"Haven't you seen the movie 'Midnight Express'?" friends asked, agitated, when I announced I was off to seek my Turkish roots, alone. They had seen the film of Billy-the-Drug-Dealer's trauma in Turkish prison and harbored the image of Turkey as torture chamber. But to me, Turkey meant a land of tolerance: My Jewish ancestors had lived there for more than 400 years without persecution.
In 1914 my paternal grandparents left that world behind. Like any second-generation child, with a cushion of parents between my American ease and the ordeal of immigration, I found myself wondering, "What if I had been born one hundred years earlier . . . ?"
I had to complete the picture; I had to connect the dots. I would visit my grandparents' hometown on the Dardanelles: Canakkale, on the far west coast of Turkey.
By the time my bus pulled into Canakkale late one autumn afternoon, I had been traveling through Turkey for three weeks. Along the way, I'd picked up two useful things: a little Turkish and a lot of confidence.
"Traveling alone" merely means starting out alone, I'd quickly learned. After that, you meet the world, if only by asking directions. The Turks, especially, love to help their few tourists for, as Allah said, "A guest comes from God." A rare young American guest is especially welcome.
I got off the bus armed with my octogenarian aunts' reminiscences of their town's Jewish quarter 70 years ago:
"There was a bakery in the corner of the central square," one aunt had told me back home. "And a bath opposite it," recalled her sister. In Istanbul I met a man, originally from Canakkale, who drew a crude map of that intersection, and I carried this with me, too. The map proved my salvation. I showed it to the clerk in a store near the bus station, and though just those two landmarks were labeled, he led me directly to the square.
"Let me say this," I wrote my relatives at the end of the day. "I don't think the town has changed much since you left." Fresh loaves of crusty ekmek were on sale at the old bakery, and bathers still bustled to the Turkish bath. Hand-painted horse-drawn carts and vintage cars rumbled by, while the square screamed with rag-tag children, their chickens, tomcats and mothers.
"My kin?" I wondered, and suddenly realized I was at a loss. Were these people perhaps long-lost relatives, or strangers? Were there, in fact, any Jews left in town? I had made it to Canakkale: Now what?
I found a clean, cheery pensione, over-priced by Turkish standards at $5 a night (most nights on my travels I paid $1.50 for less-comfortable quarters). Passing small stores selling cast-iron stoves, juicy baklava, knitting yarn, auto parts and lamb, I asked, "Synagogue? Jewish mosque?" of the people I met. At length I came upon the building I sought -- and immediately wished I had not. It stood grand, inspiring, antique -- and padlocked, it looked, for eternity. I had come too late ever to see inside.
Heartsick, I paced the hard dirt lot facing the temple until a young, pregnant woman behind me called out from her window, "Welcome!"
Startled to hear my language, I spun around to face a bleak apartment building, its paint peeling, its closest neighbor a structure torn down by earthquake or man. "You English-speak?" asked the young woman, standing out against this scene by virtue of her liveliness. I nodded. "Wait," she said, "I bring you English-speak man."
And, knocking on her next-door neighbor's crumbling stucco apartment, she did. An aged man, stooped and unshaven, emerged and greeted me with, "How do you do? Where are you from?"
I explained my grandparents came from his town.
"Their names?" he asked.
But when I told him, he smiled and shook his head.
"No," he insisted, "their names in Hebrew."
Then the old man introduced himself. He was one of Canakkale's 35 remaining Jews, Haim Sidi, age 71, the rabbi.
"It is 7 o'clock now," he continued, "at 8 we go to the synagogue to welcome Shabbat," the Jewish day of rest.
Night falling, the rabbi unlocked the gates I'd feared permanently shut. I entered the synagogue with great emotion: It was beautiful. The grand sanctuary's ceiling was high, the bema (from which the rabbi reads the Torah) carved of fine dark wood, the women's balcony gracefully peering down on this musty splendor like the best seats in an opera house. But it was in the cozy antechamber that the rabbi held services this night -- a small room adorned with hand-illuminated prayers and an ark draped with velvet. I took a seat in this room, as my forebears must once have done, and Rabbi Sidi led four old men, the remnants of his congregation, in thanks to God.
