Jewish Journal

Turkish Delight

Los Angeles Turks and Jews come together to support America and each other.

by Tom Tugend

Posted on Nov. 8, 2001 at 7:00 pm

(From left) Dr. Moshe Arditi, Betty Frayman Kori, Moris Korin and Moshe Ovadya.

(From left) Dr. Moshe Arditi, Betty Frayman Kori, Moris Korin and Moshe Ovadya.

In the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the first joint Turkish-Jewish gala in Los Angeles went ahead almost as planned.

For security reasons there was a change of venue -- from the residence of the Turkish consul general to a Marina del Rey hotel -- but the organizers felt that a public affirmation of solidarity between the two ethnic groups in their support for America was now more important than ever.

"We are here to celebrate the Jewish experience under centuries of Turkish rulers and the close ties existing now between Israel and Turkey," said Gary Ratner, regional executive director of the American Jewish Congress, which co-sponsored the Sept. 29 event, organized by the American Turkish Association of Southern California.

In size, the estimated 250,000 Turkish Americans in the United States are nowhere near the 6 million Jews, but the history of the two peoples have been entwined for centuries.

Speakers reminded the 280 guests that the Turkish Ottoman Empire stood as a welcoming refuge for Jews, particularly in times of medieval persecution and expulsion. A 14th-century sultan sent ships to bring persecuted Ashkenazi Jews from France to his domain. Sultan Beyazit II, who warmly welcomed Sephardic Jews after their expulsion from Spain in 1492, emulated him.

More recently, the Turkish government gave shelter to Jewish academics fleeing Nazi Germany in the 1930s. During World War II, though levying extremely heavy taxes on its Jewish subjects, Ankara rejected Hitler's demands that the refugee professors be returned to Germany.

In 1949, Turkey became the first Muslim country to recognize the State of Israel.

Currently, the largest Turkish concentrations in the United States are in the New York-New Jersey area, followed by the Chicago-Detroit area and California -- where there are large pockets around the state, including 20,000 in Southern California -- said Sema Karaoglu, the community's resident historian.

Karaoglu, like more than 90 percent of Turks, is a Muslim, but she works as an active volunteer in senior citizen programs at the Jewish Community Center in Costa Mesa.

In its first interethnic foray, her group sought a Jewish partner, she said, instead of turning to the larger Latino or African American groups, because of perceptions that Jews are "more homogenous, better-organized and more effective," in addition to sharing historic links with Turkey.

Keeping with the dinner's theme, a main honoree of the evening was Dr. Moshe Arditi, whose heritage is both Jewish and Turkish.

The 45-year-old physician heads the Division of Pediatric Infectious Disease at the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, and he speaks with equal animation about his youth in Istanbul and his present-day "mixed" Sephardic-Ashkenazic household in Encino.

Turkey's Jewish community numbered around 90,000 in 1945, but after massive aliyah to Israel following the 1948-49 and 1967 wars, it now stands at about 24,000.

The Sephardic community that Arditi recalls was nominally Orthodox, but in practice somewhere between Conservative and Reform.

"When I grew up, I didn't know one family that kept kosher, and I met my first real Orthodox Jews in Israel and America," he said.

His most enduring memory of religious life is that of a Yom Kippur service, when he and his buddies sat in the last row of the synagogue so that they could follow the fortunes of their favorite soccer team, Fenerbahce, on their transistor radios.

Arditi's loyalty to his team has not diminished over the years. He and his young son rise early on weekends to watch the satellite transmission of Turkish soccer matches.

Religious or not, the ties of Turkish Jews with Israel have always been very close, and as a schoolboy, Arditi spent some eight summers on school vacations working on kibbutzim.

Though clearly identified as a Jew by his name, Arditi cannot recall a single anti-Semitic incident in Turkey, a Muslim country, while attending public, Catholic and medical schools, or during a brief stint in the army.

The only negative aspect, he recalled, was the failure of the Turkish press to report on Israel's positive achievements, and on the close military and diplomatic ties between Turkey and Israel.

After a 1980 coup, which put Turkey temporarily under military rule, Arditi, then 25, left for better educational opportunities in the United States. He pursued medical and specialized training at Yale, University of Chicago and Northwestern University. He was named to his present post at Cedars-Sinai in 1998 and ranks as professor of pediatrics at UCLA. He heads a research team that focuses on how the human immune system recognizes and fights bacterial infection, a study with potential applications toward treating inflammatory and coronary diseases.

The number of Turkish Jews in Los Angeles is quite small, Arditi said, and they have no specific organization or synagogue meeting point.

Arditi said that he knows some 25 to 30 Turkish Jews of his own generation living in Los Angeles and estimates that there are no more than 100 in the area.

As a bachelor he attended Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel in Westwood and was married there to Debi, an "Ashkenazi Valley Girl," he said. The couple, with Rachel, 6, and Andy, 5, live in Encino and are now congregants at Valley Beth Shalom.

The doctor frequently cooks Turkish meals at home ("The kids love it," he said), but what he really misses is a good Turkish restaurant; he consoles himself at some of the better Indian dining spots.

One occasional shadow on the congenial relations between Turks and Jews in the United States is the still bitterly contested question of the staggering death toll of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire during World War I.

Armenians say the Turks perpetrated a clear-cut genocide, which claimed 1.5 million lives. Some Jewish organizations and college campus groups, with their own memories of the Holocaust, have supported Armenian demands for an acknowledgment of guilt by the Turkish government.

Turkey admits that hundreds of thousands Armenians died, but claims the deaths resulted from wartime dislocation and support for Turkey's enemies by Armenian militants.

The "Armenian genocide" question is one that Turkish Americans, whether Muslims or Jews, address only reluctantly. "This is a loaded subject," said Sema Basol, chairman of the American Turkish Association. "This happened during wartime, when there were high casualties on all sides." She noted that her organization has many Armenian members.

Arditi responded to the same query, "I will leave this matter to the historians."

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