turkey - Eran Wolkowski - September 23 2011
Turkey Illustration Photo by Eran Wolkowski
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Anyone who believes all the nonsense written in history books about Jews being expelled from Spain, the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the suggestion that Abdulhamid II is no longer an illustrious sultan and, especially ridiculous, that Yitzhak Navon has not served as president of Israel for the past 28 years - whoever believes all this palaver is not only a total imbecile, but a kyutuk de banyo (a Turkish expression meaning someone who is as thick as a tree stump ).

It was enough to go to Tuesday's concert at Jerusalem's Beit Avi Chai - entitled "The Piyyut and Musical Tradition of Iraqi Jews" and dedicated to the memory of the famed Turkish cantor Isaac Algazi - to make one realize that everything is still possible: It is still possible to remain loyal to Spain and thus, for example, to enjoy the romance encapsulated on a screechy tape played before the concert and featuring the singing of this revered cantor, from the 1930s. This Jewish-Spanish romance tells of a man who cursed his wife for having given birth to seven daughters and not a single son, but whose youngest offspring volunteers to fight in the Crown of Aragon wars in the guise of a virile man.

It's possible too to remain grateful to Abdulhamid , who donated thousands of ducats to his Jewish subjects who survived the great fire that blazed in Istanbul just yesterday (well, in 1884 ) - a story reflected in the Ladino copla genre of songs, and rendered in this instance with surprisingly mellifluous skill by the Israeli-Turkish-Jewish-Spanish singer, Dr. Baruch Hasson.

Hasson, an amateur singer who is an electrical engineer by profession and also extremely refined, sat beside me during the introductory lecture. He held the score to the song "Alma mia" ("My Soul" ), and hummed the melody to himself. When I tried to engage him in conversation, he politely demurred, and asked me to wait until after the concert.

And, of course, Ataturk is apparently alive and well: A song called "Cana Rakibi Handan Edersin" (which means something like "Darling, you make me miserable") was also performed in his honor at the concert. Ataturk was very fond of this song whose melody, wondrously enough, is also that of the piyyut (liturgical song ) "Let Mount Zion be glad, let the daughters of Judea rejoice."

Ataturk was mentioned since the cantor Algazi was reportedly a confidante of the great modern Turkish leader. That was until he lost favor in Ataturk's eyes and fled to Montevideo, where he lived until his death in 1950.

Algazi's death, of course, is a relative thing, for indeed this singer lives again in two newly released discs containing all of his recordings. His voice sounds purer in these CDs than the voices of many living singers. A skullcap-clad young man was selling the discs out of a suitcase for NIS 50 each. The profits will go to support the publication of the collected writings of Rabbi Uziel Zatzukel, who, as Cantor Ezra Barnea explained on Tuesday night, served for years as head of the Jewish music center Renanot, in Jerusalem.

The conclusion: When they are truly authentic, Sephardic Jews live forever. They keep going - just like the three elderly women, clad in black, who sat in front of me and nodded their heads in rhythm with the songs. When President Navon left the stage after his opening remarks to greet guests, and someone came to help him down, the women whispered to one another, "Poor man - his wife is dead." In other words, the fact is that we are alive, whereas she ... well, was she a real Sephardic Jew?

In a similar vein, I recall Mr. Falcon, the leader of Jerusalem's Sephardic community, who was a friend of my late parents, and will be forever remembered in our family for the time when, in the middle of an argument with my mother, who was herself a Sephardic woman of honor, he shouted: "Get away from me!" Can such an utterance be made to a senora? The poor man was forced to apologize in writing.

The concert was enthralling since it showed that when it comes to Jewish-Turkish piyyut, there are no barriers separating a Muslim-Sufi religious song from a song of lamentation that might have been cherished by the secular Ataturk, a Jewish cantiga (a monophonic medieval song ) in Ladino (about little Zuleika who disappeared, and whose distraught mother went to the synagogue, whereupon the messiah appeared before her ), or a prayer chanted during the High Holidays. Everything blends together.

As explained at the concert by the musician Yinon Muallem, if music, and not politicians, were to be responsible for connections between Israel and Turkey, life would be better for everyone. Muallem, a known lover of Turkey, lives in Istanbul and is cultural attache in the Israeli Embassy there. Other members of the Turkish Jewish community, who refuse to get into a panic about the downturn in diplomatic relations with Turkey, played and sang on stage. These included Ariel Kasis, who heads the Istiklal Trio. Indeed, it seemed that nobody in the audience was particularly worked up about Erdogan, Lieberman and Netanyahu. After all, why worry? Soon Sultan Abdulhamid will come, and show these viziers who really rules the roost here.