Deborah Semel was born in New York and has lived in Turkey since 1994. Trained as a visual artist, she exhibits in both the United States and Turkey and writes a weekly column on arts and culture for the Turkish Daily News. You can e-mail her at email@example.com.
"A Good Muslim Wife"
This morning, while Harun was still asleep, I set the table with tomatoes, olives, feta cheese and a loaf of good, fresh Turkish bread. If it were up to me, I'd just have a cup of coffee and a simit, the Turkish version of a New York bagel, but sharing a traditional Turkish breakfast on Harun's day off is a minor adjustment I have made for the sake of peace and harmony within our intercultural, interfaith relationship.
Harun is a Muslim Kurd from Adana; I am a New York Jew who came to Turkey to paint the Cappadocian landscape and then stayed because I had no good reason to leave. Despite our radically different backgrounds, both our lifestyles and our outlooks on life are remarkably similar, with food our only noticeable area of conflict. Like most Turks, Harun exhibits an incredible ethnocentrism when it comes to food, whereas for me, my "kosher-style" upbringing has long been displaced by the multicultural cuisine of New York City. After numerous unsuccessful attempts at trying to broaden Harun's palate--we nearly split up over a mustard vinaigrette--I came to accept that the menu in our house was going to be strictly Turkish, at which point our food fights ceased.
It wasn't food, but the combination of food and fasting that make up Ramazan (Turkish name for Ramadan), the month-long Muslim holiday, that truly put our relationship to the test. Ramazan added a religious element to what had been strictly a cultural difference. While Harun was at work, it became my job to prepare for iftar, the evening meal that breaks the day-long fast. I did so just like "a good Muslim wife." The only problem was that I wasn't.
I didn't fast, but I ate very little during the day, both out of a sense of solidarity and because we would be eating a big meal together in the evening. I thought about how I had fasted for Yom Kippur when I was growing up, and how much more commitment it must take to extend that one day into one month. But while I was rather proud of how I was holding up in the kitchen for my first Ramazan, for Harun every night something was "just not right." He began rushing home from work in a panic, and together we would frantically fumble over a pot of stew, trying to get it to the table at the exact moment that the iftar cannon boomed, announcing the breaking of the fast in the traditional Turkish manner.
After about a week of this nightly stress, it became apparent to me that Harun's reactions to any difficulties or culinary deviations from a traditional iftar meal were grounded in something far deeper than just the stubbornness of the Turkish palate. What was "not right" in the kitchen was me. After our first year of living together, our first Ramazan had brought home to Harun the shocking realization that he and I were never going to raise "a nice Muslim family" together because of the simple fact that I was Jewish.
Regardless of everything else we shared, we both understood that, try as I might, I would not understand the essence of what the holiday meant to Harun. I don't think I could have even if I had been a Turkish Jew rather than an American Jew, in which case I would have grown up in an overwhelmingly Muslim environment, but still without any pressures to maintain "a traditional Muslim home." At the same time, Harun has never had the opportunity to explore how he would fit into a Jewish environment because we don't have one, and the insularity of the Jewish community in Turkey has kept me from seeking one out.
Although I am primarily secular, I have celebrated Jewish holidays twice in 12 years of living in Turkey, and in both cases, the gatherings were organized by American Jews. A Passover seder was a major disappointment: 20 or so temporarily displaced Jews with an equal number of different ways of conducting a seder, our "common" religion unable to bring us together emotionally. It made me miss my family. On the other hand, I felt right at home at a Hanukkah party that was a mix of Turks, Americans, Jews and non-Jews, all crammed together in a small apartment, with too much food, too much noise, kids running up and down, a new baby being passed around, lighting the candles--it made me wonder why I hadn't made contact with the Turkish Jewish community before. I suppose that part of the reason is because, as a secular individual, I would have felt awkward seeking out a religious community.
Coming to terms with the fact that Harun and I would not be raising "a stereotypically nice Jewish family" or maintaining "a traditional Jewish home" has not been a problem for me, largely because I have almost always lived in an environment where Jews are a minority. As a result, I have not been bombarded with images of how I should behave as a Jew, and my immediate family has accepted the fact that my relationship to Judaism has more to do with family and culture than it does with religion. By contrast, Turkey is nearly 100 percent Muslim, so, whether it is in the media or in the marketplace, there are constant reminders about the "appropriate" way for "a good Muslim" to observe the Ramazan holiday. Outside of the most Westernized neighborhoods in Istanbul, Ankara or Izmir, not fasting for Ramazan is not seen as a personal choice, but as a major deviation from the norm.
I believe that we are better off the more we observe diversity in society, the more we are reminded of the fact that we have choices, in all aspects of our lives, from whom we pick for partners to how we observe the religions of our birth. Concepts such as "nice Jewish families" or "good Muslim wife" are ones that the individuals taking on these roles should be able to define for themselves.
Still, the difficulties we face in defining our own traditions and practices against those defined by others is, whether spoken or spoken, one of the main reasons Harun and I are not rushing to marry and have children. Forget about the precariousness of our own financial situation, not to mention the sorry state of the world in general--we're just accustomed to our life together as it is--largely free from conflict. If we do decide to raise a family together, we will have to negotiate the complexities of choosing which traditions to make our own.