“A trip to a cemetery in Prague to the grave of Rabbi Loew?” Leah muttered angrily on her way to the bookstore. She had just left her weekly visit with her grandfather. They’d been discussing places to visit on her upcoming vacation. “I can’t believe that’s where you want me to go, Grandpa,” she told him. “How could you think I’d want to stumble over some crumbling gravestones for some foolish folklore? A golem? A mystical creature who’ll lead me on a spiritual journey back to Judaism? Grandpa, you have to stop finding ways to lure me into believing again.”

Leah, my dear,” he said, taking both her hands, “you’ve denied your faith for too long. There’s a whole heritage that’s lost to you.”

Grandpa, you have to stop finding ways to lure me into believing again“I’m not interested in a heritage of pogroms and persecution and annihilation. I don’t want to hear about all the suffering of the Jews. And why should I have faith in a G‑d who allowed my father to abandon me and my mother? And mysticism? A bunch of nonsense.”

“It’s part of our tradition.”

“No, Grandpa,” Leah said. “It’s just a way to fool people into believing.”

Her grandfather leaned back in his chair. “I don’t know what to do with you anymore,” he sighed.

In the bookstore, Leah went straight to the information desk. “I want to travel to a place that will open new doors for me,” she said. “Somewhere that will dazzle and amaze me.” And somewhere where there are no reminders of Judaism.

“Then you should go to Istanbul,” said a young woman browsing nearby. Her pretty face was framed by a colorful scarf that covered her head completely. “There you will find what you are looking for.” The young woman said her name was Filiz. She began to describe the city of her birth, leading Leah to open travel books of Istanbul whose pages spilled out its bewitching allure.

She was immediately seduced by photos of the imposing city rising along the bluest waters of the Bosphorus and the Sea of Marmara, uniquely divided between Europe and Asia. She was eager to discover the endless treasures waiting for her at the Grand Bazaar, and wooed by the stunning elaborate Topkapi and Dolmabahce palaces that reflected the glory of the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires. She was particularly enchanted by the grandeur of the city’s mosques, especially the Suleymaniye Mosque built by the famous architect Sinan, and the Blue Mosque that announced the glory of Sultan Ahmed I. Their graceful minarets, immense domes, stained-glass windows, marble carvings, delicate chandeliers and vast interiors instantly beckoned her. In these places there surely would be no traces of Jewish suffering.

“Yes, this is exactly what I’m looking for,” Leah told Filiz. “I’m going to make plans right away.”

“I’m truly delighted,” Filiz smiled. “As a matter of fact, I’m going back to Istanbul in two weeks to visit my brother and his family. If you should arrive by then, I would be happy to show you my favorite places.”


“We’re nearly there,” Filiz said as she and Leah made their way through the narrow winding streets of old Istanbul. Coming upon a bustling marketplace, she paused to wipe her brow as the heat of the day began to build. “Just wait a moment more,” she told Leah, “I want to say hello to my friend Umit.”

Filiz surveyed the stalls of dried fruits and nuts and sandals and pots and pans and linens and all sorts of vibrantly colorful fabric. Amidst the chatter of bargaining, she called out to a man selling pistachio nuts. After he scooped half a kilo of plump green nuts into a brown paper bag for a customer, he waved as he saw Filiz. The two friends embraced and spoke a while in Turkish.

“We welcome you to our mosque,” Umit grinned, showing many spaces between his teeth. Then he made a sweeping gesture to the building behind them, unobtrusively tucked away.

Turning around, Leah saw a small sign against a stone wall that read Rustem Pasa Camii. “Oh my,” she said, squeezing Filiz’s hand. “The start of an amazing adventure.”

As they climbed the stone steps to the mosque, smoothed and worn down by thousands of feet on the way to worship, Leah’s anticipation grew. At the top, an astounding view lay before them. Along the railing of the colonnaded terrace were flower boxes filled with purple hydrangea that spilled over the balcony. Several stone benches allowed people to sit and remove their shoes before entering the mosque. Flanking the massive wooden doors were panels of exquisite tiles. Leah stood for a while, absorbing the intermingling colors from the marketplace below.

“I’m ready to go in now,” Leah said, taking a deep breath while putting on a headscarf. The women both slipped out of their sandals, leaving them on a rack near the door.

In these places there surely would be no traces of Jewish suffering“It is not time for prayer now, so the mosque will be empty,” Filiz said. She pulled on an ornate brass handle and the doors opened wide. In an instant the heat of the day gave way to the cool stillness of an enchanted garden, overrun by thousands of flowers.

“These are Iznik tiles,” Filiz pointed to the breathtaking beauty of the tiles that lined the walls from floor to ceiling, “the finest in the world. The famous design is the tulip. The Tulip Period was born in Turkey around the sixteenth century. You will see tulips everywhere, in gardens, on tapestries, on embroideries, in sculptures and paintings, and of course on tiles.”

