Monday, March 30, 2009

Jewish Heritage Travel -- in Hungarian!

I've just found out that a Hungarian translation of Jewish Heritage Travel: A Guide to Eastern Europe will be coming out at the end of the summer, published by the National Geographic affiliate in Hungary.

I met with the translator this morning, at the "BarLadino," one of the trendy new cafes in Bpest's Seventh District Jewish quarter... He tells me that the launch is planned for the annual Jewish Culture Festival held in Budapest at the beginning of September, with maybe further events in the pipeline.

Budapest -- Bob Cohen, Lipot Baumhorn and the Main Jewish Cemetery

A tomb designed by Lipot Baumhorn in the Kozma utca cemetery. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

Bob Cohen, whose blog (Dumneazu) I've linked to several times in the past, has a post about his first visit to the main Jewish cemetery in Budapest, the enormously huge cemetery on Kozma utca at the end of the 37 tram.

Bob himself finds it astonishing that in all his years in Bp, he has never visited there before -- in fact, I find it astonishing, too, given all the time in past years that I myself have spent there.

Tomb designed by Odon Lechner and Bela Lajta. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

The cemetery figures prominently in two of my books, Jewish Heritage Travel, of course, but also in Upon the Doorposts of Thy House: Jewish Life in East-Central Europe, Yesterday and Today, which came out in 1994.

When I first visited, some 20 years ago, the cemetery was pretty much a wilderness -- most of it was overgrown with ivy, saplings, weeds, bushes. Only the very front part was cleared.

My most memorable experience came when I was researching "Doorposts" -- and Ed Serotta accompanied me there to try to find the grave of Lipot Baumhorn, the great synagogue architect, who died in 1932.

I recount the full story in "Doorposts" -- going to the office of the cemetery, having the man there riffle through endless index cards (nowadays the records are computerized) to find the plot. Then following him around the cemetery (first going in the wrong direction) until we found the proper plot -- but no stone, just a huge clump of trees. Then I looked closer and saw that the trees were actually a thick mass of ivy, covering one stone, and I made out a few letters -- it was, in fact Baumhorn's gravestone.

Ed and I ripped away the ivy, uncovering the stone: it was a very emotional experience. On the stone's face was a list of synagogues that Baumhorn had designed or remodeled... at the top was a bas relief of his masterpiece, the dome of the synagogue in Szeged. Then, there was an epitaph written in highly complex, poetic language by the great Rabbi of Szeged, Immanuel Löw, about how he sought synagogues in heaven.... I took the Hungarian original to a series of friends around the city who put together different translations of the difficult lines.

This is the way that the architect and architectural historian Janos Gerle rendered the poem:

Our inspired artist: His inspiration and heart gave birth
To the lines of synagogues that look toward heaven and awaken piety.
Above his peaceful home hovered devotion;
The soul of a father and husband gave birth of heaven-seeking consolation.

In Szolnok, outside the LB synagogue, 2006

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Viewmate search tool

I want to draw attention to the Viewmate search tool on the site. It's more related to genealogy and family history research than to travel, but those interested in Jewish heritage in general may find it worth looking at (or using).

Users can upload photos, documents and other material to ask other users to help with translations, photo identification and other queries.

I didn't upload anything (though I'm tempted to upload some tombstone epitaphs to ask for help with translations), and you have to register to get replies or reply. But there are some fascinating images just to browse.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Ukraine -- On the Road and Off the Beaten Track

My latest travel column for recounts a road trip in western Ukraine in November with Sergey Kravtsov and Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett... I posted bits and piece about this on this blog at the time.

by Ruth Ellen Gruber

On an overcast afternoon not long ago, two friends and I found ourselves plodding to and fro amid a forest of crooked gravestones in the centuries-old Jewish cemetery in Bolekhiv, a small town in western Ukraine south of L'viv.We were on a sort of pilgrimage, methodically pushing through weeds and peering closely at eroding epitaphs, trying to find the tomb of a man we knew had been buried there more than 200 years earlier.Dov Ber Birkenthal, an intrepid wine merchant and Jewish community leader, had been born in Bolekhiv -- known in Polish as Bolechow -- in 1723 and died there in 1805.His tombstone, I knew, bore an epitaph that paid tribute to a long, busy and eventful life -- it summed him up as "the learned, the renowned leader, the open-handed, the aged."

