How Turkish Jews preserved Sephardi traditions

From cheese to baby showers, Turkish Jews, who fled Spain in the 15th century,  have customs peculiar to their community. Karen Gerson Sarhon of the Turkish-Ottoman Sephardic Cultural Research Center explains to the  Daily Sabah: 

 Karen Gerson Sarhon in her Istanbul home

Daily Sabah: Could you talk about Sephardic cuisine and “kashrut” (kosher), referring to Jewish dietary rules?

Karen Gerson Şarhon: There are foods eaten only by Jews and
unfamiliar to other communities. For instance, “Atramuz” is a kind of
chickpea known as a “Jewish bean” in Turkey. Only fishmongers sell it
and it is still consumed in Spain. There is also a fish that Jews
frequently prefer eating. We call it Gaya fish; however, it is generally
called rockling fish. When we were little, fishmongers used to visit
our neighborhood on Thursdays as they knew that the Jews would buy the
fish for Friday dinner. Traditionally, we ate fish on Fridays. I do not
know why rockling fish is preferred among Jews. Spanish Jews consume
that fish, yet it is not a tradition among other Jewish communities.

I have always wondered whether the name of “kashar” cheese is related to
our culture or not. Once I directed this question to history professor
Rena Molho, who came from Greece. She told me that this cheese is called
“kashkaval” in the Balkans. Moreover, she said this type of cheese was
introduced to Anatolia by the Jews. She also said the cheese stays fresh
for a long period of time and is halal. During our travel to Cordoba,
we were offered “kashar” cheese, which is similar to the “kashar” in
Turkey. The only difference was that they served the cheese with olive
oil. They said the cheese is called “queso manchego” and it is unique to
their region. However, I told them that we have the same cheese in

The Jews who escaped the Inquisition passed through the Bay of Gibraltar
and settled in Morocco. Some mentioned a specific fish consumed by
Moroccan Jews that is also considered kosher. When I learned this, I
talked to historian Naim Güleryüz. He said the Jews that migrated to the
Ottoman Empire during that period settled in Thrace. According to him,
they ran dairy farms and produced cheese that was called “kashar,”
meaning “halal” in their language. In addition, the sponge cake known as
“boyoz,” which is a pastry unique to İzmir, was also brought to
Anatolia by the Jews. The name “boyoz” is derived from the Judeo-Spanish
word “borekas.” This pastry had a profound impact on İzmir’s culture.
Furthermore, almond paste obviously belongs to our culture. You can come
across almond paste anywhere from Toledo to Masapan; however, the paste
in Turkey tastes better. When people move from one place to another,
they bring their culture’s cuisine with them and it becomes more refined
over time, as we have seen with almond paste and peanut butter. Namely,
Antalya’s special paste made with almond and peanut tastes better than

Also, drinking wine is a tradition in our festivities, while we consume
rakı (a strong Turkish spirit flavored with anise) at funerals. Since
rakı is a strong alcoholic beverage, it is believed to eliminate sorrow.
At funerals, cookies are prepared with rakı. The foods to be served at a
funeral are shaped in a circle, referring to the symbol of “Ouroboros,”
(the cycle of life). We consume olives or eggs at funerals as well. (…)

DS: How did “maftirim” emerge?

KGŞ: Maftirim is a kind of hymn that emerged in Edirne in the
16th century. It is performed with Turkish classical music maqams. There
used to be a place near the Edirne Synagogue where “hazans” (cantors)
used to perform it, especially after Saturday prayers. Sometimes Sufis
accompanied them at the synagogue. For years, they visited each other to
perform the hymns. The Jewish society in Edirne published a book
featuring 500 maftirims. The head of the synagogue choir was responsible
for training others, and beginners were later given senior positions.

After the 1934 Thrace pogroms, the Jewish people left the area and the
choir ceased to exist. Some of them settled in South America and
Australia, but a large portion came to Istanbul and continued the
tradition. In the early 1980s, three maftirim masters – David Behar,
Itzhak Maçoro and David Sevi – gathered to record 63 compositions in a
studio established at a synagogue. Until 2003, when our foundation was
established, they did not do any other work on this project.
Nevertheless, I asked them to release the hymns. It took six years,
since some compositions are hand-written and we transferred them to a
digital format. We also discovered some makams like “Nühüft,” which we
had not known before.

The compositions had to be translated because all
our publications are released in Turkish, English and Ladino. We learned
that there was only one person who could do this. Previously living in
Kuzguncuk, Professor Isaac Yerushalmi was an academic and religious man
teaching in the U.S. He can speak 16 languages and translated the
compositions into Ladino and English. The project was an arduous task
because Hebrew is a language without vowels. A friend of mine, Professor
Tova Beeri from Tel Aviv helped us add vowels to the piece. The preface
was written by the world’s only maftirim expert, Professor Edwin
Seroussi, who is also the head of the Department of Music at the
University of Jerusalem. Our work was purchased by nearly all
universities in the U.S. Along with six-hour maftirim selection, a
one-hour DVD was released as well. The project is special for us because
we keep 63 mafitirims alive through the album.

DS: What does “entravista” mean? Is it still practiced?

KGŞ: There used to be professional matchmakers called
“kazamentra,” who visited neighborhoods to see young girls. They used to
decide which girl can be ideal for men in the area. There was also a
dowry tradition known as “dota.” Girls used to give dowries to men. If a
girl offered a good dowry then she could find many men. Otherwise,
girls who were not beautiful enough and without a dowry could not get
married. The kazamentras were responsible for organizing them. The term
“entravista” refers to the couple’s meeting. In the past, Sephardic
girls got married when their menstruation periods began. There was a
belief that it was religiously favorable to have the wedding night on a
Friday. Until the 1980s, girls without a dota could not get married.
Whether or not they had a good job or education, they could not get
married. After the 1990s, families gathered to solve the problem. As you
know, marriages do not happen at young ages now.

DS: Baby showers seem to be a popular and modern cultural tradition,
yet it has existed for years in the Sephardic community. What do you
call it? Could you explain how you organize baby showers?

KGŞ: “Fashadura” is a tradition of Sephardic Jews in Turkey. In
the fifth or seventh month of pregnancy – generally waiting until the
threat of miscarriage has passed – expecting mothers have a women-only
party. Men join these parties in the evening. Family members have a
special dinner, which is actually an Eastern tradition. In the past, a
baby’s sex was not known before the birth but now we organize the
parties based on the baby’s sex. First, we buy raw fabric that
symbolizes long life and choose someone to cut the cloth to make a snap
suit. The parents of the person who cuts it must be alive as we believe
that the baby will then live with his parents. The cloth is cut long to
symbolize the baby’s long life. We spread gold coins and white sugar on
it. This practice is associated with a fertile and happy life. We give
our best wishes and the person makes a snap suit, which will then be
brought to the hospital when the baby is born. This is the first outfit a
baby wears. Other friends also give presents. Fashadura later spread to
U.S. and other countries, and the baby shower holds a special place in
popular culture.

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