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.