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“When we celebrate Sukkot, we celebrate the real happiness of our ancestors”

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After the previous Etz Ahayim Synagogue in Ortakoy burned down in 1941 with only the marble Torah Ark remaining, a new synagogue was rebuilt.

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Sukkot has always been for me a sign for the ending summer holidays and starting school time. In my adolescence, I remember still being in Burgaz island, during the Sukkot holiday, where we passed the summer. At that time school was starting at the end of September. Thus, being in summer places was better for families celebrating Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot, as it was much more comfortable to prepare for those special days.

In Burgaz, one of the nine princes’ islands an hour off Istanbul, we had a small synagogue where the community was not only gathering for prayers but also for Torah lessons. Nearly all my friends of my age, boys as well as girls, were attending these sessions, during which we were preparing for our bar and bat mitzvah.

The small garden of the synagogue was where the sukkah was built, where people sat and ate, sang, chatted, and discussed daily things… business, politics… Gossip obviously was an important part of the event. We had to make a reservation to be able to sit under the sukkah and listen to what the Rabbi explained to us: On the meaning of Sukkot; on what were the expectations of our ancestors during the 40 long years passed at the wilderness of Sinai; on the importance of observing, teaching Judaism – all these along with some anecdotes that were always part of his talks.

The elderly people were always nodding to what our Rabbi said, murmuring also their regret about the reluctance young people were showing in attending daily prayers. Was it boring? The only thing I can remember is that Sukkot services were more attractive because of the ambiance the sukkah offered, most probably.

After these old good times I didn’t have the chance to attend the Sukkah any longer. I know that there are no services for Sukkot in the summer islands, first because now the schools start earlier – even before Rosh Hashanah, and then because our community shrank so much that it’s difficult to gather enough people.

Though vivid in social and cultural Jewish life, living in a densely populated city such as Istanbul makes life quite difficult. Sometimes one has to drive for hours to reach the synagogue. It should also be noted that due to security reasons it is impossible to have the sukkah out of protected areas: Thus the only suitable communal places would be the gardens of the Etz Ahayim Synagogue, the Jewish High School and the Or Ahayim Hospital. And, on some other occasions small family gardens would host several sukkahs.

Though the last couple of years witnessed Hanukkah celebrations held in public places under the auspices of the various district municipalities and the participation of figures from political parties, other religious minority communities, this has not been the case for Sukkot.

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Ortakoy, once a fishing village at the entrance of the Bosphorous on the European coast of the city, is a well frequented neighbourhood. For years a solid Jewish presence was there along with a Christian and Muslim population. In fact, in a small area squeezed between the road and the sea, one can find a mosque, a church and a synagogue, serving their respective communities in harmony.

This lovely small village developed to be one of the most popular neighborhoods of the city. Etz Ahayim’s site is one of striking beauty, even if a rather modern building has replaced the former structure, which was destroyed by fire in 1914’s Yom Kippur night. The original synagogue, which is one of the oldest in Istanbul, dates back the 18th century.

The building and garden hidden behind high walls and barbed wires for security reasons, hosts joyful Sukkot celebrations during the holiday period. The large sukkah built in the covered yard gives to those who attend, a wonderful atmosphere of relaxation, detached from the chaotic city life where traditional meals are served, and people sit to pray, sing, dance, like old days.

During the last couple of years, before the Covid-19 times, young adults were coming together there, not only to celebrate the holiday but also to commemorate their beloved friend Yoel Kohen, who was killed along with many others in the November 15th, 2003 attack on Beth Yisrael Synagogue in Sisli by Al Qaeda. He was on duty as a voluntary security attendant.

This was a very tragic day well carved in the collective memory of our tiny community.

Rabbi Naftali Ben Isaac Katz, one of the most famous European Kabbalists from the 18th century, stopped in Istanbul on his way from Russia to Jerusalem and founded the religious school of Ortaköy (Midrash). He succumbed to a serious illness and subsequently, pilgrims from all over the world come to visit his grave in the Jewish cemetery in Ortaköy. (Photo: turkyahudileri.com)

Istanbul, my hometown, has usually witnessed a vivid Jewish life, with communal and cultural activities and Synagogues have always been an important part of it. Though less and less frequented during the ordinary week days, especially on the High Holidays and Pesach it would attract larger numbers of believers.

As for Sukkot, the season of joy, or Zeman Simchatenu… I quote from the website of the Turkish Jewish Community:

“When we celebrate Sukkot, we celebrate the real happiness of our ancestors…” – the one they cherished  for the first time, after having left the house of Egypt, dwelt for years in the wilderness of Sinai, lived in huts made of brushwood.

Chag Sukkot Sameach!

Marsel Russo was born in Istanbul and was raised in a secular Jewish family. He holds a Chemistry degree and an MBA. His deep interest in the Jewish history of the 20th century, as well as other topics, has appeared since 2005 in Shalom, the weekly newspaper of the Jewish community of Turkey.

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Thank you for choosing TheJ.Ca as your source for Canadian Jewish News.

We do news differently!

Our positioning as a Zionist News Media platform sets us apart from the rest. While other Canadian Jewish media are advocating increasingly biased progressive political and social agendas, TheJ.Ca is providing more and more readers with a welcome alternative and an ideological home.

We revealed the incursion of anti-Israel progressive elements such as IfNotNow into our communities. We have exposed the distorted hateful agenda of the “progressive” left political radicals who brought Linda Sarsour to our cities, and we were first to report on many disturbing incidents of Nazi-based hate towards Jews across Canada.

But we can’t do it alone. We need your HELP!

Our ability to thrive and grow in 2020 and beyond depends on the generosity of committed readers and supporters like you.

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