Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Bob Cohen on East European Diaspora Haunts in New York

I have a link to Bob Cohen's Dumneazu blog on the sidebar of this blog, but his current post, "From Katz's Deli to Williamsburg, Let My People Go!" on visiting (and eating in) New York haunts of East European Jewish immigrants is well worth reading... the photos and his descriptions go back and forth between the Old Country and the New World, pointing out wonderful visual and gustitorial links and influences.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Italy -- Historic Synagogue in Sabbioneta Closed


By Ruth Ellen Gruber

The entry stairway to the early 19th century  synagogue in the historic northern Italian town of Sabbioneta has been declared unsafe and the building, now used as a museum, closed to visitors.

Sabbioneta, on the Po River near Mantova, was laid out as a walled "ideal city" in the second half of the 16th century by Prince Vespasiano Gonzaga Colonna. It is on UNESCO's list of world heritage sites, paired with Mantova as two aspects of Renaissance town planning.
Mantua shows the renewal and extension of an existing city, while 30 km away, Sabbioneta represents the implementation of the period’s theories about planning the ideal city. Typically, Mantua’s layout is irregular with regular parts showing different stages of its growth since the Roman period and includes many medieval edifices among them an 11th century rotunda and a Baroque theatre. Sabbioneta, created in the second half of the 16th century under the rule of one person, Vespasiano Gonzaga Colonna, can be described as a single-period city and has a right angle grid layout. Both cities offer exceptional testimonies to the urban, architectural and artistic realizations of the Renaissance, linked through the visions and actions of the ruling Gonzaga family.

Sabbioneta represents the construction of an entirely new town according to the modern, functional vision of the Renaissance. The defensive walls, grid pattern of streets, role of public spaces and monuments all make Sabbioneta one of the best examples of ideal cities built in Europe, with an influence over urbanism and architecture in and outside the continent. The properties represent two significant stages of territorial planning and urban interventions undertaken by the Gonzagas in their domains.
Jews lived in Sabbioneta from the town's early days -- even before it was laid out in its present form. There was a ghetto here, and the town developed into an important center of Hebrew printing.   The Sabbioneta synagogue dates from 1824 -- its present form is an enlargement and rebuilding of an earlier structure by a noted Lombard architect named Carlo Visioli.

The synagogue lay in sorry disrepair for decades until it was restored by local authorities, turned into a museum and inserted into local tourism itineraries. It has a gilded ark behind a low, elaborate grille and  flanked by Corinthian columns. The ceiling is decorated by ornate stucco work.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Austria -- Government to Help Fund Jewish Cemetery Restoration

 Historic Jewish cemetery in Eisenstadt, Austria. Photo: Ruth Ellen Gruber

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

The Austrian government is mandating 20 million euro over the next 20 years toward the care and restoration of abandoned and neglected Jewish cemeteries in Austria. An agreement reached Monday night broke what Austrian Jewish leader Ariel Muzicant said had been a stalemate lasting nine years, following an agreement made in 2001 under which Austria had committed to care for Jewish cemeteries as part of a compensation deal for Nazi crimes.

Vienna's Jewish community called the government's 20 million euros (29 million dollars) a "late Hanukkah gift." "Nearly nine years after the signing of the Washington Agreement, the last issue that was still open in terms of international law is settled," the community said in a statement. Under the new funding agreement reached late on Monday, Jewish communities are to raise an additional 20 million euros, while the city of Vienna and the province of Lower Austria also pledged contributions.
          Read full DPA story

          Read Associated Press story

There are about 70 Jewish cemeteries in Austria, about 20 of which are said to be in particularly bad condition. The Austrian Jewish Community web site has an extensive page listing all the cemeteries and giving their history, size, location, condition and notes on any current or recent restoration efforts.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Me -- Interviewed about the Virtually Jewish on a Canadian Radio

