Posted on January 18, 2016 by Giulia Fleishman
“Be flexible,” and “Prepare to make compromises” were common phrases at our Turkey trip planning meetings. Levi repeatedly informed us that the Turkish Jewish community is quite traditional and we, especially the women, would probably have to adjust our davening practices for the sake of the community. No problem, I thought. While I strongly value egalitarian davening spaces, I’ve also davened in many traditional minyanim. I also wanted to show my respect for the community we were about to enter, to integrate well and soak up their culture. I was eager to be flexible and compromise because of the opportunity offered by doing so.
Since we arrived, each time we davened with the community, the women davened separately from the men. In the synagogues this meant davening in the balconies, watching the service from above. I often felt disconnected, sometimes I would become mesmerized by the patterns formed by the white circles of kippot moving through the room. While I loved the exposure to Nusach Sephard and Turkish Jewry, it was challenging to feel like I was actually experiencing it. However, over Shabbat, I experienced one of my highlights of the trip, specifically because I was davening in the small women’s section away from the action.
Our group celebrated Shabbat at the Ortaköy Synagogue on the European side of Istanbul, the synagogue of Murat Beldirici, a friend of Levi’s and an instrumental player in realizing our trip. Once again I shuffled up the stairs with the other women to sit high in the balcony at the back of the synagogue.
It was Friday night and the place started to fill up. I sat at the front of the balcony with my now usual view of the scene below. At some point during the service an eight year-old girl appeared in the aisle. She clung to the railing to peer at the men below us. We made shy eye contact a few times and when it was time to sit again for the Shema, she plopped herself down in the seat beside me. She didn’t have a siddur so I held my siddur between us and with a few awkward hand gestures, invited her to share it with me.
She proceeded to recite the first paragraph of the Shema perfectly (according to Sephardi custom the Shema is recited aloud). We continued to follow the prayers together, she in Turkish transliteration, me in Hebrew. Together we made our way through the blessings and the Amidah. We found our rhythm. We waited for each other at the end of each page and always confirmed the other was ready to turn the page with a conspiring glance. At one point she lost her place and I helped her find it, at another point she helped me. While she seemed to take the whole endeavor very seriously, we also shared an occasional giggle.
In this brief moment, in the women’s section, far from the bimah and the participatory davening of the men below, I felt myself drawn deeply into the service. I was in it, intimately experiencing the davening with a member of the community whom I had traveled so far to meet.
Later in the evening we all joined a lively oneg at the synagogue. We sang at the top of our lungs. The men and women whirled around the tables. In the midst of it all I saw a small, glowing face above the crowd. The same girl I had davened with that evening now floated on the shoulders of a Pardes student, her smile stretched wide across her face. And in that smile I saw a glimmer of the joy of connection she had shared with me earlier that evening.