Continued from Part I

They continued their walk along the water, passing fishing boats, ferry docks and cruise ship ports along the way. Climbing a steep hill away from the water, they entered Balat. The streets were narrow and winding and seemed to converge upward. On either side were small shops with few customers.

“Doesn’t look very appealing,” Leah said, already beginning to regret coming. “It’s pretty run down.”

“The people who live in Balat now are migrants from the area around the Black Sea. They came here for a new life,” the Turkish man explained. “Just like the Jews who came more than five hundred years ago.”

“You’re not listening,” a whisper floated by Leah’s ear“Five hundred years ago?” Leah was startled.

“When the Jews were expelled from Spain by the edict of Ferdinand and Isabella, the great sultan of the Ottoman Empire, Bayezid II, extended his hand and welcomed them to live under his rule. The Sephardim, as they were called, settled in Balat, where there was already a Jewish community that dated back to Byzantine times.”

“Byzantine times. Fascinating,” Leah said, “But there’s nothing exciting here now.”

“You’re not listening,” a whisper floated by Leah’s ear.

“Of course I’m listening,” Leah said.

“Yes I know you are,” the Turkish man smiled.

“Then why did you ask me if I was listening?”

“I didn’t.”

“I heard you.”

“I’m sorry. But let’s continue, shall we?”

He led her up the cobblestone streets, past wooden houses in disrepair. Children played ball in the middle of the street as mangy dogs romped at their heels. Women in colorful headcoverings bargained for fruit at the open stalls and began to line up at one of the storefronts. The Turkish man stopped to look in the window, where stacks of fresh Turkish flat breads were piled high, and shelves were neatly filled with sheets of sweet biscuits, honey-soaked pastries, and rich rice and fruit puddings.

“Come see all these wonderful sweets,” he said to Leah.

Leah stepped up to the window, and all at once saw nothing but the image of a beautiful young woman with wide eyes and a sweet smile looking back at her. She reminded Leah of Filiz. Simple pearl earrings hung in her ears, and gold bracelets adorned her wrists, which she held out as she beckoned Leah to come closer. She wore a purple velvet jacket with braided frogging over a colorful caftan of green and gold stripes. Two long black plaits fell over her shoulders, and her face was framed by a bright red and blue embroidered cap held in place by a band of gold braid. Leah blinked twice, unsure of what she was seeing, but the image disappeared in an instant. Leah’s mouth fell open in surprise.

“I see your mouth is watering already. Let me buy some pastries to enjoy while we rest for a while. Which ones would you like?”

“I think I’ll let you choose. I’ll sit under that tree and wait for you,” Leah said, an eeriness descending about her. She said nothing about seeing the young woman. It was an illusion, of course, she thought. Just an image of the way Turkish women looked centuries ago that pushed its way through the reality of the women about her as they bargained for the fresh fruits and vegetables. She quickly dismissed her unsettling feeling and watched the women walk by with their string shopping bags.

“They’re pomegranates,” again a sudden whisper brushed her ear as she wondered what the women were carrying. A cool breeze touched her shoulders, yet all else about her remained still. And then from nowhere appeared the beautiful young woman, her gold bracelets tinkling as she reached out to Leah. “Come,” was all she said. As quickly as the twirl of a whirling dervish, Leah was being pulled into the intrigue of the vanished Ottoman Empire. As she succumbed to the otherworldliness of the moment, she took the young woman’s hand. In an instant the streets of Balat were transformed.

The old wooden Ottoman houses came alive, with lace curtains in the windows of their enclosed balconies and doors with polished brass knobs. Men in enormous white turbans and blue silk trousers and striped caftans with long full sleeves gathered to discuss the business of the day. Women in similar colorful garb threaded themselves around their children and shepherded them to school, gently dancing along in their kid slippers with upturned toes. Leah saw many booksellers, rug and silk merchants, and shops filled with copperware that gleamed in the sun.

“Who are you and why did you bring me here?” Leah asked in amazement.