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

When I was in Budapest this month, I was interviewed by phone about the Virtually Jewish phenomenon by Radio613, an independent Canadian Jewish radio program. Click RIGHT HERE to listen -- but be forewarned, it runs about an hour!
The interview highlights Jewish cultural developments and other contemporary European issues that are critically examined in her book Virtually Jewish: Reinventing Jewish Culture and her recent essay featured in the Jewish Quarterly Review, “Beyond Virtually Jewish: New Authenticitiy and Real Imaginary Spaces in Europe”.  Ruth Ellen Gruber shares insights on the state of Klezmer in Europe with music this week from Itzhak Perlman and the Klezmatics (“Dybbuk Shers”), Brave Old World (“Berlin 1990″) and Daniel Kahn & The Painted Bird (“Broken Tongue”). Tune in!

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

RUTHLESS COSMOPOLITAN -- Riffing on architecture bans (and destruction), from Vilnius

My latest Ruthless Cosmopolitan column is a riff about how the recent vote to ban new mosque minarets in Switzerland struck a chord -- making me recall historic bans and regulations on synagogue architecture -- and the ultimate destruction of them.

I wrote it after I got back from the seminar in Vilnius, which came a week after the Swiss vote and focused on the lasting impact of the destruction of Lithuanian Jews -- and their built heritage.
I realize that the Swiss voters who overwhelmingly approved the minaret ban were responding to scare tactics that raised the specter of an extremist Islamic takeover in their country.
Yet in a certain way, the Swiss vote Nov. 29 and the Lithuanian seminar were connected.

To me, the ban on minarets recalled centuries of restrictions on the size or prominence of synagogues. The Swiss ban is just the latest example of how governmental authorities target religious architecture as a means of limiting religious or cultural expression.
 In the story I quote Sam.

"Beginning in the fourth century and continuing through the Middle Ages, and again in the 20th century, the 'legal' restriction and destruction of synagogues quickly led to the same policies applied against individuals, and then whole communities. 

"Restricting specific types of religious or cultural expression -- especially when such restrictions are deliberate exceptions to existing building, zoning, health and safety codes -- is discriminatory."
It is, he said, "an act of denigration of cultural custom and, by extension, of the people who cherish, or the religion that requires, those very customs."

 I also noted the focus of the Vilnius seminar -- and now the destruction of nearly all traces of Jewish historic presence in Vilnius left a gaping hole that has yet to be filled.
Before World War II, about 100,000 Jews lived here. The Great Synagogue, standing in the heart of what is today's postcard-perfect Old Town, was the most magnificent of more than 100 synagogues and prayer houses in the city. The Vilnius Old Town today is on UNESCO's roster of World Heritage Sites, but almost no physical traces of its Jewish past remain. There are a few street names, wall inscriptions and plaques, but that's it.

Read full story

Monday, December 14, 2009

Moldova -- Anti-Semitism on Show

 Exclusiv: momentele profanării (Video)
 Photo from

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

This deviates somewhat from what I usually post here, but the video is so graphic that I decided to put it up. If you've never seen anti-Semitism in action, here's your chance. TV footage on of a group of 100-200 Orthodox Christian fundamentalists in Chisinau (Kishinev), the capital of Moldova, led by a priest, removing a Hanukkah Menorah placed by the Jewish community, replacing it with a cross, and then taking the Menorah and positioning it -- symbolically -- upside down. The priest and crowd spout paranoid anti-Semitic slurs.

Reactions have come from the Moldovan blog and the MCA -- The Center for Monitoring and Combating Anti-Semitism in Romania.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Lithuania -- Report from Vilnius

Plaque recalling the Gaon of Vilna. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

The formal topic of the seminar in Vilnius this week was "Vilnius -- World Heritage Site: Values of Jewish Heritage and its Commemoration."

Vilnius's postcard-perfect historic center is a UNESCO site of world heritage, but almost nothing physical remains to be seen of the rich and important Jewish presence that once stood here. The early 17th-century Great Synagogue and its surrounding buildings were severely damaged in WW2 and the ruins were razed by the Soviet authorities in the 1950s. Almost no traces remain except for some plaques, a few monuments and a couple of faded Yiddish wall signs.