The Jews of Turkey have had much to be thankful for: half a millenium without persecution. In 1492, when Columbus left Spain sailing west toward America, the Spanish Jews headed in the opposite direction, fleeing the Inquisition. Five years later they were followed by their Portuguese-Jewish counterparts.
In Turkey, Sultan Bayezid II not only welcomed these refugees, he actually sent a fleet to rescue them. As ruler of a young Islamic empire at a time when Moslems considered commerce beneath them, Sultan Bayezid hoped the Jewish artisans and multilingual businessmen would enrich his country.
This the Spanish or "Sephardic" (from sepharad, Hebrew for Spain) Jews did -- and, in the process, many enriched themselves. Throughout the centuries, however, rich and poor Jews alike kept a very low profile. They lived their lives apart from the Moslem mainstream and never aspired to political or military power. And for 400 years very few Jews learned Turkish.
They spoke, instead, "Ladino," medieval Spanish written with Hebrew characters -- the Sephardic equivalent of Yiddish. Today Ladino is dying out. For the last 30 years, Jewish children in Turkey have grown up speaking Turkish. But my father's family in Chicago still speaks Ladino, and so does Rabbi Sidi, in Canakkale.
I was connecting the dots.
That evening the rabbi invited me home for dinner. His house was damp. The table was wooden, the oilcloth worn, the plaster veining and the light fluorescent.
We shared Mrs. Sidi's modest meal of stuffed peppers and decanted a dusty bottle of Coca-Cola to toast my trip. "Normally," explained the rabbi, "we drink water."
After dinner he showed me his few treasures: an 1816 Ladino-Hebrew prayer book, a parchment he was calligraphing and a 1949 English primer. The primer's expressions were archaic -- "old chap," "darling" -- as were its jokes, but by studying this book one hour every night for three years, the rabbi had taught himself an English we could speak.
Finally, he picked up a yellowing song book stuffed with hand-copied ballads. Trembling slightly, the rabbi sight-read them in Hebrew, Turkish and Ladino.
When I returned to my pensione after midnight, I marveled that I had made it here, the place where my family worked, prayed, gossiped and sang, and that now I'd heard songs here, too.
The next day, after morning services, the rabbi declared he was at my service.
"I'd like to find my ancestors, in the cemetery," I said.
"You will find them 60 years from now, in Paradise," replied the rabbi, "not today in Canakkale."
Our trek to the graveyard proved him right. Passing pleasant homes and an outdoor market deserted on Saturdays except for its wooden stands and a few forgotten vegetables, we came to our sad conclusion. All that remained of my readable roots were crumbled tombstones, scattered and worn smooth, grazed by the occasional goat.
Back in town the rabbi introduced me to more lively links: a significant sample of Canakkale's 35 Jews. We met the baker, who plied us with rolls fresh from his deep, roaring oven, and a pair of delicate white-haired ladies invited us in for Turkish coffee served with marzipan and gentility. Then we met Yasar.
Jolly Yasar Yohay runs a sporting goods store about two people wide by three people deep (one person wide, if you're Yasar). But "Shalom! Bienvenido! Welcome!" he said, placing the rabbi and me squarely at the entrance, nearly blocking it, and summoned tea for us.
As we sipped, the townswomen -- dressed in traditional salvar (baggy pants) -- came bustling by with their crew-cut boys and pig-tailed girls, all anxious to buy book bags and shoes since school throughout Turkey would begin the following Monday. Between these sales, Yasar and the rabbi discussed the next day's plans conspiratorily. Both men loved tourists, but met them all too rarely. So while Yasar gleefully set the agenda, the rabbi nodded, pleased. At last Rabbi Sidi suggested, in English, "Will you permit us to show you Truva tomorrow?"
Truva, in English, means Troy.
Homer's Troy, Helen of Troy's Troy, lies only 15 miles from Canakkale. But as both the rabbi and Yasar almost never leave their town, this was a grand outing.
