Departures / Arrivals: 'In Turkey, I Raised My Son as if He Were Israeli'

Inci grew up in a strict Jewish community, but forged her own path.

Tomer Appelbaum

Inci Birisi, 43, lives in Istanbul and flying there

Hello, can I ask you what you did in Israel?

I was here to visit my son. He’s 20, and is studying government and administration at the International Disciplinary Center in Herzliya. He’s been there for a year. He is religious. He won’t return to Turkey. That’s hard for me, but he loves it here.

Are you a Jewish family?

Yes. The family has lived in Istanbul for 500 years; we arrived as part of the expulsion from Spain. We lived in Israel from 1979 until 1981. We were sent to the Ramat Yosef neighborhood in Bat Yam, to a hostel for new immigrants.

Do you remember anything?

Tomer Appelbaum

Of course. Those were the best years of my life. In Israel I felt as though I was not only a girl but a human being. I was independent, I had a key, I made my own meals. When you live in a foreign country, you take on its culture. In Muslim Turkey, a woman isn’t supposed to work, the man is outside the house a lot and children are just children. Here I had a different life. School ended at noon and then I went to the park or to a dance or crafts group. Everything was close by.

What happened when you returned to Turkey?

I cried for a year and a half that I want to go back to Israel and be a soldier.

Why didn’t you?

My son said to me, “Mom, you are not so Jewish, you are a Zionist.” It’s true, I really am a Zionist. But it wasn’t possible. In Turkey your father decides for you, and I couldn’t even talk to my father about something like that. Going out at night was forbidden unless I went with my brother. We lived in a very small Jewish community, and my parents didn’t want me to assimilate into the Muslim population. They wanted me to marry a Jewish man and have Jewish children.

Is that what happened?

Yes. I married a Jew – a friend of my brother’s, even – but it didn’t work. Except for my son; that’s my gift. I raised him as though he were from a different world. From me he never heard, “You can’t do that.” I actually raised him as though he’s Israeli.

Do you still only go out with Jews?

The Jewish community in Turkey numbers about 12,000 people. I went out with Jewish men, but they are very closed. At the moment I have a Muslim boyfriend – sorry.

What do your parents say?

They don’t care anymore. My father was rich and he was like the emperor in our family. We all did what he said. In 2009 he went bankrupt, and now I am looking after my parents. I have my own business, for the design and manufacture of jeans; I sell also to Israeli companies. The family always said I was a princess and that I didn’t need to work, but I said that was out of the question. I know Hebrew, English and Spanish. In 2000 I got into real estate and also took courses in psychology, it was only afterward that I got into textiles.

Sixteen years ago, when I split up with my husband, that was unusual. There were no divorces in the Jewish community back then. It was very hard, because when I divorced him I also had to divorce my family: They told me they didn’t want me because I left him. I left the house and the family. Fortunately, within three months I made money from real estate – maybe God was with me. I bought a three-room apartment, and I remember thinking: One day I will take care of the family. After three years of not being in touch I went back and told them: “These are my rules. You can come to visit, but call first, you have to respect my boundaries. You wrecked my life by making me marry someone that you liked but I didn’t.”

Wow.

But we patched things up. Even if you’re going to be a millionaire, you need your family.

Avihai Meiraz, 41, lives in Tel Aviv; arriving from New York

Hello, can I ask what’s happening on your shirt?

“Boston strong” – you don’t know what that is? It refers to the terrorist attack at the Boston Marathon in 2013. It’s a mark of respect. The bride gave it to me as a gift; she ran in that marathon.

Bride? Whose bride?

Of my second cousin. He just got married; I went in his honor. Two weeks of wedding events in Denver. Even though we are Polish, we are very much a hamula [Arab word for clan].

How was it?

The wedding or Colorado?

Both.

The impression I got is that everyone in Colorado is into sports – skiing, snowboarding, mountain-climbing, mountain bikes. And half the population is vegetarian. If you like that scene, it’s paradise. Actually, the people there look very much like Tel Aviv types – intelligent, like the ones who run and climb the walls in Hayarkon Park. You won’t find anyone there without at least an undergraduate degree. Besides that, there’s the marijuana scene in Colorado.

What is that all about?

Grass is legal there now.

Did you buy some?

I went with someone who knows: You have to look around for a place that sells it; it’s not easy to find, and you don’t see smokers around. There’s just a small sign outside that says “Recreational MJ.” Inside, everything is measured, weighed, very orderly, like in a drugstore. They don’t sell cigarettes there or anything else, only grass. You want it in the shape of a lollipop? They have it. As cookies? They have it. As a gummy bear? They have it. And of course there are different types of marijuana – stronger, weaker.

Is it expensive?

It’s $5 a gram, it’s a lot more expensive in New York. And when you buy it, they check your ID.

Do they write down the number?

No, they just want to see the ID. It’s all very orderly. But there are a lot of homeless people in Denver, and taxi drivers told me that the legal grass is what attracts the homeless people.

But what was the stuff itself like?

I’m not a big smoker. I did some hiking in the mountains, and that did it for me much more. The wedding itself was like a mountain hike, at 2,500 meters, a place where you climb five steps and breathe hard.

Okay, so how was the wedding?

There was a party and a rehearsal event the day before, and everyone wearing those suits. The bridesmaids were these Amazon types. It was just family and I didn’t think I would enjoy myself. But I had a great time. The intensity of the connection with my cousin was something else.

What holds your family together?

Holocaust memory, I think. After the Holocaust, my mother went to Brooklyn with my cousin and my aunt, and afterward she immigrated to Israel. As a girl, did anyone ask her if she wanted to come here? No. Some of the family stayed in Brooklyn and some came here, and those who immigrated gave up their U.S. passport in the name of Zionism. My cousin married a non-Jewish woman. It was a Reform wedding. A friend married them and I read the Seven Blessings. The other half isn’t Jewish at all, so it’s a different culture, more positive.

Non-Jew equals more positive?

A lot of Jewish men stop dating Jewish women and marry non-Jews, because they can’t stand Jewish women.

American Jewish princesses – what could be bad?

Do you remember the TV series “The Nanny”? Jewish women like that.

Was it a problem in the family that he married a non-Jew?

It’s a very big issue in the family. But first of all, the bride is amazing. If he hadn’t married her, I would have. Besides, he’s 48, not a kid, he’s in a situation where he could marry a sheep – the main thing is to get married. The wedding was pretty much nonreligious. They took stuff from everywhere. It’s even hard for them to say the word chuppah properly, but at the vows stage the bride and the groom spoke to each other – it wasn’t the rabbi who told them things. It was nice.