Mid­night for the Oa­sis

Forward Magazine - - News - By Tia O’Brien Buyukada, Tur­key

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.

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