Yiddish signage in Vilnius. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

The issue of what to do with Jewish heritage and memory in Vilnius has been contentious. It is haunted not just by the memory of the 100,000 Jews who before WW2 made up a third of the city's population, but by other factors, including the collaboration of local Lithuanians in the killing of Jews and the local nationalist narrative that associates anti-Nazi activity with support of the Soviet regime.

It has also been haunted by a huge and highly controversial $32 million project to rebuild (rather than restore) the old Jewish quarter in Vilnius, including the  Great Synagogue, which was approved (at least in principle) some years ago but never really got off the ground. See articles about this HERE and HERE and HERE. This project was promoted by MP and activist Emanuelis Zingeris, but was opposed by others in the Jewish community (and elsewhere).

I was one of three outside experts who took part in the seminar -- the others were Philip Carmel, who heads the Lo Tishkach organization that is creating a data base of Jewish cemeteries, and Vladimir Levin of the Center for Jewish Art in Jerusalem. (Magdalena Waligorska, from Poland/Florence was supposed to have come but she got the flu.)

I was impressed by the number of people who showed up for the formal session, on Dec. 7 -- and stayed throughout a long day of presentations from more than a dozen speakers, as well as the number of people who tuned up the following day for a more informal discussion of the issues. This indicates the intererest, at least in certain official spheres. One of the successes of the seminar, someone joked, was that representatives of all or almost all of the stakeholders in the Jewish heritage issue sat together in the same room and even discussed the situation.

The consensus that emerged was that it is totally unrealistic to even think of rebuilding the Great Synagogue. Even Zingeris (who denied to me that he had ever suggested it) now opposes it -- he would, however, like to see the foundations of the synagogue excavated and used as education/exhibition space, as in Frankfurt with the Judengasse and in Vienna with the Judenplatz excavation of the medieval synagogue there.

People at the meeting talked about restoring "fragments" -- uncovering more Yiddish signs, for example. Also making an archeological investigation to discover exactly where the limits of the Great Synagogue are, and then deciding what to do (this apparently has not been carried out).

During the meeting we learned of several initiatives involving Vilnius and Lithuania in general, where the state of Jewish heritage sites is perilous, to say the least.

Besides the collapse, in a hurricane apparently, of the Red Synagogue in Joniskis two years ago, and the fire that damaged the wooden synagogue in Pakruojis earlier this year, the precious wooden synagogue in Seda has also collapsed. And masonry synagogues (and maybe also the wooden synagogue) in Plunge were recently bulldozed. The wooden synagogue in Ziezmariai, which is one of the few to bear in identification plaque, is said to be under threat and there are thoughts that it should be moved to an outdoor architecture park.

(As I noted earlier, we heard from both a representative of Pakruoijis and a culture ministry official that there was a commitment to rebuild the Pakruojis synagogue, and also that funds have been found to begin restoring the structure in Joniskis.)

During the conference, we heard from the researchers who in 2006-2008 directed the compilation of  a catalogue of all the more than 90 extant synagogues in Lithuania. This massive work is nearing completion, and publication of its first volume should take place within weeks. During the seminar, a photographic exhibition of a small fraction of the material compiled was opened, showing the variety of type -- and condition -- of these buildings.

The project was initiated in 2006 by the Vilnius-based Centre for the Studies of the Culture and History of East European Jews, in collaboration with the Vilnius Academy of Fine Arts. The Center for Jewish Art joined the project in 2007, and the  Gediminas Technical University in Vilnius also takes part.  

You can see a photo gallery of many synagogues at the web site of the  Center for the Studies of the Cultur and History of East European Jews.

The catalogue began as research on masonry synagogues but soon expanded  to record all synagogues of Lithuania. Students fanned out throug the country to measure buildings,  make diagrams, pinpoint their locaton and gather archival, cartographic, iconographic and other information about particular synagogues.

