Saturday, October 27, 2012

Travel Article on Tallinn Estonia

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

(This post also appears on my En Route blog for the Los Angeles Jewish Journal)

I've never been to Tallinn, but by all accounts it is a beautiful city. Hadassah Magazine runs a richly detailed travel piece on Tallinn, highlighting in particular detail its Jewish sites and history. The article is by Jono David -- a photographer who has roamed the world documenting Jewish heritage sites (his current project is a photo documentation of Jewish sites in Africa).

You can browse Jono's vast archive of more than 61,000 images from 87 countries and territories at his web site:

In his Tallinn piece, Jono writes: "Many of the Jewish remnants of the past have few or no markers. During much of the Soviet era, the community maintained a prayer house at 9 Magdalena Street, not far from Old Town. Originally a warehouse, the extant building is in a derelict state. A prayer room at 23 Kreutzwaldi Street preceded it between 1946 and 1966, but it was demolished to make room for a hotel."

But he provides information on what there is still to see and describes today's living Jewish community and its institutions.

You can find even more information on Tallinn and Estonia on the Estonia pages of the Jewish Heritage Europe web site.

Friday, October 19, 2012

In Budapest, a Different Kind of Jewish "Jewish" Cafe

Mazel Tov... Photo © Ruth Ellen Gruber

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

This post also appears on my En Route blog for the Los Angeles Jewish Journal

Thanks to CEU professor Daniel Monterescu for introducing me to the Mazel Tov cafe in Budapest's 13th district. On first look, it seems similar to the "Jewish style" cafes in Krakow and elsewhere in eastern Europe, where sepia-colored shtetl nostalgia is the norm....But at Mazel Tov the decor is actually very different.

Inside Mazel Tov. Photo © Ruth Ellen Gruber

Outside, the cafe's name is written in Hebrew-style letters, and inside, its walls are covered by pictures -- as at the "Jewish-style" cafes elsewhere that I have visited and written so much about in the past.

But these are not the "usual" pictures of bearded sages, rabbis, antique-style Jewish genre scenes and the like.

In the Ariel Cafe, Krakow. Photo © Ruth Ellen Gruber

Instead, Mazel Tov's walls are covered by pictures of living Jews -- Jewish celebrities -- from Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook to Woody Allen to Barbra Streisland, Leonard Bernstein and even the Hungarian philosopher Agnes Heller.

On the surface, it looks similar. But the focus is totally different from the other places. (Though in Krakow my favorite Jewish-style cafe, Klezmer Hois, does also include a lot of pictures of real, live Jews on its walls -- most if not all of whom have been patrons of the establishment.)

Judaica for sale in Mazel Tov. Photo © Ruth Ellen Gruber

Mazel Tov is located in what was a modern Jewish neighborhood (pre-WW2) and on a street where there is a small synagogue that still operates. It is run by a Jewish woman, there are some Judaica items on sale, Israeli pop music was playing, and there is a mezuzah at the door.

But it's not kosher -- on the menu are ham and cheese sandwiches. (But this is also typically secular Budapest Jewishness.....)

Me in Mazel Tov cafe. Photo: Dan Monterescu

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Medieval Jewish Banquet in Italy

Honey-nut sweets served on bay leaves. Photo © Ruth Ellen Gruber

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

This post also appears on my En Route blog for the Los Angeles Jewish Journal.

Biancomangiare, lentil soup, twice-roasted goose with garlic, sweet and sour baked onion salad, Ippocrasso (spiced white wine), honey-nut sweets.

These were the dishes served at a Medieval Jewish banquet that recreated a meal that Jews in Italy might have eaten in the 14th and 15th centuries.

The event took place in Bevagna, a stunningly beautiful town in Italy's Umbria region -- whose historic center looks much the same as it did way back then.

Entering Bevagna. Photo © Ruth Ellen Gruber

The dinner, in a so-called Medieval Tavern in the heart of the town, capped a little academic conference on medieval Jewish life in Bevagna. I wrote about the dinner for JTA, in an article that also included the recipes for the dishes we ate. The first course was Biancomangiare, a puree made from chicken breast, almonds, rice flour, rose water and spices.

It was followed by a spicy lentil soup and then the main course: heaping platters of crisp, twice-roasted goose with garlic served with a warm salad of baked onions in sweet and sour sauce. The meal was rounded out by a form of spiced white wine called ippocrasso and honey-nut sweets served on fresh bay leaves.
"We love medieval cooking," said Alfredo Properzi, one of the dinner organizers. Properzi, a local doctor, belongs to a civic association that fosters study and re-enactment of life in the Middle Ages. The recipes for the dinner, he said, came from cookbooks of the period. 
"One of the big differences was the spices that they used -- much more than today," he said. "Also, medieval cooks liked to use various spices to color food as well as season it.