In an instant the streets of Balat were transformed“To make your wish to live in Ottoman times come true,” she answered. “My name is Nisya. You’re in Balat, in the Yahud Mahallesi, or Jewish quarter, the way it was when Jews arrived here from Spain. Sultan Bayezid II graciously welcomed us and gave us refuge from our persecutors.”

“This isn’t what I wished for. Why didn’t you bring me to the opulent court of the Sultan at Topkapi Palace? ”

“In Balat you will come to see what is more valuable than Topkapi’s riches,” Nisya said. “I’ve been chosen to clear the way for you.” She took Leah by the hand and led her to a house down a winding street. “This is my home. Please come in.”

As Nisya opened the door, a rash of color exploded before them. A multitude of pillows lay on lavishly draped sofas covered in green and blue silk. They were also strewn on the floor around small intricately carved wooden tables inlaid with mother-of-pearl. A magnificent walnut cupboard held blue and white decanters and delicate flasks. Silver candlesticks stood prominently on a side table next to a backgammon set. Blue, green and red glass lamps hung from filigree brass hooks on the walls. A large copper bowl filled with ruby-red fruit sat on a round brass table with ornate wooden legs.

“Pomegranates,” said Nisya with her enchanting smile. “I will open one for you.” She slashed the fruit with a silver-handled knife and gave a section to Leah.

As soon as Leah spread the seeds apart and put a handful in her mouth, a fleeting memory of her grandmother’s Rosh Hashanah table came before her. She saw cakes and wine and pomegranates piled high in a porcelain bowl. It was on that holy day that her father had chosen to disappear from her life. On that holy day Leah herself had declared that anything Jewish had no meaning for her. The taste of these pomegranate seeds was tart, and as their velvety texture slid on her tongue she recalled her grandfather explaining why the fruit was special, although she refused to listen to his words.

“Turkey is a country rich in pomegranates. We are lucky, don’t you think, to be able to eat them all the time?” Nisya asked. “The pomegranate is very special to the Jews. It has the same amount of seeds as the commandments God asks us to perform—613. And did you know that King Solomon’s crown was fashioned after the pomegranate?” Nisya smiled again, lifting the fruit and displaying the crown-like points on top. “Carvings of pomegranates were depicted on the Temple in Jerusalem.”

“King Solomon’s Temple was destroyed,” said Leah, toying with the seeds of the pomegranate. “But Topkapi Palace is still standing in its glory, and so are the all the splendid mosques. Maybe Balat was once a flourishing neighborhood, but there’s certainly nothing grand about it now.”

“Then I will have to open your eyes.” Nisya snapped her fingers and in an instant they were facing a pair of wooden doors flush with the street.

“What is this place?” Leah asked, disappointed. “Surely you don’t expect me to compare this paltry entrance to the gates of the Imperial Court at Topkapi,” she said.

“This is the Ahrida Synagogue,” Nisya told her, her large dark eyes mysteriously aglow. “What you will find behind these doors more than matches Topkapi’s majesty. Now cover your head with this scarf.” She placed her hand on the handle of the massive door, and in seconds it opened wide. Leah stepped inside.

A radiant glow burst forth from all corners of the synagogue, enveloping her in a flash of brilliant light. In contrast to the calm, cool, mystical interior of the imposing mosques she so admired, a spreading warmth emanated from the every surface of the sanctuary. Light streamed in from stained-glass windows decorated with Stars of David. The highly polished wooden ark that held the Torah gleamed with floral and geometric patterns of inlaid mother-of-pearl, and the gold leaf on the Ten Commandments above the ark shone in spiritual splendor. As she raised her eyes to the richly painted domed ceiling from which hung flickering chandeliers, Leah noticed the carved balustrade of the women’s gallery above. In the middle of the sanctuary, surrounded on three sides by Ottoman-style wooden benches with cushions, stood the imposing pulpit, the likes of which Leah had never seen before. It was in the shape of a ship’s prow, elegantly carved and painted in warm orange and burgundy.

