Turkey, Israel take center stage at Pitt

Turkey, Israel take center stage at Pitt

Marcy Brink-Danan addresses an audience of students, faculty and community members at the University of Pittsburgh.

Photo courtesy of Pitt Jewish Studies Program
Marcy Brink-Danan addresses an audience of students, faculty and community members at the University of Pittsburgh. Photo courtesy of Pitt Jewish Studies Program

Turkey and Israel have nothing to do with Thanksgiving in Jerusalem. They also have nothing to do with foreign policy, said Marcy Brink-Danan.

“When people hear the words ‘Turkey’ and ‘Israel,’ they think of the relationship between governments and policies and big political stances, but I’m going to talk about something else,” said Brink-Danan. “I am going to talk more about the current community and the complicated question of home for Turkish Jews.”

Brink-Danan is a professor in the department of Sociology and Anthropology at Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the author of “Jewish Life in 21st Century Turkey: The Other Side of Tolerance.” Her address on Wednesday, Feb. 3 at the University of Pittsburgh was titled, “Bridging Israel and Turkey: Turkish Jews and the Concept of ‘Home.’”

Brink-Danan began her comments by explaining that despite attending school and holding faculty appointments throughout the country, this was her first time in Pittsburgh. Adam Shear, director of Jewish Studies at Pitt, explained the course of events leading to the academician’s Pittsburgh visit. Each year, the University of Pittsburgh Israel Heritage Room Committee and Jewish Studies Program undertake a joint-program. Earlier this year, Shear was approached by representatives from the Turkish Nationality Room Committee.

The group “wanted to do an event,” and they “wanted a contemporary topic,” said Shear.

Shear put representatives of the Turkish Nationality Room Committee together with representatives from the Israel Heritage Room Committee. He then directed them to Brink-Danan, a scholar he believed could satisfy each group’s intellectual thirsts. Along the way, Pitt’s Jewish Studies Program, the Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences and the European Studies Center joined with the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh and the Hillel Jewish University Center with each group co-sponsoring the address.

Brink-Danan acknowledged the great efforts made in bringing her to Pittsburgh. She then delved into a series of questions pertaining to contemporary Jewish life in Turkey.

“There is a question of the connection between Turkish Jews and the government of Israel,” she said. “How do members of any society make imagined relationships between people and a community?”

The question of relationship between Turkish Jews and Israel concerns an imagined homeland where they don’t live, said Brink-Danan. “The relationship between Turkish Jews and Israel is sometimes imagined, sometimes real.”

And yet while both tenuous and convincing connections may be drawn, a greater question emerges.

“Where is home and what is home?” she asked.

For some Turkish Jews, contemplating the aforementioned leads to a “paranoia within reason,” said Brink-Danan. The question of a supposed dual loyalty creates an existential crisis in which Turkish Jews fear that such attitudes will “get them in trouble.”

Citing her time in Turkey, Brink-Danan recalled meeting younger Turkish Jews who were discouraged by their parents from wearing a Jewish star. Turkish men, she said do not wear yarmulkes or head coverings. And, as opposed to speaking Hebrew or Ladino, younger Turkish Jews predominantly converse in Turkish.

There is a reluctance of Jews to show difference from their non-Jewish neighbors, said Brink-Danan. There is a sense that you “don’t mark yourself as unnecessarily.”

Squaring these realities with Istanbul’s supposed sense of cosmopolitanism puzzled Brink-Danan. “How much difference can be tolerated and how [do you] hold it all together? In Europe, there’s a governmental strategy of claiming back one’s Jews as a way of showing cosmopolitanism.”

Yet, the ironies are “deep here,” she added. The push for cosmopolitanism becomes forced, and the Jew becomes the “other.”

When scholars consider the relationship between Turkish Jews and Israel, many factors are overlooked, said Brink-Danan.

The complicated existence of trying to live in one place yet connect to another creates tension. Brink-Danan recalled that after the “flotilla debacle” in 2010, some Jewish Turks told her that their Muslim neighbors acted distant. She also said that many of Turkey’s Jews adopt a “self-censorship.” The mindset becomes “these are the terms with which I will be accepted.”

Brink-Danan found that when considering the question of Turkish Jews’ relationship to Israel, “it’s not clear what the relationship is and what it’s supposed to be.”

“People are attached to many places all over the world, not only because of government and policies, but because of many complicated personal reasons as well,” she said.

So when the words “Turkey” and “Israel” are joined, people envision policy, but that is only one way of seeing it. In truth, she said, the “ground level” provides another view.

Brink-Danan offered “a different perspective,” said Shear, following her address. She was able to “get at the lived experience of Turks, how people actually live their lives. That’s the advantage an anthropologist brings, someone who’s spent time there, spoken with the people, lived there.”

“It was very interesting, being a historian in the making as a history major,” said Julien Demarco, a junior at Pitt. “Seeing the Jewish-Muslim relationship from a cultural as opposed to historical or political relationship was very interesting. Paranoia within reason makes sense because of the relations.

“I definitely thought it was a good lecture and will look for her work and will incorporate it into my studies,” he added.

Hannah Finsterbusch, a senior at Pitt, also enjoyed Brink-Danan’s focus on the cultural aspects of Turkish Jewish life.

“It’s interesting to think if you transplant yourself to another place, how you would live.” she said. “It’s interesting to hear how these people are living. I am a Jew who has studied Arabic and is going to Israel this summer. I like how it tied a lot of what I’ve studied together.”

“There are a lot of parallels between American society and Jews in Turkey and Jews all over the world,” said Pam Seiavitch of Pittsburgh. “We are very careful who we talk to, what relationship we have with certain people. But human nature is the same all over the world.”

Adam Reinherz can be reached at adamr@thejewishchronicle.net.