Monday, February 29, 2016

Travels with Harley

Harley the Synadog
Our canine companion, Harley, travels with us everywhere we go in North America. She has visited more states than most people and, because she has visited over 100 synagogues, we call her our synadog. She is a Shiba-Inu, a Japanese breed that is one of the six earliest canine breeds, descended directly from the wolf. At 23 lbs. Harley is exactly breed standard.

A sane person might ask why would people who travel a great deal add a dog to their travelling equipment. Further complicating our travels is the fact that Harley is highly allergic. She therefore eats a special diet which must be kept frozen. To supply her frozen cuisine we carry a large cooler in the back of our car and re-stock the cooler with dry-ice two or three times per week.

How did Harley the synagdog enter our lives?  Harley was one of several dogs owned by our daughter, Jill, who lives in California. One day while we were photographing a synagogue in Italy we received a phone call from her. In a distressed voice she told us that Harley was in the hospital with 14 stitches and a concussion after being on the losing end of a fight for dominance with one of our daughter’s other dogs, a 90 lbs. Rottweiler-Mastiff mix. Clearly the two dogs could not live in the same house any longer. Jill asked, would we adopt Harley? Understanding that our mobile lifestyle would not readily accommodate a dog, Jill said that if we would take Harley, she would have Harley trained as a service dog so that she could stay in hotels, visit restaurants and fly on airplanes. What’s a Jewish parent to do? We said yes. After her training Harley adopted us and launched her new career as Harley Davidson the synadog.

Sherith Israel of San Francisco
Harley raced to the bimah
Her first visit to a synagogue was at huge and imposing Congregation Sherith Israel of San Francisco. The executive director said that dogs were allowed in the sanctuary. I began setting up my equipment and Ronnie began taking a few photos of the decorative details. Somehow Harley slipped off her leash and went rocketing to the bema. We were abashed. She was standing right in front of the ark in this awesome synagogue. When the executive director spoke we were sure it would be to ask us to leave. But, instead she said “No, problem. Harley must smell the Rabbi’s dog. He brings it to all the services.”  And indeed, there was no problem. After checking the area for whatever dogs check for, Harley chose an out-of-the way corner for a good snooze.

Congregation Sherith Israel is one of the oldest west of the Mississippi. in September of 1849, some months after the discovery of gold in California, a small group of Jewish pioneers began meeting in a wood-framed tent. Without a rabbi or Torah scrolls, the first Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur were celebrated in the San Francisco. This band of Jews came from Prussia, Bavaria, England, France and the eastern United States. They met again to celebrate Passover and the High Holy Days in 1850. By 1851 they had formed a permanent congregation occupying a temporary home which was destroyed in the famous San Francisco fire of 1851.  The current byzantine-revivalist style 1400 seat building was completed in 1904. Its magnificent Murray Harris organ is recognized as an historic treasure of American organ building.  

Poile Zedek of New Brunswick, NJ
For almost four years Harley has traveled with us on our synagogue photo-safaris in the USA and Canada. She has made good friends in more than 100 synagogues where the staff are always sorry to see her go. In only three instances, all involving grumpy old men of foreign extraction, we ran into problems.  A case in point is Poile Zedek of New Brunswick, New Jersey which was established in the early 20th century by immigrants from Russia and Poland. The well preserved building has a wonderful old-world charm. The three of us (Ronnie, Harley and I) were ushered into the building by the congregation’s president who then left so we could take photographs.  Photographic work turned to fireworks when an irascible Russian began to berate us for having a dog in the building. To no avail, we explained that Harley the synadog’s presence was approved by both the rabbi and congregation’s president. Admittedly, my Yiddish is weak to non-existent. However, I believe the word tsimmes is used to describe such situations. Vladimir Putin was not the recipient of such harsh rhetoric when he took Crimea and invaded Ukraine.

