Monday, December 12, 2016

Romanian Jewish heritage: my first (long-ago) impressions

Suceava synagogue

I've been writing seriously about Jewish cultural heritage and contemporary Jewish issues for nearly 30 years, but my "first contact" came about a decade before that, when I was the Bureau Manager based in Belgrade for United Press International, responsible for coverage of the Communist Balkans.

One of my first extended trips was to Bulgaria and, mostly, Romania, at the end of December, 1978. It was Hanukkah, and I toured the country with the then-Chief Rabbi, Moses Rosen, on his annual "Hanukiada" trip to scattered Jewish communities. My brother Sam, who was visiting me, came along, too -- we were with the trip for six days, visiting 19 synagogues and communities.

I wrote in the introduction of my book Jewish Heritage Travel that this trip sowed the seeds of my interest. And I also wrote about parts of the trip for UPI, including the stop we made at Radauti, where were found the grave of our great-grandmother in the unkempt Jewish cemetery.

I have now -- by chance -- found a letter that I wrote to a UPI colleague (but apparently never sent) describing that trip. Though I'm describing a journey I took in the dark and very cold days of Ceausescu's Romania in December 1978, it reals remarkably similar to descriptions I read of trips taken today to some places.

I have re-visited some of these places over the years and decades, including Radauti.



The Jewish community continues to dwindle, and a number of the synagogues I visited in 1978 are in longer in use. Some, however, have undergone recent restoration and maintenance.

According to FEDROM, the Federation of Jewish Communities in Romania, there are at least 821 Jewish cemeteries in Romania, 17 of which are listed as historic monuments. They are located in  more than 732 cities, towns and villages all over the country: in only in 148 of these places  is there a Jewish presence (whether a small organized community or simply individual Jewish residents).

FEDROM owns 87 synagogue buildings, only 42 of which are used regularly for religious services. Some of the others are used occasionally for services, but most others are vacant. For a few former synagogues, FEDROM has arranged long-term lease agreements under which the buildings are rehabilitated and used for cultural purposes. In addition, a number of other synagogue buildings not owned by FEDROM also still stand, in various states.

Thirty-four synagogue buildings are listed as historical monuments.

A new web site highlights photos of about 15 Romanian synagogues, and I post continued updated news about Romanian Jewish heritage on the Jewish Heritage Europe web site.

Synagogue in Bystrica, Romania, used as a concert hall

Sunday, April 17, 2016

I'm interviewed in USAToday -- 10 great places to experience Jewish history

The bimah and top of the ark in the synagogue Mikulov, CZ, part of the 10 Stars project

The newspaper USAToday has run an interview with me by Larry Bleiberg, in which I note 10 of my favorite Jewish heritage sites -- not just in Europe, but also a couple in the United States.

I gave him a much, much longer list, but he had to pare it down to just 10, to keep variety and also geographic spread -- alas, as he had to leave out some of my very favorite places. The article runs in the travel section as 10 Great Places to Experience Jewish History.

The 10 include: the art nouveau synagogue in Subotica, Serbia; the ghetto in Venice; the Amsterdam Jewish Cultural Quarter; the Hamburg Altona Jewish cemetery; the synagogue in Iasi, Romania; the pioneer Jewish cemeteries in the American west; KKBE synagogue in Charleston, SC; the Belzec Nazi death camp memorial in Poland; the 10 Stars project sites in Czech Republic; and Sataniv and other fortress synagogues in Ukraine.

Read the full USAToday article

In the Venice ghetto

When my book National Geographic Jewish Heritage Travel, a Guide to Eastern Europe came out in 2007, JTA also ran a story asking me to list my favorites -- the geographic scope was more limited, so the list is a bit different, though it does include some of the same sites, such as the synagogue in Subotica, the Belzec memorial, fortress synagogues including Sataniv, synagogues (like Iasi) in northern Romania, and the synagogues and Jewish quarters in the Czech Republic -- see it HERE.

It includes: the historic Jewish cemeteries and painted synagogues in northern Romania; the Jewish cemeteries and fortress synagogues in Ukraine, including Sataniv; the baroque synagogue and Jewish cemetery in Mad, in northeastern Hungary; the synagogues in Lancut, in southeastern Poland, and in Tykocin, in northeastern Poland; the old Jewish quarters, synagogues and cemeteries in small towns the Czech Republic; anything to do with the Hungarian architect Lipot Baumhorn (1860-1932), modern Europe’s most prolific designer of synagogues, such as the grand synagogue in Szeged, Hungary, and Baumhorn’s tomb in the Kozma utca Jewish cemetery in Budapest; the remaining few wooden synagogues, about a dozen of which survive in out-of-the way villages in Lithuania; the elaborate synagogue in Subotica, Serbia; the Holocaust monument complex in Belzec in southeastern Poland; The Holocaust memorial in Plunge, Lithuania, which features a profoundly moving installation of massive wooden sculptures by the late Jewish wood-carver Jakob Bunkas and his artist friends.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Jewish Culture, etc Festivals in Europe, 2016

As usual, I am trying to put together a list of as many as possible of the numerous Jewish festivals -- culture, film, dance, etc -- that take place each year around Europe. Please help me by sending me information!

The big culture festivals and other smaller events make good destinations around which to center a trip. Some, like the annual Festival of Jewish Culture in Krakow, are huge events lasting a week or more, which draw thousands of people and offer scores or sometimes hundreds of performances, lectures, concerts, exhibits and the like. Other festivals are much less ambitious. Some are primarily workshops but also feature concerts. Many of the same artists perform at more than one festival. 

The list will be growing and growing -- and again, I ask my readers to please send me information and links to upcoming events. Thanks!


September 4 -- many countries -- European Day of Jewish Culture (theme this year: Jewish languages)


July 7-10 -- Boskovice -- 24th Festival for the Jewish Quarter

August 1-6 -- Trebic -- Samajim Festival

September 19-27 -- Olomouc --  Days of Jewish Culture


May 31-June 6 -- Copenhagen -- Jewish Culture Festival


February 25-28 -- Fürth -- Jewish Film Days

March 4-13 -- Fürth -- International Klezmer Festival

July 9-August 12 -- Weimar -- Yiddish Summer Weimar


August 15-19 -- London -- Klezfest


March 14-18 -- Trani (various venues)-- Lech Lecha festival


June 16-19 -- Oswiecim -- Oswiecim Life Festival


June 29-July 2 -- Kosice -- Mazal Tov festival


March 5-6 -- Besalu -- Ciudad Judia

June 8-June 13 -- Cordoba -- International Festival of Sephardic Music