Short Stories 

Aunt Sarina

By Roz Kohen 

Aunt Sarina, my Mother’s elder aunt, lived in Küçük Hendek
(Footnote 39) Street in the Galata Tower district of İstanbul. Right across the entrance to the street there was a flea market. At this market one could purchase old furniture, antiques and all kinds of interesting objects. Buyers and sellers would walk in and out carrying mattresses, bed posts, lamps and much more. The Turkish saying, “If eighty people walked in, ninety walked out,” well described the activity at the flea market.
Aunt Sarina was short and skinny. Her face with her gray hair tied in a bun gave her a sad appearance. She was always dressed in black as expected of elderly Jewish widows at the time. My Father would insist that this custom was borrowed from the Greeks and that it was not a Jewish custom.
Aunt Sarina lived there with her daughter Rashel at the entrance floor of this old and neglected building. The two had a small room with a bed used as a sofa, a small table and a closet. The room opened to the dark corridor and a single window faced the street. Aunt Sarina spent most of her time sitting by the window and watching the passersby.
A small portable gasoline heater would warm up the room during the cold winter months. The table was always covered with a neatly embroidered cover and a candy bowl stood in the middle. Photographs of aunt Sarina’s loved ones, decorated the walls of this modest room. These were portraits of her late husband and her elder daughter who lived in Israel with her family.
Rachel, her younger daughter, was never married. In contrast to her mother, she was a tall woman with a big smile on her face. Rachel had a modest life, as well, and worked at a pantyhose factory. We used to call her by her last name, “Rachel Rofe” to differentiate her from the other Rachels in the family.
When my Mother and I came to the Galata Tower district to shop, we used to visit her aunt. My Mother knocked on the window and aunt Sarina would open the door. Once inside, the two started talking loudly in Judeo-Spanish and shared news about the family members. While they were caught in the emotional conversation, I would watch the activity at the flea market and fall asleep on the tall bed.
At the time, the communication with Israel was through letters. It was said that in Israel the widows did not dress in black, they dressed like everybody else and seemed happier. It was in aunt Sarina’s small room that I heard about Bat Yam
(footnote 40) a neighborhood in Tel-Aviv for the first time. From that day on, Bat Yam became the center of interest for the family and a glimpse of hope. It was Bat Yam here and Bat Yam there. To me, Bat Yam came across as a happy place by the sea. In Bat Yam, according to aunt Sarina, her elder daughter had a happy family life. The photographs and post cards from Israel retold the story of a heaven in the Holy Land with palm trees, where only Jews lived with no worries.

Years went by, my Mother and I continued to visit aunt Sarina and received good news from Israel: 
“In Israel immigrants receive homes… in Israel there are no unpleasant customs…in Israel young women find husbands …in Israel Baruh haShem
(Footnote 41) the women have jobs and the elderly live in i bet zikenim  
(Footnote 42) paid by the government and their medications are covered too.
    Sons and daughter transform to tsabarim
(Footnote 43) and serve the Israeli Army. Everyone attended the ulpan
(Footnote 44) for free and learned the Hebrew language. Baruh haShem, the elderly have pensions and there isn’t even a need for gasoline heaters. The warmth of the sun and the sea resuscitate even the dead!” 

When summer came, we all went to the Asian side of İstanbul for a couple of months, but aunt Sarina remained in the old Galata Tower district, and we would not visit her for that period. Later as I reached school age, I stopped going to visit aunt Sarina with my Mother.

 It was my Mother who continued to bring us the news about the family as well as the wonders and miracles of the Jewish Holy Land as described by aunt Sarina.

One day, very suddenly, aunt Sarina sold the little she had in the flea market across the street. She gathered a few necessities and immigrated to Israel with her younger daughter, Rashel, who by now was in her forties. Soon after, we heard that Rashel married a Turkish Jew and was very happy in her new homeland
(Footnote 45). We saw the photographs of the newlyweds in a bright apartment in Bat Yam.

Apparently, aunt Sarina had become a modern grandmother who took walks with her grandchildren, the tsabarim, by the sea shores of Bat Yam. In her letters she continued to write to us as we tried to understand the Hebrew words she was using in her letters:

“Because I have the rights of an ola hadasha
(Footnote 46) ... I am subscribed to an ulpan, Baruh ha Shem and I go to Kupat Holim
(Footnote 47) to see a rofe
(Footnote 48) that prescribes me a blessed trufa
(Footnote 49)…"

The transformed life of our aunt Sarina continued to be the happy and hopeful topic of conversation. Thinking that we had a motherland, with such liberties, where we could live as we wished, we decided to get rid of mourning clothes and old customs that became obsolete. As time went by, the Jewish voices of the Galata Tower district of İstanbul started disappearing, leaving us behind with the memories of our past.

39 Küçük Hendek (English: Small Dip) - A street located in the Galata Tower district parallel to the main street where the Jewish Synagogue is located.
40 Bat Yam - A city located on Israel's Mediterranean Sea coast, just south of Tel Aviv. The first wave of immigrants from Turkey settled in Bat Yam.
41 Baruch haShem (Hebrew) - Thanks God.
42 Bet zikenim (Hebrew)- Nursing home.
43 Tsabarim (Hebrew) - Name given to Jews born in Israel.
44 Ulpan (Hebrew) - Language classes offered to new immigrants.
45 Medina (Hebrew) - Homeland.
46 Ola hadasha (Hebrew) - New Immigrant.
47  Kupat Holim (Hebrew) - Health clinics part of the socialized medicine in Israel.
48 Rofe (Hebrew) - Doctor.
49 Trufa (Hebrew) - Medication.

Roz Kohen was born and raised in İstanbul, Turkey. She attended the Jewish Lycée, Bene Berit (B’nai B’rith) in the Galata region and graduated from the American College for Girls - Arnavutköy. She has lived in the United States since 1981. Her most recent degree is in Information Technology-MLS, Masters in Library Science. She has worked as the manager of one of St. Louis County Library branches in St. Louis, Missouri and retired recently.

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