Harley regards a Hebrew Primer
Just this last July we photographed Temple of Aaron in St. Paul, Minnesota, designed by Percival Goodman. Temple Aaron is not just a building. It’s a whole campus of interconnected buildings including a day school, sanctuary, chapel, multi-purpose rooms, social hall, Judaica museum, kitchen and offices all gracefully resplendent upon a generous grassy lawn facing the Mississippi River. We were shown around the complex by the executive director who explained that he would leave us alone in the building to do the photo-shoot. We should simply make sure the doors were locked on our way out. He had an appointment elsewhere and the staff had left early as it was Friday afternoon.Ronnie roamed the building photographing architectural details and artwork while I photographed the gorgeous sanctuary. When my work was complete I went to look for Ronnie and Harley. As I left the sanctuary I found the labyrinthine building complex dark. The building super had turned off the lights. Wandering in this sparsely lit maze I eventually bumped into my spouse but Harley wasn’t with her. The stealthy synadog had taken advantage of Ronnie’s concentration on shooting photos and sneaked away. We panicked. How do you find a dog in a huge, virtually unlit building complex? A moment’s thought and the answer became obvious: you head for the kitchen. We did, and there she was, enjoying all the wonderful aromas of Jewish cooking.

If all of this sounds a little over-the-top, just read “How to Raise a Jewish Dog” by the Rabbis of Boca Raton Theological Seminary. We won’t seem so crazy in comparison.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Cream Cheese and a Big Cracked Bell

"Old Country" interior of the Philly Shul
There’s more to Philadelphia than cream cheese and a big cracked bell. There are wonderful synagogues and fabulous shoestring potatoes too.  After learning in grade school about Benjamin Franklin, the Liberty Bell and the miserable winter Washington’s troops endured at nearby Valley Forge, few of us think much about Philadelphia. Yet, it is our nation’s fifth largest city. Sandwiched among much higher profile cities like Washington, New York City and Boston, Philadelphia tends to be overlooked.

When I began planning last summer’s east coast synagogue photo-safari, I was amazed to learn that Philadelphia’s Jewish population is the third largest in the USA. It has the most synagogues per-capita, and 47 kosher restaurants.  That last statistic is vitally important for us synagogue photographers because schlepping heavy camera gear up innumerable narrow steps to the women’s gallery creates an urgent desire for a corned beef sandwich.

A trip to Philadelphia for the Jewish tourist is a veritable bonanza. There’s Independence Mall, part of the Independence National Historic Park, which includes historically significant buildings such as the original Continental Congress Hall, Independence Hall and the Old City Hall as well as the Liberty Bell. Adjacent to the Mall you’ll find the National Museum of American Jewish History, which in itself is worth the trip to Philly. This four story museum offers a unique view of the Jewish experience in the United States.  Its exhibits begin with the first Jewish settlers in 1654 and continue to the present day.

The neighborhood surrounding the Museum of American Jewish History and Independence Mall is a mish-mash of brick and stone colonial-era townhouse buildings, peppered with newer structures and verdant squares where once our forefathers and foremothers strolled. Doing some strolling of our own through this warren of galleries, antique shops, boutiques and cafes, we happened upon Elfreth’s Alley, our nation’s oldest residential street, dating to 1702. There are 32 houses on “the Alley” built between 1728 and 1836. 

Congregation B'nai Abraham AKA The Philly Shul
In an adjacent neighborhood, comprised of small-scale Georgian red brick buildings, there’s the Philly Shul, formally named Congregation B’nai Abraham.  Although there are several synagogues in the immediate area, we elected to photographically document this one as it is the oldest building in Philadelphia that was built as a synagogue and has been in continuous use as such.  Founded in 1874 by Lithuanian and Russian Jews fleeing Czar Alexander II, the Byzantine structure was built exclusively by Jewish workmen. Just try and find a 100% Jewish construction crew nowadays.  The Philly Shul’s eclectic design combines Doric columns, Mogen David patterned windows and Byzantine themes.  With my tripod and camera gear, I was a one-man traffic hazard as I photographed this incongruously large building from the middle of the narrow 300 hundred year old street.

While the immediate area around Independence Mall is primarily colonial era, the surrounding neighborhoods are a rich ethnic mix, each reflecting the culture of the immigrants who settled there. South Philly was mostly Italian and Jewish. By 1910, “Russian-born Jews were the largest ethnic group,”  according to Murray Dubin’s book, South Philadelphia. “By 1930, Jews seemed to have synagogues on every corner,” wrote Dubin.  

Congregation Shivtei Yeshuron Ezras Israel (known as the Little Shul), founded in 1876, occupies a rebuilt colonial row house.  A century ago there were 155 small synagogues like it dotting the streets of this neighborhood of immigrants.  Now, the Little Shul is the last operating row-house shul in South Philly.

