Monthly Archives: April 2014

Dubrovnik, Croatia And Its Jewish Heritage

DubrovnikOn my recent cruise to the The Greek Isles, the itinerary included a 5 hour stop in Dubrovnik, Croatia. I knew about this breath taking, UNESCO World Heritage site, from reading travel publications and interestingly, word of mouth. Dorina, my Croatian hair stylist, an avid traveler and fellow jew, said it was the most beautiful town in Europe period! She was overjoyed when I mentioned we’ll be stopping there and gave me some tips for the ‘must see’ sites, knowing my passion for all things Jewish, especially the little known and ancient.

On day four of the cruise, I awoke at 7 AM and ran to my stateroom balcony to look out at the stunning loveliness along the coastline of the Adriatic Sea. The blue water surrounded the stunning panorama of the walled Medieval city of Dubrovnik. I remembered with excitement that there was more to this great beauty justly named ‘the Pearl of the Adriatic’. Dorina shared a little known fact, that only few may know – in the heart of medieval Old Town, stands the oldest functioning Sephardic synagogue in Europe. I sent her a mental blessing, and got ready to grab breakfast and to disembark at 8:00, notes in hand.

The Jewish tour guide we hired spoke good English and was passionate about her vocation. She had the perfect balance of historical knowledge and appreciation of the stunningly preserved Medieval city. Her fascinating stories added greatly to what I had spent hours learning prior to this trip. As we walked past the Venetian style buildings, marble squares, fountains and stone palaces, the ancient streets took on a life of their own. At one time, many of these properties belonged to members of the thriving Jewish community. However, they were not permitted to live in them until emancipation by Napoleon.

Nevertheless, most physicians of the city were Jewish, they were ship owners, and accumulated wealth and respect. They were the main importers of wool and spices from the East and textiles and paper from the West. The Jewish community traces back to the 15th century, when several Sephardic Jewish families, following their expulsion from Spain, decided to remain in Dubrovnik, rather than continue to Turkey. They helped solidify a small yet strong community in the city.

Eventually, in 1546, the valuable contribution of the the Jewish population, led city officials to allow legal settlement within the city. The Ulica Udiosca (street of the Jews) was established within the fortified walls and in mid 17th century the oldest Sephardic synagogue was established on the second floor of a 14 century building, at Ulica Udisca 3. The visit to the synagogue is definitely a highlight of the visit. Even the way to get to it is gorgeous, passing thru Pile Gate, head east down the Main Street of Stradun, an impressive pedestrian promenade which extend to the other end of town, where The Clock Tower and Small Onofrio Fountain can be seen.

But before far, making a left the Street of the Jews, is the Gothic/renaissance style Sponza Palace. There, just a few steps up a narrow stairway, stands the small but gorgeous synagogue, with the Jewish museum on the left side. Not only is it the oldest functioning Sephardic synagogue in Europe, but the second oldest synagogue after Prague, in all of Europe. The Dubrovnik synagogue is built in the Italian baroque style, in 1652, with elegance of workmanship, an elaborate chandelier, colorful textiles and gilding. It’s divided by three arches with the bimah located under the central arch.

The Aron Hakodesh, is facing Jerusalem and is surrounded by the remaining two arches. The Jewish museum became the very first in Croatia and contains several small exhibits: archival documents: a Holocaust memorial: a collection of religious objects, such as some elaborate Italian , Spanish and French Torah scrolls, hailing back to the period between the 13 -17th centuries. Also, various Torah covers are exhibited, made from silk and decorated with 17 century gold embroidery. The least known unique Jewish site I located upon exiting the city walls, just outside Pile Gate. It’s a modest water fountain that now serves the locals. The story goes that before Napoleon’s arrival in Dubrovnik Jews were not allowed to drink from the other two fountains in the city. They were restricted to the “Jewish Fountain”, as it’s still called now. After the napoleonic emancipation, Jews were able to drink from any fountain, as due to equal citizens.
The Jewish Fountain was moved outside the walls of the city, but kept as a memorial in Pile, still in it’s original condition. I found this very touching…

Love is the most powerful way to create profoundly tangible transformation in everyone who crosses our path. Yet we must be mindful to endow the self with pure, unconditional love and acceptance, which will result in an infinite fountain of empathy and joy, readily available to give others.