Birkenthal, generally referred to as Ber of Bolechow, has been one of my heroes since I was introduced to him through his remarkable autobiography more than 15 years ago. Ber is believed to have written his memoirs in 1799 or 1800, five years or so before his death. He described everything from local political and religious intrigue to how he drove hard business deals and suffered on the road during arduous wine-buying journeys to Hungary. He wrote of customs duties, currency fraud, and drunken wagon drivers; of icy rivers, double-dealing business partners, flea-ridden inns, and occasional attacks by roving bandits. One long, dramatic passage describes how bandits attacked Bolechow itself in 1759, robbing and looting, killing several people, and setting homes on fire. Some local residents gave as good as they got -- the town's wealthiest Jew, a man called Nachman, held off the attackers with a blazing firearm in each fist. Business was Ber's primary concern. But he also touched on his failed first marriage and the love he found with his second wife, Leah; the pride he felt in his children; his friendships with other Jews and non-Jews; and his passion for books and prowess in half a dozen languages. Ber, "was a remarkable man," wrote Daniel Mendelsohn in his best-selling 2006 book The Lost: a Search for Six of the Six Million, which describes Mendelsohn's quest to learn the fate of his own relatives from Bolekhiv who were killed in the Holocaust. "Ber was the son of a forward-thinking, broad-minded wine merchant who encouraged his son's precocious intellectual appetites from his earliest childhood -- even allowing the boy to study Greek and Latin with the local Catholic priests, an unheard of thing," he wrote. The precocious boy, Mendelsohn went on, "grew up to be a precocious man: a successful wine merchant but also a scholar of enormous breadth and depth, a man who could read easily in Polish and German and Italian, as well as in Hebrew and Greek and Latin." He was, he concluded, "a man who exemplified the liberal, worldly energies that helped to create the Haskalah, the great Jewish Enlightenment movement." I had been to Bolekhiv once before, in 2006, when I was researching the latest edition of my book, National Geographic Jewish Heritage Travel: A Guide to Eastern Europe.

On that visit, too, I had prowled through the cemetery trying to find Ber's grave. "Dov" (in Hebrew) and "Ber" (in Yiddish) both mean "Bear," and I did indeed discover a tombstone of someone named Dov Ber that was decorated with a particularly vivid carving of a bear and bunches of grapes, indicating involvement of the deceased in the wine trade.

Read Full Story

Friday, March 27, 2009

RUTHLESS COSMOPOLITAN at the Bratislava seminar

Synagogue in Sarmorin, the At Home Gallery, 2009. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

My latest Ruthless Cosmopolitan column is from the milestone Bratislava seminar on the care, conservation and maintenance of historic Jewish property.

March 26, 2009

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

BRATISLAVA, Slovakia (JTA) – The restitution of Jewish communal property in Central and Eastern Europe has been a hot-button issue since the Iron Curtain fell nearly 20 years ago.

But often forgotten amid the slow and painful legal battles to get back historic Jewish properties that were seized by the Nazis or nationalized by postwar Communist regimes is the practical and urgent need to care for, conserve and maintain the properties once they’ve been recovered.

For two decades and more, I've documented, written about and photographed these sites, which include many yeshivas and synagogues.

Many are huge. Many are dilapidated. Some are recognized as historic monuments. Most stand in towns where few, if any, Jews now live. Even basic maintenance can stretch already strapped communal resources.

In March, I joined Jewish community representatives from 15 countries who gathered to address these concerns at a seminar held in the Slovak capital, Bratislava.

The aim of the meeting was to foster networking and cross-border consultation and spark creative strategic thinking. Many participants had never met before and had little awareness of how colleagues in other countries were confronting similar challenges. Some knew little about the variety of Jewish heritage sites in other countries.

The meeting dealt with issues ranging from fundraising to roof repair to what Jewish law says about synagogue re-use.

During the seminar, which was organized by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, the International Survey of Jewish Monuments and the Slovak Jewish Heritage Center, we visited several sites in the Bratislava area to see how some best-practice solutions had been implemented.