Congregation Shivtei Yeshuron Ezras Israel
AKA The Little Shul
The Little Shul stands out from the other row homes on the block because of its pillared entrance. Inside, the walls and ceiling are made of pressed tin and adorned with tapestries, memorial boards and shelves of Hebrew artifacts and relics. This is a gemutlich hangout for a few elderly Jewish men who haven’t followed their children to the suburbs where their grandchildren loiter over lattes at Starbucks.
Interior of the Little Shul

To the north of the Mall, only a ten minute drive from the Little Shul, stands monumental Congregation Rodeph Shalom.  Founded in 1795, Rodeph Shalom is the oldest Ashkenazi congregation in the Western Hemisphere.  Its amazing Byzantine-Moorish design was inspired by the Great Synagogue of Florence, Italy.  Lavishly decorated with hand-stenciled walls, stained glass and a starburst dome light by D’Ascenzo Studio, it received the Pennsylvania Historic Preservation Award in 2006 and entered into the National Register of Historic Places a year later. Verbal superlatives don’t do the building justice.

No visit to Jewish Philadelphia would be complete without a pilgrimage to suburban Elkins Park where you will be awestruck by Beth Sholom, the only synagogue ever designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.

Philadelphia is a perfect destination for the Jewish tourist. It offers an amazing variety of synagogues to ogle, the great cultural experience of the National Museum of American Jewish History and mouthwatering kosher restaurants with dishes that would make your grandmother throw away her strudel pan.  All of this in a city that is so much more accessible and less expensive than New York or Boston.
Sign on the wall at the Little Shul

Friday, February 20, 2015

Pavée and the Power of Tefillin

Continue on, my friends, and take heed – a true tale of tefillin and Paris to read. I hope to enlighten and perhaps entertain with this story which takes place near the River Seine.

Splendid interior of Pavée Synagogue.
Art Nouveau is a grand and romantic design style found in art, architecture and the decorative arts. With its sweeping flourishes and themes taken from flowers and nature, it bridged the gap between ornately curly-cued Victorian and the stern geometry of Art Deco. Art Nouveau’s popularity was at its height during the Belle Époque in the late 1800s and early 1900s and is nowhere better seen than in Paris.

To my knowledge there are only two synagogues that were built in the Art Nouveau style. One, in Subotica, Serbia, we photographed in 2010. The other, on Rue Pavée in Paris’ Marais district, had remained elusive. The Agoudas Hakehilos Synagogue, popularly known as the Pavée Synagogue, was designed by none other than Hector Guimard, who was one of the greatest Art Nouveau architects, and certainly one of the most productive. His accomplishments include the iconic Paris Metro station entrances as well as numerous magnificent buildings.

The Pavée is squeezed into a difficult site.
 Around the turn of the century there was a great migration of Jews from Russia and Eastern Europe to the west. Many settled in Paris. By 1913, Agoudas Hakehilos (Union of Communities), a group of nine small Orthodox Jewish congregations of primarily Russian and Polish origin, acquired a very narrow parcel of land at 10 rue Pavée. In a grand gesture to create their new synagogue in the esthetic vocabulary of their new homeland, they asked Hector Guimard to design their building. Guimard, who was not Jewish, had never before designed a building with a religious purpose. The size limitations of the site made the project even more difficult. It is believed he took on this challenging assignment as a favor to his Jewish wife.

Last February, as part of my preparation for an October visit to Paris, I began attempting to obtain permission to photograph the Pavée Synagogue. My initial emails went unanswered. Thinking there might be a language barrier (I’m hopelessly monolingual), I had a French-fluent friend send emails. No answer, nada, zip. It was time to call in some favors. I asked for help from the European Jewish Community organization, which has used many of my synagogue photos in their books and publications. They put me in touch with people in high positions in the Paris Jewish Community. Amazingly, these highly positioned people only led to a highly confusing labyrinth of other contacts which were ultimately time consuming dead ends. I’d never even seen a photo of the interior of the Pavée, and as I became lost in this bureaucratic web spun by masters of evasion, I understood why.
A month before my arrival in Paris I had occasion to visit with a professional videographer who had made arrangements to film a television documentary about the Pavée synagogue. She said that although she had permission, when she arrived at the building with her filming crew, she was denied entrance.  It became clear that whatever they were hiding in there, I wasn’t going to get to take pictures of it.

