Heart of the Matter

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A heartfelt look by Aaron B. Cohen at the great arc of life through the prism of its details.

Heart of the Matter

Pre-Rosh Hashanah Turkish delight

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This past week the Turkish community staged another impressive Turkish Festival in Daley Plaza. My dream for an Israel Fest is to emulate what our Middle East neighbors and erstwhile (and hopefully still again) friends do to promote their nation and culture.

Meanwhile, I encountered truly touching hospitality at the Turkish Fest, thanks to the Turkish Consul General, a man who is at once a smart and savvy representative of his country, and a warm and congenial human being. He is working to keep Turkish Jewish relations on the right footing here in our front yard, and most certainly in Daley Plaza!

As a person long-fascinated with everything Turkish, it doesn't surprise me.

My first encounter with anything Turkish was in Cyprus, in 1961. I was eight years old, and my family was on its way to Israel by boat, having set out from Brindisi, in Italy. My father was an academic, and the family was spending part of the year in Bristol, England. We were headed to Israel to meet members of my mother's family who had moved there in the early 1920s. {My father's grandparents also went to Israel around that time; they were elderly, and had gone to fulfill a religious desire to be buried on the Mount of Olives, which they were.}

We had landed in Nicosia where my father hired a driver to show us the island. At some point we stopped for lunch, where I heard men speaking a language that captivated me instantly. Our driver was speaking to his buddies, and I was transfixed. How magical, how delightful, how playful that people could make such sounds—melodious, lilting, like birds, like water in a babbling stream.

At the time I didn't know it was Turkish. I had heard foreign languages. My grandparents spoke Yiddish and Hebrew, and Russian. My mother knew French. My brother had studied Hebrew for his bar mitzvah, as would I.

This language in the restaurant was unlike any of those, but it stuck.

In high school I began listening to Middle Eastern music. I bought records when I could (Rose Records on Wabash was the only place, before compact cassette tapes, let alone CDs, were common. The internet was still a far-off dream.)

Over an old shortwave radio I listened to Sawt al'Kahira, the Voice of Cairo, and to Radio Teheran in the days of the Shah, when Persian classical music filled the state radio's air.

Eventually I discovered Turkiye'nin Sesi, The Voice of Turkey, and I was hooked. Whenever propagation conditions allowed I worked the receiver, struggling to squeeze a turku (folk song), agit (lament), or uzun hava (blues), from the din of static.

I rediscovered that gem of a language. More important, I met what would become, and still remains, a major love of my life, the baglama, the Turkish long-neck mandolin, or saz.

'Turkish' and 'saz' became part of my identity. I was the Jewish American guy—in fact the only one I knew—who had these obsessions. I set two primary goals: to learn to speak Turkish and to play the saz.

After studying the language and trying to teach myself saz, in 1979 I went on a hair-brained, open-ended trip to Istanbul. I flew a few weeks after seeing Midnight Express, and at a height of political instability and violence in Turkey. None of that registered until my feet hit the ground.

No matter. I made a beeline to Semsi Yastiman Saz Evi, the music store of a famous bard. I was enchanted and terrified, at loose ends and centered; unsure yet confident. The situation there be dammed. I immersed myself in Turkish and in saz, and encountered a welcome, a hospitality, an embrace, that blew my mind. My Turkish friends knew I was Jewish; to them I was no enemy, but rather a brother in faith.

Soon after I moved to Israel for a year to work on a magazine devoted to Israeli-Palestinian peace. In 1979, that, too, was unusual. But I had learned something powerful about brotherhood, even in the midst of fraught times in Istanbul, from Muslim musicians who had welcomed me into their lives and homes so openly.

I returned to Chicago from Israel in 1980, and buckled down to a career and marriage. I played Turkish and Armenian music in a small band, but after my kids were born I devoted myself to raising them and to work. Turkey became a private affair; I retreated into turkuler and other Middle Eastern music. By this time CDs were available, and the music was far more accessible than in my shortwave days.

Returning to Turkey in 2009 reignited my connection.

Fast-forward to today, and I am gratified whenever I can share with members of the Turkish community, in my poor Turkish, vestiges of that passion. Strong embers are stirred again even at noon-time, in Daley Plaza, at Turkish Fest.

I know I am not the only Jew in love with Turkish language and culture, for who Turkey holds a special place. There are others like me, perhaps the Consul General knows many.

To him and his colleagues, I say: "Biz de bir kopru. We too are a bridge." Just as Turkey itself is a bridge between East and West, we are a bridge between Turkey and Israel, between you and the Jewish people. We will work to maintain that bridge until the day when Israel and Turkey become friends again, and when the Turkish and Jewish people will embrace without suspicion or fear. Until then, we ask only that you meet us halfway.

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