Dublin -- Curator of Jewish Museum Dies

Word has come of the death of Raphael Siev, the longtime curator of the Jewish Museum in Dublin. He fell ill at a Holocaust Memorial Day ceremony on Sunday and died early Wednesday. He was 73.

I've never been to the Jewish Museum in Dublin (actually, I've never been to Dublin!) but I had met Raphael Siev at meetings of the Association of European Jewish Museums, an organization that (loosely) links representatives of Jewish Museums in about 30 cities around Europe.

Some of these museums are large, publicly funded institutions. Others, like that in Dublin, are smaller operations, run by local Jewish communities, often on a volunteer basis.

The Jewish Museum in Dublin was founded in 1985 and includes a former synagogue with all its fittings:
the former Walworth Road Synagogue, which could accommodate approximately 150 men and women, consisted of two adjoining terraced houses. Due to the movement of the Jewish people from the area to the suburbs of Dublin and with the overall decline in their numbers, the Synagogue fell into disuse and ceased to function in the early 70's.
The museum also includes:
a substantial collection of memorabilia relating to the Irish Jewish communities and their various associations and contributions to present day Ireland. The material relates to the last 150 years and is associated with the communities of Belfast, Cork, Derry, Drogheda, Dublin, Limerick & Waterford.
In addition, according to the web site, there is
an abundance of written material on James Joyce and his writings, and many people visit Dublin to follow in the footsteps of Leopold Bloom of Ulysses, nevertheless a visit to the Museum enables the Joycean follower to obtain an insight into the cultural, economic, religious & social life of the Jew in Ireland during the early 1900’s.

Italy -- Biella synagogue restored

Photo from moked.it

The gem-like synagogue in Biella, near Torino and Vercelli in the Piedmont region of northwest Italy, has been rededicated after "important and decisive" restoration.

Dating from the early 17th century, the synagogue, at vicolo del Bellone 3, occupies the top floor of a medieval house in the heart of what was the historic Jewish quarter. The sanctuary is small and rectagular in shape, focused on a spendid 17th-century Ark and an oval, waist-high carved wooden enclosure around the Bimah.

The €350,000 restoration, overseen by the Jewish community in Vercelli and funded in part by the Piedmont Region and a local bank, included structural consolidation and repair of the roof, which threatened collapse, as well as restoration of the elaborate Ark, the women's gallery and other interior fittings. Further restoration work is planned.

For Italian readers, you can see fuller details by clicking HERE. You may also contact the president of the Vercelli Jewish community, Rossella Bottini Treves, at comebravc.presid@libero.it

The Biella synagogue is one of about 16 beautiful synagogues in Piedmont, many of which have been restored in recent years and can be visited. You can find some information on the Jewish Community of Torino web site. Also, Sam Gruber has written an essay about these synagogues which can be found in a new volume about Jews in Piedmont.

See also the web site for the synagogue at Casale Monferrato, the most elaborate of the synagogues in the region, which is now used (mainly) as a Jewish museum and culture center.

Poland -- My Ruthless Cosmopolitan column about Henryk Halkowski

Here's the link to my Ruthless Cosmopolitan column remembering my old friend Henryk Halkowski, the writer and local historian who died in his native Krakow on New Year's Day.

Ruthless Cosmopolitan: Farewell to a Pintele Yid

Jan. 22, 2009

BUDAPEST (JTA) -- The Yiddish expression "dos pintele Yid" is often translated as "the Jewish spark" -- an indestructible core of Jewishness that lurks deep within even unknowing or alienated Jews, ready to spring back to life at any unexpected moment.

The Forward's language maven, Philologos, once devoted a column to the term, describing it as an almost mystical notion.

"It posits that all Jews, even if they are unaware of it or have been raised so un-Jewishly that they do not know they are Jewish, have within them a Jewish essence that can be activated under certain circumstances," Philologos wrote.

Henryk Halkowski, who died suddenly on New Year's Day in his native Krakow, Poland, may have been one of the least mystical people I ever knew, but in many ways he embodied this concept.

A writer, translator and local historian, Henryk was like a pintele Yid for an entire city -- a city whose Jewish population of more than 65,000 had been all but wiped out in the Shoah. A city where only some 200 or so Jews live today.

To my mind, Henryk was one of the most noteworthy personalities in the new Jewish reality that has emerged in Poland since the Iron Curtain came down nearly 20 years ago.

"He was a guardian of Krakow's Jewish legacy," said Joachim Russek, director of the city's Center for Jewish Culture.

Born in 1951 into the echoing vacuum of post-Holocaust Poland, Henryk was haunted by the ghosts of Krakow's Holocaust dead and the generations of Krakow Jews who went before them.