Fast forward nine months to October in Paris. Though I had given up on any possibility of photographing the Pavée, my wife and I ventured to the gemutlich Marais district to enjoy a good Jewish lunch. The narrow streets of the Marais are lined with Jewish restaurants, bookstores, art galleries and purveyors of all things Judaic. Chasidic rabbis roam the streets inviting Jewish tourists to join them in prayer or visit their prayer rooms. I was approached by a red-bearded enthusiastic young rabbi, who invited us to see his prayer room. Through a doorway, along a dark passage, up a narrow staircase and we were there. If this sounds like a setup for a mugging, it wasn’t.

The Rabbi invited us to see his prayer room.
“Would you like to put on tefillin?” he asked. “I don’t know how,” I replied. “It will strengthen your bond with G-d and give your prayers more power. Here, I’ll help you”, he answered. I wasn’t sure that this was a good idea, but the young rabbi was so sincere and charming that I didn’t want to disappoint. In seconds he had me wrapped in tefillin, following him in some basic prayers. After unwrapping, we strolled over to the Pavée synagogue just to see it, with no thought of photography. I wasn’t even carrying my 70 lbs of camera gear.

The door to the Pavée was locked. As we stood looking at the exterior, the locked door opened to admit a person who evidently was part of the inner cabal. Not one to dally, my wife slipped in behind him and I followed. We were promptly told to leave. Just as promptly, my spouse put on the charm and asked if we could just take a look … we’d come all the way from Oklahoma, after all. Grudgingly, we were allowed to go up to the women’s balcony and take a quick look; under no circumstances were we to enter the main sanctuary.

Upstairs, we saw a stern, bearded, black-garbed rabbi entering a room adjacent to the balcony. I approached him and explained that I had been trying unsuccessfully to arrange photographic permission for nearly 10 months, that my cause was worthy and my objectives noble. He gave me the telephone number of the congregation’s president who, he said, was the only person who could authorize my photographic incursion into their inner sanctum.

When we reached the entrance lobby I dialed the number he had given me. It didn’t work. A cordial Chasid Shamash overheard my frustration. He looked at the number I was dialing and said, “You’ve been given the wrong number. Those guys upstairs do that.” Dialing my mobile phone, in a moment he had me connected to the congregation President. I felt like the Tin Man in the Wizard of Oz, who, after a host of obstacles, was finally talking to the Wizard. Overcoming my discouragement, I explained my desire to photographically document the Pavée for posterity. And “Voila!”, as they say in France, he agreed!

Art Nouveau details in the Pavée's interior.
We now have what may be the only documentary photos of the interior of this unique Art Nouveau synagogue. Is this tefillin power or what? You tell me.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

The Museum of Lights

Perhaps the most magnificent example of Baroque
 synagogue architecture in existence.
When you hear the word Hanukkah, what’s the first place that comes to mind, the Second Temple in Jerusalem? Even if you think of a place other than the site of the Maccabean Revolt, it’s a good bet that your answer won’t be Italy.  Yet, in the town of Casale Monferrato, Italy there is a museum devoted solely to menorahs, displaying what is probably the finest collection of contemporary menorahs in the world.  This little known gem occupies the cellar and former matzoth bakery beneath the ancient synagogue of Casale Monferrato, a town of about thirty six thousand people in Italy’s Piedmont district, only a short drive from Turin.

The first traces of Jews in Casale date from 1492, the year of the great expulsion from Spain. Although the Monferrato area was beset by many wars, Jews lived there peacefully under the Dukes of Mantua and other regimes into the eighteenth century.  Compared to the Jewish experience in much of Europe, theirs was a life of relative security and ease. However they were subject to special taxes and required to wear a distinctive yellow arm band. By 1599 premises were leased in the Jewish Ghetto for a synagogue and shortly thereafter a contiguous house was entrusted to a Jewish caretaker and a public oven for matzoth was built in a nearby courtyard.

The unobtrusive entrance to the amazing synagogue.
An unobtrusive door on the synagogue’s anonymous exterior leads into an idyllic, arcaded courtyard. Another simple door from the courtyard opens into the synagogue’s sanctuary, one of the most magnificent examples of baroque architecture and décor that exists. Over the centuries the sanctuary has been enlarged, re-arranged and redecorated many times.  You can see this incredible baroque synagogue in virtual-reality online at

When the gates to the ghetto were eliminated in 1848 the Jewish population of Casale was 850. In 1853, after the emancipation of Italy’s Jews by Napoleon, the synagogue was further embellished and restored. During the following years the city’s Jewish population declined as many recently emancipated Jews chose to migrate to larger population centers such as Turin and Milan. By 1931 there were still 112 Jewish community members while today there are only 7.

