Leon Elnekave, the affable leader of the dwindling Jewish community of Bursa, Turkey’s old Ottoman capital, met my wife and me on a narrow, cobbled lane and unlocked the black wrought iron gate to the 500-year-old Gerush Synagogue. As he led us into the landscaped courtyard, my wife, Sallie, suddenly began to cry. “I don’t know what it is,” she said, “but I feel like I’ve been here before.” An odd reaction, I thought to myself, for an American woman who converted to Judaism from Presbyterianism in middle age. But immersing yourself in a mystical place like this can provoke unexpected emotions.
My own motivation for the visit was more pedestrian than spiritual: I had a suburban, white-bread, Ashkenazi curiosity about our Sephardic cousins and their exotic history. Not that we overlooked any of the great wonders of Istanbul and Turkey — the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque, the Bosphorus, the Roman ruins at Ephesus and the cave churches of Cappadocia. Yet in the end it was this Jewish dimension to our itinerary — more than a dozen synagogues in three cities — that enriched and defined our trip last May.