These and Those

Musings from Students of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem

On the streets of Istanbul: Pardes in Turkey 2018

Posted on March 22, 2018 by Nate Swetlitz

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Bright and early. Well, it’s not bright yet because it’s too early. But we make it to the airport, and in no time we’re back in the city of sinuous streets, countless spires, and constant noise.

Istanbul spans many cultures and two continents. We began our day back in Turkey on the Asian side, visiting a synagogue dating back to the early 19th century. The area around this synagogue used to be the Jewish neighborhood, and children and grandchildren of those who used to live there still travel from the other side of the city to go to their family shul. We brought the shul a lively niggun, enjoyed a quick tea, and headed off.

Our next stop was the Hagia Sofia. Built in 537 C.E., the Hagia Sofia used to be an Eastern Orthodox Church. In 1453 it was converted to a mosque, and in 1931, it became a museum. The Christian mosaics that had been painted over were revealed once more. We marveled at the centuries old depictions, and asked a local about Jesus’ curious gesture (we were inspired by Levi). The man told us that the gesture—the ring finger touching the thumb—symbolized the way that the Transcendent connected with the finite. We wondered at the glory of the building, the structure, the ancient, looming dome, the enormous circles of Arabic writing next to mosaics of Mary.

On our way out, we appreciated the signs, and then immediately forgot them, slipping on the smooth marble steps and laughing our shame away.


After our experience of religious pluralism, we explored the Grand Bazaar, smelling scented soap, buying scarves, and drinking coffee. We discussed Judaism and politics, and Zvi purchased a dashing new hat so that he could look more like his favorite student. Our professional photographer (who is also our tour guide) has documented all, and all will be revealed.

I don’t know what the regular reader of this blog will think about our day. One could easily say that we just walked around the streets of Istanbul. Perhaps you are right. But the streets of Istanbul are teaching us on every step and with every meeting We learned the story of the simid seller on the street (simid is kind of bagel that you can buy everywhere), of the guards of Hagia Sophia (while we took photos in the church) and from the gabai of the synagogue. And we know that there are million other stories that we are about to explore, starting early morning tomorrow.

We are excited to starting teaching and learning tomorrow! Til then, get some rest. We know we’ll need it…