Jonathan Gribetz is an alumnus of the Wexner Graduate Fellowship, and the Maurice Amado Foundation Fellow at the Center for Advanced Judaic Studies at the University of Pennsylvania.  Next year, he will be the Ray D. Wolfe Fellow in Jewish Studies at the University of Toronto.  Jonathan can be reached at

We met Yosef at a small synagogue in Istanbul a few years back.  There were just eighteen people (all men) there on Friday night, and though all were friendly and welcoming of me and my wife Sarit, Yosef was the only one with whom we shared a language.  Yosef spoke Hebrew fluently from the several years he lived in Israel.  He had immigrated from Turkey to Israel on his own in 1949, at the age of twelve, filled with Zionist fervor and eager to participate in the historic creation of the new Jewish state.  He lived there until after the Suez War of 1956, in which he fought, before his father summoned him to return to Istanbul, as Yosef put it, “to make a living.” 

We met Yosef again the next morning, at the city’s main synagogue and, after the service, he escorted us back to our hotel, all the while guiding us through the beautiful city and sharing with us his memories and knowledge of its history.

At a certain point in our walk, as we were hearing about Yosef’s family, he told us that his brother had been killed in 1986 in the synagogue at which we had just prayed.  (That synagogue has been subject to three terrorist attacks in the past twenty-five years.)  Yosef took out his wallet and reached inside to show us a picture of his departed brother.  Before he reached that photo, though, there were two others he had to flip past.  The first was a portrait of Sultan Bayezid II who, Yosef explained with gratitude, welcomed his ancestors into the Ottoman lands after their expulsion from Spain. The second picture was of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of the modern Republic of Turkey, a secularist who, like Bayezid, “was also a good man,” in Yosef’s opinion.  Finally, we reached the photo of Yosef’s brother and Yosef’s voice sank.  He was a good-looking man, murdered in his prime.

Yosef’s wallet was a fascinating artifact of Ottoman/Turkish Jewish life: pride in a glorious (if mythologized) past of warm relations with the rulers and with their neighbors, loyalty to the modern state, and anxiety about their present vulnerability (though, of course, sufficiently confident to remain there–in fact, there was a bar mitzvah celebration that day).  As a student of Jewish history in Ottoman times, I spend my days meeting people from the past through the texts they left us.  My encounter with Yosef illustrated that the people around us may be carrying with them materials no less illuminating than any we might find in an archive.  I’m not recommending pick-pocketing, but it does have its merits.