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Discovering Sephardic Heritage in Turkey

Rita with his husband in front of Blue Mosque.

By Dr. Rita Rosenthal*

What is it like to be a Sephardic Jew, whose parents originally immigrated to the United States of America from Istanbul, growing up in Brooklyn New York?  I was part of a huge, warm, gracious, close, extended family.  Members prepared wonderful unique foods, lived nearby, saw each other all the time and spoke a strange language.  Although the words sounded like Spanish, it was not the language of New York’s Puerto Rican community.
I later learned that the language my grandparents and relatives spoke was Ladino - a Romance language of Sephardic Jews, based on Old Spanish and written in the Hebrew script.  My grandparents, the Semarias, along with my grandfather’s brother Max and sister Caroline left Istanbul for New York.  His other sister had been kidnapped in Turkey by men on horseback and taken to the mountains to live.

In 1974, after years of stories about our Turkish family, I set out to find them and journey to Istanbul.  I contacted Raphael Puller, a wool merchant, who gladly connected and corresponded. Coming from Brooklyn, I pictured Raphael owning and operating a little wool store. When I inquired, he said his clients were England and Australia.  My picture of Turkey was nothing like the reality.  I pictured a primitive backward country, thinking about bringing ballpoint pens to my relatives as presents.  What I discovered was a magical city and educated family that I felt I knew all my life.

I arrived in Istanbul to meet my grandfathers’ warm and wonderful cousins Raphael, Pepo and Jack.  Three days later, the war between Greece and Cypress broke out and Raphael urged me to flee for safety.  My trip was abruptly cut short; I joined a busload of tourists through Bulgaria into Yugoslavia - a 26 hour adventure.  Bribing the border guards with cigarettes and landing on a street in Belgrade - to discover the war was already over.  That concluded my first trip to Istanbul.

How remarkable that my husband, Eric Louzil, President of Echelon Studios does business in Turkey - to be generously  invited to return to Istanbul by a business colleague and old friend, Mr. Ugur Terzioglu (Chairman TABA/AmCham) - presenting a spectacular opportunity to meet the next generation of Sephardic family and to re-discover the magic of Istanbul.  Since my grandfather’s cousins died, I remained in contact with Raphael’s son David.  We arrived from the Los Angeles, California at midnight to discover that 30 family members were still anxiously awaiting our arrival at a restaurant to meet us.  At 12:45 am, we arrived at the restaurant to be surrounded by such warm, gracious, eager family members with their sons and daughters, spouses and children.  I brought a photo album and family tree and discovered they never knew about the kidnapping of my grandfather’s sister!  Here I was informing them of events in Turkey.  

However, Jack, Pepo and Raphael were missing.  So David and I together visited the Sephardic cemetery in Istanbul to pay them a visit - as close as I could get to them.  In the cemetery we came across a grave marker with the last name of a business colleague in the United States, Mr. Larry Namer; which we later discovered to be his great grandparents.  How close can a community be?  We then visited David’s old neighborhood, the apartment he grew up in and the elevator I so remember on my first visit.  The apartment where I came for lunch in shorts and found everyone dressed for a formal dinner party.

How fortuitous that my husband does business in Turkey.  After three days with our family in Istanbul, we then spent six days in Bodrum with our dear friends and business colleague Mr. Ugur Terzioglu and his lovely wife Cavidan - yet another magical experience.  Meeting their wonderful friends, eating such amazing food, experiencing the warmth, sentimentality and graciousness of the family I knew in Brooklyn leaves me missing them all the time and yearning to return.
As my entrepreneurial Sephardic family, I plan to open a business to importing Turkish lamps to the United States and bridge the two lands I belong to.

* Psychologist- Encino, California USA

Last modified onSaturday, 06 May 2017 10:07