Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Budapest -- My latest Centropa column, a guide to the Seventh District

In my latest travel column for Centropa.org, I provide a guide to some of the restaurants and cafes I like to patronize in Budapest's new "bar vortex" -- the former Jewish quarter. Venues I profile include the cafes and restaurants Siraly, Szoda, Szimpla, Dupla, Szimpla kert, Carmel (kosher), Hanna (kosher), Spinoza, Kadar, Barladino -- and more.

By Ruth Ellen Gruber
BUDAPEST -- The last time I wrote about Budapest on Centropa I provided an itinerary of Jewish sights and resources, most of them in and around the city's Seventh District, the old downtown Jewish quarter anchored by three grand synagogues forming a so-called "Jewish triangle."
That was eight years ago, and the former Jewish quarter still had the reputation of being one of the city's poorest inner districts. There were some signs of incipient gentrification, but World War II bullet holes pocked many crumbling facades, vacant lots yawned, and the grimy streets were dark and uninviting.
A lot has changed since then. Much of the District is still neglected. But already at the end of 2007 the New York Times ran a travel story called "Out of Darkness, New Life" that described how the district's "history and recent rise to trendiness" evoke "comparisons to the Lower East Side of New York." A recent issue of Time Out Budapest magazine went even further, terming the Jewish quarter a major city "bar vortex."
In fact, the district burgeons with new cafes, clubs, bistros and wine bars that attract a young, hip -- and often Jewish -- crowd. At the same time, though, this type of growth has been paralleled by controversial urban renewal projects that have seen many old buildings torn down and replaced by rather soulless modern structures.
A citizens group, OVAS, has been formed to lobby for the protection of what remains -- particularly in light of real estate corruption involved in some of the development schemes. The Mayor of the Seventh District himself, in fact, was jailed last year on suspicion of bribery and abuse of office related to property transactions.
I've maintained a small apartment in the Seventh District for more than a decade. Though I only spend part of my time here, I've been observing the changes in the quarter up close; after all, it's my neighborhood.
In particular, I enjoy the new venues and Jewish haunts that have nothing to do with a nostalgic sense of a vanished past but everything to do with how Jews in Budapest -- and particularly young Jews in Budapest -- are experimenting with ways to build a lively present and, one hopes, a sustainable future.
With this article, I would like to introduce readers to some of the haunts in and around the Jewish quarter that I tend to frequent: whether for breakfast cappuccino or afternoon espresso, for an inexpensive lunch, or for dinner or late night drinks and conversation. Or simply as somewhere to sit and use the free WiFi internet that most venues in the district seem to offer.
Read full story

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

London -- Great NYTimes Review of Newly Revamped Jewish Museum

Congratulations to Rickie Burman, director of the newly reopened Jewish Museum in London, and her team! The reviews of the museum, which just reopened after a multi-million dollar expansion and redesign, are glowing. The latest is in the New York Times.  The article, which describes the museum as a "carefully thought-out museum" whose expansion and redesign has established it "as an important addition to a new generation of Jewish institutions in cities including San Francisco and Warsaw,"       also has a slide show.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Egypt -- Formal opening of restored synagogue cancelled

L'Chaim, everyone. This makes one question the definition of "provocative."

Egypt cancelled Sunday's formal ceremony opening the a renovated Maimonides synagogue in Cairo -- protest at what antiquities chief Zahi Hawass called "provocative" Jewish and Israeli actions. The even was to have taken place one week after the synagogue was rededicated in a ceremony attended by about 150 people, including the US and Israeli ambassadors.

