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High Holidays Feature Synagogue Home to Proud Heritage of Ashkenazi Jewish Life in Istanbul

September 26, 2003
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At a dome-topped synagogue, located on a steeply pitched street in one of Istanbul’s old Jewish neighborhoods, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are the high points of the religious calendar in more ways than one.

Known as the Austrian Temple, the 103-year-old synagogue is Istanbul’s only functioning Ashkenazi shul, serving a dwindling community of some 800 people.

Because of its small size, the community stopped having a cantor of its own decades ago. For the last 14 years, the shul’s leaders have been bringing a cantor from Israel to lead services during the High Holidays, filling the synagogue’s well-preserved ornate interior with the sound of Ashkenazi prayer and giving the congregants a chance to hear — at least for a short period — the kind of service they grew up with.

“When we hear that, we are in the clouds, because that’s the way our parents used to pray,” says Mose Grosman, a 51-year-old accountant and journalist, and one of the community’s leaders.

The decision to bring a cantor from Israel is a necessary to bring the community together and preserve the community’s religious life, says Mario Frayman, 69, honorary president of the Ashkenazi community. “My generation and the generation before me were used to the Ashkenazi tunes,” he says. Frayman’s parents came to Istanbul from Poland and Russia in the early part of the 20th century.

After the community scattered throughout Istanbul “and we stopped having authentic Ashkenazi prayer, people stopped coming to the Ashkenazi synagogue. They just started going to the local synagogue,” which was Sephardi. “Eventually, since this was not what they were used to, they stopped going to synagogue at all,” he says.

For Shemariyahu Lynn, the cantor who has been coming to Istanbul from Israel for those 14 years, the once-a-year engagement has allowed him to develop a special bond with the city’s Ashkenazi Jews. “I came to fill a duty the first time I came, but now I’m connected to the community,” he says. Lynn, 76, immigrated to Israel from Romania in the late 1960s.

“I have a special affinity for the Jews there, for the synagogue there,” Lynn says. “I see it as a shlichut,” or mission. “There aren’t many cantors who would want to do something like this.”

Bringing Lynn to lead services, say the community’s leaders, is one of several steps Istanbul’s Ashkenazim have taken in recent years to slow what is the community’s inevitable loss of its distinctive identity.

Although Turkey is known as a center of Sephardi religious life and culture, a refuge for the Jews fleeing the Spanish Inquisition in 1492, the country also has a long history of Ashkenazi Jewish life. Jews exiled from Bavaria made their way to Istanbul in the 14th century, although the city’s Ashkenazi community really took off after 1850, when Jews fleeing poverty and persecution in Eastern Europe started coming to Istanbul.

By the early 1900s, Istanbul’s Ashkenazim numbered some 10,000. Many of the Ashkenazim worked as artisans, particularly as tailors. In fact, one of the city’s Ashkenazi synagogues was officially called the Beth Hakenesseth Tofre Begadim — the Tailors’ Synagogue, or Schneidertempel in Yiddish. One Ashkenazi, Solomon Weiner, ended up serving as a tailor to an Ottoman sultan, while another worked as a hatmaker to Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of the modern Turkish republic.

Istanbul’s Austrian-born Ashkenazim, meanwhile, served as a commercial link to the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The Austrian Temple, which functioned as the synagogue of the Ashkenazi community’s wealthier members, was dedicated just before Rosh Hashanah in 1900 not to the Ottoman sultan but to Austro-Hungarian Emperor Franz Joseph I.

Relations between Istanbul’s Ashkenazim and Sephardim often were tense, and the two communities kept mostly to themselves during the early decades of the 20th century. “We kept apart. That’s how it went for years and years,” says Grosman, who also acts as the Ashkenazi community’s historian.

Relations within the Ashkenazi community were not always so good, either. In 1900, Istanbul’s Austrian Jews invited a 30-year-old rabbi named David Markus to come from Poland to be the chief rabbi of the Ashkenazi community. When Markus arrived, he found the Ashkenazim split between squabbling Austrian, Romanian and Russian-born factions. After several years, the charismatic Markus was able to unite the Ashkenazi community and also managed to open two Jewish schools, including Istanbul’s first Jewish high school — an institution that still exists and which today incorporates a primary school.

The political and economic turbulence of the 1930s and 1940s saw many of Turkey’s Jews — both Sephardi and Ashkenazi — leave the country, especially for Palestine. As the size of the Turkish Jewish community shrank, the small Ashkenazi community slowly was losing its vitality and identity.

In Istanbul today, one is more likely to find an Ashkenazi who speaks fluent Ladino, the language of Spanish- speaking Jews, than fluent Yiddish.

The community’s leaders say that their goal is to keep the Ashkenazi community’s legacy alive in Istanbul.

“Today we are working very hard just to keep our name alive, that people will know there is an Ashkenazi community in Turkey,” Grosman says. “The only thing we want now is for the word ‘Ashkenaz’ to keep living here.”

Five years ago, the community renovated the then-dilapidated Schneidertempel — an elegant yet simple synagogue shoehorned into a narrow lot in Istanbul’s historic Galata neighborhood. The community turned it into a cultural center dealing with Jewish and non-Jewish subjects. Since opening, the center has become one of Istanbul’s hipper venues, with exhibits and musical performances.

“The community is smaller and smaller and the amount of people coming to synagogue is less and less, so we needed something to be the flag of the Ashkenazi community. This is what the Schneidertempel is,” says Mario Frayman, who spearheaded the synagogue’s renovation.

“When people come there now, they see a synagogue, they see a Jewish star and they learn about it,” he says. “They can pick up a book there and learn about the history of Ashkenazim in Istanbul.”

Preserving its legacy is a necessity for the Ashkenazi community, since a next generation of Istanbul Ashkenazi Jews may not exist.

“I think my father’s generation is the last Ashkenazi generation,” says Erdal Frayman, Mario Frayman’s 45-year-old son. Erdal’s mother is Sephardi, as is his wife. “I am his son, so I am being affected by his Ashkenazi pride, but it’s hard enough these days to simply fight losing your Jewish identity.”

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