One was the former synagogue in Samorin, a small town southeast of Bratislava, built in 1912.

Back in the early 1990s, it was a derelict shell standing silent and empty on the outskirts of the shabby city center. Its lonely position and crumbling façade underscored its poignancy as a surviving relic of the devastated past.

Since then, it has undergone a dramatic transformation.

Owned by the Union of Slovak Jewish Communities, it is now held on a long-term lease by a couple who took over the building in 1995, restored it and transformed it into the At Home Gallery, a center for contemporary art.

The synagogue is used for cultural purposes aimed at the public at large. It even once hosted the Dalai Lama.

It also now forms part of a new tourism and educational trail called the Slovak Route of Jewish Heritage, which links about 20 historic Jewish sites around the country.

In restoring the building, Csaba Kiss and his Canadian-born wife, Suzanne, deliberately chose to retain evidence that the interior had been desecrated. The walls still bear painted decoration, but the paintings are faded and patchy; they have not been retouched or prettied up.

"Our idea was not to touch the walls," Kiss once told me. "They have memories; we can see them. It's special."

At the seminar's conclusion, participants agreed on a set of pragmatic guidelines with best-practice principles and procedures for the Jewish properties.

Jewish heritage, the guidelines state, "is the legacy of all aspects of Jewish history – religious and secular." At the same time, "Jewish history and art are part of every nation’s history and art. Jewish heritage is part of national heritage, too."

These assertions may appear to state the obvious, but given contentious internal Jewish politics and the taboos and prejudice that historically applied to Jewish culture in Europe, they actually articulate crucial basic concepts. And the guidelines as a whole, while non-binding, represent a milestone when it comes to restituted Jewish properties.

Addressing a frequently heard criticism of Jewish communal management style, the guidelines state, "Honesty and transparency are Jewish values and should be especially apparent in the handling of all matters concerning Jewish property." The guidelines urge detailed documentation of Jewish communal properties and heritage sites and underscore the need for openness and collaboration among Jewish and non-Jewish institutions.

Will these guidelines be followed? Probably not to the letter. Financial considerations, legal obstacles, local conditions and human nature, among other things, prevent adherence to ideals.

Still, they form a framework that can influence practice and, perhaps, finally bring these sites the maintenance and preservation they – and the Jewish people – need.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Belarus -- Kobrin Synagogue in Danger

Sam Gruber has begun posting material from the Bratislava Jewish heritage seminar, and probably will provide more detail -- or at least different detail -- than I am posting... after all, he was one of the organizers of the meeting.

At the seminar, he was able to speak at length with Bella Velikovskaja, of the Jewish Heritage Research Group in Belarus (and the Union of Jewish Religious Communities) about the serious threats to the former synagogue in Kobrin, a monumental structure built in 1868 which was restituted back to the Jewish commuity in 2004. The building was used for grain storage and a beverage-production plant after World War II. The government threatens to take back the building unless restoration work begins -- and funds are short.

Sam writes:
The situation at Kobrin is now urgent, because the government which returned the large 19th-century masonry synagogue to the Jewish community in 2004 threatens to take it back unless restoration work begins. This is a situation that is also becoming common in Poland. After holding Jewish properties for a half century or more and letting them deteriorate into near-ruins, they are returned to communities - but without any financial assistance to restore them. Communities must not only quickly find a use for the building, but also the funds to make them work. Sometimes years pass and nothing happens. Sometimes governments demand quick action. I frequently say the situation is similar to being asked to make soup. One is given the carrots and potatoes, but not pot to cook them in, and sometimes not even a fire. Consequently communities are overburdened. In Belarus, there is a real plan for Kobrin. But there is not enough money. And the government threatens to take the building back if nothing happens soon.

Read full post

PL and CZ -- Useful Travel Web Sites

Pilsen synagogue. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

The number of web sites with Jewish-related travel information is growing and impossible to keep up with (at least for me).

I keep adding links to my lists here on this blog, but I also want to flag some web sites in posts.

Two useful sites are the Krakow-based Polin Travel and Jewish Route in the Czech Republic's Pilsen Region.

