My morning class ended early today. The students were supposed to give presentations, but half the class didn’t show up because they took the National Collegiate Exam yesterday. The students who did come, though, were the creme de la creme. So, to reward them – and also because I had apparently promised them – I found myself ushering them all as quietly as possible past the directors office, out of the building, and onto the lawn outside.
At first we played ‘Never Have I Ever,’ a game in which people go around in a circle saying things they have never done. Anyone who has done that thing puts down one of their five fingers. The last person in the game ‘wins.’ We played two rounds – I was the first one out both times. It’s hard to win when a number of the students say things like “I have never eaten pig meat” or “I have never drank alcohol.”
After half an hour of this, around a third of the already diminished class size had to go for a trivia competition leaving me with a circle of, except for one or two, incredibly shy female students. That didn’t last for long.
“Jeremy Teacher,” one of the most outgoing students asked, “Isn’t pig forbidden for Jewish people? Because you said you ate.”
“It is normally, but I am a bad Jewish person,” I said smiling.
They all burst out laughing. “No, no, teacher!” One of the students insisted, “You are a good Jewish person! Really!”
With that, the conversation began to roll out quickly. Soon we were talking about university life in America, how many brothers and sisters I had – they were all amazed about how half of my family is now Chinese – and they cooed congratulations and maşallah, over pictures of my nephews.
“Jeremy Teacher, you are now Jeremy amca (uncle),” they laughed, while also commenting on how large my nephew Adam was. They were happily shocked too by how different my two nephews looked – one mostly Asian, the other completely Aryan – and laughed how neither of them looked like me.
Around us students streamed out of the academic buildings, heading for lunch. It was a cue for us to get up, leave, and, all clustered together, walk towards the center of the campus.
“Jeremy, do you know what my name means?” my student Sümeyye asked me, slightly adjusting her bright purple headscarf. “It is the girl form of Süleyman. Isn’t that awful? I have a boys name!”
“I like it,” I said. “Actually, did you guys know I have three names? Jeremy… Isaac, which is İshak… and Solomon, you now, Süleyman.”
“Vay, we’re siblings!” She said smiling.
“Teacher,” another student asked, “Why do you have Muslim names?”
“They’re Jewish too. We have the same prophets, mostly” I replied.
“Yes, yes!” Sümeyye chimed in, “We definitely do.”
People sometimes ask me about anti-Semitism or anti-Americanism in Turkey. Maybe I’ve been lucky, but almost every interaction I have had has been like this – one of tolerance and curiosity. Even people I know who are expressly anti-Semitic or anti-American don’t focus this on the individual; that is, they’ve never had any problems with me, just with the governments of America or Israel.
I’m always quick to reassure them that the majority of Americans aren’t exactly enamored with the government either.