These days I am going through a phase commonly called “nostalgia.” This word is defined as “a sentimental longing or wistful affection for the past.” I grew up in Istanbul, Turkey, and lived in various villages, as my parents moved from Kuzguncuk, in the Asian side of the Bosphorous, to Galata and then to Sisli, both in the European part of the maritime divide. When I look at my old pictures in Istanbul, I remember the places and smells of my childhood neighborhoods, the foods my mother cooked or those we ate at the local restaurants, the places I visited with my family and friends, the music I used to sing at the synagogue, and I get teary-eyed for a moment, only to realize that these memories are just memories of an age long gone by.
But I have done something: Recently, I have reconnected with some old friends , now living in Israel, Europe or Canada, and have made new friends on Facebook with some Turkish Jews who still live in Istanbul and also in many parts of the world. We share the same cultural background and speak the same language (Ladino, Judeo-Spanish of the 15th century). I have also asked my wife, Ines (born in Argentina), to cook meals based on old Turkish recipes that I was able to get online, and have dragged her to Armenian stores in the greater Boston area where we live, in order to get typical pastries of the old world. Is this typical? Or I am going through a phase in my life, now that I am 79 years old?
The word “nostalgia” is derived from two different Greek words, “nostos” (meaning, homecoming) and “algos” (meaning, pain). In the past, it was considered a psychological disorder, and ever since the 17th century, a Swiss physician, Johannes Hoffer, called it “a soldiers disease,” attributing it to their longing for their return home after a long battle. In Spanish, it is still referred to as “el mal de Corazon” (heart pain). Some people even think that it is caused by demons. However, there is a new attitude regarding nostalgia today. Based on investigations done by Dr. Constantine Sedikides and others, nostalgia is now recognized as a powerful tool in the battle against anxiety and depression.
In my case, I don’t feel I am anxious about anything in particular or depressed by any means; only the recognition that my life is slipping away much faster than I expected. The reality is that if I were to go back and visit the places of my childhood, I will certainly be disappointed, because they would not look the way I remembered them. In fact, about a dozen years ago, when I went to Istanbul and roamed the main street of Kuzguncuk, I could not believe how narrow it was!
So, now I taste anew some of the delicacies I can find in my neighborhood in Boston (e.g., baklava, muhallebi, and others), look at old pictures to refresh my memories of events of the past, and am grateful that I can still recall them in my mind, singing quietly the old melodies that shaped my personality. O tempora, O mores, as Cicero, the old Latin politician of the 1st cent. BCE, would have said!
Rabbi Rifat Sonsino, Ph.D.