A universal Shanah Tova

Istanbul, Turkey-- Turkish women with baked potato. Captured by Noa Kattler Kupetz

Noa Kattler Kupetz

Life Editor

It’s Rosh Hashanah, but instead of round challahs and apples, I’m reminded of potatoes.

Last spring, I spent a few days in Istanbul, Turkey. It was Passover, but my priority was embracing Turkish culture; in my mind, the holiday clashed with the traveling experience. My taste buds prevailed, and the “no bread” Passover rule was dismissed.

Then I met Isak. After majorly breaking Passover at a breakfast buffet, Isak Eskinazi came to welcome my mother and me to Turkey. Seventy-eight years old and still running a travel service company specializing in Jewish history, Isak is one who legitimately deserves the title, “wise.”

After seeing old synagogues and abandoned Jewish quarters, Isak insisted it was time for lunch – and that lunch would be a baked potato. Slightly ashamed of our desire to disregard the holiday, but compliant with Isak’s mandate that only the potato was appropriate for Passover, we let him order.

We sat at a restaurant near the water, surrounded by young Turkish couples eating potatoes stuffed with cheese, vegetables, and sauces. Isak ordered us one potato each, with no toppings.

So we sat there, with a man whose Judaism and lifestyle highlighted our possible lapse in judgment, eating plain potatoes. I remember craving the toppings the others around me had, bitterly looking at Isak while he told my mother not to eat the skin of the potato—“It’s the bad part,” he’d said. That small struggle, the denial of flavor, was Isak giving us a taste of the 40 years in the desert. It was Passover, he was saying through the potato, how could you tourists, no— you Jews, forget?

It took five months for me to really process this, the meaning of our bland potatoes in a city filled with cuisine I had been so excited to explore. The potato was Isak’s gift to my mother and me – a reminder that regardless of how far away from home we are, the conscious Jewish way of life is something that can’t be left behind.

A few days ago, I received an email. Isak had wished us a happy new year and made a contribution in our honor to the scholarship fund of the Istanbul Ulus Jewish School. Shanah Tova, Isak. Thank you for reminding me of the universality of Judaism.