In the second part of the interview with the architect Rivka Geron Schild, who was in charge of the revamp of the Quincentennial Foundation Museum of Turkish Jews, we discussed Istanbul’s Jewish heritage, synagogue architecture and Neve Shalom in particular.
JEWISH CULTURE AND HERITAGE IN ISTANBUL
13. What is the tangible Jewish cultural heritage Istanbul has inherited? Which neighborhoods could be considered within this architectural heritage?
Jewish cultural heritage in Istanbul involves a great number of civilian and public buildings. A considerable number of Istanbul Jews – be they architects, city planners (Sami Sisa, Aaron Angel or employers/investors (Abraham de Camondo, İshak Alaton, Üzeyir Garih)- have facilitated the implementation of many projects all around the city.
In my opinion, the most valuable cultural heritage is a number of significant neighborhood structures in various districts. Unlike the ghettos in Europe, these neighborhoods did not have curfews nor their gates were locked at night. Most of them were founded after the expulsion from Spain in the 15th century; and up until the mid 20th century, they were organic structures, where a sense of community was strong, and integration with the society was present. Row houses, narrow streets, hamams and worshipping places are all structural components of the Jewish culture, which was/were well-integrated into the Ottoman culture.
As a result of the transition to apartment block living, Jewish settlements in the districts of Eminönü, Balat, Hasköy, Galata, and Kuzguncuk have gradually moved to the districts of Nişantaşı, Şişli, Gayrettepe, and Etiler, where a sense of community is on the decline. As the city expands, the dissolution process of shifting population still continues.
14. Is there any cultural asset of Jewish cultural heritage that you think is disappearing? If so, what is the reason for this?
Ladino language appears to be one of the leading cultural assets that is fading. Still, I don’t personally find it unusual or tragic. It is people that breathe life into languages; not the vice versa. The language we call Ladino is the Spanish of the 15th century. Therefore, it is quite reasonable for a Spanish-speaking Jewish society that once lived in Spain to lose the language while living in Turkey for the past 520 years. We could have expected the language to live if the community were a closed-knit one that continued to live in the same district, which is not possible at all as far as modern societies are concerned. What we should do today is to document this once-existing language as much as possible.
The vanishing of Ladino is something to do with the disintegration of urban living spaces. That is, disappearance of the traditional neighbourhood is directly related to that of the language. Societal integration has taken place at the expense of dissolving of both of the language and the urban spaces. Disintegration of the neighbourhood culture, the urban sprawl, and Jews no longer feeling the urge to live together are significant factors in Ladino vanishing!
15. Is there any book or movie that you think most reflects the daily life of Istanbul Jews and their culture?
“En Tierras Ajenas Me Voy Morir” edited by Gad Nassi is an important source of information on Sephardic culture and Ladino language. The title of the book refers to the title of a song, which translates as “I am leaving to die in foreign lands”.
I also would like to mention another book called “Lettre a Antoni Saura” written by Ladino speaking Marcel Cohen, the son of a Jewish family, which first emigrated from Spain to the Ottoman lands, and then to France in the mid 19th century. He is recounting fictional memories inspired by this language.
@ Kohen, R. (2012). Estambol Djudyo: Una koleksyon de rekuerdos i ilustrasyones = Jewish İstanbul : a collection of memoirs and illustrations. İstanbul: Libra Kitapçılık ve Yayıncılık.
NEVE SHALOM AND SYNAGOGUE ARCHITECTURE
16. What is the significance of Neve Shalom synagogue for Istanbul Jews?
Neve Shalom means Oasis of Peace. It is the last synagogue built in Istanbul (1951) due to the insufficiency of the synagogues in the area. (The insufficient synagogues are said to be Zülfaris and Apollon that were operating back in 1937) The area, upon which Neve Shalom synagogue was erected, is the ceremony hall of 1. Co-ed Primary School and Kindergarten. It has been of utmost significance for Istanbul Jews because since its opening, it has been overflowing with festivals and weddings. That said, it has been targeted by two heavy terror attacks, respectively in 1986 and 2003. Thus, it is not blessed only with blissful moments in collective memory.
@ Meek, H.A, The Synagogue, Phaidon, 1995
17. How can we define classical synagogue architecture? Are there any rules which are difficult to challenge in the canon?
Synagogue means “to come together, to gather” in Greek. Word has it that the first synagogue was designed as a makeshift one by the nomadic Jewish community living in the desert. The subtle calculations of its construction planning are already scripted in the Book of Exodus in the Torah, the Old Testament, giving all necessary details from the materials to the measurements. With the help of this manual, it is aimed to enable one to reconstruct the synagogue building even if all the know-how is lost.
Later on, there seems to be two essential factors that have influenced the synagogue architecture. One is the geographical culture, whose influence we see transferred through migration. For instance, the Ahrida Synagogue in Balat features the traces of Sephardic culture of Spain. Another factor being the perspective of the larger society Jews were a part of and Jewish society’s relation with the power. During the times when a close relation with the power was established and living standards were higher, the synagogue buildings were grandiose. Whereas in times of existential crisis, fundamental concerns or low living standards, they turned into modest, inward-looking buildings. Of course, we could say that the need to construct a new and grandiose building and the resources for such a construction have fallen away as a result of the decrease in the use of the venue following the decrease in the population.
18. How can we classify Neve Shalom according to this definition?
In terms of functional interior scheme, it is similar to traditional synagogue planning. Functional interior planning means a building facing the direction of Jerusalem, a cabinet that stores holy books, a pulpit called teva, from which prayer service is led, a section designated for men on the lower level and a mezzanine floor where women sit. However, Neve Shalom is less visible and grandiose compared with the Great Synagogue in Edirne, Schneidertemple Synagogue, and Ashkenazi Synagogue in Galata, which were built following the Reformation decree of the 19th century that granted the permission for publicly visible places of worship with domes to be built.
It is a fact that especially after the terror attacks in 1986 and 2003, the architecture of synagogues has been generally shaped by security concerns. A new synagogue has not been built but the present ones have been renovated in line with these concerns and this has unfortunately influenced our relation with the building.
Photos courtesy of Rivka Geron Schild and Roz Kohen. Unless stated otherwise, all photographs belong to Nihan Vural. Special thanks to Richard and Peter Wilkinson.
LINKS & FURTHER READING
Memoirs & Non-Fiction
19. Yüzyıl’da Kentsel Dönüşümün Meşruiyeti Olarak Yangın, Rivka Geron Schild
Jewish costumes in the Ottoman Empire, Silvio Ovadya
Las Ultimas Palavras, Rita Ender
Jewish Cuisine & Music
The book of Jewish Food, Claudia Roden
A Fading Language, a Fading Cuisine, Deniz Alphan
Los Pasharos Sepharadis (Sefarad Kuşlar; İzzet Bana, Karen Gerşon)