There have been many lost opportunities regarding Jewish heritage in Lithuania. One of them stems from the rather abortive -- if loudly proclaimed -- attempt to establish a "European Route of Jewish Culture." There was little coordination of this from its headquarters in Luxemburg, but also, on the ground, it was difficult to gain local support, and it remains difficult to convince some local authorities that the Jewish heritage of their towns and villages is part of their own heritage. 

On this note, there appear to be few initiatives such as those in Poland, whereby local Catholics have taken a lead in delving into local (Jewish) history, cleaning cemeteries, and the like -- efforts which each year are honored by the Israeli Embassy. I suggested to culture minister representatives and also to the representative of the Israeli embassy that some sort of similar honor could be organized in Lithuania as encouragement for local involvement. 

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Ukraine -- New Resource for Jewish Heritage

 Synagogue, Bolekhiv, Ukraine, 2006. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

I want to highlight a rich and exciting new web resource for Jewish heritage in Ukraine that I learned about at the seminar in Vilnius this week on preserving and promoting Jewish heritage in Lithuania.

This is the Jewish History in Galicia and Bukovina site, which compiles extensive databases, photo galleries, articles and other material gleaned on expeditions carried out by the Center For Jewish Art at Hebrew University. (One of the scholars involved with the site, Dr. Vladimir Levin, also took part in the Vilnius seminar.)
The project Jewish History in Galicia and Bukovina is designed to preserve the once vivid world of Galician and Bukovinian Jewry. Our goal is to save historical documents and vestiges of Jewish material culture in Galicia and Bukovina before these historical records and objects disappear. We intend to make them available to the wider public as well as to the growing community of researchers worldwide through this website.

The project begins with the region of southern Galicia, which was known as the Stanislawów Voivodship (województwo stanisławowskie) in interwar Poland and is known as the Ivano-Frankivsk Region (Ivano-Frankivs'ka oblast') in today's Ukraine. In this region, primary attention is paid to four communities around Ivano-Frankivsk (Stanislawów): Bohorodczany (Brotchin, Bohorodchany), Lysiec (Lysets', Łysiec), Nadworna (Nadvirna, Nadwórna) and Solotwin (Solotvyn, Sołotwina).

The core of the project Jewish History in Galicia and Bukovina is an electronic database of primary materials pertaining to Galician and Bukovinian Jewry. Ultimately, the database will include: archival documents, newspapers articles, oral history testimonies, and documentation of Jewish cemeteries and communal buildings. The database also includes information regarding Jewish communities, Jewish communal organizations and the lives of individual Jews in the region. The project's website also includes part of the archival catalogue of the Central Archives for the History of Jewish People in Jerusalem (CAHJP).

The project Jewish History in Galicia and Bukovina was initiated by a generous donation from a private foundation that wishes to remain anonymous. The project is conducted under the auspices of the Leonid Nevzlin Research Center for Russian and East European Jewry at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in cooperation with The Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People in Jerusalem. Other organizations, such as the Sefer Center in Moscow and the Center for Jewish Art in Jerusalem also take part in the project.
.The site includes search options, interactive databases and other aides. It looks great!

Romania --Piatra Neamt Wooden Synagogue to be Rededicated

Interior of Piatra Neamt wooden synagogue, 2006. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

Interior of Piatra Neamt wooden synagogue, 2006. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

Ark in Piatra Neamt wooden synagogue, 2006. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

The "Baal Shem Tov" or Cathedral wooden synagogue in Piatra Neamt, Romania, will be rededicated Dec. 14 after restoration.

Legend has it that the Ba'al Shem Tov, the founder of Hassidism, prayed here -- that is, on an earlier, masonry synagogue that  stood on the spot, as the wooden synagogue was built, according to documentation, in 1766, and the Ba'al Shem Tov died in 1760.

