It is not the first time the Dr. Markus Arts and Culture Association, housed in Schneidertempel, presented an exhibition of vintage postcards. As one of the best-preserved synagogues in Istanbul's Galata neighborhood, the space is a boon for historical exhibitions on such site-specific subjects. In late 2017, the postcards of Turkish collector Seyhun Binzet were on display, relaying snippets of fin-de-siecle Levantine life.
The current show, titled "Jamim Mikedem," a variation of the Hebrew transliteration for "Past Times," features countless examples of architecture and portraiture from the nostalgic, bygone world of European Jewry. By the clear mezuzah (a piece of parchment contained in a decorative case and inscribed with specific Hebrew verses from the Torah) at the doorway of Schneidertempel, where Ottoman Ashkenazi tailors prayed for generations, the walls of the spacious, hallowed interior are furnished with framed sets of postcards.
In various incarnations, "Jamim Mikedem" traveled throughout Europe, went to New York, and has designs for Jerusalem after Istanbul. Its Turkish adaptation includes a bilingual book with texts by Czech intellectuals, including the collector. Jiri Cesticky of the Consulate General of the Czech Republic in Istanbul reflected on the timeliness of the show as the 80th anniversary of the infamous deportations to Theresienstadt ghetto in Nazi-occupied Prague approaches.
Cesticky noted the authenticity of Central European Jewish life communicated by the images on the postcards. A century ago, the Yiddish language and the secular culture of its speakers and their extended kin influenced and spanned the lives of over 80,000 people in historical Czech lands Bohemia and Moravia. The catalog's publisher, Judaica.cz, printed only a few selections from the curation by Banyais himself on the walls of Schneidertempel.
The synagogue facades, like those captured in towns of Meissen and Pribram in 1912, recall Babylonian, neoclassical and Gothic motifs. The steepled, Moorish-layered brick design of a synagogue in the Moravian town of Olomouc stands out in 1915 against an otherwise bleak, early industrial cityscape. The interiors of Bohemian synagogues are as dazzling, or all the more so, as their frontal depiction, with expansive archways and circular symmetries.
What is so special about Jewish culture in Central Europe, especially in Prague, was its practically seamless degree of integration with the liberal European multiculturalism of the day. Theresienstadt, for example, is famous for having interned composers who continued writing new, avant-garde and microtonal music during the Nazi occupation. While many postcards collected by Banyais have a religious tone, some show a more progressive bent.
Illustrated pictures especially were representative of more middle- to upper-class personas and activities. A man in a top hat and cane stands before an elaborate stone building, a museum or a government institution. The Hebrew characters beneath his shiny, leather boots indicate that the man is of the Jewish world, bearded and broad-faced. Another scene is of a crowd of men in black robes and suits, most bearded, enjoying a woman's onstage dancing.
A diptych of a lower-middle-class sort, not too old, but certainly not young, and bearded with a skullcap, spends his days bent over writing paper and nights gambling cards. The Hebrew captions spell out Yiddish phrases, a transliterated version of German. Yet another characterful scene shows an older woman shooing a man outside with a broom, as the house behind her is filled with violinists. The imagination runs wild.
The Turkish publication of "Jamim Mikedem" is invaluable for the translation of an essay by Hebraist scholar Bedrich Nosek known for his book, "Jewish Prague." In his text, Nosek asks pertinent questions. "The postcards exhibited in this exhibition depict the life of communities which in the main have long disappeared, or which at least have lost their original significance. But is the European Jewish Diaspora really an unrecoverable past?"
In the practically compulsive urge to reclaim lost history, investigating the Jewish past includes a whirlpool of influences that span global geography, obscure eras, religious origins and intellectual movements. Europe and its connection to the Levant, a road that has traditionally encompassed routes of pilgrimage and migration through Turkey, are the source of previously unknown nexuses of peoples and cultures.
The postcard appeared at a point when international travel, prompted by technological advances in rail and steam, coincided with the advent of photography. It was a common and entertaining pastime, that, not unlike social media today, complemented earlier forms of letter writing with that of images. In other words, people communicated through postcard images. While people today may not know why an image was mailed, the image itself still speaks.
In 1906, Jerusalemska Street in Prague was lively with the hum of public society. People congregated on the steps of the Jubilee Synagogue, which had an exquisite facade integrating various aesthetic principles, evoking the alchemical marriage of East and West with its archways, columns and patterns. On its steps, Prague's citizenry rested and enjoyed conversations about the latest salons and theaters from Moscow to Paris, Vienna to Berlin.
One postcard, dated to the last day of the century, on Dec. 30, 1899, illustrates the snowy nonchalance of Prague on the cusp of that paradigmatic shift in modern consciousness which led the heady aspirations of post-imperial national awakening into the dizzying tragedies of 20th-century dystopia. Yet, in a moment, the frozen frame of men leaning on their canes under the stars as women walk past, dressed elegantly, is quaint and fresh.
Nosek expresses an extraordinary degree of optimism in his appreciation of Jewish life in Europe, retrospectively. "Periods of utter desperation alternate with joyful expectations for the future, which is why Rabbinic tradition compares the people of Israel to the moon: just as the moon waxes and wanes, so the history of the Jewish nation is marked by alternating growth and decline.
He continues. "Perhaps sometime in the future, a new Jewish community will once again blossom in Europe and continue with the thousand-year legacy of past generations." There is one postcard, taken in 1938, when the world was in the thralls of Nazism, of a man and his son on their way to temple. The photograph shows the heavy countenance of a poor, rural Jew, looking one way while his boy, holding his hand, leads him out of the picture.
Banyais' words, translated by Stephen Hattersley for the Schneidertempel show's book, evoke sincerity. "I would like to share the beauty of Jewish postcards with the public and to revive those long-ago days. I hope to recreate the atmosphere of the period of 80-100 years ago with photographs of ghettos, portraits and photographs of people, and paintings and drawings of Jews in prayer, at work, during festivals and at weddings."