See some great options for Mediterranean Kosher Cruises

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Barcelona Jewry -Past and Present and I Love You

BarcelonaBarcelona, one of the loveliest cities in Europe, nestled on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea, and not unlike the city of Haifa in Israel, is framed by green mountains on the other side. It is the capital of the independent Spanish region of Catalonia, with a population of 1.5 million. It’s main intersection, Las Ramblas promenade, runs from the waterfront, and is filled with street performers, flower stands, shops and markets, overflowing with an exquisite array of fresh produce, fruits and vegetables glistening with ‘just picked’ colors and scents. A walk along Las Ramblas (plural, for the intersecting streets, many of which lead into highly varied neighborhoods, filled with architectural delights from Roman to Gothic.

For Jewish travelers the most exciting thing is often the realization that the Jewish community is undergoing a rebirth, after a painful hiatus forced by on them by the Spanish Inquisition, public burning of all Jews who refused to convert to Catholicism and the expulsion of 100,000 Jews. There is a long and blood stained history of Jews in Barcelona, which began after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E. There was an ongoing Responsa (A body of written decisions and rulings given by legal scholars in response to questions addressed to them. It pertains historically, to religious law), between the Babylonian Rabbis to those in Barcelona. Thus the integrity of the connection to the highest source of Rabbinic studies was maintained and created the base of a flourishing of Jewish learning. Diring the 12th century, renowned Jewish Spanish traveller, Benjamin de Tudela, wrote of his arrival in a “small and beautiful city on the shore of the sea” and reported that a “holy Jewish community, with mighty princess of commerce” we’re residing there.

Jewish learning flourished in the region. In the 13 the century, one of our greatest and most important scholars, Moses Ben Nachman, also known as Ramban or Nachmanides, was ordered to debate a Dominican priest on the validity of Judaism vs Christianity . The debate was conducted in front of King Jaume I. It was called the disputation of Barcelona and Ramban was so persuasive the King awarded him a monetary prize and praised his brilliance and courage. Then the King, who was obviously unusual in his thirst for knowledge and truth, attended a Jewish service in Barcelona’s Sinagoga Mayor. The Rashba, another great scholar served as the Rabbi of the Sinagpga Mayor for 50 years, writing thousands of Responsa, and prohibiting the study of philosophy and science by Jewish men before the age of 25. (1235-1310) By mid 14 century, a quarter of the population in Barcelona was Jewish, mostly crammed into the old Jewish quarter, El Call. Scholars,writers, merchants bakers and bankers lived there, having significant influence on both Christian and Jewish commerce and intellect. The population flourished and produced some great scholars and people of wealth and influence.

On august 4 th 1391, El Call was attacked, with at least 200 Jews murdered, the synagogue and Jewish properties were confiscated. Things became so devastating that about 100,000 Jews would leave, prior to the start of the Inquisition. About 4,000 of the Jews in Barcelona decided to convert to Christianity, rather than lose their positions of power and wealth. They did so ambivalently, many living a double life and practicing their true religion in secret. The most ironic fact is that some of the reasons the Inquisition came about, is because Spain’s church leaders were furious and decided to use torture and any means to force the truth out of the new Conversos. A thing as minor as using olive oil rather than lard would give them away – and their obedient Christian neighbors made sure to report any such observation.

Barcelona became a city without a Jewish population for hundreds of years, but in the end of 1800, Moroccan and Turkish Jews were the first to return. In 1909 the law prohibiting the establishment and worship in synagogues was overturned, and a congregation of 100 or so Jews lived in the city by 1918. With the rise of Franco and the Spanish War, some 5,000 drifted to Catalonia, and Spain provided refuge for Jews, paradoxically, under fascist Franco. In fact none of the Jews who lived in Catalonia were shipped out for extermination.
In the 1960s South American immigrants of both Sephardic and Ashkenazi origin immigrated to either Madrid or Barcelona to escape political repression. Speakers of Ladino were especially aided and encouraged.

