There's a song by Rabbi Schlomo Carlebach we've sung occasionally in church that has the chorus: "Return again, return again, return to the home of your soul." The song is in our song and liturgy book for this Intensive, and has been on our minds as we spent yesterday exploring the buildings and culture of the Jewish community of Istanbul.
We "returned again" to a culture we explored in museums and older neighborhoods in Spain. Back on October 14, we posted a blog about a poignant visit to the artifacts of a once-vibrant Jewish community in Lucena. Our encounter with the Sephardic Jews ended with their exile from Spain when Isabella and Ferdinand decided to make it mono-culturally Catholic in 1492. We did not realize we would find out so much about what happened next to them two months later in Turkey. Many thousands of Spanish Jews were welcomed into Turkey by the Muslim Sultan Bayezid II after 1492, who saw not only a humanitarian need, but an opportunity to enrich the economy and culture of the new Ottoman Empire.
In contemporary Istanbul, there are 14,000 to 18,000 Jews left in a city of 12 million. The cultural and religious leaders of this community realize that there is a chance this unique Jewish culture could become extinct unless they take steps to record and renew it. So they are returning again, returning again to the home of the soul for this community, which is their folk and liturgical music.
At the Ottoman Sephardic Jewish Cultural Center we met Karen Sarhon the Director and Diva of this reclamation and restoration project. Her vibrant personality and persistence have been the engines driving the documentation and the performance of the music that immediately conveys the home of the soul for Sephardic Jews.
The home language of this community is "Ladino" a Spanish dialect that has absorbed elements of Arabic, Turkish, and Hebrew into their songs. Of course, the daily language of the Turkish Jews is Turkish, and the last generation of native Ladino speakers is almost gone. This made the preservation of the songs even more critical.
After hearing a fascinating two hour presentation on the music, culture and food of the Turkish Sephardic Jews, we were treated to an evening concert in which the music was brought to life by a band with Turkish instruments and two vocalists, Karen herself taking the lead. It was a wonderful day.
This culture has survived for over 500 years in a Muslim country, not only tolerated but to a certain extent protected by civil authorities. They have not grown because successive generations have succumbed to the attractions of other places to live, Israel among them. The last fifty years of struggle between Israel and its Muslim neighbors have made the Jews in Turkey a target for extremists, and so we went through a thorough security check before we could enter the Sephardic Center. We are not sure what the future holds for them in Turkey. But Karen and her generation are recognizing what they must do to sustain the flame of this unique and precious culture, and we felt honored to be present to their story. It helped us return again to the home of that soul we all share.