Istanbul Salutes the Long Standing Turkish-Jewish Connection

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Exeter Library Exeter, New Hampshire 1965-72
Exeter Library Exeter, New Hampshire 1965-72Credit: Cemal Emden
Headshot of Haaretz columnist and literary supplement editor Benny Ziffer, who is artistic director of the poetry festival to be held in Metula.
Benny Ziffer
Headshot of Haaretz columnist and literary supplement editor Benny Ziffer, who is artistic director of the poetry festival to be held in Metula.
Benny Ziffer

ISTANBUL — Saturday has always been the day for demonstrations in Istanbul. Recently they have been growing fewer, but the power of habit makes me stop sometimes and turn my ear to the distant tumult — until it turns out that what I am hearing from afar as a raucous demonstration is nothing but the shouts of joy of sports fans watching a game on television in a café.

Istanbul, Turkey. A Jewish conspiracy?Credit: Getty Images IL

The only real demonstration I ran into along the way was the Journalism Festival, held in the central square of the lively Besiktas quarter, under a gray monument to the founder of the Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

A small and rather sorry demonstration among the noisy eruption of weekend revelers. Some of whom were on their way to the food market, the pride of the quarter. Others were heading toward the fashionable cafes along the western, European bank of the Bosphorus. 

Istanbul is packed right now with more festivals than ever and a bounty of the most contemporary of contemporary art events. The independent documentary film festival will open after we have left the city, while now the journalism festival is on, whose large posters announce it across from the entrance gate to the Naval Museum that looks out over the Bosphorus at Besiktas Square. 

Salk Institute for Biological Studies La Jolla, Kaliforniya California 1959-65Credit: Cemal Emden
National Parliament of Bangladesh Dakka, Bangladeş Dhaka, Bangladesh 1962-83Credit: Cemal Emden
First Unitarian Church and School Rochester, New York, 1959-62 1965-69 (okul / school)Credit: Cemal Emden

A Jewish conspiracy?

The Journalism Festival, held in the central square of the lively Besiktas quarter.Credit: Benny Ziffer

But mostly I want to talk about the strong link between Turkish culture and Judaism. The intention is not just to the common obsession over Ataturk, being from a Jewish Sabbatean background, which has led many to the thought that perhaps the entire idea of the secular republic that he espoused was a Jewish conspiracy.

This time I found the Jewish connection in an exhibition that was packed with visitors. By chance we wound up at the opening of an exhibition of the works of the late Jewish-American architect Louis Kahn at Pera Museum, as photographed by Cemal Emden, a Turkish photographer who specializes in architecture.

Kahn, whose name at birth was Itze-Leib Schmuilowsky, was influenced by Brutalist architecture. His fondness for exposed concrete slabs influenced the construction of concrete monsters in the form of round-windowed fortresses in the 1960s and ‘70s in Israel.

Kahn’s great aspiration was to build a monumental Jewish structure. He worked for years on a grandiose plan for the Sephardi Ahavath Israel Synagogue in Philadelphia, which remained only on paper. After the Six-Day War, in 1967, Jerusalem’s then-Mayor Teddy Kollek, asked him to offered him to restore the Hurva Synagogue in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City, which had been destroyed by the Jordanians in 1948 during the War of independence.

Exeter Library Exeter, New Hampshire 1965-72Credit: Cemal Emden

Kahn drew Jerusalem in his own spirit — the exhibition includes a few sketches — in which the grandiose reconstruction of Rabbi Yehudah Hehasid’s synagogue commands the entire Old City. A brutal concrete arm extends from the Hurva to the Western Wall, encompassing the Dome of the Rock on the Temple Mount. The design was never executed. The only building that Kahn designed in Israel that was actually built was the Wolfson Building of Engineering at Tel Aviv University.

Louis Kahn exhibit IstanbulCredit: Beverly Pabst

Kahn was found dead under mysterious circumstances in New York’s Penn Station in 1974. Nathaniel Kahn, his son from Harriet Pattison, born when Kahn was in his early 60s (Kahn had a daughter, Sue Ann, with his wife, Esther, and a second daughter, Alexandra, with Anne Tyng, an architect often called his “partner and muse”), made an excellent, painful documentary about his father in 2003. It was screened in Israel, where part of it was filmed.

In “My Architect: A Son’s Journey,” Nathaniel Kahn attempts to decipher his father, who died when he was just 12. Everyone who was interviewed for the film is in complete agreement that Kahn was charismatic, charming, a genius, a perfectionist — and so impossible to work with that only a small part of the projects he designed were ever built. But those that were can leave you speechless.

Watching the movie, we came to recognize that Louis Kahn was really a Jewish mystic. It seems that all of this has been forgotten.

And now here in Istanbul, the city that has the memory of an elephant, the dead Jewish man who wanted so much to be one of the builders of Jerusalem and was never able to do so is given new life. As if it too has part of the Jewish vow: “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning.”

Another trivial detail: Until not so long ago Pera Museum was a colonial hotel, Hotel Bristol, one of the first built in Istanbul for European tourists at the end of the 19th century. The façade of the building remains as it was, as a memorial. The interior was transformed into a sophisticated museum space.

Piazza Del Campo No.2 Siena, Italy, 1951 ‒ Pastel on paper Nathaniel Kahn Koleksiyonu / CollectionCredit: Nathaniel Kahn Collection

You leave the museum, cross the passage on the right and turn left onto Istiklal Avenue. Only a few houses from the corner stood, until just a few months ago, at number 256, the building whose left side — right next to the gate of the Russian Consulate — was our family’s antiques store. And on the right, the Kalbek bra and girdle store, owned by Eliahu Cohen, a Karaite Jew.

When the shop closed, three years ago, there were stories in the Turkish newspapers mourning its demise.

The building, however, did not have sufficient historic value to warrant preservation. It was torn down. On the tin sheets surrounding the hole dug in its place are pasted ads for the upcoming performance of Asaf Avidan. An Israeli musician. From Jerusalem.