Our Zaida in the New World. . .and Hayim Sidi in the Old
HORSE-DRAWN carts are as common as cars in this Turkish town, Cannakale, on the Dardanelles, and they lurch over the cobblestone streets selling milk, firewood, apples, and quinces. Rabbi Hayim Sidi lives in one of the badly plastered apartments here, across from the synagogue he has led for 30 years.
Life for the small-town Turkish rabbi has not been easy. Even before the Jewish population dwindled to 35 (from 750 when he arrived), the congregation could not afford to pay its leader much. A trip to Istanbul, 10 hours away by bus, was saved for and savored by the Sidis only once.
Still, every Saturday morning the rabbi, now in his early seventies, exits in his suit and hat and unlocks the gate of his century-old temple. Four aged men, the remnants of his congregation, shuffle in. Allowing sunlight to suffice, they read their Sabbath prayers.
Searching for my Turkish-Jewish roots brought me to Cannakale this fall, and to the ghetto my grandparents left when they sailed for America in 1914. I arrived in town with no particular agenda and no relations left there to look up , just a longing to somehow connect the past with the present. While taking pictures of the old synagogue, I met a curious bystander who was to help me do this: the rabbi.
The rabbi's family, like my own and most Turkish Jews', had lived in Turkey for over four centuries. In 1492, when Columbus left Spain going west, our ancestors had headed east, fleeing the Spanish Inquisition. Turkish Sultan Bayezit II not only accepted the Jewish refugees, he sent a fleet to rescue them , hoping their business acumen would enrich his empire. Of 250,000 Spanish, or ''Sephardic,'' Jews leaving Spain, 150,000 settled in Turkey.
It was a wise move. The Jews did, in fact, aid the Ottoman Empire's efforts at commerce. Turkey, for its part, never persecuted its Jews. Throughout the centuries the Turkish Jews simply kept a low profile. They lived apart from the Muslim mainstream and never even learned Turkish. They spoke, instead, a mixture of medieval Spanish and Hebrew known as Ladino, which the oldest Turkish Jews still speak today. My grandparents spoke Ladino at home in Chicago. Rabbi Sidi, one of 22,000 Jews left in Turkey, speaks it at home today, in Cannakale.
''See,'' said the rabbi, pouncing on a random page of his 1816 prayer book. ''This side is Hebrew; this side is Ladino.'' We were sitting on his rock-hard parlor couch after the morning services he had led. He smiled to touch the prayer book he loved, its pages worn soft as cloth.
''And this,'' he said, producing a 1949 primer, ''is how I learned English.'' The little volume, ''English Without Tears'' was his only link to the language of the new world. For the past three years he has studied this book for an hour or two each night, patiently poring over the book's corny jokes. Although the lessons were originally accompanied by a record, the rabbi could never afford a record player.
'' 'Barber to client,' '' the rabbi read aloud to me, pointing out each word.
'' 'Haven't I shaved you before, sir?' 'No, old chap, I got those scars during the war.' '' The rabbi grinned, obviously well-pleased by the client's retort, even though he must have read it hundreds of times. ''It's a nice book, isn't it?'' asked the rabbi.
''This too.'' Rabbi Sidi extracted a third volume from his book pile while his wife set the table for brunch. This book was a yellowing song anthology, stuffed with hand-copied ballads from other times and sources.
''This one is Israeli,'' he said, suddenly bursting into song. ''And this is an old French one,'' he sang out again, sight-reading the notes. ''This - '' He pointed to some seismographic script. ''This one is Arabic.''
''You sing it?''
''Yes, of course! Why not?'' And he did.
As evening fell, we retired to the synagogue again, where I admired several elaborately calligraphed benedictions that Rabbi Sidi had donated to his dwindling congregation. The four elderly men took their usual seats.
Oblivious to their oblivion, the rabbi assumed his position at the head of his congregation and thanked God for creating the universe and all that is good.
In a month or two, Rabbi Sidi and his wife plan to move to Israel. The synagogue will close and with it, 500 years of Jewish history in Cannakale.
Although the rabbi had not known my grandparents, he had lived a life as hard as theirs and had gone on to learn and consider ideas as progressive as any my generation has produced. His ideas of beauty, humor, and God are as timeless as his songs, books, and prayers.
At the end of his Sabbath service, the rabbi said a prayer for my grandfather , long dead. I silently added a prayer for the rabbi who, like history, is very much alive.