The other day I was having tea with one of my good friends, when for some reason I decided to tell her the following joke about Jewish mothers:
One Hannukah a mother gives to her son two sweaters – a red one and a blue one. The son is very happy, so the next day he decides to wear the blue sweater to show his mother how much he loved the gifts. As soon as he walks downstairs the mother looks him over and says, “So, you didn’t like the red one?”
I’ve had bad luck telling this joke to people in the past. In high school I told it to my Baptist girlfriend at the time and she completely missed the humor – I was more than half expecting a similar reaction from my Turkish friend. This time around, however, my friend burst out laughing exclaiming how Turkish mothers were exactly the same way.
Her reaction came as a complete shock, and, in turn, made me start realizing why I might feel so comfortable in Turkey – there appear to be many Jewish Turkish cultural similarities buried deep down. Aside from the notion of motherly guilt, Turkish mothers are also stereotypically known to be ‘hovermoms.’ That is, they always make sure to call their children to see if they’re alright, what they are doing, who they are with, etc.
Family in general is also of paramount importance in Turkey, as is the idea of welcoming guests. Although these are kind of general human cultural traits, there is something about the Turkish way of doing things that reminds me of my family. Maybe it is always the ample amounts of food waiting for anyone whose visiting. Turks are generally never happy with a guest if they eat only one plate of food, and I constantly find myself imagining them saying “Eat! Eat! You’re nothing but skin and bones!”
What about religion? someone may ask. Surely the fact that Turks are vastly Muslim must cause some huge differences.
Well, actually, not at all. I generally feel – as someone raised a reform Jew now living in largely secular Turkey – that Judaism has much more in common with Islam than with Christianity. In many ways Islam is kind of backwards compatible with Judaism: for example, Muslims may eat Kosher food and it would generally count as being halal for them. Likewise, Muslims and Jews both practice circumcision – something my friend and I had a vaguely awkward conversation about after I told her the Jewish mother joke.
Aside from these more culturally religious similarities, there are also numerous purely religious similarities. Both faiths are traced through Abraham, believe in the indivisibility of one God, and – for the extremely religious – have a ban on creating representational art. For a much longer explanation, LookIsrael actually provides a pretty substantial list of similarities here.
People routinely ask me if I’m worried about living in Turkey as a Jew, and I don’t think I’ve ever once felt threatened in the slightest. Usually more conservative people will ask what I think of Israel and will then go on to mention how they are very cold-hearted. Compared to some of the vitriolic statements some members of my own family make about Israel though, this is pretty tame.
More usually, however, Turks will happily mention how the Ottoman Empire took in and gave shelter to Jews fleeing expulsion from Medieval Europe before handing me a date, or a fig, or a second plate of food.