Polin Travel is the site of a private guide and genealogy service, but the web site provides a lot of background and other information, including links -- but I do wish the photographs had captions.

Jewish Route in the Pilsen Region provides background information and photogalleries on a number of sites, as well as hotel and restaurant lists and other material.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Romania -- Agreement to Restore Zion Synagogue

Zion Synagogue, 2006. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

Livia Chereches, whom I met at the recent seminar on managing historic Jewish property in Bratislava, has written with exciting news. The landmark Zion synagogue in Oradea, Romania, is going to (finally) undergo restoration.

A grandiose Neolog temple with a soaring dome, the synagogue is a city landmark that towers over the Cris river. Built in 1878, it was designed by David Busch, the town's chief municipal architect. Its interior features columns, arches, and vaulting decorated by geometric designs (painted by Mor Horovitz from Kosice). The Ark is framed by an elaborate arch and surmounted by a pipe organ.

Interior of Zion Synagogue, 2006. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

Livia writes that under an agreement signed by the President of the Jewish Community Oradea, Felix Koppelmann, and the mayor of Oradea, the town will assume control of the synagogue and use it for exhibitions and other cultural purposes, but on occasion it will also be used by the Jewish community for religious purposes.

This year the municipality will renovate the exterior of the building, and meanwhile European Union funding will be sought for the interior. What's more, a planned high-rise parking lot, that developers wanted to build in front of the synagogue, will now be built underground so that the striking view of the synagogue will be left free.

"This seems to be a happy end to a long story with unsuccessful attempts to save the Jewel of the town of Oradea," writes Livia.

Oradea, which has a Jewish community today numbering about 500 members, has about four other synagogues. Two are in the Jewish community compound (one in use and one closed for hoped-for renovation) and two have been converted for other use.

Poland -- What to do with Auschwitz

Auschwitz Gate, 2005. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

The directors of the museum/memorial at Auschwitz and the Polish government have issued urgent calls recently for aid to conserve the crumbling infrastructure of the most notorious Nazi death camp. Auschwitz attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors a year, but its buildings, exhibitions and archives are -- literally -- falling to pieces.

The National Post runs an article dealing with the architecture of Auschwitz and the architecture of tourism there. It is a interview with Robert Jan van Pelt, a professor at Ontario's University of Waterloo who has studied the architecture of the death camp, and particularly that of its cremetoria.

Given the lack of resources and the inevitable decay, Prof. van Pelt said one solution quickly emerges. What he says next is stripped of sentimentality but not of respect.

"Most people talk about the future of Auschwitz very emotionally without actually having any knowledge about it and without actually having any grasp of the incredibly contradictory nature of the site in terms of preservation and management.

"I say they should maybe allow Birkenau to be surrendered to nature - which does not mean putting condos on it but simply seal off the site and we allow nature to take over in a kind of symbolic gesture that humanity failed so terribly there that we now give it over to the cockroaches and grass and whatever. They haven't screwed up as badly as we have."

He adds an important caveat: It should not be done as long as there are survivors who may wish a return visit to the site. (He, himself, had a Jewish uncle who died in Auschwitz; he was named after him.)

"People will have to make choices... let us at least make a distinction between what is critical for us, what is important for us and what is merely significant.

"In Auschwitz they were restoring the sewer works of the camps not because it was the most important but because it was the only thing that was not contested.

"Because whatever you do in Auschwitz someone will say that you made the wrong choice."

Read Full Article

Italy -- Medieval Jewish Cemetery in Terni Remembered

An Italian news source reports that a plaque is going to be unveiled this week marking the site of the medieval Jewish cemetery in Terni, a city in central Italy's Umbria region. Not only that, there will be a little seminar about medieval Jewish history in Umbria. (Typically, the web site running the story illustrates it with a picture of the Old Jewish Cemetery in Prague!)

Una lapide in ricordo del cimitero ebraico medievale di Terni sarà scoperta giovedì 26 marzo nel parco Ciaurro, sotto le mura della Passeggiata. Alla cerimonia, che avrà inizio alle ore 16, prenderanno parte il sindaco Paolo Raffaelli, il rabbino capo della comunità ebraica di Roma Riccardo Di Segni, il vescovo di Terni Vincenzo Paglia.