AFP reports that both Hawass and Culture Minister Faruq Hosni had been due to attend Sunday's cancelled event.
Citing press reports, Hawass said in a statement that the cancellation comes after "provocative" acts during the March 7 ceremony in Cairo's ancient Jewish quarter.
He referred to "dancing and drinking alcohol in the synagogue, as reported by several newspapers," and said such acts "were seen to provoke the feelings of millions of Muslims in Egypt and across the world."
The decision was also taken at "a time when Muslim holy sites in occupied Palestine face assaults from Israeli occupation forces and settlers," Hawass said.
He was referring to clashes at Jerusalem's Al-Aqsa mosque compound and plans to include two contested West Bank holy shrines on a list of Israeli heritage sites.
Read full story

AP reports  that "The cancellation was largely symbolic as the restoration is complete and the synagogue has been reopened."
The March 7 dedication ceremony at the synagogue, named after the 12th century rabbi and intellectual Maimonides, was closed to media and included half a dozen Egyptian Jewish families that long ago fled the country. No Egyptian officials attended the ceremony. A group of about 11 Hassidic Chabad-Lubavitch rabbis also came to Cairo from the United States and Israel and sang at the event. Attendees also said toasts were made.

Read full story

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Venice -- Wall to ancient Jewish cemetery damaged in storm

A rare snowfall has resulted in damage to the wall surrounding the ancient Jewish cemetery on the Lido island in Venice. The heavy snow caused several trees to topple onto it, causing two sections to crumble. The tombstones and monuments were apparently unharmed.

You can see pictures on the Italian travel blog "il reporter"  by clicking HERE.

The cemetery dates back to the 14th century and several years ago underwent an extensive restoration to shore it up in the wake of damage caused by water seepage and neglect.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Poland -- synagogue in Bedzin renovated and reopened

 Before and After pictures from the Cukierman Gate web site

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

Mazel Tov! The Cukierman prayer house, the little private synagogue found hidden in an apartment block in the Silesian town of Bedzin in southern Poland, has been renovated and reopened to the public thanks to a grant from the province. The striking wall paintings that show scenes of Jerusalem, musical instruments and other motifs, were preserved and restored during the six-month restoration project. The prayer house will be open every Saturday afternoon.
Thanks to the last year’s subsidy from the Śląskie Province Conservation Officer it was possible to renovate and partly reconstruct the surviving polychromes. Apart from renovating the paintings, the interior of the prayer house was also slightly rearranged, so that it would be adapted for meetings with young people and all participants of cultural events. [...]  The Cukerman prayer house is one of about forty prayer houses that have survived and are open to visitors in Poland, and it is the only relic in the Śląskie Province, reminding of its past and its Jewish community.
For more information see the Cukierman Gate foundation Web Site -- there are lots of photos documenting the restoration process.

I visited the hidden prayer house last summer and wrote about it on this blog, describing how it is always inspiring to meet  people who take it upon themselves to care for and promote sites of Jewish heritage in Poland (and elsewhere).

Thursday, March 4, 2010

London -- More on New Jewish Museum (by someone who's actually seen it)

The Times of London reports on the new Jewish museum in London -- writer David Aaronovich has actually seen it.

Five years ago I first went to an exhibition at the small Jewish Museum in North London. I suppose I saw it as a rather charming bijou museum, mostly about Jews showing things to other Jews. On March 17, however, it will be relaunched as a much bigger enterprise: the museum I was taken round last week by its director, Rickie Burman, was altogether a different proposition.
The Jews are the nation’s oldest minority, and the first Jewish Museum, mostly of objects from the practice of Judaism in Britain, was opened in 1932. Much later a second museum, devoted to the distinctive history of the Jews of the East End of London, started up in Finchley. In 1995 these two institutions merged into one museum located in two terraced houses in a street not far from Camden market. The museum had already bought the premises backing on to the terrace — a piano factory — for some £4 million. Two major benefactors helped to raise nearly £6 million, to set alongside £4.2 million granted by the Heritage Lottery Fund. The museum closed in 2008 to be reshaped under the old skin of the building. Now it’s ready to emerge. 

You enter the museum through a series of moving images projected onto five screens, depicting the life and words of a variety of modern British Jews. They include an Edward Lear-bearded, accented Hasidic rabbi; a young gay Jew; an ex-army Jewish princess; the concentration-camp survivor and former British weightlifting champion Ben Helfgott; a London cabbie who had fought in the Yom Kippur war of 1973; a woman Chinese convert to Judaism; a smoked-salmon magnate; and a Guardian journalist. The films are beautifully made and the idea of representing “different ways of being Jewish” is, I think, realised.

