Preserving a Legacy (Extract)

Extract from a story in Issue 18, December 22, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here. A Turkish Jewish photographer has compiled a visual record of the synagogues of a dwindling community The image shows the entryway into the abandoned and collapsing Great Synagogue in Edirne, a city in northwestern Turkey, near the border with Greece and Bulgaria. The city's Jewish community once numbered close to 30,000; today, only a handful of Jews and no functioning synagogue remain. Though the building is crumbling, the grandeur of the frescoed ceiling of the entrance, depicting a golden floral pattern set against an azure background, is clearly evident. Handsome color photographs of what remains of this house of Jewish worship and of dozens of others - most still in use and in good repair, others like that in Edirne - are reproduced in "The Synagogues of Turkey," a collection of photographs by Izzet Keribar, a 72-year-old Jewish resident of Istanbul who is one of Turkey's best-known photographers. The two-volume coffee-table book, published by the Turkish Jewish community, took four years to compile. Along with Keribar's photographs, the book also includes text by Naim Guleryuz, a Turkish Jewish researcher, explaining the history of Jewish life in Turkey and also the origin of many of the synagogues' names. The name of the Zulfaris synagogue, in Istanbul's Karakoy neighborhood, we learn, comes from the Ottoman term zülf-ü arus, meaning "curl of the bride," apparently in reference to brides who made their way to the synagogue to be married. The youthful-looking Keribar crisscrossed the country, from Istanbul - home to some 20,000 Jews - to places like Adana and Iskenderun, along Turkey's Mediterranean coast, where only a few Jewish families still live, as well as to cities like Kilis, near the Syrian border, where a ruined synagogue is all that remains of the local Jewish community. "Probably in another 20 years, some of the synagogues in my book will no longer be there," Keribar says, explaining one of the reasons for embarking on the project. "This book is a document of what Jewish life in Turkey is like right now," he tells The Report. At the beginning of the 20th century Turkey's Jewish population numbered more than 100,000, and included sizable communities scattered from the Anatolian heartland to the Aegean coast and the eastern border with Iran and Iraq. Today there are fewer than 25,000 Jews, the vast majority in Istanbul. Over the decades, the state has drawn on restrictive laws directed against Turkey's religious minorities to confiscate several synagogues and other community buildings that were no longer in use. (The current government, run by the Liberal Islamic Justice and Development Party (AKP), has passed a new law regarding the property of minority groups, which is regarded as an improvement over the previous legislation.) "Keeping synagogues open is very important - emotionally and pragmatically," says a top Jewish community official in Istanbul, who preferred not to be named. "Our big challenge in the last 15 or 20 years has been maintenance." For the Turkish Jewish community, Keribar's collection of photographs is a way of preserving the visual legacy of the synagogues. Keribar, born and raised in Istanbul as a secular Jew who rarely saw the interior of a synagogue, except on Yom Kippur, says working on the book allowed him to discover and reconnect with part of his own culture. In Canakkale, a small city near the Gallipoli battlefields where a tiny Jewish community still lives, Keribar showed up to photograph the synagogue, only to find a funeral service waiting for a tenth man to make a minyan. "I really felt at home in some of these synagogues," he says, "as if I had been there in a previous life." Keribar started taking pictures as a teenager, shooting on a Leica his father bought him. After a stint in the Turkish army, Keribar began working in the textile business. He started photographing again in 1980 as a hobby. When a financial crisis in Turkey in the mid-90s caused his business to collapse, he decided to make photography his second career. Since then he has gone on to become an award-winning photographer, shooting for many of Turkey's leading magazines and doing commercial work. "I feel very, very proud that I was able to be part of this project," says Keribar, during an interview in the Zulfaris synagogue, which is featured in the book. The synagogue, the last building on a dead-end alley, was closed in 1985 with the collapse of the congregation. In use since the 17th century, it reopened in 1991as a Jewish museum. Keribar's photos will be exhibited at Tel Aviv's Beth Hatefusoth (The Diaspora Museum) from December 25. • Extract from a story in Issue 18, December 22, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here.