La lapide sarà apposta sulle mura, all'interno del parco nei pressi dell'ingresso dal largo Atleti Azzurri d'Italia ed è stata fatta realizzare a cura dell'ufficio toponomastica del Comune di Terni con la forma delle lapidi dei cimiteri ebraici. Riporterà la scritta: "Qui si trovava il cimitero ebraico che questa terra accolse nel tardo medioevo" in italiano e in caratteri ebraici.

Read full article

Umbria -- Terni province in particular -- is where I have a house and spend a good chunk of my time. There may be a few dozen Jews in Terni province today... when my extended family is there, we probably make up the largest "Jewish community." Passover is coming soon, and I'm already thinking of where to scrape up people to come to the seder....

There was never a huge Jewish population in Umbria, which was part of the Papal States -- maybe 500 people at its peak in the 14th to 16th centuries. But in the middle ages, there were a number of active communities, most of which have left no trace -- in Orvieto, Assisi, Todi... Today, there is a tiny Jewish community in Perugia and a few scattered families, but that's about it. (In Perugia, you can see a trace of the old synagogue and Jewish cemetery.)

A wonderful book describes medieval Jewish life in Umbria -- Love, Work and Death: Jewish Life in Medieval Umbria, by Ariel Toaff, translated by Judith Landry (Littman Library, 1996). It reads like a novel.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Vilnius -- Fading Yiddish

My latest photo/comment on the site regards the faded inscriptions, in Yiddish and Polish, that can be seen on city walls in Vilnius (and also, by the way, in L'viv).

Vilnius 2006. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber
I muri di una città sono palinsesti urbani. Caminando per un centro storico, si può capire la storia leggendo l'architettura, e specialmente leggendo i cambiamenti eseguiti, strato sopra strato, attraverso i secoli. Gli archi di un portico che sono stati chiusi con dei mattoni, per esempio. O vecchie porte bloccate e nuove finestre aperte in muri antichi… A Vilnius si trova un esempio che colpisce in un modo diverso e anche emozionante. Segni pallidi, in polacco e yiddish, che risalgono al periodo fra le due guerre mondiali. Come fantasmi di un passato sia vicino che remoto, parlano di una rivendita (che era forse nel cortile) dove si comprava cherosene e sale, di qualità superiore.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Jewish Heritage -- New Resources

Old Jewish Cemetery, Roudnice nad Labem, CZ. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

The Bratislava Seminar provided the opportunity for representatives of various countries to present new printed or web resources on Jewish heritage, and in particular new maps, brochures and other material related to Jewish tourism and itineraries.

I try to keep track of these, but I generally can't keep up with the amount of material being published.

I have listed some of the web resources that were highlighted at the conference in the links list and travel resources list on this blog.

Other material presented includes:

-- Jewish Sights in the Usti Region (Czech Republic)
A very elaborate package of high-quality illustrated brochure, CD and DVD detailing Jewish sights in northern Czech Republic, including Decin, Libochovice, Louny, Most, Roudnice nad Labem, Teplice, Terezin, Ustek, and Zatec. In all these places, Jewish heritage sites have been restored or are undergoing restoration as part of local heritage. The material was written by my old friend Jaroslav Klenovsky, one of the pioneers of Jewish heritage research in CZ, and produced with funding from the EU and Usti regional authorities.

Jaroslav was one of several Czech representatives at the Bratislava meeting. The Czech Jewish community, through its Matana property management organization, has been a leader in developing -- and implementing -- a viable longterm strategy in Jewish heritage site preservation and management. This has included forging partnerships with local civic and private bodies as well a foreign donors, and working out a strategy of restoration of Jewish sites for cultural use including Jewish museums. In addition, numerous publications have been issued. (By the way, I linked in a recent post to a downloadable new brochure guide on Czech Jewish heritage put out by the Czech Tourism Office. Since then, the link seems to have been removed, though the brochure still exists in print... the Czech Tourism web site now had a page with links to several Jewish sites around the county -- click HERE.)
-- "Permanent Yiddishkeit" -- Jewish Heritage Map of Belarus

-- Jewish Latvia -- Travel Guide

-- Slovak Jewish Heritage Route -- new brochures

Bratislava Seminar on Jewish Heritage -- Promotion, Preservation

Information at synagogue in Samorin, Slovakia, now an arts center. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

Last week I attended an international seminar in Bratislava on strategies for the preservation, management and promotion of Jewish built heritage in (mainly) post-communist Europe.