I've visited on several occasions, the last time in 2006.  This is what I wrote in Jewish Heritage Travel:
The present building is halfway underground, probably built like this to conform to regulations that forbade synagogues from being higher than surrounding Christian buildings. The sanctuary is entered down stairs leading from a little outer prayer room, where regular services are held. Chandeliers hang from the ribbed wooden dome arching over the dull, browny-green walls decorated by pale stenciled flowers. Carved and gilded lions, griffins, bunches of grapes and other decorations ornament the compact but elaborate Aron ha Kodesh, built in 1835 by one Saraga Yitzhak ben Moshe.
Sam Gruber has posted further information and comment on his blog.

The wooden synagogue stands next door to the masonry Great (or Leipziger) synagogue, which was originally built in 1839. It is very similar to other folk-style Moldavian synagogues, with  a small, raised bimah with a trellised frame situated in the middle of the sanctuary in front of a highly elaborate Aron ha Kodesh with tromp l'oeil draperies. The walls are decorated with bright frescoes representing Holy Land themes, and frescoes of biblical animals -- the stag, the lion, the tiger and the eagle -- are painted on the ceiling.

Ark in Great synagogue in Piatra Neamt, 2006. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

Budapest -- Hanukkah Festival Article

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

Poster for the festival in the door of the Hummus Bar in Kertesz street. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

My latest article for the International Herald Tribune/New York Times online is a preview of the Hanukkah Festival in Budapest's old Jewish quarter organized by Marom (with the support of the JDC). I already gave a heads up to the festival on this blog.

Called “Quarter6Quarter7,” the festival, which starts Friday and is the first of its kind, features some 130 events in more than 30 different venues in and around the city’s Seventh District, central Budapest’s first and most important Jewish neighborhood.

“It's a Hanukkah festival, but it’s not just a Jewish event; it’s a festival of the Quarter, of everyone who lives here and visits here,” said Adam Schonberger, one of the organizers. “Living culture is the key, and the district itself becomes a house of culture, where it all is going on.”
Read Full Story

A full program can be seen HERE.  I am taking part in a "conversation" the first night about "why it's good to have a cafe in the Jewish Quarter." Or why not?

Lithuania -- Jewish tour guides

In Vilnius this week, I re-connected with my old friend Ilya Lempertas, who is a historian and independent Jewish tour guide, and our seminar group was guided around Jewish Vilnius by another guide, Yulik Gurvich, who with his son runs the JeruLita travel agency.

That means that I have now been guided in Lithuania by four different guides -- two based in Vilnius and two in Kaunas. I had good experiences with all of them, so here are their contacts:

Ilya Lempertas, Vilnius --  E-mail:

Yulik Gurevich, Vilnius --  JeruLita Tours

Simonas Dovidavicius, Kaunas. (Simon is executive director of the Sugihara House.) E-mail:  

Chaim Bargman, Kaunas. P. Luksio str. 37 – 22, 3043 Kaunas, Lithuania. Tel: (+370 7) 77 99 48 Mob: (+370) 6 8177166.

You can find more at the Pushelat web site, though some of the information may be out of date.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Lithuania -- conference and news highlights

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

I've been at an intense, interesting and, I hope, productive seminar in Vilnius about Jewish heritage preservation and promotion. The meeting was supposed to focus on the plan that was floated some time ago to rebuild the destroyed Great Synagogue in Vilnius, but it soon expanded to take in all sorts of issues, from the status of former synagogues, including wooden synagogues, in the provinces, to amplifying signage and awareness in the old Jewish quarter of Vilnius.

The situation presents a number of depressing factors, including vandalism, apathy, lack of coordination and cooperation between stakeholders, and the usual "one Jew building three synagogues on a desert island" syndrome.

But the fact that the seminar took place was positive and I did learn some positive developments.

These included the news that:

-- a grant from Norway through the EU has been obtained to start rebuilding the "red synagogue" in Joniskis whose eastern wall collapsed in a hurricane two years ago.

