After ritual and a reprimand, the end is Turkish delight

By Maureen Lipman, October 29, 2012
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In my peripatetic life, I've often spent the Jewish holidays on the road. I've had apples and honey in a drab dressing room at the Alhambra (Bradford, not Spain) and broken the fast on cheese and crackers in Malvern.

This year, I spent Rosh Hashanah in Upper Berkeley Street, followed by a fine dinner of baked salmon - with its head still on - something very important to my Sephardi chap, Guido, talking and laughing with all our assorted families.

A week later, having packed, unpacked, repacked and overpacked, I headed to Istanbul, for Yom Kippur in Neve Shalom shul on Bereketzade Street. It would be different, but essentially the same, which is one of the things I love about the High Holy Days - the knowledge that this ritual is happening in one form or another all over the world, and has been for thousands of years. After Yom Kippur, I was to board "The Aegean Odyssey" and sail down the Mediterranean.

Although the shul had been informed I was coming, I had to hand over my passport, answer questions and go through a metal detector. In 2003, Neve Shalom was bombed by terrorists, killing 27 people. They looked at me suspiciously, as well they might. I was wearing a hat, a Magen David and a skirt and carrying my late father's siddur. I was also the very first person to arrive.

It's the shofar or the ship,' I told the guard

Waiting in the women's section, I watched the men drift in. One woman - an American on holiday - arrived looking lost, and we joined forces. Later, we were joined by another American woman, an academic, who lived and worked in Istanbul. It is a fantastic city, sitting on the very cusp of east and west, with such varied and exotic architecture, food, influences and tastes.

By now, the muscular Sephardi chanting was under way. It reminded me of my childhood shul in Hull, where I seldom had any idea what was going on but was comforted by the rhythms and the ritual. The chazan spoke in Ladino, with a perfect Moorish, nasal tenor. His requests yielded seven Sefer Torah bearers, including the small son of one of the ladies of the congregation, who were by now beginning to arrive. Like the men, they wore no hats, no fine clothes.

It was all very casual; white shirts, trousers and even the odd small kippah. When the Torah circled, they made graceful, fluttering gestures to their eyes and lips.

I had to leave to find my hotel before the end of prayers, so I missed the shofar. In the morning, after a quick sail on the Bosphorus, I returned for the same procedure of passport, metal detector and interrogation. This time, I sat alone and tried hard to concentrate on my own issues.

After a while, a woman arrived, wearing a blouse and slacks, plastic bags by her sides. She sat beside me in the empty pews. I smiled. She stared and dived noisily into the bag, bringing out nothing much, as far as I could see. I read my book, she dived into her bag. At the third crackling dive I gave her "a look". The service required us to stand up. When I sat down she pounced, hissing at me in Turkish. I told her I didn't speak Turkish or Ladino. She persisted. Finally she poked me in the leg.

"Your leg," she muttered. "Don't cross your leg."

I stared. She pointed again at my legs. I pointed at her bag and shook my head dolefully. Stalemate. I thought about moving away. I thought about reminding her that I was a guest in her country. I thought about mentioning Midnight Express. Then I remembered why I was there. To ask forgiveness for my stiff-necked pride, my lack of patience and my stubborn belief that I was always in the right, throughout not just 5772 but the previous 65. So I breathed out, uncrossed my legs and went back to my book.

Again I had to leave before the end, in order to be at the ship in time for embarkation. The shul guard was shocked that I would miss the shofar, but gave me back my passport when I said: "It's the shofar or the ship." Outside in the thick warm air, I waited for my guide in the sloping narrow street… and waited… and waited. After 25 minutes, I began to panic. Where was I? Where was the ship? Why did my mobile not work? Would I ever see my granddaughter again?

Reader, it all worked out in the end. I was waiting at the exit, my guide was waiting around the corner at the entrance. I dried my first tears of the New Year, he took me to a pastry shop. I broke my fast on three delicious baklavas and a Turkish coffee and he walked me to my gangplank.

During the rest of my travels, I managed to fit in the shuls of Dubrovnik and the ghetto of Venice, where in a Murano glass shop, I bought a beautiful glass shofar, which sounds a clear and haunting tekiah. Big sigh. Job done.

Last updated: 9:45am, October 29 2012