In the autumn of 1994, planning began for celebration of the synagogue’s 400th anniversary. A group of art lovers and experts decided that the synagogue’s fine collection of Chanukkiot should be expanded to become a world class tourist attraction.  Thus began a collection of contemporary art Chanukkiot produced by renown international artists. To describe this collection as beautiful, amazing, fascinating, fabulous or unique is simply inadequate.  A visit to Casale Monferrato’s Museum of Lights is a truly memorable experience.  You can see and learn more about the Museum of Lights online at Casale Monferatto Jewish Community Website.

Detail of Ark
Unlike much of Europe, Italy has treasured and maintained its historic Jewish buildings. Thus, a visit to the Jewish sights and sites of Italy is an exceptional  art, architecture and cultural experience.  There are numerous comprehensive guided tours focusing on Jewish Italy or you can simply do it yourself with the help of such books as “The Guide to Jewish Italy” by Annie Sacerdoti.  Just fly into Milan, rent a car with a GPS and start by heading for the incredible synagogue of Casale Monferrato and the Museum of Lights.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

From Auto-da-Fé to Art Deco

An early etching of an Auto-da-fe'
After a delightful lunch in one of the many sidewalk cafés surrounding Lisbon’s Rossio Square, we went to our photo-shoot appointment at the city’s only synagogue. Our appetites for the grilled fish entre were a bit dampened by the knowledge that in 1544, as Portugal’s Inquisition got into full swing, there had been an auto-da-fé in this very square, the site of our leisurely repast. Auto-da-fé is a sanitized term for public burnings, where good citizens jeer, cheer, and zealously participate in slicing, dicing and stealing as their victims scream and burn to death. In a series of such public spectacles, about 1200 of Portugal’s Jews were burned at the stake. Until that time Portugal had been a relatively safe harbor for Jews fleeing the Spanish Inquisition which had been going on for a little over fifty years.

To avoid this excruciating death, many Jews and Muslims, known as conversos, converted to Catholicism. However, conversion did not always prove to be a safe haven. Many conversos were subjected to horrendous tortures or life-long service as galley rowing slaves.

Another misery inflicted upon Portugal’s Jews was the state orchestrated mass kidnapping of Jewish children who were sent to work as slaves in the equatorial African islands of Sao Tome and Principe. It wasn’t without good cause. After all, labor was needed to work the sugar plantations of these Portuguese outposts where a particularly virulent strain of Malaria cut life expectancies to only a few years.

Lisbon's Grand Synagogue faces a courtyard
In 1821, the Marquis of Pombal halted the Inquisition and Jews were invited back to Portugal so that the country could benefit from their acumen as businessmen, scientists and doctors.  In anticipation of a congregation of many hundreds, Lisbon’s Grand Synagogue was completed in 1904. 

Interior of Grand Synagogue
Today, the Lisbon Jewish community numbers only about three hundred, having reached its peak during the World War II years when neutral Portugal was a gateway out of Europe. The synagogue was the first to be built since the late 15th century. Its main façade faces an inner courtyard since Portuguese law at the time forbade non-Catholic religious buildings from facing the street.

Our Lisbon photographic work completed, we went to the airport to pick up our prearranged lease car. At building 125, we met the cheery Peugeot representative. Following him, we dragged all of our luggage and photo-gear to a labyrinthine underground car park to retrieve our vehicle. Because Europeans are thrifty and eco-conscious this huge catacomb like parking area was nearly unlit. Stumbling along with our many bags, we eventually came to a car that was alleged to be ours. Who could tell in the dark? We were asked to sign a sheaf of documents which the Peugeot representative kindly attempted to illuminate with his almost exhausted pen-sized flashlight. Truly, it was so dark I have no idea what I signed, except I needed that car even if I was agreeing in writing to send my first born to Sao Tome to work the sugar plantations.