“You are admiring our tevah, which is what we Sephardic Jews call the pulpit from which our rabbi leads us in prayer,” said Nisya softly. “For some of us it represents Noah’s Ark, and for others it symbolizes the Ottoman ships that brought us to Turkey from Spain. When our rabbi reads the Torah from the tip of its prow, we remember the journey that brought us to freedom.”

Leah reached out to touch the lustrous wood, and could almost hear the cries of the persecuted Jews who were forced to flee. She vaguely remembered her grandfather talking about Torquemada and the Inquisition when she was a young child learning about Columbus discovering America in 1492. Fourteen-ninety-two was a momentous year, he said. For our people it wasn’t only about the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria, he told her—but if it had anything to do with Jews, she didn’t care to hear why.

Leah reached out to touch the lustrous wood, and could almost hear the cries of the persecuted Jews who were forced to flee“So was it Sultan Bayezid II who had this synagogue built?” Leah asked.

“Oh no,” Nisya said emphatically. “The Ahrida was built by Jews from Macedonia who lived in Balat before we Sephardim arrived. They welcomed us into their community, and we became a part of their congregation. Together we enriched and beautified the synagogue. They also built the nearby Yanbol Synagogue, where there are paintings of that Macedonian town inside its dome. Unlike the towering mosques built to honor the glory of the sultans, the Ahrida is more than a display of power and glory. It was built to honor G‑d, and is a testament to what Jews have accomplished in Turkey. Now I would like to introduce you to an even finer testament—several Jews of great influence and importance to the Ottoman Empire, which lasted for 300 years.”

“Jews were important to the Empire?” Leah leaned in to hear more.

“Absolutely. Close your eyes and you will see,” Nisya commanded and clapped her hands.

At once, before them, like a mysterious genie from a lamp, came an array of people in silks and brocades and furs and turbans and jewels, who bowed their heads before Leah. Just like it must have been in the court at Topkapi Palace, she thought.

Five bearded men in white turbans stepped forward to address Leah. “We are court physicians to the Sultan. I am Hakim Yacoub, and with me are Joseph and Moshe Hamon, Daniel Fonseca, and Gabriel Buenaventura. We were responsible for the health and wellbeing of the sultan and his family.” The men bowed their heads and sat in the chairs of honor beside the tevah.

Merhaba, welcome,” said the next two men who stepped forward. “We are David and Samuel ibn Nahmias,” said David, the taller of the two. “We introduced printing to Turkey when we operated the first printing press here in 1493, certainly a most significant contribution to the Turkish Jewish community. This beautiful prayer book is one we have printed. It contains much-loved songs, in Ladino, of course, the language of Judeo-Spanish Jews.” He produced an elegantly embossed leather book with pages adorned in gold leaf.

“And I am Joseph Nasi,” a tall man with black penetrating eyes spoke with authority. “I was expelled from Portugal during the Inquisition, and through my diligence I became a high-ranking diplomat and minister to Sultan Selim. I was made the Duke of Naxos, and I had an immense influence on the foreign policy of Turkey.” Bowing low before Leah, Nasi, in his turban set with jewels, sat next to the others.

“My name is Dona Gracia Nasi Mendes,” a stately woman stood before Leah. “They call me La Senora, and I am the aunt of Joseph Nasi. When my husband died, I managed the House of Mendes, his powerful trading company across Europe, and then I fled to Turkey during the Portuguese Inquisition. Here, happily and openly able to practice my Judaism, I used my wealth to build synagogues, yeshivahs, and hospitals.” Dona Gracia, in velvet robes, extended her bejeweled hand to Leah, who held it in awe.

“And now,” Nisya spoke for the last important figure, “I introduce to you Rabbi Samuel de Medina, one of the most prominent Ottoman Jewish scholars, whose impact on rabbinic literature is enormous.” The rabbi modestly took his seat.

Nisya proudly swept her arm across the panoply of esteemed Jewish figures, as if to enhance their display of accomplishments for Leah. “These noble Jews, who have enriched the Ottoman Empire in a myriad of ways, are among the Turkish Jewish community’s most valuable treasures. They are among the many Sephardim who have contributed to an important long tradition in Turkey.”