Then, right in front of you, is the museum’s “scoop” item. In 2001, excavators in Milk Street in the City of London uncovered a sunken bath made out of green sandstone, 4ft wide and 4ft deep, reached by seven steps. Its location, on the site of a house owned by a Jewish family in the late 13th century, identified it as a mikveh, or ritual bath, typically used by women after menstruation or before attendance at synagogue.


 There is an interactive “ask the rabbi” feature, in which those who enjoyed A Serious Man can put questions to four rabbis of different denominations (Jews like to argue), and an electronic Ten Commandments. The largest gallery tells the tale of the Jews of Britain through history: the 18th-century Jewish pedlars, the Jewish bare-knuckled boxers, the Jew Bill of 1753 which had to be repealed because of public outcry over naturalisation rights given to Jews, the first Jewish public men, and so on.
Part of the display is in “street” form, representing life in the Jewish East End, and allows visitors to follow members of a Jewish family circa 1900 in their daily lives. There’s even a pot, where you lift the lid and it smells of chicken soup. Very poignant is the small collection of items left and never reclaimed from the deposit boxes in the Poor Jews’ Temporary Shelter. For children and exhibitionists there’s a chance to dress up like characters from the old, lost Yiddish theatre.

Egypt -- Restored Synagogue to be Dedicated


 Video of work on the synagogue

 By Ruth Ellen Gruber

This is a bit off geographic topic, but (as Rabbi Andrew Baker notes in an op-ed today) after an 18-month restoration project by Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities, this historic Maimonides (or Rambam, or "Rav Moshe") synagogue and yeshiva in Cairo is to be reopened and rededicated next week.

Sam Gruber has reported that
This is the first major restoration of Jewish site in Egypt since the much-heralded restoration Cairo's Ben Ezra Synagogue in the 1980s and early 1990s, a project put in motion during the euphoria following the Camp David Accords. [...] The Synagogue is actually a 19th century construction that replaces older buildings, but is adjacent to  an historic and venerated yeshiva associated with Maimonides. - which itself has had a recent history of disasters - recurring flooding from underground water and 1992 earthquake damage. The Yeshiva rooms have niches where, until recently, sick Jews, Muslim and Christians would spend the night praying for their recovery, or for women especially, fertility.

Baker, the director of international Jewish affairs for the American Jewish Committee, has an op-ed in the International Herald Tribune/NYTimes web site about the synagogues, the restoration and the politics around the project.  For the past five years Bakes has met regularly on behalf of the American Jewish Committee with Egyptian officials to press for the preservation of Jewish heritage, which, in addition to Rav Moshe, includes a dozen synagogues and several cemeteries in Cairo and Alexandria, most of them in poor repair.

The nearly $2 million restoration involved a team of Egyptian experts. Few people were aware of it until last September when Dr. Zahi Hawass, Egypt’s antiquities czar, brought reporters to the site and declared: “It’s part of our history. It’s part of our heritage,” Dr. Hawas proudly declared. Some cynics suggested that the project was initiated to shore up the candidacy of Egypt’s culture minister, Farouk Hosny, in his unsuccessful bid to head Unesco.

