Jewish tourists in Romania
The Choral Temple in Bucharest. (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
We spent two weeks in Romania in the late summer of 2015, also visiting Bulgaria. We took this trip partly because it was an area of vibrant Jewish life from Roman days until the late 1930s. Romania also served as a commercial link between Europe and Asia, and was known for its café life. Its capital, Bucharest, was called the “Paris of the East.” Then came the Nazis and, after them, the Soviets. We wanted to see what remains in these two countries, primarily for Jews but also for the rest of the population.
We arranged a private tour with a knowledgeable guide that generally followed an itinerary designed as a Jewish heritage tour, supplemented by Ruth Ellen Gruber’s Jewish Heritage Travel: A Guide to Eastern Europe (2007). Local information on Jewish sites is surprisingly scant, nothing like what one finds in Lithuania and Latvia. However, the tour company had prearranged talks with people in the larger synagogues, museums and cemeteries, which helped to augment our own observations. There is a monthly Jewish newspaper in Romania, Realistatea Evreiasca, with one page in English and one in Hebrew. As mentioned, our tour in Romania was followed by a visit to Bulgaria, but space limitations permit only scattered references to our time in that country.
Romania and Bulgaria form the southern and eastern parts of the Balkan peninsula in Europe. Romania lies immediately to the north of Bulgaria, with the Danube River forming much of the border between the two before flowing into the Black Sea. Northern and central Romania is dominated by the Carpathian chain of mountains, and southern Romania by the plain of the Danube. Further south lie Greece and Turkey; to the west, various countries that used to be Yugoslavia; and to the east, Ukraine and the always menacing Russia.
Romania was a monarchy until the end of the Second World War. Supported by local antisemites, it fit rather comfortably under Hitler’s leadership and, then, under Nicolae Ceausescu, became one of the most harsh of all Soviet satellites. Today, Romania is best described by a guide at one synagogue who cautiously called it a “developing democracy.” (More on politics later.)
In contrast to the rest of Eastern Europe, Romanians speak a Romance language, which helps make many signs understandable to Anglos. Despite some bumps along the way, the economy in this proto-capitalist country seems to be improving year by year and, in 2007, it became a member of the European Union.
Almost everywhere one looks in Romania, there is an Orthodox church at the street corner. There are some Roman Catholic churches and a few mosques. The Jewish population is now only a few percent and heavily concentrated in Bucharest. Before the Second World War, large numbers of Jews lived in the northern and western parts of the country.
Romanian synagogues tend to have the plain exteriors but elaborate interiors that are common elsewhere in Eastern Europe and in Muslim countries. Romania was more Sephardi than Ashkenazi, but most synagogues now have the bimah at the eastern end rather than in the middle. In some cases, markings on the floor indicate that the bimah had been moved forward in the recent past. With some exceptions, the old Jewish quarter has been destroyed to make way for large, monotonous apartment buildings that are dubbed “Soviet Gothic.”
Restaurant food and wine was great everywhere we went, and available at modest prices – in contrast to what one hears, the white wine is just as good as the red (well, almost as good). Pork is the main meat, but chicken and veal are widely available, as are dairy products. The country is slowly returning to the café culture that was once so famous. The spirit is enhanced by wide avenues for pedestrians complete with street performers.
Some synagogues and Jewish community centres serve kosher meals, but otherwise we saw no kosher restaurants. And then there is rakija, or plum brandy, typically 60% alcohol; our advice is to sip slowly. David was delighted to see a few moderate-sized wind farms and some large solar electric farms. Less happily, there is a lot of smoking by people of all ages and in almost all places.
Our time in Romania began with a couple of days in Bucharest and then went from city to city elsewhere in Romania. Bucharest has two active congregations, one Chabad and the other in a 160-year-old Orthodox synagogue known as the Choral Temple. The adjective “choral” means that there is, or was, a choir. As with other synagogues that we visited, services are generally limited to Shabbat and holidays, though Chabad meets daily. Because of the small Jewish populations and the effects of assimilation, services are typically held in prayer rooms rather than in the large sanctuary. Unhappily, from our perspective, they all retain traditional restrictions on participation by women who, if they appear at all, are kept behind nearly opaque curtains. Synagogues in many of the larger cities are today undergoing renovations, thanks to Romanian, Israeli and European Union money, plus contributions from the Romanian diaspora. In contrast, with scattered exceptions, smaller cities today show little more than deteriorating synagogue buildings and ill-kept cemeteries.