In the past 10 or 15 years, many buildings -- including former synagogues -- have been restituted to Jewish communities in these countries. Some (most?) are in poor condition. What can/should be done with them? This was the core issue of what turned out to be a very intensive meeting that combined discussion with on-site visits.

Representatives of Jewish communities in about 15 countries attended, along with a group of experts (including myself). My brother, Sam Gruber, who is president of the International Survey of Jewish Monuments and also blogs on the subject, was one of the organizers and served as the chief moderator. The seminar was sponsored/organized by the JDC (Joint Distribution Committee), the Cahnman Foundation, the World Monuments Fund, the Rothschild Foundation, and Maros Borsky (who heads the Slovak Jewish Heritage Center).

The meeting touched on many aspects of the broad issue -- from Jewish law (Halacha) regarding synagogue buildings and cemeteries to fund raising to tourism promotion.

I will try to post several short reports, touching on specific aspects of what was discussed or emerged, rather than an overview.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Poland -- New Film with Pre-War Footage

A new Polish documentary film by Polish camerawoman Jolanta Dylewska sheds light on Jewish life in Poland before the Holocaust by using home movie footage shot at the time.

The film, "Po-Lin, Slivers of Memory," the Associated Press reports,
draws on a patchwork of amateur camera footage shot mostly by American Jews visiting relatives in the 1930s in Polish towns and provides a window into what once was.
The Polish-German co-poduction opened in Poland in November. An English version is due later this year.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

"Letters from Europe (and Elsewhere) Book Presentation in Budapest

Here's the announcement/invitation to my book present in Budapest next Monday, March 23:


Publishing Company and Bookstore (Cracow - Budapest)

kindly invites you to the presentation of

Letters from Europe (and Elsewhere)


Ruth Ellen Gruber

The event will take place on

Monday, March 23, 2009 at 18.00.

in Austeria Bookstore

( Budapest, VII. Nagydiófa 30-32),

and will be hosted by Michael Miller

(Assistant Professor in Nationalism Studies Program at the CEU, Budapest)

The event will be in English

Ruth Ellen Gruber is an American writer and photographer based in Europe. Her books include "National Jewish Heritage Travel: A Guide to Eastern Europe" and "Virtually Jewish: Reinventing Jewish Culture In Europe." Her articles and photographs have appeared in the New York Times, the International Herald Tribune and many other publications. She was the chief correspondent in Poland for UPI during the Solidarność and Martial Law period, until she was jailed and expelled from the country in 1983. Ruth Ellen Gruber contributes regular "Letters from Europe" (and sometimes elsewhere) to the U.S. magazine The New Leader. Mixing travelogue with social and cultural commentary, she delves under the skin of European society to provide a closely observed, uniquely personal take on topics ranging from politics to pop music, from architecture to local cuisine. This volume collects a decade of her colorful, insightful reports - from 1997 to 2007. The datelines range from Warsaw and Sarajevo to Bucharest, London, Budapest, Brno, Nuremberg, Paris, the tiny village of Morruzze, Italy, and more.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Me on Czech Radio (in English)

When I was in Prague last week, I was interviewed by Jan Richter for the English language service of Czech Radio -- on subjects ranging from Jewish heritage to European country music. I tried to keep my answered pegged a bit to the Czech experience, so I discussed positive developments in the preservation of Jewish heritage sites in CZ, and (in the country music segments) the collaboration between CZ country star Michal Tucny with the American Rattlesnake Annie, as well as the American reception of the group Druha Trava.