But, write Baker: this was not just any synagogue. Rav Moshe was considered to have special healing powers. One elderly Egyptian Jew now living in Europe told me how his childhood stuttering disappeared after his mother made him spend the night there. His miracle cure was a commonplace experience for many of Cairo’s Jews who sometimes called it the “Jewish Lourdes.”  [...]
In Maimonides’ day, Cairo’s Jewish community was a center of scholarship and commerce, a hub of Jewish life for the entire Middle East. When[ King] Fuad ruled Egypt, more than 80,000 Jews were among his subjects. They were an active, integral presence in the business and cultural life of the country. But that all changed after Israel’s creation in 1948, and especially after Gamal Abdel Nasser seized power in 1953, prompting a mass exodus of Jews. Today’s Jewish population in Egypt is a mere few dozen. [...]
Both Farouk Hosny and Zahi Hawass came to accept the argument that the preservation of Egypt’s rich Jewish heritage was also their obligation. Slowly but quietly — always quietly — they drew up plans for restoring most Jewish religious sites. They even endorsed our proposal that one of the restored synagogues should serve as a Museum of Egyptian Jewish Heritage, a place that would tell of the long, rich history of Jewish life in Egypt. Only a few knew. Every meeting I had with these Egyptian officials ended with the same admonition — “Please, do not tell anyone.”
Why the secrecy when most governments would want the world to know of such commendable preservation work? In Egypt, the history of living alongside Jewish neighbors has been replaced with the demonizing of Israel, and often of Jews as well. The historic 1979 Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty has for too long been ignored by Egypt’s cultural elites who have steadfastly rejected any normalization in relations. Minister Hosny and his colleagues have had reason to fear that Egyptians would react with anger when told of the restoration work.
But the word is out now. And Zahi Hawass, an archeological legend known around the world for touting pyramids and the treasures of King Tut, is now reading up on the deeds of a medieval rabbi. Dr. Hawass promises that six more synagogue buildings in Cairo will be restored within two years. Egypt’s Jewish artifacts will never rival those of the Pharaohs. But reminding today’s Egyptians and others in this troubled region of a time when Jews were a natural part of Egyptian society is important. It may even be a ray of hope when hope is so hard to find in this region. Maybe there will emerge one more miracle to credit to Rav Moshe.
Read full article at the web site

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

London -- Jewish Museum to Reopen after Major Transformation and Redevelopment

 By Ruth Ellen Gruber

The Jewish Museum in London reopens March 17 after a 10 million pound ($15 million) redevelopment. The new museum places Jewish history and culture in the U.K. in the wider context of British history.

The museum is located in Camden Town, at 129-131 Albert Street, London NW1 7NB.

The exhibits are divided into new galleries including
There is also
A press release last fall described the new museum  and its concept as follows:
Its new displays and exhibitions will tell the story of Jewish history, culture and religion in an innovative and compelling way and engage with people of all backgrounds and faiths to explore Jewish heritage and identity as part of the wider story of Britain. The only museum in London dedicated to a minority group, the museum’s expansion and redevelopment was made possible following a £4.2m grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund.

