Midnight for the Oasis
Calm reigns in Buyukada, an island haven for the Jews of Turkey.
I’m pretty sure I’ve missed a turn on the winding, bougainvillea-filled backstreets of Buyukada, an idyllic island about an hour’s ferry ride from Istanbul. A horse-drawn carriage filled with vacationers — some wearing headscarves — whips by. Suddenly, an older man in an immaculately pressed suit and silk tie appears in front of me. Next, a woman walking at a brisk clip, and another man, races ahead. On a hunch, I follow them around a corner and to the right, revealing a quiet street blocked by a police barricade. They’re waved through, but I’m an unfamiliar face. Guards take my passport and conduct a body scan. Only then do they heave back the hefty metal door, revealing an exquisite, oriental-style synagogue with a dome top. Lively chants from Sabbath services fill the shady courtyard.
Almost 10 years ago, my husband and I discovered Hesed Le Avraam, the island’s only synagogue. It dates back to 1904, when members of Istanbul’s thriving Jewish population — along with Armenians and Greeks — started summering on Buyukada to escape the city heat. From a peak of hundreds of thousands of Jews living in the region during Ottoman times, Turkey’s primarily Sephardic community has dwindled to an estimated 17,000, living almost exclusively in Istanbul. Many of them spend their summers on Buyukada, part of a small archipelago.
Even as the nation’s ruling Islamic AKP party fans a new wave of anti-Semitism, Buyukada remains an oasis of calm. Just like generations before them, families board commuter ferries that skim across the rich blue Sea of Marmara, transporting them back in time. Step onto the dock and there are no cars, only festive horse-drawn carriages, bikes and an occasional electric cart. Children from Istanbul’s synagogues grow up together on the island. Here they meet future husbands and wives and return with their own children. Hard numbers are difficult to come by, but locals estimate that during the summer, the Jewish community balloons to anywhere from 3,000 to 4,000, with its own swim club and youth camp, two kosher butchers and a kosher restaurant. A few years ago, the Hebrew-lettered signs identifying them came down, coinciding with a boom in Arab tourists from throughout the Middle East.