He, in turn, haunted Jewish Krakow, learning its secrets and becoming so intimately attached that he seemed to have real, psychological difficulty leaving the city even for a few days.

"He was a character," said Stanislaw Krajewski, a leader in Poland's Jewish revival and the American Jewish Committee representative in Warsaw. "He was so Cracovian -- a Krakow curiosity."

With his encyclopedic knowledge of Krakow's Jewish history, culture, legend and lore, Henryk became a touchstone for me and other Jewish foreigners who began trickling in to Krakow in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

"For many of us, Henryk Halkowski was one of our first significant encounters with Krakow, and for all the years thereafter he remained a fixture of its character as much as any other person or institution," said Michael Traison, an American lawyer who has worked for years in Poland and sponsored many projects aimed at preserving Jewish heritage and fostering Jewish revival.

A stocky figure with thick glasses and a gray-flecked beard, Henryk was a familiar figure in Krakow's Jewish quarter, Kazimierz, where he roamed the streets with a restless energy.

"Wherever one walked in Kazimierz, regardless of the time of day or night, you couldn't help but run into him, then have a drink, then have a meal," recalled the klezmer musician and filmmaker Yale Strom, who met Halkowski in 1984 and featured him in several of his documentaries.

I first met Halkowski in the early 1990s.

Back then Kazimierz was a slum, a dilapidated ghost town that still showed the scars of Nazi mass murder and communist oppression.

Henryk, as head of a Jewish club, had formed the nucleus of a group of younger Jews who had attempted to revive Yiddish culture in the 1980s.

He recalled to me how foreign Jews often seemed uncomfortable meeting younger Jews in Poland -- how they couldn't understand their desire, or need, to remain.

"American Jews have a stereotype about Polish Jews who stayed here," he told me. "It's as if we are seen as 'traitors' to the nation."

In the years since then, Kazimierz has grown into a lively tourist center, with Jewish-style cafes, renovated synagogues, kitschy souvenirs and constantly milling tour groups.

The district has a resident rabbi and a Chabad center, and there is a plethora of Jewish cultural and educational institutions -- even a local Jewish publishing house, which has brought out Henryk's own books.

Henryk was an acute observer of the transformation, even as he became one of its protagonists.

"Disheveled and in disarray, he never disappointed as he cynically critiqued the absurdity of the Disneyland display of Jewish heritage and tragedy," Traison said.

"Orally and through his writings, he offered a sincere and unique insight into Cracovian culture and specifically that special Kazimierz life created since the fall of communism.

"Henryk remained and remains a genuine part of that milieu," he said. "And if one word is needed to describe him that is it: genuine."

In 1997 I took a picture of Henryk, a wry grin on his face, as he posed a trifle awkwardly at a Krakow souvenir stall selling T-shirts and carved wooden figures of Jews.

"Shall I tell you my obsession?" he asked me once, as he tucked into a bowl of chicken soup and kreplach at one of Kazimierz's trendy new Jewish-style restaurants.

"What we need in Kazimierz is some sort of institution that presents Jewish life as it really was here. What an apartment was like, for example; what a cheder was like, what a workshop was like. How the people here really lived. Something to inject a bit of reality into the gentrification."

Henryk was buried in Krakow's Jewish cemetery. Some 300 people braved the snow and bitter cold to pay their last respects. Rabbis and cafe keepers alike mourned at the graveside.

I could not make the trip to attend. But I remembered what Henryk had told me years ago, during one of our earliest conversations.

"Kazimierz," he said, "can be a place where meaning can be materialized."

That still holds true. But it simply won't be the same without him.

Real Full JTA Story

Poland -- Wooden Synagogus anniversary

Nextbook.org recently published Sam Gruber's article marking the 50th anniversary of the landmark book Wooden Synagogues by Maria and Kazimierz Piechotka.

Fifty years ago this year, two young Polish architects published a book that would change the face of American synagogue architecture. Maria and Kazimierz Piechotka, both survivors of the Warsaw Uprising and German labor camps, collected and interpreted studies made before the war of the wooden synagogues that once dotted Eastern Europe. Most of the surveys were taken by people who died in the Holocaust, and all of the centuries-old buildings went up in flames. But much of the documentation pertaining to their architecture survived. The Piechotkas used this material, which included photographs, measurements, and descriptions, to recreate the destroyed buildings in their book Wooden Synagogues. Published in Polish in 1957 and released in English in 1959, the book revealed a lost world of interior spaces, shapes, and decorations, tremendously varied, expressive, and exciting—and all made of wood.

