A land of sprawling green valleys, craggy mountains and haunted gray castles, Romania is still virtually unknown to American Jews, despite a complex and ancient Jewish heritage in this far eastern corner of Europe.
Straddling the Balkans and Central Europe, worshipping in the Orthodox Church and speaking a Romance tongue, Romanians have a unique and potent culture. The country itself is only in its second century; the area within its borders has at various times been under the rule of the Roman, Byzantine, Ottoman, Bulgarian and Austro-Hungarian empires.
If Americans’ lingering impression of Romania is one of bleakness and depression, the 20th century is largely to blame. Nearly a half-million Romanian Jews perished in the Holocaust as the country allied with Hitler. Then came the secret-police terror in the years after World War II and the brutal, repressive regime of the dictator Ceausescu, a time when American newspapers filled with pathetic images of Romanian orphans.
But with the country’s 2007 entry into the European Union, tourism has skyrocketed as curious globetrotters flock to an inexpensive country with a newly accessible profile. Romania’s unspoiled medieval-era villages, the baroque architecture of its regional cities and the remote, otherworldly feel of its castle-and-church-dotted countryside are making the country one of the continent’s fastest-growing destinations.
“Romania was closed for so many years,” said Kathy Kutrubes, an owner of Kutrubes Travel, a Boston-based company that specializes in the Balkans and offers travel in less-explored regions throughout the world. “But now that it is part of the European Union, people are getting more interested in traveling there. It has so much to offer culturally. There are things in Romania that you can’t find anywhere else.”
Kutrubes points to a half-dozen UNESCO World Heritage Sites — virtually unknown treasures like the fortified churches of Transylvania, the distinctive wooden churches of Maramures, the ancient Dacian fortresses nestled into the Orastie Mountains and the historic center of the city of Sighisoara.
Recognizing the breadth of Romania’s Jewish history, Kutrubes Travel and a few other tour operators are beginning to offer heritage tours aimed at American Jews. While demand for European travel is down across the board, Romania represents a bright spot because it is inexpensive by Western standards and does not yet use the euro, making it a relative bargain for Americans.
Fewer than 10,000 Jews are estimated amid the current Romanian population of 21 million. But Romania is also the land of the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of chasidism who did important work in this region, and of Satu Mare, the village from which Satmar chasidism was sprung. It is the homeland of Elie Wiesel, the Nobel-winning writer whose narrative of Holocaust survival speaks poignantly to the richness of prewar Jewish community here — a history preserved in numerous historic synagogues and Jewish cemeteries throughout Romania.
Many Jewish families with vague roots in “Eastern Europe” are in fact from territory within modern-day Romania. The country was a unique crossroads for Sephardim from Southern Europe and Ashkenazim from the Ukraine, Russia and Austria-Hungary; it is one of the few countries in which both traditions are truly resonant.
Kutrubes said her company maintains an extensive network of Jewish contacts in Romania and can arrange custom heritage tours, including visits with active Jewish communities, for groups as small as one person. “There are wonderful, historic synagogues and historic Jewish communities, not only in Bucharest, but in many smaller towns all over Romania,” said Kutrubes.
The company recently launched a nine-day itinerary with flexible dates from March through November (wintertime is a bit harsh for this region, though Romania does have several popular ski resorts).
Romanian Jewish heritage tours generally begin in Bucharest, where Sephardic Jews settled in the 16th century. The first Ashkenazi Jews migrated here from modern-day Ukraine and Poland shortly afterward, fleeing a Cossack uprising, according to the Romanian Tourism Office. There were 10 active synagogues and assorted Jewish organizations in Bucharest in the 1830s. Seventy years later, Jewish Bucharest reached its apex; it had a population of 40,000, with 70 temples, a lively Yiddish theater and a tradition of producing influential rabbis.
The largest of the two remaining active congregations is the Choral Temple, which dates from 1857 and is featured on every Jewish tour. The Choral Temple is an imposing brick structure in the Moorish-Sephardic style; services are still held here twice a day, at 8 a.m. and 7 p.m. The Yeshoah Tova Synagogue, on a bustling side street nearby, still holds Shabbat services as well.
