Israel blocking Palestinian worshipers from Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa mosque. (In response to widespread condemnation, the governor later retracted his statement and clarified the did not have the power to make this decision.)
When asked about the incident in Edirne, Özgön showed no signs of anger.
“What difference does it make? This synagogue is also a museum,” he said as he ducked beneath the hedge of brambles that obscures the entrance to Ankara’s abandoned shul. Once inside, Özgön, who holds the synagogue’s only key, proudly lit an electric Star of David, made of retro neon tubing, that hangs above the Torah’s ark. “Every chair used to be full,” he said, remembering the Shabbat services of his boyhood. Today, Özgön said, he has neither the resources nor the manpower to care for the building, whose roof leaks in winter and whose bathrooms are often trashed by the local homeless population. Surrounding homes, stately mansions once owned by Ankara’s well-to-do Jews, are now empty, their windows cracked.
When Özgön was small, his parents told him stories about growing up in a mixed community in Ankara. They said their Muslim and Christian neighbors would hand out matzah and sweets to Jewish children on Shabbat.
“But now,” Özgön said, “you cannot see anything like this. It’s finished.”
Turkish Jews are not alone in their hüzün for this small-town “mosaic” Turkey of old. On the tray tables of a new high-speed train from Istanbul to Ankara, inside a complimentary copy of the line’s official magazine, Rail Life, was an extended interview with Turkish movie star Cem Davran, in which he mourned the Istanbul of his childhood.
“Maybe we were the last happy children who had lived within the neighborhood culture,” he told the magazine.
And “the most important thing in the neighborhoods of ancient Istanbul,” Davran said, “was that many people from different faiths and culture were all together. Everyone respected each other’s faith. Moreover, they used to put extra effort in it so everyone could live their religion freely.”
Cihan Karayagiz, 25, a young Kurdish man on the train, read the passage. He gazed out the window for a spell — watching small, snow-covered villages dart past — before admitting to this reporter that he’d never met a Turkish Jew before in his life. His grandfather, though, had told him stories about this same “neighborhood culture” discussed by the movie star.
“If we have many colors, Turkey will be more interesting, it will be better,” he said. “If we only have one color, it will be dangerous. Now you can’t see any other religions. Or if they’re there, they hide themselves.”
Karayagiz thought some more, then added: “If I were Jewish, I would hide.”