January 25, 2011 § Leave a comment

Last Wednesday was the Jewish holiday of Tu B’Shvat (aka the New Year of the Trees), a celebration and appreciation of the planting, sowing, growing, and harvesting to come after the winter rains have passed.  The holiday is easy to celebrate: head to your market/supermarket/bodega/corner store/farm stand/farm, buy fruit, and devour it happily.  Also, eat one of each of the Seven Species of foods from the holy land (conveniently smooshed together in the fascinating Bible Bar–I’ve eaten it–you shouldn’t).

If you’re more inclined towards a ordered progression of feasting, the Tu B’Shvat seder might be for you.  Developed by Kabbalists in 16th century, later printed in the 18th (check out my friend Aharon’s historical and liturgical background info here) and adapted, altered, and personalized by countless communities and individuals since, the basic seder organizes and links wines, fruits, seasons, elements, and themes of human/divine interaction and development into 4 groupings.  Two years ago I volunteered to lead Kol Tzedek‘s Tu B’Shvat seder.  I was organizing the meal and editing the haggadah during a particularly difficult phase of life, and my parents came from New York to Philadelphia to help me purchase fruit, nuts, and wine.  Traversing the city to find persimmons and pistachios together took my mind off of difficult transitions and later helped me understand how, during the ebbs and flows of changing seasons and life, care and love make beautiful things grow.

About two weeks ago I took an impromptu trip to the Black Sea region of Turkey, specifically Sinop and Samsun, to touch another sea and visit some Fulbrighters.  In Sinop, I slept in Amy’s cozy seaside bungalow.  She and next-door-neighbor Lucian are making the best of a difficult placement.  Amy has turned one corner of her room into an art studio where she makes beautiful prints (check out her digs and prints samples here).  One morning she explained to me the intensive hours spent cutting and preparing her materials and I was amazed by her patience, vision, and eyes and hands for detail.

Amy was trying to eat all of the food in her kitchen before the semester break and I was thrilled when she told me I could cut into her pomegranate.  Pomegranates are all over western Turkey no matter what the season, in corner stores, supermarkets, and at street-side juice presses (oh lord I’ve probably spent half a month’s salary on pomegranates and fresh-pressed juice so far).  While Amy prepared crepe batter for breakfast, I eagerly dug into the massive fruit, easily spending at least 10 minutes picking out every seed, covering the kitchen in ruby-red juice, and eating every other handful as I went along.  The final result was worth it, though: heaping crepes of apple, pomegranate, and peanut butter (and maybe a bit of Nutella).

Stuffed with the best of Turkey’s harvest, Amy, Lucian, and I set out to explore Sinop, Turkey’s nothernmost point.

At the highest point in Sinop, near the former NATO base, overlooking the town

On our way back, we stopped by the laundromat to pick up Amy’s laundry (she trades English lessons for laundry and salsa lessons–love this woman) and also the pazar for more fruit.  I couldn’t resist more pomegranates and bought another kilo.  At home we crashed on the couch/my bed to rest before heading out for the night’s dinner (famous Sinop manti–rough translation as meat ravioli but oh so delicious, with walnuts and yogurt).  Waste not, want not, though, and we realized that if we deseeded the pomegranate now, we’d have instant sweet happiness in the morning.  As we began the process of cutting, opening, picking, and tasting, we fell into a quiet rhythm.  There was a magic in the moment, two women content in the repetitive yet satisfying work of preparing food.  Amy broke the silence when she acknowledged the beautiful bond that grew between us, the peacefulness of the bungalow and the seaside brought on by the fruit dismemberment.  But speaking did nothing to diminish the moment–we just smiled, popped more seeds into our mouths, drank the juice off the plate, and smiled.