One of Britain’s oldest minority groups, the Jewish community has made a vital contribution to British life. From banking and business to fashion, entertainment and food, many sectors have benefited from the energy and talents of the Jewish community who have come here from all over the world. At the same time, the story of the Jewish people reflects the experiences of other immigrant groups settling in a new country, seeking to make a new life while retaining their identity and traditions. The new museum brings this experience of immigration to life through internationally important collections of artworks, artefacts and photography, as well as ground-breaking interactive displays.
Displayed across four permanent galleries, the huge variety of objects, films, photography, hands-on exhibits and personal stories on display will paint a rich and nuanced picture of British Jewish life and religion as well as exploring contemporary social issues around immigration and settlement. The new museum will also house a Changing Exhibitions Gallery, a 100-seat auditorium, an Education Space and a café and shop.
Highlights from the four permanent galleries include:
  • A highly evocative recreation of an East End street and tailor’s workshop brought to life with different characters talking about their lives at home and at work.
  • A map showing where Jews have come from around the world, embedded with highly personal objects that they brought with them to their new country, for example a doll brought by a child refugee on the Kindertransport and a bible which was the only object an anti-apartheid activist was allowed to take with him into solitary confinement in prison in South Africa.
  • Rare and precious ceremonial objects including a 17th century Italian Ark and the oldest English silver Hanukah lamp.
  • A Yiddish theatre karaoke presented by comedian David Schneider, whose grandparents were performers in London’s Yiddish theatre, displayed with costumes, posters, programmes from the museum’s extensive collection.
  • A medieval mikveh (ritual bath) from the 13th century, on display for the first time since its discovery in 2001 in the City of London.
The four permanent galleries are:
  • Welcome Gallery – This innovative multimedia exhibit is the first you encounter as you enter the museum. It introduces visitors to a diverse range of Jewish people including a third generation smoked salmon manufacturer, an Indian-born marathon-running grandmother, a taxi-driver and an ex-army engineer who was commended for her action during the London bombings of 2005.
  • History: A British Story – Visitors can play the Great Migration board game, or smell the chicken soup in an immigrant home. The Same Old Story? interactive display allows visitors to explore attitudes to immigration over the past two centuries. This gallery explores how and why Jewish people have come to the UK from around the world and the challenges of making a new home in a new country.
  • Judaism: A Living Faith – Newly commissioned films in this gallery will reveal a range of contemporary Jewish families celebrating festivals and Jewish lifecycle events such as a wedding and bar mitzvah. These are shown alongside rare and beautiful ceremonial objects including silver Torah scrolls made by George III’s silversmith and religious textiles, such as a fabulous Torah mantle commissioned by the Mocatta family, one of the oldest Jewish families in Britain. Interactive displays enable visitors to design their own synagogue and to hear the chanting of the Ten Commandments from a Torah scroll.
  • The Holocaust Gallery ­ this unique space explores the impact of Nazism through the experiences and poignant personal items of London-born Auschwitz survivor Leon Greenman OBE and other survivors who have made their home in Britain.
The first temporary exhibition, Changing Cultures, will explore cultural exchange, migration and identity through the work of contemporary artists from immigrant backgrounds living in Britain including Noa Lidor, Yara El-Sherbini, Mona Hatoum and Sonya Boyce amongst others. Planned future exhibitions will cover themes from Jews in Entertainment to Jewish food and comic book superheroes.
The new museum has been designed by Long & Kentish Architects, an award-winning practice who have a long history of developing museums and galleries including the British Library Centre for Conservation, Pallant House Gallery, Chichester (Museum of the Year 2007) and the National Maritime Museum in Falmouth. The new museum triples the space at its Camden Town site, combining its premises in Albert Street with an adjacent former piano factory.
Rickie Burman, Director of the Jewish Museum said: “What it means to be British and the issue of cultural identity has never been more hotly debated. At the new Jewish Museum we explore these issues in the context of one of Britain’s oldest immigrant communities. We hope our ground-breaking new displays will inspire people to take a stand against racism and build interfaith understanding and connection."
The Jewish Museum London brings together two distinguished museums with complementary collections - the Jewish Museum and the former London Museum of Jewish Life. For the first time these important collections will be brought together on a single site.
The Jewish Museum was founded in 1932 and merged in 1995 with the London Museum of Jewish Life, which was created to preserve the disappearing heritage of London’s East End. While the East End has remained an important focus, the museum expanded to reflect the diverse roots and social history of Jewish people across London. It has also developed an acclaimed programme of Holocaust and anti-racist education.
Between 1995 and 2007 the combined Jewish Museum ran on two sites, but with a long-term aim to find the means to combine the two collections, activities and displays within a single site. In 2005 the Heritage Lottery Fund awarded a grant of £4.2 million towards the museum’s development project and following years of planning and fundraising, building work started in January 2008.
The Jewish Museum’s collections of ceremonial art are among the finest in the world. In recognition of the outstanding importance of the museum’s collections as part of Britain’s national heritage, the Jewish Museum has been awarded Designated status by the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council, one of only 14 museums in London to be awarded this special status.
Long & Kentish The partnership of MJ Long and Rolfe Kentish was formed in 1994, but the experience of the partners goes back many years before, when they were with Colin St John Wilson, working on the new British Library. The practice’s current projects include the Durlston World Heritage Gateway Centre, The University of Essex Centre for Latin American Art and an apartment building in Falmouth. MJ Long was born in the USA and studied at Yale. She has lived in England since 1965, and worked with Sandy Wilson from 1965 to 1996. MJ also ran a separate practice, mostly designing studios for artists, from 1974 to 1996. In 2009 she was awarded an OBE for her services to architecture and architectural education. http://www.longkentish.com/
Event Communications is responsible for exhibition design of the new galleries at the Jewish Museum. Event is Europe’s leading exhibition design group, recognised as a pacesetter for pushing the boundaries of existing practice and constantly exploring new ways to interpret, present and connect with audiences.