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.

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image credit: 8thingstodo.com

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