The main speaker at the conference -- and my partner across the dining table -- was Ariel Toaff, an emeritus professor of Medieval and Rennaissance history at Bar Ilan University, who is the son of the reitred, longtime chief rabbi of Rome, Elio Toaff.

Ariel Toaff and a "medieval" waitress. Photo © Ruth Ellen Gruber

Ariel's wonderful book, Love, Work and Death: Jewish Life in Medieval Umbria, is one of my favorite books -- partly because I spend a lot of my time in Umbria (where so very few Jews live today that when my entire family is with me, we make up one of the major Jewish centers in the region) and partly because the book reads like a spicy novel, set in Assisi, Orvieto, Bevagna, Todi, Perugia, Terni, Foligno -- and other towns that I'm very familiar with.

The chapter headings say it all: "Sex, Love, and Marriage;" "Love of Life and Intimations of Mortality;" "Meat and Wine;" "The House of Prayer;" " Outcasts from Society;" "Witchcraft, Black Magic, and Ritual Murder;" "Converts and Apostates;" "The Pattern of Discrimination;" "Merchants and Craftsmen;" "Doctors and Surgeons;" "Banks and Bankers."

Ariel also authored Mangiare alla Giudia, an influential history of Jewish food and eating in Italy, which has not been translated into English. Both books served as inspiration for the Bevagna dinner. (See an article on Italian Jewish cuisine in English by Ariel by clicking HERE.)

"The dinner organizers asked me what would be a typical dish for the menu, and I immediately told them goose because goose was, so to speak, the Jewish pig," he said. "It had the same function for the Jewish table as the pig did for non-Jews. Every part of the animal was used, including for goose salami, goose sausage and goose ‘ham,’ and foie gras was also a Jewish specialty."
Like today, he said, Jews in medieval times generally ate what the non-Jewish population did, adapting local recipes to the rules of kashrut. 
"Biancomangiare was also made sweet with milk, pine nuts, almonds and raisins," he said. "But if it was served with a meat dish, the Jews would substitute almond milk for dairy milk."
Also like today, certain dishes became Italian Jewish favorites.
"Lentils were typically Jewish, and lentil soup was commonly eaten in the 14th and 15th centuries," Toaff said. "Being round, they symbolized the cycle of life. Another typical Jewish cooking style was sweet and sour, like the baked onion salad."

No Jews live today in Bevagna, but the city actively promotes its medieval history with festivals, pageants, Medieval dinners, and other events. The mayor told me that she was now thinking of how to add a Jewish component to all this -- and maybe even get a kosher winery started up.

There is particularly rich archival documentation about Bevagna's most prominent Jewish family in the 15th and early 16th centuries, the extended clan of the banker Abramo. Ariel Toaff recounts the story in great detail in "Love, Work and Death." it is a dramatic family saga that has a sort of rags to riches to rags again narrative framework.

Abramo owned banks in three towns, as well as a mansion, investment properties, farmland and many other holdings. But after his death in 1484, the family suffered a series of tragic setbacks, including deaths, bank failures and even a trumped-up claim by a young Bevagna boy that the family had lured him to their home and crucified him over Easter in 1485. Though apparently linked to a default on a loan to the Abramo bank by the boy’s mother, the allegations led to the banishment of several Abramo family members.

Click here to read full JTA article

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Revisiting a Secret Garden Jewish Cemetery in Czech Republic

Looking out from the cemetery. All photos © Ruth Ellen Gruber

By Ruth Ellen Gruber  

(This post also appears on my En Route blog for the Lost Angeles Jewish Journal.)
I spent part of this weekend at a bluegrass workshop in the little town of Male Svatonovice, in the north of the Czech Republic, near the Polish border. I was only there to observe, not to join the hundred or so students learning banjo, mandolin, guitar and bass, so I took time to drive half an hour through the back roads to revisit one of my favorite Jewish cemeteries -- the isolated walled graveyard at the tiny hamlet of Velka Bukovina.

The village is too small to appear even on many large scale maps. The Jewish population disappeared in the early 20th century as Jews moved out to bigger cities.

When I first visited, six years ago, while doing the update for my book National Geographic Jewish Heritage Travel, I stayed at a charming pension that was sort of near by. The son of the family who ran it helped me find the cemetery -- it is set alone in the middle of farm fields. There did not seem to be any way actually to reach the cemetery other than tramping across the field, so that is what I did. It was the height of summer, and I waded through maybe half a mile of waist-high weeds, grass, and, I guess, hay. (Thankful that I was wearing my cowboy boots.)

