A Personal Journey Back to Turkey

My name is Mark Abolofia and I am a Sephardic Jew of Turkish ancestry. My Great Grandfather, Solomon Calvo, was one of the very first Sephardic Jews to emigrate to the Pacific Northwest in 1902. I was born and raised in Seattle, Washington, the third largest Sephardic community in the United States. I now reside in Portland, Oregon. In October of 1997 I spent two weeks in Turkey with my close friend Jon Wexler researching my Turkino family roots. We visited the ancient Roman ruins of Ephesus on the Aegean coast, marveled at the Blue Mosque and Topkapi Palace in Istanbul and cruised up the Bosphorous to the mouth of the Black Sea.

The highlight of my trip however, was our adventure into old Istanbul on Shabbat, as we set out to find the Sephardic synagogues of the old Jewish Quarter. We awoke early on Shabbat morning. Jon and I decided to take a taxi to the old Jewish quarter of Balat and look for the Sephardic synagogue called "Ahrida". Located on the upper reaches of the Golden Horn in old Istanbul, the Ahrida was the synagogue built by Jews who emigrated from Ohrid, Yugoslavia to Istanbul around the year 1450. My Calvo family relatives all lived in Balat and attended the Ahrida. We hailed a taxi and told the driver to take us to the "Synagoga" in Balat. The driver looked at us and said "synagoga?" Realizing that the driver had no idea what a synagoga was, Jon figured "Musevi Jaami" might make more sense. The "Jewish Mosque!". "Ah! Musevi Jaami, Yes, Yes" the driver said, and we were on our way.

The sky was dark and it was raining very hard. Water cascaded down the narrow cobblestone streets as we drove through the old Jewish quarter. It soon became evident that the cab driver had no idea where the synagogue was and began to ask Turks on the street for directions. After asking a number of people who were unable to help us, one man finally sent us in the right direction. He directed us to a side street where a young man stood in front of a set of large doors along a rather high stone wall. We exited the taxi and approached the young man and told him in broken Ladino and Turkish that we were Sephardim visiting from America and would like to join in Shabbat services.

After producing passports, identification, and answering a long battery of rather mundane questions, the young man was convinced that we were not a threat, and allowed us to enter. We were taken into the inner courtyard and then led inside an extremely old synagogue where the Torah service was already underway. It was the old "Yanbol" synagogue, which was settled by Bulgarian Jewish immigrants from the city of the same name. The ceiling of the kehila was beautifully painted in scenes of life in the old country and it was obvious the sanctuary was quite old as evidenced by the old wooden floors and layers and layers of paint on the walls. We were given talit and sidurim and sat in the wooden bench seating surrounding the teva. It was not long before Jon and I were active participants in the service, shouting "Bechavod" and "Chazak U Baruch" to the olim who ascended to the Torah for aliyot. Soon the Gabbai approached us and motioned to us to follow him to the rear of the teva where we were seated and each given one of the two Sefer Torahs. After the Maftir read the Haftarah in Ladino, Jon and I stood to lead the procession of Mizmor L'David around the sanctuary. We looked at one another and knew that this was truly a special honor. We sang, and I felt a most wonderful tingling in my spine that I shall never forget.

Photo of Mark Abolofia and Friend

The Torah rimonim were shaped like pomegranates atop long tube like shafts, and the crowns had the mystic "Chamsa" hand adorning each. They were very old and very beautiful. Following the service we extended our Shabbat Shalom's to the congregants and were extended an invitation to join them in a morning "seudah" or light lunch. Plates of borekas, boulemas, hazetunas and fetah were waiting for us as we met Yanbol and Ahrida members with names such as Eskenazi, Bensussen, Funes, and Suryano. The Gabbai, Mr. Albert Suryano was the brother of the Joe Souriano family from Seattle's Sephardic Bikur Holim Synagogue. I attended Sephardic Youth Camp with his niece. What a small world! After making a donation to the kehila Mr. Suryano asked us if we would like to walk up the street to see the old Ahrida synagogue. He told us that the members were using the Yanbol for a short period so as to keep the building occupied as required by the Turkish government. We entered the Ahrida and walked immediately to the teva which was shaped like Noah's Ark! Painted a bright orange color, the ark's prow extended outward, onto which the Torah would be placed for reading. Mr. Suryano pulled back the Parochet covering the Aron Hakodesh to reveal two large wooden doors inlaid with mother of pearl. It was breathtaking! It was truly the Shabbat of a lifetime, an event I will remember always. In many ways it was not unlike what I had expected.

The congregants reminded me of my Sephardic family and friends, the melodies they sang were much the same as ours, the Ladino Spanish was the language of my "parientes", and the food they ate was right out of my Grandmother's kitchen. I often think of how different my life would have been had my Grandfather's not left Turkey and emigrated to America. Having met my Calvo cousins in Turkey, and having had a small taste of Jewish Istanbul, I know now that I most definitely would have been a proud Jewish Istanbuli, living in an exciting, chaotic, ancient city of some 15 million people ..... casting a curious eye westward, wondering what life would be like in America!

Salud y Vidas, Mark Abolofia


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