Most Jewish visitors also drop by the Jewish community center and the centerpiece of Bucharest Jewish heritage: the Dr. Moses Rosen Museum of the History of the Jewish Community in Romania. Referred to simply as the Jewish Museum, it is housed in the circa-1850 Great Synagogue in a historic Jewish neighborhood. In addition to the usual Jewish ritual objects and Judaica, there is also ample evidence of flourishing Jewish secular culture here: books and paintings by Romanian Jews, as well as memorabilia from Jewish theaters.
The Kutrubes tour continues to the town of Piatra Neamt, where visitors can survey the wooden, half-underground synagogue where the Baal Shem Tov is said to have served. Nearby Iasi, another city on Kutrubes’ tour, was once the headquarters of Romanian Jewish intellectual life, brimming with temples and Jewish theaters when it was the capital of now-defunct Moldavia. Visitors can tour the country’s oldest synagogue, which dates to the late 17th century and today is a museum.
Mystical Maramures, in Northern Transylvania, has the country’s largest concentration of distinctive wooden church architecture; the region is also full of historic monasteries, which in the Balkans typically feature colorful paintings and filigreed “objets.” Kutrubes arranges to lodge travelers in local homes, giving Americans a taste of Romanian village life that has changed little in hundreds of years. Nearby Sighet, where Elie Wiesel’s childhood home is now a museum, is another stop on the tour.
The Balkans are still largely rural; more and more residents migrate each year from smaller towns and villages to capitals like Bucharest, Sofia and Belgrade. But with its lengthy history and relatively large population by European standards, Romania boasts several smaller cities that retain their vibrancy.
While most Americans only know of Bucharest, “there are some wonderful things to see in the north and center of Romania,” said Kutrubes, including numerous significant Jewish heritage sites. The postcard-perfect city of Cluj Napoca, for instance, would be on any Romanian itinerary even if it did not have a fascinating Jewish history. A city of more than 300,000 people, it has a stunning medieval center and a lively university, as well as grand plazas, elegant cafes and ornate churches and temples.
Sibiu, another Romanian must-see, is a nice contrast to Cluj Napoca. In 2007, as a European capital of culture, the city was shined up for tourists, and today its medieval and baroque architecture is beautifully restored. Like Cluj Napoca, it has an urbane feel, and its Grand Synagogue is one of Romania’s most impressive temples.
In the country’s heart, nestled in the Carpathian Mountains north of the capital, lies Brasov, another popular city. Brasov was founded in the 13th century and settled as a walled citadel by the Saxons, and today its medieval ambiance remains intact. The Romanian Tourism Office notes that it has been used as a historic setting for many recent period films. Indeed, its ancient towers, gothic churches and pigeon-filled squares are redolent of centuries past. A half-hour south of Brasov lies Sinaia, a picturesque mountain resort town with historic buildings and the summer residence of famed composer George Enescu.
Besides Kutrubes, Momentum Tours, a Miami-based tour company specializing in customized Jewish travel, has offered a Romania Jewish heritage tour for 20 years, a spokesperson confirmed. There is an option focusing strictly on Romania; with stops in Bucharest and several smaller towns with significant Jewish heritage, the 12-day excursion costs $2,390 per person based on a minimum of six double-occupancy travelers, and includes hotels, breakfasts, some meals, entrance fees, guides and transportation except for international flights.
Food on Momentum’s pre-set tours is not strictly kosher —unsurprising given the tiny Jewish population and the remote, rural nature of much of Romania — but Momentum includes an array of vegetarian choices for Jewish travelers. Customized tours can be strictly kosher.
Momentum’s other Romania tour combines five days in Bucharest, Brasov and Sinaia, with trips through Bulgaria and Istanbul, for a total of 14 days in the Eastern Balkans. Tours generally take place during spring and summer. In 2009, the land-only tour price was $3,898 per person based on double occupancy, with a single supplement of nearly $1,000. For details on 2010 trips, call Momentum directly. n
Kutrubes Travel: www.kutrubestravel.com or (617) 426-5668.
Momentum Tours: www.momentumtours.com or (305) 466-0652.
Hilary Larson is The Jewish Week’s travel writer.