This time, the going was much easier. First, I could see the cemetery int he distance from the main road. And I easily found the one-lane paved road that led up near by it. I parked at the side, and found a sort of vehicle track through the grass leading to the cemetery. It was an easy path to walk. Could I have totally missed it when I went there the first time? Or is it new since I was there?

Whatever. I easily reached the cemetery and found the gate latched but not locked. Inside the absolute rectagular wall, it was just as I remembered -- a secret garden of a place, rather well maintained (I saw a wheelbarrow propped in a corner of the space) with irregular rows of gravestones exhibiting vividly carved inscriptions and decorations, many with a decidedly rustic touch -- the oldest date back to the mid-18th century. In the distance, I could see the autum colors in the nearby forest.

All photos © Ruth Ellen Gruber


What I still consider one of the most moving aspects of this cemetery is also still there -- a park bench placed outside the gate, looking out at the fields. Does anyone ever ever ever come to use it? To sit and remember the community? To reflect on a world of changes?

All photos © Ruth Ellen Gruber

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Lack of Funding Closes Museum Housing Sarajevo Haggadah

Sarajevo Haggadah in bank vault, 2001. Photo © Ruth Ellen Gruber

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

This post also appears on my En Route blog for the LA Jewish Journal

The Bosnia-Herzegonia National Museum in Sarajevo, where the priceless Sarajevo Haggadah is kept, is being forced to close for lack of funds -- the latest in a number of major cultural institutions in Sarajevo forced to shut their doors due to political wrangling and the central government's halting of funds for culture.

In my brief JTA story I write that Jakob Finci, the longtime leader of the Jewish community in Sarajevo, said the museum, founded in 1888, would close on Thursday due to “lack of money, financing and support from the State.”

He called the decision “tragic,” but said he did not fear for the Sarajevo Haggadah, which, he said would be kept in a safe place.

The haggadah, handwritten in Spain in the 14th century and brought to Sarajevo after the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, has been owned by the museum since 1894.
During the Bosnian war in the 1990s, the lavishly illustrated, 109-page book became a symbol of the shattered dream of multi-ethnic harmony in Bosnia. After the war ended in 1995, the U.N. Mission, along with the Bosnian Jewish Community, the Joint Distribution Committee, and the Yad Hanadiv and Wolfenson Foundations, facilitated a $150,000 project to restore the Haggadah and prepare a secure, new, climate-controlled room in which to put it on display. 
This was opened with a gala ceremony in December 2002. But Finci told JTA that, in recent years, the actual Haggadah was only displayed on four days a year – all the rest of the time a facsimile was shown.

In 2001, before it went on public display, I had the rare opportunity of viewing the Haggadah in the underground bank vault in Sarajevo where it was kept, when I accompanied a JDC delegation to Bosnia.

A bank functionary led us through corridors and down narrow stairways into a basement vault lined with safety deposit boxes.

Wrapped in white tissue paper, the Haggadah was removed from a sealed, blue metal lock box and placed on a table.

Wearing clean, white gloves, a staff member from the Sarajevo national museum then opened the book, turning over page after page to reveal the elegant Hebrew calligraphy and brilliantly colored and gilded illustrations.

An article in April in The Art Newspaper provided some background to the museum crisis.

The National Gallery closed to the public last September. It had been without a director and chief financial officer since May. The Historical Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina, also in Sarajevo, was forced to shut its doors on 4 January after running out of money for maintenance and heating. Staff at both institutions have worked without pay since the respective closures.

The National and University Library, which has had no heating since early January, is next on the list of anticipated closures. [...]
The current crisis is a result of national elections held in 2010, which failed to create a coalition with a parliamentary majority. Without a functioning government, there was no funding for cultural institutions last year.

Museum administrators in Sarajevo say that grants from the new government, formed this February, will not solve the structural problem affecting the institutions. They believe that the institutions need to be funded at a national level if they are to operate effectively in the future. They also want a national cultural ministry to be created.

For further information on the culture crisis in Bosnia see the web site 

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Shana Tova!

Jewish themed ceramic souvenirs at a shop in the medieval Jewish quarter of Trani, Italy. Photo © Ruth Ellen Gruber

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

With still a week to come in the autumn holiday season, I'd like to take the opportunity to wish all my readers a sweet, satisfying and stimulating new year -- and beyond!

I've taken a break from posting this past month or so, but I look forward to getting back into the swing of things very soon and posting regular reports, commentaries, images and links.

Meanwhile -- for a growing range of resources and news reports, please take a look at the web site that I am coordinating as a project of the Rothschild Foundation Europe: