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Around the Jewish World Each Year, Turkish Jews Return to Islands to Relax and Reconnect

The congregants at Turkey’s Hesed L’Avraham synagogue never have to feel guilty about driving to the synagogue on Shabbat — they simply can’t get there by car.

Called the Princes’ Islands, the isles have, over the last several decades, become an important and unique feature of Istanbul Jewish life — essentially the summer home of a large part of the city’s Jewish community. Many Turkish Jewish families stay on the islands all summer long, with husbands commuting to work on the ferries that ply the waters between the islands and the city.

“This is one of the only places” near Istanbul “that is well preserved. It’s safe and it’s one of the few places where Jews and other minorities can stick together,” says Yasar Bilbirici, an Istanbul businessman who is also president of Yildirim Spor, the Jewish beach club on Buyukada. “We know the horse carrier here, the butcher. It’s like a little village. I have seen many places in the world, and frankly, I have to say this is one of the nicest.”

Bilbirici’s pride in the island is easy to understand. Buyukada — along with the other islands — is indeed an oasis of mostly unspoiled and undeveloped green at the edge of Istanbul’s ever-growing urban sprawl. Wooden Victorian-style houses line the islands’ shady streets, while horses pulling colorful fringe-topped carriages compete with walkers and bicycle riders for road space.

“In the summer we do more business on the island than in Istanbul,” says Avni Uyanik, 71, who has been running an island branch of his Istanbul-based Yesil Bursa kosher butcher shop for more than 40 years. “Everybody is here!”

There are three synagogues on the islands, with Buyukada’s Hesed L’Avraham the largest. Built some 90 years ago, the dome-topped synagogue stands in a shady courtyard behind a marble wall. A massive crystal chandelier lights the interior, which is dominated by a stunning carved wood ark. The synagogue, which seats 550, is usually full on Sabbath, with people sometimes forced to sit outside in the courtyard. Five years ago, the Jewish community opened up Yildirim Spor, the beach club, in an effort to create another Jewish institution on Buyukada, particularly a place that would appeal to young people and that would be accessible to the community at large. Although there are predominantly Jewish beach clubs on Buyukada and Burgaz, their membership fees can be beyond the reach of many.

“This is one of the biggest success stories in the Turkish Jewish community,” says the club’s president, Bilbirici. “Everybody is coming here.”

Set on the water with wooded hills as a backdrop, the club has basketball and soccer courts, as well as a large grassy area where on a recent Sunday morning, people of various ages lounged on large, overstuffed pillows.

“It’s nice to be together with the community,” Nissim Eskinazi, 32, who is lying on the grass with a group of friends, says about the island. “My mother loves to be here, because all of her friends are here. This is the Jewish community life.”

A friend of Eskinazi’s, Ovadia Yohay, also 32, interjects with a laugh: “The No. 1 reason we come is matchmaking. We come here to meet other people.”

Ethel Altintas, a 27-year-old industrial product designer, says being on the island lets her stay in touch with her friends, since she keeps bumping into them all the time. “We talk about what our plans are for winter, who’s going out with who, who stopped going out with who,” she says.

Several years ago, coming to the islands started to become less popular with Jewish young adults, who preferred to stay in Istanbul for the weekend, but Altintas says that in the last two years more young adults are returning to the islands. “I think they miss their childhood,” she says.

The Princes’ Islands became a fashionable retreat for Istanbul’s Jews — as well as for its Greek and Armenian populations — in the early part of the 20th century. By the 1930s, some of the islands had become so associated with a Jewish presence that political cartoons from that era, a time when Turkey’s minorities were expected to shed any sort of external allegiance, jeeringly referred to the islands as “Palestine.”

The history of the islands, though, goes back much further. During Byzantine times, the islands were a place where imperial family members who had fallen out of favor or were seen as threats were sent to languish in solitude.

Through Ottoman times, the islands remained predominantly Greek, with several now-defunct Greek Orthodox monasteries remaining from this era. In fact, the major theological seminary of the Greek Orthodox Church, which was closed by the Turkish government in 1970, is located on Heybeli Island.

The hilly islands — which are easily seen from Istanbul, rising out of the Sea of Marmara — seem to have a way of captivating those who behold them. In one of his books about Istanbul, historian John Freely relates this florid account by a 19th-century European traveler: “Nowhere does the delighted eye repose on coasts more lovely, on a bay more gracious, on mountainous distances more grandiose; that nowhere is the verdure fresher or more varied; that nowhere in short do bluer waters bathe more gently a thousand shady coves, a thousand poetic cliffs.”

The waters around the islands today are still blue, although suffering from pollution, and the apartment buildings of expanding Istanbul can be seen from their shore, marring the view. But there is something about the Princes’ islands that can still send their denizens into the most unexpected reveries.

Riding in a horse carriage on Buyukada, Erol Mesulam, an Istanbulite who owns a fragrance business and who has been coming to the island since he was a small child, takes a visitor on a tour. As the wind — and the pungent smell of horse manure — blows through his hair, Mesulam turns to his guest with a wide smile. “You smell this horse smell?” he asks excitedly. “This is the typical Buyukada smell. Sometimes in the winter we are missing this smell. Really.”

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