Pomegranate seeds appear in many stories and teachings, from Persephone condemned to a half-year in Hades for eating but 6, to the 613 mitzvot of the Torah being reflected in each fruit.  I’d never had one before coming to Turkey–at the Tu B’Shvat seder I had to settle for old seeds in a box from the Indian grocery.  They were the first fruit I attempted to prepare in my makeshift bathroom/kitchen set-up in the NKU hotel back in October.  They’re frustrating, hard work, the juice stains and the seeds burst and I eat so much as I go along that there’s barely any left after I’m done picking.  But it’s always worth it, always.  Some of my friends never understood why I would spend hours in the kitchen to prepare a meal that I would eat in 15 minutes.  It was always worth it.  Like Amy’s prints, food is art to me.  I don’t mind the hours spent picking, cutting, creating a masterpiece, however transitory the meal may be.  Maybe I take my cues from Burning Man and the sacrificial celebration and destruction of art by fire.  Hours of work gone up in flames–or digestive juices.  Though I haven’t been cooking nearly as much as I should be in Turkey, food is my celebration, my renewal, my release.  Although I didn’t formally celebrate Tu B’Shvat (la fiesta de las frutas) this year, I send my love and support to my friends in the world of  environmental and agricultural education at Teva Learning Center and the Jewish Farm School, animal rights defender and bff Michael Croland, yoga teacher and challah weaver Michal Waldfogel, and Challahman at Four Worlds Bakery.

Enjoy the Black Sea


January 14, 2011 § 1 Comment

When December rolled around, my roommate Alex got into the Christmas spirit.  She cut out paper snowflakes, rolled out the sugar cookie dough, and cued up her favorite holiday romcoms.  The familiar seasonal markers instantly made the increasingly cold and dark month more comfortable.  I thought our apartment would be a cozy holiday hideaway in a country without the American/European Christmas overload.

But Turkey proved me wrong once again.  The Turks have figured out a perfect solution to America’s never-ending “Season’s Greetings vs Merry Christmas” debate: hijack the entire Western imagery of Christmas and transpose it to New Year’s.  There are fake evergreen trees, fake snow, tinsel, ornaments, lights, tacky mall winter scenes.  Even Santa makes an appearance, though he does his breaking and entering routine on December 31st , sans reindeer(St. Nicholas was of Turkish origin, after all).  The transposition of imagery is so complete that names are even conflated.  I’ve heard Turks use both Christmas/Noel and New Year’s/Yilbasi to refer to the same day.

Tinsel makes the lottery more fun!

So with our apartment trimmings, Tekirdag city center palm tree lights, and over-the-top Taksim decorations, I wasn’t lacking at all in the holiday revelry.  In fact, I felt oddly freer to enjoy all the Christmas kitsch here than I ever have in America.  Despite the increasing acceptance of secular ‘holiday season’ imagery in private and public life, I always felt uncomfortable.  Trees, lights?  They’re beautiful and I can appreciate them from a distance, but to have one would be to give in, to lose a bit of my Jewish identity.  Christmas is the litmus test of assimilation.  I’d become one of them, the Jewish or Hindu families I knew whose Christmas trees (see, it’s right there in the name!) always confused me.  It’s just not for me.  Wasn’t Chanukah enough?  But Turkey’s managed the impossible; an entire country took the Christ out of Christmas and made it a winter/year’s end celebration for everyone.  And I kinda liked it.

Christmas/New Years scene at Tekira mall

I spoke about this briefly with the head of the Sephardic Research Center.  She told me she did decorate her house and she did give her daughter presents for New Year’s—but certainly not for Chanukah.  Purim is gift time, and to adopt the gift-giving tradition of Christmas origin so common in American just wasn’t her or the holiday’s style.  Chanukah in Turkey is celebrated without the big build-up: chanukiyahs but no gifts; family but no latkes or soufganiyot (as far as I saw).  Alex and I celebrated with a tea light menorah, but the amount of oil I consume every day rendered latke preparation unnecessary.

I did do a Christmas lesson, though!  If I had written a lesson plan for the day (lazy end-of-the-year teacher!), the objective would have been: “Students will be able to recognize that Christmas and New Year’s are two separate holidays on two separate days.”  Most got the picture and all were excited when I told them my Christmas gift to them was that I’d be on vacation the following week.  To cries of, “See you next year!” (corniness translates in all languages), I left to meet my dad in Istanbul.