“These interests come together in a funny way. One of the processes, one of the things I have been quite interested in and explored quite a bit in the Jewish sphere is the way that non-Jewish people in Europe, in a place where very few – if any – Jews live today become interested in appropriating or viewing Jewish culture and traditions for their own purposes, either to form their own identities, or out of interest. And then I also became interested in how Europeans are fascinated by the American Wild West and all its trappings, and sort of feel at home in that mythology, and often use it to enrich their own culture. And part of this is country music.”
If you go to the site, you can click a button to listen to the full interview.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Czech Republic -- Ustek

My latest photo and comment (in Italian) are up at the site -- a Golem guarding the recently restored synagogue in Ustek, CZ.

Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

I Receive HBI Research Award

Images of Candles being Blessed, on Tombstones in Radauti, 2006. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

I have been awarded the Michael Hammer Tribute Research Grant by the Hadassah Brandeis Institute for a project called “(Candle)sticks on Stone: Representing the Woman in Jewish Tombstone Art”.

Each year the HBI awards 20 to 30 grants to support academic and artistic projects about Jews and gender. Debby Olins, the program director, told me that my project was selected by the HBI board as "an exceptional research award" to be dedicated to the memory of Michael Hammer, the husband of one of the board members, who died last year.

It centers around the richly decorated tombstones of women in the Jewish cemetery in Radauti, Romania, where my own great-grandmother, Ettel Gruber, is buried.

Radauti, 2006

The aim of my project is to provide a photographic documentation of the often elaborate tombstones of women Radauti and (probably) several other nearby towns in northern Romania (such as Siret, Botosani, Gura Humorului, Suceava), focusing on the representation of candlesticks.

I then want to integrate these photographs with research, personal reflections and memoir to create an on-line gallery/exhibition, which will also include anecdotes, literary references, personal stories, etc. I also hope to write a broader photographic and literary essay (and/or other articles) for publication. And I plan to set up a separate blog -- linked to this blog -- on which I will report my progress and reflections during the research and writing process.

Sabbath candles are a common symbol on the tombstones of Jewish women. This is because lighting the Sabbath candles is one of the three so-called "women's commandments" carried out by female Jews: these also include observing the laws of Niddah separating men from women during their menstrual periods, and that of Challah, or burning a piece of dough when making bread.

The first time I saw a Jewish woman's tombstone bearing a representation of candles was in 1978, when I visited Radauti for the first time and found the tombstone of my great-grandmother, who died in 1946 and in whose honor I received my middle name.

Radauti, 1991

I have been back to Radauti twice since then, and in the meantime I've also visited hundreds of other Jewish cemeteries as part of my documentation, research and writing for my book National Geographic Jewish Heritage Travel: A Guide to Eastern Europe, and other publications.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

On the Web -- My New Weekly Comment for Italian Web Site

Monument marking where the synagogue stood, Buehl. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

I've begun an experiment -- writing a brief, weekly commentary for the newsletter and web site of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities --

The editor has asked me to take one of my photographs (or another image) each week and "read" it -- or at least "read into it," summing up my thoughts in a paragraph or two (in Italian).

Today, March 5, was the first appearance -- I commented on Germany's monuments commemorating the Holocaust, using a picture I took last month in Buehl, when I was there to attend a conference on Bluegrass Music....Read comment here

Vercelli -- Synagogue under Restoration

An article (in Italian) on the web site of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities describes the process of restoration that is current under way for the synagogue in Vercelli, between Milan and Turin in northern Italy. The synagogue stood almost abandoned and in very dilapidated condition for years. But some restoration work was carried out in 2003 and 2004, and a €700,000 project was begun in 2007. A very small Jewish community lives in Vercelli; community president Rossella Bottini Treves says that once restored, the synagogue will serve as a cultural space for the city. Read full article (in Italian).

The Vercelli synagogue: Photo from

The synagogue, inaugurated in 1878, was designed by Marco Treves, the Vercelli-born architect who also designed the synagogue in Florence. With its Moorish-style striping and flat, tripartite facade with a raised central portion, it resembles several important synagogues in Central Europe whose design was inspired by the Tempelgasse synagogue in Vienna, designed by Ludwig von Foerster and built in the 1850s, which was destroyed on Kristallnacht -- these include the destroyed synagogue in Zagreb and the Choral Synagogue in Bucharest, among others.