After the signing, the fun began. Imagine being acquainted in the dark with a new French car by a man who mostly speaks Portuguese. Standard shift just added to the challenges. After 10 minutes of misunderstanding the gentleman’s heavily accented miss-explanations we took our copies of the slavery contracts I had signed and backed the car out of its ridiculously narrow slot. Being a new model car, it was fitted with warning beepers that hooted and beeped if we got too near anything. The parking slot was so narrow that as soon as I began backing the vehicle, it erupted with a cacophony of hooting, beeping and flashing warning lights. I was stressed to the max by this pyrotechnic display in the near dark where structural columns and parked cars lurked in close proximity as I eased out the clutch. You do remember clutches don’t you? Proud that I hadn’t hit anything, we were finally out of the catacombs.

Interior of ancient Tomar Synagogue
An hour and a half later we arrived in the town of Tomar which has an authentically preserved medieval quarter replete with tiny, cobblestone streets zigzagging between ancient stone buildings. The vice-mayor had arranged for two smiling docents to meet us at Tomar’s old synagogue that dates from the mid-15th century.  As there are only two Jewish people now residing in Tomar, (one was our docent), the synagogue, a truly interesting Museum of Jewish Culture, is maintained by the city.  Since the expulsion and forced conversions of Portuguese Jews in 1496, the synagogue has served such diverse functions as a prison, church, grocery warehouse and hayloft.

View of arched Tomar Synagogue ceiling
Fronting on a narrow street in Tomar’s ancient Juderia, or Jewish ghetto, the small synagogue is a square shaped room with three short aisles defined by four central columns supporting Gothic vaulting. The four pillars are said to symbolize the four matriarchs of the Torah – Sarah, Rebekah, Leah and Rachel – who are recognized as co-founders of Israel, in equal stature to their more renowned husbands, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The twelve arches supported by the four columns symbolize the twelve tribes of Israel.

A two hour drive north from Tomar brought us to Porto, the city made famous as the source for the delicious, sweet alcoholic beverage, Port. Just as intoxicating, for those infatuated by architectural delicacies, is the city’s remarkable and unique Art-Deco style synagogue. There are very few religious buildings of any kind in the Art-Deco aesthetic. In detail as well as overall form and concept, this one is a true gem.

Porto's Art-Deco Synagogue
The Porto Synagogue’s story began in the 1920s when there were approximately twenty Ashkenazi Jews in the city. A Portuguese army officer, Captain Artur Barros Basto, who learned at the bedside of his dying grandfather that his family were actually conversos, decided to take up the faith of his Jewish ancestors. 

By 1929, Barros Basto had raised funds to buy a plot of land. Work progressed slowly due to limited finances until 1933, when Laura Kadoorie, the wife of Sir Elly Kadoorie, a Portuguese-born Jewish philanthropist living in Britain, died. Laura was a descendant of Portuguese Jews who fled that country’s inquisition centuries before.  To honor their
mother, Laura’s children financially supported completion of the Synagogue of Porto and it was renamed Synagogue Kadoorie - Mekor Haim.
Art-Deco details of Porto Synagogue
A short visit to Portugal offers the tourist three wonderful and diverse synagogues to ogle, delicious Port wine as well as delightful Portuguese cuisine, culture and countryside. My suggestion, if you rent a car, is be sure it’s delivered above ground.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Cuba Revisited

Havana's El Malecon today.
Dusk was falling as our ship glided into Havana’s harbor. From the deck I could see the twinkling lights of nightclubs and casinos sprinkled along El Malecon, Havana’s gracefully arcing waterfront. They looked like brilliant diamonds strung along a magnificent tropical necklace. It was New Year’s eve, 1956. Fulgencio Batista was still the dictator. Fidel Castro had not yet become known to the world. Havana was the Paris of the Caribbean, the land of Ernest Hemingway, Meyer Lansky, Frank Sinatra and baseball. Seen through the eyes of a teenage boy from Oklahoma, Cuba was heaven on earth: rum flowed, music played and romance was everywhere. Our parents treated my sister and me to a glittering and unforgettable evening at the Tropicana nightclub that superlatives cannot adequately describe.

A year later, when I was in the 10th grade, my geometry instructor was fresh from several years of teaching in Cuba. By then Castro’s revolution was gaining momentum. However, Mr. McDermott confidently assured us that “the upstart would never amount to anything.” Fortunately, I used Mr. McDermott’s advice only for geometry because two years later, in 1959, Castro became the dictator, imposing a strict socialist regimen on the economy.  As relations with the USA chilled, travel to Cuba for United States citizens was forbidden.  After many years and a bit of thawing, travel is now permitted provided that the traveler obtains a license from the U.S. State Department. Licenses are granted for special purposes such as humanitarian and medical missions, not simply tourism.