Leah stood for a moment, absorbing the tranquility of the setting, and then quickly followed Filiz, who was already walking toward the central area of the mosque, stepping lightly across the red-and-black Turkish carpet. Leah went straight up to a tall, intricately carved wooden chair. “Our imam gives his sermon from this seat on Fridays,” Filiz explained. Leah reached out to touch the high slope of the chair, but Filiz pulled her hand away. “No foreigner is permitted,” she told Leah, tilting her head in apology.

“This mosque was built for Rustem Pasha,” Filiz continued, drawing her arm in an expansive arc. “He was the son-in-law of the great sultan Suleyman the Magnificent back in the sixteenth century. When the Ottoman Empire was at its height and glory.”

“Oh,” Leah sighed, “how I wish I could have lived then. To be part of the court at Topkapi Palace, surrounded by luxury. To have all the beautiful clothing and jewelry I could wish for.” Leah closed her eyes, caught in her imagination.

“And yet always under the sultan’s rule,” Filiz reminded her.

“Well, maybe so. But I envy you feeling like royalty each time you enter such opulence.”

“I’m afraid I enter here humbly. It is simply where I come to pray.” Filiz bowed her head.

As Leah looked at the beautifully carved flowers in the immensely high ceiling of the mosque, and its glorious arched stained-glass windows that threw rainbows of light on the carpet, a long-hidden childhood memory suddenly sprung open before her. She saw herself climbing the creaky wooden steps to the women’s balcony in the old synagogue where her grandparents worshipped, holding her mother’s hand. While her grandmother pored over her prayer book, young Leah peered through the balustrade, whose luster had dulled, and looked down on the men and boys in the sanctuary below, crowded together on benches that longed for repair. There was her grandfather, standing and swaying to his own rhythm, and her father, sitting beside him. The rabbi was leading the service hunched over the bimah, mumbling the prayers softly. Compared to the extravagance of the mosque, there was not even one thin shining sliver of splendor to be found.

“My grandmother would tell me that. In synagogue, a long time ago.”

Filiz looked surprised. “You should have told me you are Jewish,” she said. “There are synagogues in the city that would welcome you.”

Synagogues? Jews in Istanbul? Leah swallowed hard, feeling her heart race and her face flush. “But I’ve already been welcomed here,” she managed to say.

“But you should have the opportunity of praying with those of your own faith. I insist. Come,” she said, leading Leah out onto the patio. “Umit has a friend who can take you to his synagogue. We’ll ask him.”

“Not to bother, I can take you,” Leah heard someone say. She turned to see a Turkish man suddenly standing beside them. Dark-haired, clean-shaven, and simply dressed in an open-collared white shirt and tan trousers, he smiled pleasantly. His eyes shone like slick black olives.

“Who are you?” Leah asked cautiously.

“Someone who knows the way. Please allow me to escort you to the Ahrida Synagogue in the old Jewish Quarter, just along the Bosphorus. It is not far from here.” The Turkish man took a breath and then continued. “We Turks are known for our hospitality, so please, I would like to extend mine.”

“Leah, the fates are with you,” Filiz exclaimed with joy. “It would be rude not to take advantage of this man’s kindness.”

Leah stood stone-like, her determination to deny her Jewishness holding her fast, unable to say a word.

“So you are tongue-tied with happiness,” Filiz said. “Then it’s settled.” And then she turned to the Turkish man. “My friend will be happy to go with you,” she told him. “And afterward,” she said to Leah, “we will meet for a special Turkish dinner at the home of my brother. Now go with blessings,” and she kissed Leah on both cheeks.

Leah still couldn’t move. She could barely believe what happened. She would never have allowed anyone to make such a decision for her, and yet here she was allowing a stranger to take her where she willed herself never to go. What had come over her?

The Turkish man led Leah to the shore of the Bosphorus. Thirsty from the heat, they bought bottles of water from a vendor nearby. As they walked along the riverbank, watching the many ferries glide by from shore to shore, they stopped at the Misir Carsisi, the Egyptian Spice Market.

Here she was allowing a stranger to take her where she willed herself never to goInside the covered market the stalls exploded in bursts of color, with bushels and barrels of spices and teas and chocolates and dried fruit that teased the senses. Leah inhaled the warm spicy aromas of cumin, cloves, cinnamon, saffron and mint, which brought to mind the forgotten taste of the spring lamb stew her grandmother made for a holiday where each family member took turns reading from a special book. She recalled being permitted to drink several cups of wine.

As they left the bazaar, the Turkish man pointed out another imposing mosque. “The Yeni Camii,” he explained. “This mosque is the symbol of the valide sultans, the mothers of the sultans who were in power,” he continued. “They had special status in Topkapi Palace and were in charge of the harem, wielding their influence over all who lived there. They were leaders in architectural patronage, building mosques, religious schools, hospitals, soup kitchens, bath houses, and extensive courtyards and gardens for the people of their empire. However, a valide sultan was still under the ultimate autocratic rule of her son. It was he who allowed her to use his wealth for her good deeds.” Leah envisioned the powerful presence of elegant women in velvets and silks striding through the corridors of Topkapi Palace, commanding attention to their orders.

“We should be going now,” the Turkish man urged. “We want to get to Balat.”

To be continued . . .