From 1959 to 1989, the Piechtokas, living in Warsaw, were severely restricted in what they could publish about Jewish art, despite the material they continued to gather and additional insight they might have offered. Thus, Wooden Synagogues became a sort of message in a bottle, sent out into the world on its own.

Read Full Article and See Pictures

One of my first and most intensive journeys tracing Jewish heritage sites was a trip with the Piechotkas through eastern Poland in May 1990.... Sam and his wife, Judy, and I traveled with Maria and Maciej to -- if I remember correctly -- 19 synagogue buildings in all states of repair and disrepair. (We also visited some sites on our own.) The trip opened my eyes to the extent, beauty and power of what survived of Jewish heritage in eastern Europe, and it formed the basis for much of the Poland chapter in the first edition of Jewish Heritage Travel.

Italy -- Archeology of Jewish Settlement in Sardinia

There will be a conference this weekend about Jewish history in Alghero, a small town on the northwest coast of Sardinia where Jews settled in the mid-14th century. One of the principal speakers will be Mauro Milanese, an archologist who has directed excavations in Alghero's old Jewish quarter.

Mauro Milanese ha diretto invece gli scavi nel quartiere ebraico di Alghero, il “kahal” o “juharia”, con interventi nel cortile del vecchio ospedale, all’interno della chiesa di Santa Chiara e sopratutto in Piazza Santa Croce dove era ubicata la sinagoga, il luogo di culto della comunità ebraica, l’“aljama” algherese; quest'ultimo intervento ha riportato alla luce, al di sotto dei ruderi della chiesa di Santa Croce, i resti di alcuni fabbricati ascrivibili al quartiere ebraico, e, proprio in occasione della chiusura degli scavi, un vano sotterraneo, probabilmente il “mikvé”, ovvero la vasca annessa ai locali della sinagoga utilizzata per alcuni rituali della comunità.

I primi ebrei sefarditi arrivarono con la conquista di Alghero (1354) da parte di Pietro IV il Cerimonioso, provenienti dalla penisola iberica (“Sefarad”, in ebraico) dalla Provenza e dalle Baleari. Ben presto si dotarono di una prima sinagoga, di una macelleria per la vendita di carne “kasher”, di un cimitero (“fossar iudeorum”), ed ottenerono il privilegio, fra gli altri, di amministrare autonomamente la giustizia, tutti elementi essenziali per la sussistenza di una comunità rispettosa dei numerosi precetti previsti dalla religione giudaica.
It's a sad sign of the times and of the mentality that identifies anything Jewish with the current policies of Israel, that the organizers, according to an article in the local newspaper, in announcing a conference about local Jewish history in the 14th and 15th centuries, felt that they had to mention the situation in Gaza and their hope that "it cannot and must not transform itself into an occasion that can give rise to racist outbursts," that is, anti-semitism. The organizers also used the announcement of the conference to voice their hopes for a peaceful settlement that would "leave space for tolerance and reciprocal respect" between Israelis and Palestinians.
«Per concludere – dichiarano gli organizzatori - la situazione politica nella Striscia di Gaza, di tragica attualità, non può e non deve trasformarsi in un’occasione che possa dare origine a rigurgiti razzisti; l’auspicio è che le armi cedano il passo alla diplomazia affinché si possa trovare una soluzione ed una prospettiva di pacifica convivenza fra le parti in guerra, cosa che forse potrebbe essere possibile se l’integralismo, religioso o politico che sia, lasciasse spazio alla tolleranza e al reciproco rispetto».

Read Full Article (in Italian)

Slovenia -- Maribor synagogue defaced

Maribor synagogue, Jan. 18, 2009 -- photo from Slovenian Press Agency

Several synagogues in Europe have been the target of vandalism (or worse) linked to the situation in Gaza.

The latest is the historic former synagogue in Maribor, Slovenia, which was daubed with anti-Semitic graffiti over the weekend -- click HERE to see more pictures showing the walls of the building covered with "Judan Raus" and "Gaza."

The synagogue in Maribor, now used as a cultural center, is one of Slovenia's most important Jewish heritage sites and one of the oldest known synagogues in Europe.

It stands in the heart of the medieval Jewish quarter (still known as Zidovska ulica) and is believed to date from the 13th century. Its exact date and original appearance are unknown, however. Already in 1501 -- a few years after the Jews were expelled from that part of Slovenia -- it was converted into a church. It functioned as a church until the late 18th century. In the early 19th century it was sold and turned into a warehouse and, later, a dwelling.

Long empty, the building was renovated in the 1990s and reopened as a cultural center in 2001. The only physical evidence that the building was once a synagogue is the large niche in the eastern wall, presumably for the Ark. Also, numerous stone fragments with carved Hebrew inscriptions were found during excavations for the renovation.