Centro Sefaradi Synagogue, Havana
In 2011, fifty five years after my previous visit to Havana, my wife and I decided to visit Cuba, photograph its synagogues and learn about its Jewish community. A bit of internet research lead us to Miriam Saul, a Cuban-born Jewish woman who resides in Atlanta, Georgia. For several years Miriam had been leading small group tours from the USA to explore things Jewish in Cuba. Miriam offers a turnkey service including proper licensing with the US State Department as well as personally accompanying her tour groups. Wanting to experience Cuba with an emphasis on its Jewish community, we found Miriam’s small group approach to be the perfect answer.  

Before 1959, Cuba’s Jewish population numbered approximately 20 thousand. But when Castro took power, nationalizing all personal property and businesses, the island’s Jews could see the writing on the wall. They left en masse: 90% fled to America and Israel. Of the remaining 10%, most are elderly, or have died. The Jewish community now numbers approximately 1900. It is racially diverse and mostly converts. The largest communities are, of course, in Havana. In addition, a few very small communities, of 25 persons or less, exist in other areas, such as Cienfuegos, Santa Clara and Santiago de Cuba.

In Cuba we learned that the Jewish Community has a unique problem: too many people want to convert to Judaism.  Socialism provides a very low standard of living for Cubans. One of the means of escaping the grinding poverty is immigration to another country, but few will accept impoverished Cubans.  Israel is the exception. It will accept Jewish Cubans. To eliminate Jewish converts who mainly want to use Judaism as a stepping stone to Israel, the requirements for conversion are understandably rigorous.

In order to obtain a travel license from the State Department, we had to be part of an approved mission. Ours was a medical mission. Each person in our group purchased and carried to Cuba a suitcase full of over-the-counter medicines and medical supplies which are in terribly short supply in Cuba. We donated our supplies to the pharmacy in the Jewish Community Center adjacent to Havana’s El Patronato Synagogue.
The Center is home to the local Jewish federation and a pharmacy which dispenses its scarce medical supplies free of charge to Jews, Gentiles and even the Havana General Hospital. These supplies are mostly provided by Jewish visitors from other countries. Havana’s JCC includes amenities which are rare in Cuba; online computers, plasma TV, library, exercise and recreational equipment, pool tables. Approximately 160 students attend the weekly religious school.

El Patronato Synagogue & Community Center
El Patronato synagogue was built in 1953. It is a kitsch, 1950s cement structure with a large powder blue arch that soars above the height of the building and across the front of the building’s facade.  Guests to the El Patronato have included Steven Spielberg, Sean Penn, Fidel Castro as well as yours truly. President Raul Castro lit the first Hanukkah candle of 2010 in this synagogue.  Although Castro’s administration is agnostic, his grandmother is said to have been Jewish.

The Centro Sefaradi, pictured above in this blog, is one of three existing synagogues in Havana, the Centro Sefardi Synagogue was constructed in the city’s Vedado neighborhood in 1950.  This imposing Bauhaus style concrete structure is now being re-purposed as a performance hall and a new synagogue has been constructed adjacent to it.

More photos of Havana’s three synagogues:

More information about Miriam Saul and Jewish-Cuban travel:

Havana's Synagogue Adath Israel de Cuba 

Monday, January 20, 2014

Who was Joseph Cohen?

One of Malta's many waterfront playgrounds for the jet set.
The Jews of Malta figured importantly in the most important battle that you never heard of.  Most of us know remarkably little about Malta, a tiny island archipelago nation in the Mediterranean Sea. Located squarely between Sicily and Africa, only about 20 miles long and 5 miles wide, it stood as the gatekeeper of Mediterranean transportation for many centuries.  By the middle ages, the population of this dry, rocky and unforgiving place was almost 1300. About one fifth were Jewish.

Suleiman the Magnificent, Sultan of Turkey and pitiless emperor of the Ottoman Empire controlled the greatest fighting force in the world. In 1565, he sent a huge force of more than 40,000 soldiers on more than 200 slave galleys to capture Malta and thereby dominate the Mediterranean--the key to Europe. He planned to wipe the barren rock of Malta clean, annihilating the 700 Knights of St. John who defended it. In the spring, after the Mediterranean had calmed from its winter storms, the galleys set forth from Turkey. Arriving in late May, they laid siege to the Maltese fortresses.

