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groong: Each year, Turkish Jews return to islands to relax and reconnect

Jewish Telegraphic Agency

Aug 10 2003

Each year, Turkish Jews return to islands to relax and reconnect

By Yigal Schleifer

ISTANBUL, Aug. 10 (JTA) – The congregants at Turkey’s Hesed L’Avraham
synagogue never have to feel guilty about driving to the synagogue
on Shabbat – they simply can’t get there by car.

The yellow- and cream-colored synagogue is located on the island of
Buyukada, part of a small chain of islands an hour’s ferry ride from
Istanbul, where all cars are banned. (Now, if someone wants to take
a horse carriage – the fastest mode of transportation on the island –
to synagogue, that’s a different matter.)

Called the Princes’ Islands, the isles have, over the last several
decades, become an important and unique feature of Istanbul Jewish
life – essentially the summer home of a large part of the city’s
Jewish community. Many Turkish Jewish families stay on the islands
all summer long, with husbands commuting to work on the ferries that
ply the waters between the islands and the city.

“This is one of the only places” near Istanbul “that is well
preserved. It’s safe and it’s one of the few places where Jews
and other minorities can stick together,” says Yasar Bilbirici,
an Istanbul businessman who is also president of Yildirim Spor,
the Jewish beach club on Buyukada. “We know the horse carrier here,
the butcher. It’s like a little village. I have seen many places in
the world, and frankly, I have to say this is one of the nicest.”

Bilbirici’s pride in the island is easy to understand. Buyukada –
along with the other islands – is indeed an oasis of mostly unspoiled
and undeveloped green at the edge of Istanbul’s ever-growing urban
sprawl. Wooden Victorian-style houses line the islands’ shady streets,
while horses pulling colorful fringe-topped carriages compete with
walkers and bicycle riders for road space.

Two other islands – Burgaz and Heybeli – are also summer homes to
Jewish Turks, but the Jewish presence is particularly felt on Buyukada,
the largest of the islands (the name means “Big Island” in Turkish),
which in summer becomes like a concentrated, miniature version of the
Istanbul Jewish community. On Friday and Saturday nights, the town
square is filled with Jewish Istanbulites chatting and catching up with
each other. Just off the square, a kebab restaurant certified kosher
by Turkey’s Chief Rabbinate competes with two other restaurants that
serve kosher meat, but are not certified since they remain open on
Saturdays. On another street, two kosher butcher shops can be found
within a stone’s throw of each other.

“In the summer we do more business on the island than in Istanbul,”
says Avni Uyanik, 71, who has been running an island branch of his
Istanbul-based Yesil Bursa kosher butcher shop for more than 40
years. “Everybody is here!”

There are three synagogues on the islands, with Buyukada’s Hesed
L’Avraham the largest. Built some 90 years ago, the dome-topped
synagogue stands in a shady courtyard behind a marble wall. A
massive crystal chandelier lights the interior, which is dominated
by a stunning carved wood ark. The synagogue, which seats 550, is
usually full on Sabbath, with people sometimes forced to sit outside
in the courtyard. Five years ago, the Jewish community opened up
Yildirim Spor, the beach club, in an effort to create another Jewish
institution on Buyukada, particularly a place that would appeal to
young people and that would be accessible to the community at large.
Although there are predominantly Jewish beach clubs on Buyukada and
Burgaz, their membership fees can be beyond the reach of many.

“This is one of the biggest success stories in the Turkish Jewish
community,” says the club’s president, Bilbirici. “Everybody is
coming here.”

Set on the water with wooded hills as a backdrop, the club has
basketball and soccer courts, as well as a large grassy area where
on a recent Sunday morning, people of various ages lounged on large,
overstuffed pillows.

“It’s nice to be together with the community,” Nissim Eskinazi, 32,
who is lying on the grass with a group of friends, says about the
island. “My mother loves to be here, because all of her friends are
here. This is the Jewish community life.”

A friend of Eskinazi’s, Ovadia Yohay, also 32, interjects with a laugh:
“The No. 1 reason we come is matchmaking. We come here to meet other
people.”

Ethel Altintas, a 27-year-old industrial product designer, says being
on the island lets her stay in touch with her friends, since she keeps
bumping into them all the time. “We talk about what our plans are for
winter, who’s going out with who, who stopped going out with who,”
she says.

Several years ago, coming to the islands started to become less
popular with Jewish young adults, who preferred to stay in Istanbul
for the weekend, but Altintas says that in the last two years more
young adults are returning to the islands. “I think they miss their
childhood,” she says.

The Princes’ Islands became a fashionable retreat for Istanbul’s Jews –
as well as for its Greek and Armenian populations – in the early part
of the 20th century. By the 1930s, some of the islands had become so
associated with a Jewish presence that political cartoons from that
era, a time when Turkey’s minorities were expected to shed any sort of
external allegiance, jeeringly referred to the islands as “Palestine.”

The history of the islands, though, goes back much further. During
Byzantine times, the islands were a place where imperial family
members who had fallen out of favor or were seen as threats were sent
to languish in solitude.

Through Ottoman times, the islands remained predominantly Greek, with
several now-defunct Greek Orthodox monasteries remaining from this
era. In fact, the major theological seminary of the Greek Orthodox
Church, which was closed by the Turkish government in 1970, is located
on Heybeli Island.

The hilly islands – which are easily seen from Istanbul, rising out of
the Sea of Marmara – seem to have a way of captivating those who behold
them. In one of his books about Istanbul, historian John Freely relates
this florid account by a 19th-century European traveler: “Nowhere does
the delighted eye repose on coasts more lovely, on a bay more gracious,
on mountainous distances more grandiose; that nowhere is the verdure
fresher or more varied; that nowhere in short do bluer waters bathe
more gently a thousand shady coves, a thousand poetic cliffs.”

The waters around the islands today are still blue, although suffering
from pollution, and the apartment buildings of expanding Istanbul can
be seen from their shore, marring the view. But there is something
about the Princes’ islands that can still send their denizens into
the most unexpected reveries.

Riding in a horse carriage on Buyukada, Erol Mesulam, an Istanbulite
who owns a fragrance business and who has been coming to the island
since he was a small child, takes a visitor on a tour. As the wind
– and the pungent smell of horse manure – blows through his hair,
Mesulam turns to his guest with a wide smile. “You smell this horse
smell?” he asks excitedly. “This is the typical Buyukada smell.
Sometimes in the winter we are missing this smell. Really.”

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