To get there we took a mini-bus that traveled along a twisting, one-lane road, constantly stopping at tea and hookah parlors to pick up passengers, animals and, for the driver, cigarettes. The view out to the coast was ravishing -- the water as blue as it must have been in Homer's time -- but I preferred the scenes of village life, especially watching the old men play backgammon at the small cafes and the women hanging clothes to dry in the bright sunshine. The rabbi smiled, drinking in the scenery and chatter, but Yasar greeted fellow commuters with nearly deafening "Hellos!" When he recognized someone outside the bus, he banged on the windows, waving frantically. And he knew, it seemed, almost everyone.
His circle of friends included Troy's one tour guide, so we got a private tour of the site. Except for one monument to kitsch, a huge wooden horse sired by the most modern of Trojans, little distinguished this desolate landscape. Acres of tumbled walls and gray white rocks are all that remains of the historic site.
Much of Troy was destroyed, explained the guide, by the very man who discovered it, Heinrich Schliemann. Schliemann devoted his life to finding the Troy of Homer, but when at last he did, he plowed straight through it, convinced that another, deeper level, was the layer he sought.
Poor Schliemann, I thought. He tried to connect and missed. No Rabbi Sidi had awaited him with a key to the past he sought.
After our tour we stopped for lunch at a tiny outdoor restaurant run from the kitchen of another of Yasar's pals. While we waited in the sunshine for our fried eggs drenched in butter and salt, Yasar played with his friend's dogs and I showed the rabbi how to use the square-root function of my solar-powered calculator. If he could bring me my past, I owed him a glimpse of the future.
Lunch finished, we walked to the beach-side fig orchard and whitewashed home of Hamit Kartal, former curator of the Truva museum and director of the archeological site of Troy. He came out to greet us looking so pleased to have visitors that I smiled with a lump in my throat.
"Ask him questions," Yasar and the Rabbi whispered. "He is a very great expert."
I did, and the distinguished old man hauled out books and maps to the porch where we sat, delighted to have a student again. When he finished his lesson, Kartal opened an illustrated archeology tome and pointed to a photograph of Troy's earthenware jugs. He would, he vowed, give anything to fashion jugs like these and exhibit them in New York.
Such is the stuff of dreams. While American romantics dream of ruins and roots, the man whose ward was Troy hoped someday to sell kitsch in Manhattan.
Another friend of Yasar's motorcycled by as we spoke. He was Canakkale's one journalist. With the rabbi intrepreting, he took down the story of my odyssey and snapped a picture of me sitting between the rabbi and Yasar, in an orchard midway between ancient history and my own.
As evening fell we bade goodbye to the Troy director and, having missed the mini-bus, hitchhiked back to town. The driver picking us up turned out to be -- what else? -- a friend of Yasar's.
At last it was time for me to leave Canakkale: In one weekend I had seen what I hoped to see. The impoverished rabbi insisted on buying me sandwiches and sweets for the bus ride to Bursa en route to Ankara. At the station he also handed me a tiny piece of homemade parchment. On it he had calligraphed the prayer all Jews are commanded to post on their doorways.
The rabbi will thus be with me whenever I come and go from home.
About a month after leaving Turkey, I received a copy of the country's biggest newspaper, Hurriyet, mailed to me from Yasar in Canakkale. On page 15, I found myself sitting between him and the rabbi again, in the fig orchard near Troy. I felt proud for the young woman who had made that adventurous journey all by herself.
But the truth is that when I was traveling, I was very rarely alone. Throughout Turkey strangers met and helped me. And while I was there, I did not need to be brave or deliberately adventurous. For six weeks I just woke up to explore Turkey the way I woke up today to go to work.
Moreover, as the cemetery was in ruins and I did not search for genealogical documents, I cannot claim to have found my Canakkale roots, per se. I found, instead, the last living tree, scraggly but beautiful, 35 branches strong, thanks to Rabbi Sidi, Yasar and their friends.