Today, it would be sheer madness, if not utterly dangerous, to send a young kid from one continent to another, all alone, even if it is on a short trip. Rare is the parent who would do that, fearing all kinds of bad things that can happen to a 9-year-old. You can be sued for neglect or child endangerment.
But that is exactly what my parents did when I was in 3rd grade, in Turkey, in the mid 1940’s. In those days, we lived in a small town, called Kuzguncuk, on the Asian side of the Bosphorus that divides the city of Istanbul into two sections. There was no bridge across the two continents. This was built in1970. So, in order to go to school on the European side of the city, I used to take a ferryboat from Kuzguncuk to Galata-about 20 minutes-, get off the boat, walk to the small subway station about 10 minutes away from the peer, roll out of the subway and walk downhill to Musevi Lisesi, the Jewish school that was located not too far away from the historic tower of Galata. The whole trip often took about half an hour to 45 minutes. Then, on the way back, I had to walk up to the subway, get off, and walk to the peer in order to wait for the late afternoon boat that would take me back to Kuzguncuk. Our house was a few minutes away from the station.
For a number of years, I followed this routine, before we moved to the city itself. I had no problem navigating the streets all alone, and without fear. Nothing happened to me of any significance.
One day, however, things dramatically changed. I was about to take a major test in the fifth grade in order to move from the elementary school to the middle school. It was late winter, and the sea was raging. My father decided to take me along. When we arrived at the boat station, we realized that, because of the bad weather, all traffic was cancelled. Nothing was moving. Yet, if I did not take the test that day, I would have had to repeat the academic year. We had no choice. We had to do something out of the ordinary. My father decided to rent a small rowboat with a boatman in it. The guy agreed after requesting an unusually high price. We got on and he started to row across the Bosphorus. Visibility was almost none. He had to advance pretty much on instinct. The rowboat shook. (As the author of Jonah wrote, “a great tempest came upon the sea that the boat was in danger of breaking up,” Jon.1: 4). We had to hold ourselves pretty tight. Finally, -it felt interminable to us- we reached the western shore of the city. We paid the guy, got into a taxi and made it just on time for me to take a seat at the examination table. Thankfully, I passed it and moved on to the Middle School.
Today, I would never do this to a young kid, let alone to my grand-kids: it is too dangerous to send him/her on a solo trip, no matter how short or long. It is simply too risky. But in those days, this was not a concern.
I have never forgotten this episode in my life, and taught me that, at times, you have to take risks, yea calculated risks, in order to overcome a serious challenge. This has also been my mantra in life. On many occasions, I have had to take major decisions after quickly reviewing my options under pressing circumstances. It served me well.
RiFAT SONSINO, Rabbi, Ph.D.