Volumes have been written about the four month siege and the continuous battles that raged with unspeakable fury. For days the invaders pounded Fort St. Elmo into rubble but by night the Knights, assisted by the local citizenry, sent reinforcements and supplies by boat to the fortress located strategically at the mouth of the Maltese harbor. Because the Fort was being sacrificed in a doomed holding action, the resupply boats were suicide missions.

In the last days of St Elmo, the Grand Master of the Knights, Jean Parisot de Valette, allowed one final volunteer force to attempt to bring relief to the doomed fort. Anyone who went on such a mission faced certain death. Nevertheless, two Jews of the island chose to join the relief expedition. In her history of the Order of St John, Claire-Eliane Engel comments that during the Great Siege, “les juifs de Malte avaient ete d'une loyaute au-dessus de tout eloge” [the Jews of Malta had behaved with a loyalty above all praise].

During the month of June, in battles so horrid that human heads were used as cannonballs, the Turks lost 8,000 of their crack troops while most of the defenders perished before giving up St. Elmo. After St. Elmo’s fall, the Knights, along with the residents including Jews, fell back to Fort St. Angelo. Valette realized that if vitally strategic Malta fell, the Muslim Ottoman Empire would soon dominate the Mediterranean. Even Rome would be in Peril, radically changing the course of European history.

One Joseph Cohen, the Jewish slave of a tavern keeper in Valletta overheard Muslim slaves conspiring against the Knights in his tavern. The mutiny was to start with the murder of the Grand Master. With great peril of his being found out by the conspirators, he gained an audience with the Grand Master and told him what he had overheard. For his loyalty he was set free from bondage and awarded a house (Monte di Pieta) in Merchants street by Valette. 

During July and August, Valette urged his small contingency of Knights and residents to superhuman feats of bravery and endurance against overwhelming odds. The furnace-hot temperatures of those months along with rampant disease among the Turks and a brilliant defense by Valette wore down the Turks.  112 days of siege left the food supply of the invaders too short to allow them to remain for the winter and the seasonal window during which the Mediterranean was navigable in their small slave galleys was closing. After an unimaginably bloody series of battles and finally withdrawal, of the 40,000 Ottoman troops who had set sail from Constantinople only some 10,000 made it home.

A view from one of the fortresses of Valetta
Four hundred years later, from 1940 to 1942, Malta was once again under siege as the Axis forces tried to remove the British from the island. The Royal Air Force and Navy based on the island attacked Axis ships and Rommel’s troops in Africa. Rommel warned, "Without Malta the Axis will end by losing control of North Africa." He resolved to bomb, or starve Malta into submission by attacking its ports, towns, cities and Allied ships supplying the island. Malta was one of the most intensively bombed areas during WWII yet it never fell.

Our personal invasion of Malta was much more peaceful. The objective was simply to photograph the synagogue and meet members of the Jewish community, not to dominate the Mediterranean. We arrived by high-speed hydrofoil ferry at Valetta, the island’s largest city, named after the venerable Grand Master Valette.  Driving off the ferry into the dark night was much like being regurgitated into a wild roller-coaster Disneyland ride. Winding streets laid down centuries ago, cacophonous traffic hurtling through nearly impenetrable darkness soon conspired to get us lost in the spaghetti-like maze of a really creepy industrial-port area. Our GPS eventually sorted us out, leading us to an oasis (AKA Hilton Hotel).

The Malta Synagogue
Present day Malta has a population of over 400,000 yet there are only between 100 and 200 Jews. The old synagogue was in such disrepair that it was pulled down as part of an urban renewal project. With help from the Maltese Government a condominium, suitable for a synagogue and community center, was located and financed. The lay-led Sephardic congregation meets and prays in their new premises located in a middle-class neighborhood with the unlikely name Ta’ Xbiex.

Malta has a reputation as a spa-resort, tax-haven and good place to get your money laundered. The only laundry we tried was the one at the Hilton. We can say without hesitation that the island is fascinating and its Jewish community is warm, engaging and eager to have visitors join in their Shabbat. Sitting for a moment of reflection in the synagogue, I pondered that the entire course of Western European history had hinged upon Joseph Cohen, a Jewish slave.