Daddy on the dolmus

Yes, my dad came to visit for Christmastime!  We celebrated Christmas Eve/Shabbat with some family friends’ cousins’ cousins in Tarabia, a neighborhood in the far north of Istanbul.  With a view of the Bosphorus meeting the Black Sea, we bonded through multilingual conversations: English, Turkish, Spanish, Ladino, French.  Family dinners are the best time for me to practice and observe Ladino in context; it was fascinating that the two grandmothers of the family, though fluent in Turkish, spoke almost exclusively in Ladino to each other throughout the meal.  It was just easier, they said.  It reminded me briefly of Gibraltar, where family conversation passed from English to Spanish effortlessly.  Obviously my presence changed the normal family dynamic: I doubt English would have played much a role in the meal had I not attended.  Fly-on-the-wall ethnographer I am not, but eager eater I am.

We feasted on homemade bulgar and vegetable salads and spinach and potato borek, with almost half a chicken each.  After a sweet finish with baklava and sutlac, Rifat, an older family member, serenaded us in Spanish and Ladino while playing a mean guitar.  It was beautiful, emotional and moving, made even more beautiful by the fact that he had had brain surgery not 3 days before.  With the strong love and camaraderie of the family, the talking and singing lasted until at least 11:30, when my dad and I had to run to catch the last subway of the night.

Christmas Day was another day of Istanbul sightseeing (the usual tourist route: Topkapi Palace, Aya Sofya), we were too tired to make the trek from Sultanahmet to Taksim for an original version American movie, (uninspiring choices didn’t help, either: “The Tourist” vs “Little Fockers”).  But we had a lovely traditional December 25th Chinese dinner—spicy tofu, chicken, veggie fried rice.

The rest of the week was a wonderful father-daughter reunion: lunch and shopping in Kadikoy, pictures at the top of Galata Tower, a stop by the Jewish Museum, another gut-busting late-night dinner with the Levins.

My father left just before New Year’s/Turkish Christmas.  I hung around Istanbul another few days visiting museums and friends and rang in 2011 with some expat friends at a house party.

Roommates on NYE

2010 was one of the best and one of the most challenging years of my life.  Though I’m sad to see most of it go, I’m excited about the rest of the year.  I feel more confident in my living in Turkey and while the next semester won’t be easy, inshallah it won’t be nearly as difficult as the fall.

My semester is over!  I’ve got an early flight to Izmir tomorrow morning and I’m excited about getting to know a new city.  Much more to come…for now, more pictures!

Happy New Year, Tekirdag!

NKU campus hotel, dressed up for the season

At Kiz Kulesi--the ultimate "Is is Europe, is it Asia?" spot

Silly little things

January 4, 2011 § Leave a comment

Every news outlet, blog, TV show, and website in town counts down the top news stories/songs/quotes/overused words from the previous year.  My favorite part of living in Turkey are unexpected situations and encounters made even more ridiculous by a monumental language barrier.  So I present to you a sample of my favorite ridiculous situations of Fall 2010:

1) Thumb surgery

You know when your mother tells you never to pick your hang nail?  LISTEN TO HER.  An absent-minded pull led me to the hospital back in October.  Within a week, a small irritation on my thumb got infected and blew up to Uma Thurman as Sissy Hankshaw size.  Though a brilliant study in shades of white and green, it was terrifying to look at and I would often wave it in my students’ faces as a threat.  At night, the throbbing would keep me awake and I’d have to watch soothing documentaries on NKT Japanese News to fall asleep for a few hours.  The accepted medical knowledge in Turkey states that antibiotics cure anything, and while I asked both the university doctor and eventually Mehmet the surgeon at the nearby private hospital to just pop and drain the sucker, I had to go through the prescription ringer first.  Finally Mehmet the surgeon agreed that antibiotics just weren’t going to do it.  Five minutes later my thumb was drained and bandaged and I was good to go.  And while my nail has never quite recovered, I did get to teach my students the word “infection” and “disgusting,” and bonded with a few over Infected Mushroom and trance music.

