Bucharest has recently become a very popular destination for Jewish and Israeli tourists. And, the Jewish aspects of Bucharest are very interesting.
Let me start with the riddle: What is the structure of this photograph?
Well, the answer to that is that this building is the largest Kosher restaurant in Bucharest. Anyone who is not a local Jew cannot know this, as there is no sign. There is nothing to differentiate this restaurant. This is the only restaurant that I have ever seen that does not try to attract customers. Here, Jewish tourists are not welcome. The restaurant is closed in itself, just like the Jewish community. Hiding, scared, and mostly from itself.
There is no cooperation between the community committee and Chabad Shlichim. The local Jews are suspicious of such welcome Jewish activity as organizing a mass Sedder, or Torah and Tanya lessons. In many parts of the world, I saw that Chabad Shlichim was treated suspiciously, but Bucharest is not like any other Jewish community in the world.
Before the Holocaust, there were 850,000 Jews in Romania. After the Holocaust, only 350,000 Jews survived. Most of them immigrated to Israel, and those who remained suffered from the rule of the dictator Ceausescu. The last official census was conducted in 2011, identifying only 3,271 Jews. But the Chabad Rabbi Naftali Deutsch estimates that there are many more, because both him and his wife's classes, as well as the public Sedder held by Chabad, include Jews who are not registered as members of the Jewish community.
There were once 1,550 synagogues in all of Romania, currently, there are only 81. And, in Bucharest, there are only 6. Most of the Jewish area in Bucharest was destroyed by Dictator Ceausescu during his megalomaniac plan to make a boulevard in front of the Palais "larger than Avenue des Champs Elysées". In order to fulfill his wishes, 40,000 families, some of them Jewish, were expelled from their homes, and all the homes and public buildings in the area were destroyed.
Near the People's Palace is the Holocaust Memorial for the victims of Jews and Gypsies. At the corner of the outer plaza is an iron column about five stories high. On each side of the page, one of the Hebrew letters of the word "Zachor" ("Remember") is fixed. This column can be seen from very far away from both the People's Palace and the Chishmigio Gardens.
The main building is a memory room in the deep underground, intended to remind us of a mass grave. On one side of the tomb, there are tombstones brought from the Jewish cemeteries. There is a rusted iron Star of David in the outer square, as well as a large iron box with rock fragments in it. When you approach the tomb, you can see that there are fragments of Jewish gravestones. There are also rusty iron wheels in the plaza, which is a symbol for the gypsies.
In Bucharest, there was a Jewish quarter behind the Coltea Hospital, right to the southeast. Before the Holocaust, 15% of the inhabitants of Bucharest were Jews. Today, not even 0.1% are Jews. There also used to be 81 synagogues and batei midrash. During the communist times Romania was the only Communist country with a Jewish community life, led by Rabbi Moshe Rosen, who was also a member of the Romanian parliament.
The central synagogue in Budapest is the Choral Synagogue, which was established about 150 years ago, and has been renovated over the last decade. If it seems to us a little familiar, it is because it was designed by the two architects who also built the Templagasse Synagogue in Budapest. The Choral Synagogue is a very luxurious building, and is decorated inside with stunning murals. As in the Reform synagogue, there is also a place for an organ and choir, hence the name Chorali which means, "With a choir". The history of the building was that it was damaged by earthquakes, renovated for 8 years, and then re-inaugurated in 2014. Today, it is an Orthodox synagogue and is very active on Shabbats and holidays.
The women’s section was originally on the second floor, but in recent years, a partition was made on the first floor, because the older women who arrived to pray on Shabbat had difficulty climbing the stairs. The Gabbai, Gilbert Schum, is proud to have hosted Israeli leaders such as Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Shamir, Golda Meir, Benjamin Netanyahu, Peres, and Yuli Edelstein. When his grandfather was the Gabai, he hosted Moshe Montefiory in the synagogue.
The second synagogue is the Polish synagogue where the Sephardic version was worshipped, and now it serves as a museum for the Holocaust. The wall of the Holy Ark is decorated with charming decorations, and posters and pictures from the Holocaust were hung up on the rest of the walls.
