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 →
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.