I took a whirlwind trip to Morocco just before Pesach that focused on visits to historic Jewish sites and spending time with remaining Jewish communities. The 2,000 year history of Jews in Morocco is evident everywhere–from Jewish areas of towns (mellahs), to cemeteries to synagogues–and I grappled with the simultaneous historical nature of the trip along with immersing myself in dwindling communities. I traveled with a friend who is fluent in French (a bonus since I last spoke French my first year of college and rarely anyone speaks English). It was a chaotic start to our trip with missed flights, lost luggage and a bad hotel. But, we set out to track down these people and places without a proper guide, which was not always an easy feat. Through a contact my friend had in Israel along with some rabbis she met on her flight, our paper trail began to unfold. Most importantly, we planned to spend Shabbat in Fes (Fassis is what people in Fes are called) and a connection to “the butcher” there ensured we were with the community. Continue reading
I spent a good chunk of last year in India. While there are still tiny remaining Indian Jewish communities (read my Fort Cochin post), there is now a transient Jewish population of tens of thousands of mostly post-army Israelis who generally travel through the country generally along a route known as the “Hummus Trail”. The trail is easy to figure out because in each location there are Chabads and other Jewish outreach organizations. For Passover, I joined the Hummus Trail community and went to Rishikesh. Continue reading
When I joined the Slow Food USA delegation trip to Terra Madre in Turin, Italy a few years ago, I added on a few bonus days in Rome. I couldn’t get enough out of the city, racing from one farmers market to the next, going on dizzying adventures to track down obscure shops and restaurants (not always successfully), walking miles in expansive city gardens and just soaking in the stunning ancient city’s incredible vibrant energy. And, I opted to crazily bike everywhere possible, braving the city’s notoriously chaotic traffic-clogged boulevards and narrow roads. By the time Shabbat arrived, I was exhausted. Continue reading
Before going to Catalonia, Septimania and turron were two words I’d never heard before. Septimania– a Jewish kingdom? Yes, it’s true. I first learned about it while visiting some family who live in a tiny village on the French side of Catalonia (population 100. And, no they actually aren’t the only Jewish people in the area). The village is nestled at the base Mt. Canigou, a revered peak to Catalans. Continue reading
I spent some time following in the footsteps of Kabbalists who lived in Catalonia, an area that straddles parts of the coastal and southern mountain areas of now Spain and France, and includes the beautiful, eclectic city of Barcelona. The strong sense of Catalan pride and identity and the excitement over the then- impending vote for independence from Spain was very much evident in my conversations with people, as were all of the “Si” graffiti and banners everywhere I visited.
In the backdrop of the current political situation, much of my time there was spent wandering the slippery, winding stone streets of former Jewish ghettos in medieval towns to visit mikvahs and synagogues, trying to piece together what life was like for Jews who had a flourishing society there until their expulsion in 1492. The small city of Girona was the epicenter of Kabbalists and the home of Rabbi Moses ben Nachman (the Ramban) who eventually was the chief rabbi of Catalonia.
I had an unexpected detour in my travels last year and ended up in Portugal, a place I hadn’t planned to visit and certainly not during Jewish holidays. Portugal had initially been a refuge for Jews fleeing Spain during the Inquisition but it subsequently followed in Spain’s footsteps, expelling or forcing the conversion of its Jewish populations. It was surreal at times to return to the country which now has a Jewish population of 1500 people now, spread amongst a few cities and towns. I spent time in the stunning Algarve region on the southern coast, including the town of Faro, where previously there had been a Jewish population, though the cemetery and museum were closed when I tried to visit. On the other hand, there’s a small but vibrant community in Lisbon, where I spent Simchat Torah. It is a spectacular, dramatic mountainous coastal city filled with the most beautiful buildings whose exteriors are covered in the most colorful tiles. It is quickly becoming an international cultural and technology destination and I predict it to become “the next Berlin.” Continue reading
After Rosh Hashana in Sicily, I took a coastal train to Naples, a city that I was pleasantly surprised by with its picturesque mountainous bay setting, and bustling historic streets. Just blocks from where I stayed in the vibrant waterfront Piazza Vittoria neighborhood, an area filled with boutiques, bars, and cafes, is the city’s sole synagogue. Funded by Baron Rothschild in the 1860s, it is still open for the city’s approximately 150 Jews. The only give-away to its presence was a guard located at a set of massive wooden doors (which one stepped through) at the entrance of a large apartment complex’s courtyard. At the other end of the courtyard, up a discreet staircase, was the entrance to the synagogue. Continue reading
Last fall I worked on an organic farm in Sicily. Initially, I hesitated to go because I would be there during Rosh Hashana, but then I found out there are Jews in Sicily! I connected with an extremely small community (a handful of people) in the gorgeous historic seaside town of Siracusa (Syracuse), where once had existed a substantial Jewish population. Just a few years ago, in the Jewish quarter, an ancient mikvah was found underneath a hotel. Far from the tourist-centered historic area is the rest of Siracusa, an unpretentious small Sicilian city, where, on an unremarkable road lined with apartment buildings and some shops, is the synagogue on the ground floor of a plain dark-red apartment building. One knows they’ve arrived at the synagogue because on a large metal gate is a huge sign announcing it is here. Continue reading
I recently spent time in Germany-mostly Berlin, with a couple of days in Munich–where I visited Jewish museums, the Topography of Terror, Holocaust memorials, artists commemorations of the Holocaust (including the Places of Remembrance and stolpersteins), and read lots of books and commentaries (including here, here, here and here).
Trying to comprehend and process my thoughts and emotions about the dichotomy of Germany’s history and the present day was challenging and hard to reconcile, especially against the backdrop of Berlin: a modern, colorful, vibrant, fun, flourishing, art-filled city with a sizable immigrant community from around the globe and a small Jewish community. There are now four yeshivot and 13 synagogues in Berlin, I heard Hebrew spoken on the street a few times, and had dinner with several Israeli artists living in Berlin. Continue reading
I’ve had the opportunity the past couple of years to spend time in some obscure (and also not so obscure) Jewish communities whose foods and traditions offered me a glimpse into their lives. I begin with the story of 96 year-old Sarah Cohen, one of a handful remaining Jews in the city of Kochi, a city on the Malabar coast in the southern Indian state of Kerala. While wandering around a neighborhood called Jew Town, I was drawn to a store called Sarah’s, advertising her judaica. Just beyond the modest storefront, whose shelves were filled with embroidered challah covers, kippot and tea towels, was an older woman seated in a deep chair, engulfing her small, gentle frame. With the store’s walls decorated with news stories about her, she’s as much as a draw as the historic “Paradesi” synagogue steps from the store’s entrance.