-- both the Culture Ministry and the municipality of Pakruojis are committed to restoring the wooden synagogue there, which was seriously damaged by arson earlier this year.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Poland -- Restoration of the Wroclaw Synagogue Almost Complete

 White Stork Synagogue, restored facade (Photo: Bente Kahan Foundation)

 White Stork Synagogue before restoration. (Photo: Bente Kahan Foundation)

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

The Wroclaw, Poland-based Norwegian singer Bente Kahan reports that the restoration of the historic White Stork Synagogue in Wroclaw is nearly complete, and that the synagogue will be rededicated next May 6.

As I reported on this blog from Wroclaw last year, Kahan set up a foundation in 2006 (The Bente Kahan Foundation) whose main aim is the restoration of the synagogue and creation of a modern Jewish Culture Center and Jewish Museum there. The Center has already been operating in the partially-restored synagogue, organizing, the web site states: "exhibits, film screenings, workshops, lectures, concerts and theatre performances. Included in their programs are also their own productions 'Wallstrasse 13' and 'Voices from Theresienstadt' featuring local actors and musicians, as well as 'Sing with us in Yiddish', a concert with children from Wroclaw."
The Bente Kahan Foundation, supported by the Municipality of Wroclaw and the Association of the Jewish Religious Communities in Poland has a clear vision of future functions of the synagogue. The Center for Jewish Culture and Education will strengthen the role of the temple as one of the most attractive spiritual centres in the country by opening its doors for concerts, shows, theatre, workshops, films, lectures seminaries and so on. This living Jewish heart in the centre of Europe will beat even stronger!
The creation of the modern Jewish Museum in Wroclaw (2012) will definitely help to reach that goal. The Museum will be located in the basement and on the balconies of the synagogue floors. The Staircases and the separate entry will enable free communication with the building without disturbing the sacral and cultural space of the temple. By using of modern 3D and holographic techniques, the museum will show the rich and unique world of the Silesian Jews and their thousand-years-old history. It will also be a place for exhibitions, lectures and workshops. The museum will become no just another tourist attraction but also an important link in the educational proces, especially in the context of young people.
Kahan has set up web site dedicated to the synagogue and its restoration (only in Polish).

Interior before renovation. (Photo: Bente Kahan Foundation)

Interior after renovation (Photo: Bente Kahan Foundation)

Before World War II, Wroclaw, known in German as Breslau, was part of Germany and Germany's third-largest Jewish community. Originally inaugurated in 1829,  the White Stork synagogue is an elegant neo-classical structure designed by Karl Ferdinand Langhans. (For a complete history of the building, click HERE.) It is the only synagogue in the city to have survived the War and languished in disrepair for many years. It was returned to Jewish community ownership in the mid-1990s, after which sporadic restoration work was carried out. (A symbolic event in this process was the wedding there in 2000 of the American filmmakers Ellen Friedland and Curt Fissel, who run the documentary company JEM/GLO.)

There is still a small Jewish community in Wroclaw, which uses a refurbished prayer room in the synagogue complex. A big Jewish Culture Festival called Simcha takes place in Wroclaw each summer.

Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

Wroclaw also has two fascinating Jewish cemeteries.

The Old Jewish Cemetery, founded in 1856, is now maintained as a municipal Museum of Cemetery Art.  Located on Slezna street, it has about 12,000 graves, including 300 elaborate monuments ranged around the walls. The earliest known Jewish gravestone in Poland, that of a David ben Shalom, who died in 1203, is conserved here. Notable people are buried here include the German Social Democratic leader Ferdinand LaSalle (1825-1864) and the parents of Edith Stein, a Jewish intellectual and convert to Catholicism who became a nun, was killed at Auschwitz and was canonized by Pope John Paul II.

Detail of a Tombstone in the Old Jewish Cemetery: a snake circling an hour glass. Photo (c) ruth Ellen Gruber