2) Getting paid

The Fulbright name carries a good deal of weight in academic circles and most unsuspecting people assume their programs run smoothly.  Absolutely nothing has run smoothly since I left the US, including a 2 1/2 hour delay at JFK Airport, an Amazing Race-esque sprint with 2o Fulbrighters through Ataturk Airport to connect from Istanbul to Ankara, and about 1 week of intestinal distress (at least it wasn’t salmonellasorry, Hannah!).  But the real kicker was that I didn’t get paid until December.  That’s a mighty long time and kebab don’t come cheap.  Everything was blamed, from Fulbright to YOK to NKU to my bank account to a nonsensical Turkish foreigner ID number system.  Fulbright did come through and loan us extra money, but it just wasn’t going to cut it.  On one particularly frustrating Monday, I decided my only goal for the week was to get paid.  All efforts and strong emotions were funneled in that direction.

I sat down with Adnan, our vice-rector, a reasonable and accessible man who speaks fluent English and whose lucky son will be studying at SUNY Binghamton next year.  We shot the breeze over bottomless cups of tea and I then calmly informed him that if I wasn’t paid my due salary in cash by the end of the week, I was going on strike.  “You wouldn’t come to work if you weren’t being paid, would you?” I asked as I sipped my tea.  Adnan looked visibly uncomfortable and told me that he would talk to the rector and maybe I would be paid in a couple of weeks.  I am far too well-acquainted with Turkey to take this vague “maybe” for anything and told him I’d be back tomorrow morning expecting a final date.  Adnan came through and after I spelled out verbally and in writing exactly how much I was owed, I was guaranteed payment in 2 days.  Later that week I was summoned to another administrator’s office and handed 4250 Turkish lira, cold hard cash.  My fear of being mugged by Tekirdag’s organ mafia en route to the bank was overcome by the invincibility that only possession of large stacks of bills can bring.  Power to the people!

On my way to filling my Scrooge McDuck money pit

3) Apaci and classroom dancing

IO-C is the night class Alex and I both share and dread.  Our department co-head Dudu calls in ‘the kavehane’ in reference to the horrendously-lit smoke-filled male-only coffee houses you can find in any Turkish town.  IO-C is a kavehane minus the coffee and smoke plus a bunch of young  men who either give you the death eye all class and refuse to speak, or who can’t stop talking–in Turkish to each other.

Our first class back from Kurban Bayrami in late November was doomed from the start.  Despite my best efforts to elicit some simple past sentences about their vacations, discussion just wasn’t going to happen.  So I asked one kavehane-dweller, “Did you dance?  Did you dance apaci?  Did you move at all?”  This got their attention.  I don’t quite know how to explain apaci apart from cocky men with silly hair who think they’re hot shit, but watch this video and be entertained:

Anyway, the kavehane got excited when apaci was mentioned.  “You know apaci, teacher?” they said (or something more caveman-like, probably “You apaci?”)  Yes, I said.  Teach me how to dance apaci.  Someone cued up the music on his phone and two others ran to the front to teach me the steps.  Pretty soon the whole class (ie the 8 students who bothered to show) was up and dancing.  I was even lucky enough to be shown a homemade video of the kavehane apaci dancing in a dorm room.  And they explained the video to me in English!  Major classroom success precipitated by my making more of a fool of myself than usual.  There is also a video of me apaci dancing out there somewhere online.  We actually had a moderately functioning lesson after the dance party, too!

There have been subsequent non-apaci dance parties in other classes to celebrate scholarships or to simply rock out.  One afternoon in early December I led a group of students dancing down the hall, Pied Piper-style, just because it was more fun to exit class that way.  They’re pretty entertained when I do something else with my body besides write on the whiteboard, over-gesticulate, and glare menacingly.

I also blindfold my students sometimes

I guess this last one isn’t that ridiculous, but there are so few in-class teacher/student dance parties in the US, it strikes me as particularly memorable.  Then again there aren’t that many in Turkey either, but I’ve never met students (male and female) so eager to dance I can’t pass up these chances.

More stories to come as I mull over the past semester.  I leave you with my favorite Turkish pop song by the country’s favorite “Is he/isn’t he gay?” superstar, Tarkan.  Play this song on repeat while you read my blog and you’ll know exactly what it’s like to be inside my head.

In lieu of an actual update

January 2, 2011 § Leave a comment

I present my new favorite blog:

The Lawrence/Julie & Julia Project

Where Am I?

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