Keeping Kosher In Muslim Istanbul

Before I lived in Turkey, I thought roasted chestnuts just existed in old Christmas carols. In Istanbul, they are sold on many street corners, priced by the gram and varying in quality. They have also been a major form of sustenance for several of my houseguests. My friend with a gluten allergy bought a bag of them nightly, saying they were the closest food to bread she could still eat. They also became a mainstay for a recent guest with the most challenging dietary restriction yet: eating an all-kosher diet in a mostly Muslim country.

Our friend decided at the last minute to fly in from Israel to spend a long weekend in Istanbul. I was almost glad for the short warning, as it gave me less time to worry and wonder. Is halal the same as kosher? If you have to ask, the diets have some things in common (i.e. no pork), but they are about as compatible as their respective religions. Would he be able to even eat anything from our very non-kosher kitchen, freshly stocked with pork products from Greece? Stock up on disposable plates to serve vegetarian dishes, and you’re golden. What could we do during the Saturday Sabbath, when using electricity or exchanging money is forbidden? Wandering is a good activity, one that is well suited to this city.Turning to the trusty Google for kosher Istanbul ideas, I came up with mostly outdated listings for restaurants that have since closed and odd suggestions like trying to get into the Jewish home for the aged near the Galata tower. Though Istanbul is home to nearly 20,000 Jews, they apparently aren’t dining out much. The single kosher restaurant we found open to the public is Levi’s in Eminönü, a few steps from the Spice Market. Accessed through an old and rather decrepit han (a large commercial building), it has excellent views of the Golden Horn and a decor that hasn’t been updated in several decades. Levi’s serves standard Turkish food: grilled meats, kofte meatballs, salads and such, all certified kosher. I was likely the first foreign shiksa to dine there in some time, and like all Turkish establishments, they fussed and fawned over my baby and offered her sweets.

When it came time for the Friday night Sabbath and services, I had an edge in knowing a nearby synagogue in Şişli, as I used to live across the street. After the 2003 bombings, most of the city’s synagogues are heavily guarded by local police and accessible only with prior permission and identification. Unfortunately, our friend only learned he’d need his Israeli passport once he got there, and as one can’t carry anything during the Sabbath, he had no identification or way to contact us to bring it. He went instead just to Shabbat dinner at a local rabbi’s house, climbing the stairs back to our apartment in total darkness.

On Saturday, I walked him back to the rabbi’s for lunch, and when Google Maps failed to find the house number, my friend’s yamulke and tallit helped us find our way. As soon as some Turkish men spotted my friend, they escorted us to the rabbi’s house; evidently they’ve learned how to identify a Jewish visitor! At lunch, our friend met a few other Jewish travelers who found themselves in Istanbul for various reasons, who reported that they had to pretend they had forgotten their hotel room keys as they couldn’t operate the electronic key cards during the Sabbath. They had all found the rabbi through the Chabad-Lubavitch organization (you may have seen their mitzvah tanks in New York City), which connects Jews around the world, and found community even in a primarily Muslim city.

As we broke the Sabbath that night at a rooftop bar with a couple of Efes beers (most non-grape based alcohols are kosher, so beer is fine), I apologized for our non-kosher friendly city, but our friend declared one Istanbul one of his all-time favorite cities. Despite a diet of mostly fruit and vegetables, chestnuts and whatever random snack products available at the supermarket with the kosher symbol, he had gotten a taste of Turkey without a single kebab.

Levi’s Kosher restaurant is open weekdays for lunch only. Tahmis Kalçın Sokak, Çavuşbaşı Han 23/10, near Hamdi Restaurant in Eminönü. Find more info on the Turkish Jewish community here and here.