It is worth paying attention to Righteous Among the Nations Trajan Popovich, whose story and picture are located in the southwestern corner of the museum. During the Holocaust, Trajan Popovich was the mayor of Czernowitzi in Romania (now in Ukraine). He saved about 25,000 Jews by issuing them Christian identity cards. These identity cards were real and original, and not fake. Because of this, he saved more Jews than Schindler.
Among the Jews he saved were the grandparents of the Hollywood actor Dustin Hoffman. And, in recent years, Dustin Hoffman has been working on producing a feature film about Popovitz's acts during the Holocaust, and Hoffman will play the lead role of Popovitz. One of the researchers for this film is the tour guide who accompanied me on a tour of the Jewish Bucharest, Yochan Mikhalishu. "This will be a film like Schindler's List, but bigger."
Another "must visited" is the synagogue "Yeshuha Tova" (address: Tache Ionescu 9), which is the oldest synagogue in Bucharest. It was active for about 70 years and was then renovated by Chabad. Rabbi Naftali Deutsch says that there are almost three minyanim every day. When I went there for a Shaharit service one morning, I was the "Tzenter", the 10th for the Minyan. On the other hand, in the Kabbalat Shabbat prayer, the synagogue was packed with worshipers, most of them Israelis, and I found it hard to find a seat in the prayer hall, which has about 150 seats.
The Chabad House has a kitchen that provides kosher meals to the hotels at a cheap price of only 15 euros for lunch.
One of the most important synagogues in Bucharest was the Malbim Synagogue, the rabbinate of Rabbi Meir Leibush ben Yechiel of Michel Weiser served, whose commentaries we learned at Bnei Akiva yeshivas. This synagogue stood desolate for many years, until the communist regime destroyed the building in 1988, and built the municipal library on its ruins. There are also two abandoned buildings in which there were synagogues – the Beit Midrash, also known as "The Lost Synagogue" because it is hidden between houses that block access to it, and the "Chevra Emuna" synagogue.
It is worth saying that there is also a Jewish museum in Bucharest, but I have not seen it because it has been closed for 4 years now for renovations. But, it will soon be opening to the public. I was told that prior to the last Passover holiday, a press tour was being held at the museum to mark the opening of the museum, but that there were defects that are being dealt with, and it is not known when they will end.
I also had the chance to see the Yiddish Theater building, where Yiddish plays are held. It is good to note that there is also a secular Jewish culture in Bucharest, but from a tourist point of view, there is nothing to see there, just a building.
I would also like to conclude my review of Bucharest Jewry with a symbolic photograph, much like the opening picture of this post.
In Bucharest, there are more ruins of Jewish institutions than active structures. One example is the structure of the large nursing home that operated until 1958, and today is abandoned and destroyed. After the abandonment, Gypsies entered. At first they lived there, stole all the furniture and faucets, and even the doors, the glasses, and the mezuzahs. In my eyes, this place and the restaurant reflect the situation of Romanian Jewry today more than the beautiful and renovated synagogues do.
About 3,000 Jews live in Bucharest nowadays, most of them adults, and fewer than 300 people under the age of 60. Rabbi Deitsch says that the last time a wedding ceremony was held in Bucharest, in which the couple were both Jewish, was about three years ago. This means that in a decade or two, Judaism in Bucharest will evaporate and fade away completely.
There are a number of tourist bodies in Bucharest that are offering Jewish Bucharest tour by foot or car, either for free or for a fee. The Municipality of Bucharest also conducts half-day Jewish tours for 29 euros per person. As an official guest, I was given the best-considered guide. His name was Ioan Mihailescu, and you can book tours with him by going to this site: www.bucharestjewishtours.com or by phone: 4-0722-235095. Prices: EUR 57 per family for a walking tour, and EUR 145 for 5 people on a minibus ride.
The information and images for this article were obtained by the Bucharest Expirience organization and especially by its managers Tudor & Anda Maxim