Today Barcelona’s Jewish population numbers 5,000 and in 1954 the Communidad Israelita established the first free standing Jewish institution on the Iberian peninsula, following expulsion, with two places of worship. One representing the more traditional Sephardic Orthodox population, and the other synagogue caters to the Ashkenazi. There is a presence of the Chabad Lubavitz Center of Studies. Barcelona has become home to the very first Reform synagogue in Spain in 1997: the Communitat Jueva Atid holds Shabbat morning services and has 400 members, most of Argentinian immigres. In 1956 there was a huge influx of Morrocan Jews, returning to the land of their ancestors. The community has a Jewish publishing firm called Rio Piedras, which specializes in the history of Spanish Jewry. The community runs Sephardic cooking classes, Ladino and Klezmer music concerts and an international Jewish music festival. I heard of a deeply touching event, which happened in recent years and brought tears to the eyes of many, including myself. It concerns the “return, or rebirth) of 5 Conversos at the magnificent Sinagog Mayor. Rabbi Ariel Edery read excerpts from a 15century Siddur, written in ancient Catalan and Hebrew, which was discovered during an excavation under the foundations of the newly restored synagogue. This Shabath service, the 5 men, former Catholics, completed their conversion to the sacred religion of their forcibly converted ancestors. they were called up to the Torah to chant their first Aliyot. The whole congregation was in tears as the men chanted. They all traced their lineage centuries back to Spanish Jewish ancestors Jewish sites.

In El Call, located at the corner of sant Domdinscriptions dating from further back than the 14 the century, can be faintly made out, in the stone walls. Near the cathedral on San Jaume Square (I believe named after the King who defied the church centuries ago, by honoring Jews and their religion), there can be seen the letters nun, vet and tag on the worn bricks. The letters are so faded, they must be pointed out to be seen, and to that end community leader Dominique Blinder, an architect from Argentina. Started Urban Cultours.,began organizing Jewish tours.
The restoration of the city’s medieval synagogue in the historic Jewish quarter, has now added Barcelona to an important place to visit, aside from Toledo synagogues, the ruins of Rambam’s house and Girona, the medieval center of mysticism and kabbalistic studies, despite it having no functioning jewish community today. Barcelona has the largest concentration of Jews in Spain, two functioning synagoes, an emerging academic investigation of past glory and historical reservations. It also has one of the most unique cross pollinisation of the Jewish tribe, outside of Israel.
The excavated,rehabilitated and reopened grand medieval synagogue, is a must see for all Jewish visitor. One can ‘smell’ the history of our people, with its ground and first floor structures from 14th century, the 4 floors above from the 18th century. There is evidence of an underwater spring which filled the congregations Mikveh. Further restoration display the fifth century ruins, a new Aron Hakodesh thus the recreation of Spain’s oldest synagogue. Carrer Marlet is a narrow. medieval passageway where visitors can only squeeze by one another
Like most of El Calls buildings most original construction were torn down after the expulsion but their materials were recycled in the city. The remaining structured where Jews once led their life are stark and simple and lack ornamentation in sharp contrast to the architecture in the city. Mortjuic, mountain of Jews can be reached cross harbor cable from the seaside part of Barcelona or by bus no 61. It had a Jewish cemetery for at least a millennium. In 1956 a Jewish memorial was erected there, commemorating the Holocaust.
The Picasso museum is just outside Ell Call, rambling thru several gorgeous medieval palaces.

If there is any time left, a visit to Gironia is recommended to visit the center of Jewish learning in Spain in the 13 the century, and the place where Kaballa first made its appearance in Spain, where great scholars like Nachmanides contributed their genius to the development of mysticism.
Despite the lack of Jewish population in Geronia, the indentations on the door posts are visible reminders of the mezuzahs once mounted there

Love is the most powerful way to create profoundly tangible transformation in everyone who crosses our path. Yet we must be mindful to endow the self with pure, unconditional love and acceptance, which will result in an infinite fountain of empathy and joy, readily available to give others.

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