When we visited the Choral Temple, we found that the exterior renovations had been completed but the interior ones were ongoing. About half of the visitors were Romanian, and the rest mostly from the United States or from Israel. As we ended our visit, about six of us were making our way out of the gate, which faces onto a busy street, and saw two local men watching us. One greeted us in French. He wanted to know, in a friendly way, why tourists came to Bucharest. He and David spoke together for awhile in French. The other man was large, probably in his 50s, and stood stock still, forcing us to walk around him to exit the gate. Toby remembers that she had never seen such glaring eyes and such a set jaw. She was transfixed by the unrelenting contempt pouring from this man’s face. She had no language in which to greet or to question him. Was he contemptuous of tourists, of Western tourists, or of synagogues? Toby retains a memory of these two men as two faces of Romania: the one open and friendly; the other full of animosity that may have been antisemitic.
A high point in David’s trip was attending Shabbat services in the last wooden synagogue in Romania. It is located in Piatra Neamt in north-central Romania, and its sanctuary is built below street level to meet some old restriction about not being higher than any church. The building’s formerly wooden base has now been replaced by concrete to protect the wood from deterioration. Everything above the base is the original wood, as is most of the elaborately decorated interior, with many locally created crafts, carvings and paintings.
David entered the building on Shabbat when, clearly, tourists were not welcome. Even though wearing a kippah, he was eyed suspiciously. Was this just a Jewish tourist sneaking a look inside the building at a time when it was closed to tourism? The regulars relaxed a bit when he put on a tallit, and more when, out of a corner of their eyes, they saw him saying the brachah before putting it on. Later, the gabbai gave him an aliyah, and invited him to the kiddush, which was fun, not so much for the bun and wine as for the unlabeled bottle that emerged afterwards and, not surprisingly, turned out to be rakija.
Sighit is located in northwestern Romania, which is the part closest to Hungary, and perhaps for that reason has a long history of antisemitism. The large Jewish cemetery there is remarkable for the practice of adding the names of Jews who died in the Holocaust to the tombstones of family members who had died in the 1930s. The city is the birthplace of Elie Wiesel, and home to a museum dedicated to his works. This is also the area where the Ba’al Shem Tov, the founder of modern Chassidism, lived, and we heard half a dozen (conflicting) statements as to where he taught, studied or served as rabbi.
Tourists to rural Romania will also see a number of Orthodox churches that are densely painted on every surface, and also some monasteries built entirely of wood without the use of nails. And, of course, tourism entrepreneurs have built on the Dracula legend to encourage visits to castles within easy reach of Bucharest. They may be fun, and there is apparently a nugget of truth in the story of Vlad the Impaler. Instead, we wandered in the old city of Bucharest, which is just beyond the city’s modern centre, where one finds the presidential palace, the art museum and other sites of national importance. Within walking distance of the centre is the Peasant Museum, which not only has the usual displays of clothing and tools from different parts of the country, but also entire water mills (for grinding flour) and pressing mills (to make felt) with their roofs removed so they can be viewed from an elevated platform. The museum shop was the best place we found to purchase gifts.
According to the Anti-Defamation League, antisemitic acts are now at a low level in Romania, but the country has not yet emerged from quiet denial of what happened to Jews during first the Nazi era and then the communist era. (For more information, see the recently translated book entitled The Jews of Timisoara by Tibor Schatteles, which details Jewish life in one western Romanian city from Roman times through the present.) We found occasional plaques to commemorate the loss of Jews during the Holocaust, but they were erected by local Jewish groups, not by civil authorities.
Romania did send a lot of its Jewish citizens to their deaths in concentration camps. In some Romanian cities, pogroms were initiated by local antisemites. Statistics from Maramuresh province in the north, which at one time had 52 synagogues, are telling: 35,000 Jews in 1930, 3,100 in 1948 and 48 in 1992. On the other hand, during both Nazi and communist periods, the Romanian government allowed Jews to buy their freedom on ships that would dock at Black Sea ports and pass through the Bosporus en route to Israel or other safe havens.
During the communist era, Jewish communities and institutions suffered mainly from near-total neglect. A 7.2-level earthquake in March 1977 took a heavy toll on Jewish buildings, but only the most serious repairs were undertaken.
What about the future for Romanian Jewish communities? Almost everywhere we were told that most marriages today are mixed, and only a few involve conversion of the non-Jewish partner. The large and relatively active synagogue in Sibiu had only one bar mitzvah child that year. Adjacent to some synagogues are buildings that were formerly Jewish schools, but today most teaching takes place in extra rooms in the synagogue.
While the future for Romania – and for individual Jews who live there – seems distinctly positive, the future for Romania’s Jewish population as a viable minority seems much less assured.
David Brooks is environmental economist who works with a number of organizations in Canada and Toby Brooks works with organizations fighting abuse of women. They live in Ottawa.