Choral Synagogue, Bucharest, 2006. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

Synagogue in Vrbove, Slovakia, 2006. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Lithuania -- First books arrive for Jewish library

Wyman Brent, an American who is trying to establish a Jewish library in Vilnius, writes on the EEJH listserv that the first shipment of books has arrived safely and asks for help in furthering the project.
With all the negative news regarding the increase in anti-Semitism
taking place in the world, there is still a positive story to report.
Today a shipment of 165 boxes of Jewish books from California arrived
in Vilnius. The books will form the basis of the new Vilnius Jewish
Library. The library is being housed inside the Vilna Gaon Jewish
Museum. Instead of writing and telling me how wonderful I am and how
much you appreciate what I am doing, how about offering books for the
Wyman can be reached at:

Poland -- more downloadable guide brochures and maps

Synagogue in Lesko, 2006. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

Given that I posted the link to downloadable pdf Jewish guides to Warsaw, Czech Republic, and Hungary, I think it's important to note that the Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage in Poland (FODZ) has a number of downloadable guide brochures and maps available at his web site -- these particularly deal with the "Hasidic Route" that the Foundation is developing in partnership with local towns and organizations in various parts of eastern and southeastern Poland.

Click HERE for a list to access -- scroll down to "downloads." The brochures include individual guides to Zamosc, Sanok, Lezajsk, Rymanow, Krasnik, Lesko, Chelm, Jaroslaw, Ropczyce, and Ustrzyki Dolne, as well as a general map of the Route.

Most of these sites (and many more in Poland) are dealt with in my book National Geographic Jewish Heritage Travel: A Guide to Eastern Europe.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Czech Republic -- Downloadable New Guide

Synagogue in Rychnov nad Kneznou. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

The Czech Tourism office has published a new, downloadable guide to Jewish heritage in the Czech Republic. The booklet has information and pictures on 16 towns and cities, and also includes web site information and other contacts.

You can download it by clicking HERE.

This adds to the growing list of downloadable Jewish guide brochures published localled -- such as the guides to Warsaw and to Hungary, both of which I have mentioned on this blog.

The text of the new guide was prepared by Brno-based Jaroslav Klenovsky, who has spent decades researching Jewish heritage in the country.

Towns included are Prague, Boskovice, Brno, Hartmanice, Hermanuv Mestec, Holesov, Jicin, Kolin, Mikulov, Pilsen, Polna, Rakovnik, Rychnov nad Kneznou, Terezin, Trebic, and Velke Mezerici.

All these sites -- plus many more (including some I like ever better) -- are included in my book, National Geographic Jewish Heritage Travel: A Guide to Eastern Europe, and I have posted recent information on some of them on this blog.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Ukraine -- New Web Resources on L'viv

Memorial plaque at the Golden Rose synagogue. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

The L'viv Center for Urban History of East Central Europe has posted on its web site some valuable and easy-to-use new resources about Jewish heritage in L'viv. All are part of the Center's ongoing "L'viv Interactive" project on local history, culture and architecture.

One is a detailed description and photo gallery on the Golden Rose Synagogue.

The other comprises two galleries of images relating to the "Inner" Jewish community quarter, where the Golden Rose is located, not far from the main market square, or Rynok. They are part of a research project on the district being carried out by third-year architecture students. Its aim is
to accumulate a database of scholarly elaborations of archival and bibliographical data, live research, as well as visual (videorecordings, photogallery, graphic materials) and verbal (interviews) information. This data can contribute to the cause of discovering, bringing back and renewing the memory of the Jewish legacy in Lviv.

The project proposes to illuminate the history of the city quarter, once inhabited by Jews, provide detailed descriptions of Jewish sacred and public buildings, and trace the development of residential construction, supplemented by information on the owners and residents of the houses. The project will contribute to the cause of illuminating and popularizing Jewish history, culture, tradition and art, both for the residents of Lviv, and for visitors to te city, as the Jewish legacy of Lviv is undoubtedly an important element of promoting the city.

The project was envisioned as an experiment for the historic part of the city, which is included in the UNESCO cultural heritage list.

One of the galleries is a catalogue of images showing the places where mezuzahs were once placed on doorposts -- scars that were once a frequent sight in many towns in east-central Europe.

The other is a set of drawings of specific buildings in the neighborhood.