“I didn’t know,” Leah felt her face flush.

I walked away from Judaism a long time ago“Then you must learn, my dear,” Dona Gracia spoke. She graciously stood before Leah. “All of us faced the horror of being persecuted in our own countries,” she said, “but we had the strength to make new lives for ourselves and to contribute to the land that made possible our freedom to express our beliefs. Perhaps we didn’t leave behind buildings as monumental as the palaces and mosques of the sultans, but we’ve left our strong Jewish faith and heritage within our synagogues, many like this one which are still standing, for future generations.”

Rabbi Samuel de Medina also stood up to speak. “For you, Topkapi Palace is a display of the wealth and grandeur of the Ottoman Empire. But only the shell of Topkapi exists now in your time. Walking through its splendid gardens and grand halls with exquisite tiles, and various courts with immense rooms, you can only imagine what life was like within its walls. But that way of life is long gone for you. For the Sephardic community, however, although our dress is not the same and our language has changed, life within the Ahrida Synagogue is still the way it was hundreds of years ago. Our beliefs and traditions have carried us through from my time to yours.”

“I understand what you’re saying,” Leah said, her eyes growing moist. “But aren’t there the same traditions in the mosques?”

“Of course, but again, remember, the splendid mosques you have visited were built to praise the glory of the sultan who ruled at the time. The Ahrida and the other synagogues throughout Istanbul were built to praise the glory of our One G‑d who rules forever.”

“You have seen the riches I promised to show you in Balat,” said Nisya. “So now, when you go back to your own synagoguem you will carry our long heritage with you. And you will feel me beside you, reciting the same prayers and singing the same songs as you do.”

“I haven’t been to synagogue in many years, and I don’t remember any prayers and songs,” Leah said, feeling ashamed. “I walked away from Judaism a long time ago.”

“Then I hope your visit here will encourage you to return,” Dona Gracia spoke up.

“Speaking of return, I’m afraid I must return you to your own world now,” Nisya said to Leah. “It’s time for you to take back what you’ve learned, and let that knowledge open up a new exploration of your own Judaism. Although once you may have forsaken your faith, you are now able to savor the seeds of the pomegranate and let them grow in your heart. Come.” Nisya held out her hand. As soon as Leah reached to take it, Nisya disappeared, and Leah found herself back on the bench under the tree, sitting alone.

The vibrant world of Jewish Balat had vanished. No more did colorful caftans sweep across the streets, nor turbans bob in crowds of energetic discussions. No more did the marketplace thrum with exciting exchanges. The streets were dull now, with just a few migrant women bargaining at the fruit seller’s stall, and others trudging home with bulging satchels, followed by straggling children who expected their dinner. The only remnant of the once flourishing community was the synagogue. It stood as a reminder of enduring faith in the face of suffering. Its mystical presence held Leah fast, charming her into believing again.

Suddenly the Turkish man appeared, carrying a green pastry box. “Kadaif, baklava and tulumba,” he said. “There is nothing richer and sweeter in all of Turkey.”

Perhaps, Leah thought, still savoring the taste of the pomegranate. She decided to tell him of her trip back in time. “I’ve already visited the Ahrida,” she said, waiting for his disappointment.

But instead he said, “I’m happy for you.”

“But I thought you wanted to take me there.”

“It was best that you find your own way,” he smiled. “So now it is getting late, and we should take these pastries to Filiz and her family. They are waiting for us.”

Evening was descending as they walked back along the Golden Horn, the lights of the city shimmering in the calm waters. The Suleymaniye Mosque with its elegant minarets loomed magnificently over the city, blessing its Muslim believers with their own heritage. And over Leah shone the light of the Ahrida.

“Tell me,” she said to the Turkish man, “have you ever heard of a golem?”

“A golem? I don’t think so. But listen,” he told her. And she stopped to hear the sound of gold bracelets tinkling above her head.