Sephardic Heritage Tour to Turkey – 2005

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By Dr. Eugene Normand


Highlights in Istanbul


Eight members of Sephardic Bikur Holim and three Jews from the greater Seattle area took part in a Sephardic Heritage tour that visited Turkey for almost two weeks. The SBH members are Zalie Cordova Lester, Lilly DeJaen, Isaac and Elisa Azose, Albert S. and Jean Maimon and Esther and Eugene Normand. The three non-Sephardic Seattleite tour participants were John Friedmann, Michael Krasik and his wife, Nancy Geiger. The tour was arranged through Asia Minor Tours of Florida and the connection with Asia Minor was made through John Ufuk Gokcen, the Turkish Consul in Seattle who is known to several SBH members.


The tour included stops at cities and towns in Turkey with special meaning to the SBH members. Thus we visited Bursa, Tekirdag and Marmara. Bursa is the birthplace of the mother of Isaac Azose and of the father of Albert Maimon and Esther Normand. These Maimon family ancestors, as well as the fathers of Lilly DeJaen and Zalie Lester, all spent a good number of years in the city of Tekirdag. In addition, the mother of Lilly DeJaen grew up in the town of Marmara on the island of Marmara in the Sea of Marmara, so we stopped at Marmara too.


We spent more than a week in Istanbul and visited other parts of Turkey too, some with Jewish connections and others linked to the prominent civilizations that occupied what is now Turkey in previous centuries, such as the Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Ottomans and the Turkish Republic. This section of the article reviews the Jewish highlights of what we saw in Istanbul, in both text and pictures.


The tour was made practical and extremely enjoyable due to the invaluable assistance and detailed knowledge provided by our tour guide, Izak Eskinazi, and through the helpful arrangements made by the tour company in conjunction with Lina Filiba, the Executive Director of the Jewish community of Istanbul. Lina had been in Seattle about two years ago and so several of the SBH members on the tour had forged friendly ties with her (her husband is a cousin of SBH member Ike Bensussen). One part of the arrangements was the kosher dinners that were brought in to our four-star Istanbul hotel (Richmond in the Beyoglu district) from the kitchen of the Jewish old age home in the Haskoy district.



Our first day was spent in the Galata district (European side, north of the Golden Horn waterway) which adjoins Beyoglu and so was within walking distance of the hotel. We visited the main synagogue, Neve Shalom, which has become a symbol of the Turkish Jewish community since it was attacked twice, in 1986 and then in 2003. In addition, we prayed Shachrit/Musaf services at Neve Shalom on both Shabbats that we were in Istanbul, and Hazzan Isaac Azose was given the honor of leading Musaf on the second Shabbat. Security is very tight at the synagogue, so arrangements for visitors wishing to say tefila on Shabbat have to be made in advance.


On that first day we met with Lina Filiba in what is essentially the Jewish Federation building and also with the Haham Bashi, Rabbi Izak Haleva. Lina explained the overall structure of the Istanbul Jewish community, which has been significantly modernized over the last 10 years. Joseph Haleva, the grandfather of SBH members Joe, Sol and Sam Haleva, had seven brothers when he left Istanbul almost 100 years ago and so it is possible that the Haham Bashi is related to our Haleva family.


We then walked to the new Zulferis Museum which is the first Turkish Jewish museum in the country, and was founded after the Quincentennial Anniversary in 1992 that celebrated the arrival of the Jews of Spain to Turkey. We were shown around the museum by President of the Board of the museum, Naim Avigdor Guleryuz. One particular surprise he pointed out is that the Aron Kodesh used to house a full-size diorama of a hatan and kalah at their boda (bride and groom at their wedding) is the Aron that was taken from the synagogue in Tekirdag. The Aron contains a dedication by Yeuda Moscatel, undoubtedly a relative of the SBH Moscatel families from Tekirdag. That evening the group was invited to a showing of the movie, „The Last Sephardi“ and a talk by the protagonist of the movie, Rabbi Eliezer Papo of Jerusalem. Rabbi Papo organized an intense 2-week program in Ladino studies in Istanbul that was attended by about 10 students from Ben Gurion University (Beersheba, Israel) and 12 Jewish university students from Istanbul. The next night we were also invited to the „graduation“ ceremony of this Ladino program at an Istanbul University  that also featured a Flamenco performance.


Two days later we visited the old Jewish district of Balat (European side, south of the Golden Horn waterway). Many synagogues used to be active in this area, but now only two are in current use, only on Shabbat, the Ahrida and Yanbol synagogues, both having been established by the Greek Jewish community prior to 1492 and the arrival of the Jews from Spain. Both synagogues have been beautifully renovated in recent years. During the week they are opened up for visitors by the caretaker, Corrine Souriano, a niece of the late SBH member and former SBH President, Joseph Souriano. Our guide pointed out many other formerly Jewish buildings in the area. For lunch we were driven to the old age home in Haskoy, where we met Nesso Tizo, a former President and ate lunch, and Isaac Azose visited with his cousin Zelda Hafif, who works at the home. At the end of the day, we visited the beautiful apparel store, Ipek (silk) near our hotel, that is run by the brothers Izak and Simantov Calvo, who are nephews of the late Marco I. Calvo and are related to many of the SBH members within the Calvo family.

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