The Past Is Present

Tuesday, September 6, 2011
Travel Writer

Every year for the past decade, the entire continent of Europe has spent the first post-vacation weekend in September celebrating 2,000 years of Jewish culture, from its most ancient aspects to its modern incarnations. There are bagels in Brussels, lectures in Lyon, concerts in Krakow, screenings in Sofia.

It’s the European Day of Jewish Culture: a grassroots, pan-cultural and pan-religious event whose aim is to recover and delve deeper into the richness of the continent’s Jewish heritage.

And in the process, the event’s organizers say it serves as an annual stimulus for the effort to build an integrated Jewish tourist infrastructure. Every year has a theme, and this year’s — “Journey 2.0: Facing the Future” — optimistically heralds a new era of Judaism classes, ghetto walking tours and Sephardic cuisine throughout the continent.

“The Jewish people gave to the European culture a lot of music, a lot of literature, and this is our history,” said Claude Bloch, honorary president of the European Association for the Preservation and Promotion of Jewish Heritage and Culture (AEPJ) and one of the event’s founders. “Europeans lived together with Jews for 2,000 years and this is our own history, something they are proud of.”

Celebrated this year on Sunday, Sept. 4, the Day of Jewish Culture — or Journey, as it is sometimes referred to — has some notable differences from similar events in the U.S.

While American Jewish events tend to be organized (and largely attended) by American Jews, most of those participating in the European Day are non-Jews. In fact, of the roughly 200,000 Europeans who turned out for last year’s concerts, dinners, art exhibits and synagogue tours, Bloch estimates that 90 percent were not Jewish.

That so many of the event’s 23 country committees consist of non-Jewish, largely governmental organizations reflects the contemporary reality that in much of Europe, Jewish communities are tiny or non-existent, at least in comparison to what they once were – before inquisition, nationalist wars, expulsions, the Holocaust.

In Spain, for instance, the Spanish government’s Red de Juderías Españolas (Network of Spanish Jewish Itineraries), www.redjuderias.org, is one of two principal co-sponsors of the European Day of Jewish Culture. It is both non-religiously affiliated and staffed by non-Jews, explained General Manager Assumpció Hosta in a phone call from her office at the Jewish Museum in Girona, a small city in Catalonia.

While the other co-sponsor is B’nai Brith Europe, many countries have chosen to view the preservation and promotion of European Jewry as a matter of national heritage and cultural tourism, Hosta explained.

“This is part of our common history,” Hosta explained. “Places like Girona, where we don’t have a Jewish community living in the town, we approach this as our common legacy. Religion is just a little part of the whole.”

A few years ago Lithuania used Journey as an incentive to hold a country-wide national celebration of culture, and to begin rehabilitation of that country’s historic wooden synagogues. Around the same time, Krakow was holding a Jewish music festival that coincided with the Day of Culture; the city decided to combine the two, and the two had a huge success. “And in Istanbul, it is the Jewish people who open the synagogue, and last year 4,000 people came to see it,” said Bloch. “So you see, in Europe we don’t all speak with one voice.”

Before you start sending me indignant letters about the vibrancy of European Jewish communities, let us acknowledge that Jewish life indeed flourishes in many corners of Europe. And in countries like England, France and Germany, which still have large and diverse Jewish presences, the tenor of last Sunday’s events was no doubt more modern.

But in many parts of the continent, the focus is on bringing the past to light: restoring antique synagogues and mikvehs, mapping out ancient ghettoes, and repurposing bygone cultural elements for modern-day appreciation.

“In much of Spain, Jewish heritage, Jewish history, was very unknown,” said Hosta. “The heritage in places like England and France is much more current — they show a much more recent view of Jewish culture, whereas in Spain, the history that we are placing back is the history of medieval times — the 13th, 14th century. It’s not the same as to go into a nice, modern synagogue in the U.S.”

Instead, Hosta explained, the Red de Juderías might spearhead the rehabilitation of a Gothic-era temple into a museum with a café that serves up Sephardic cuisine for American visitors.

“But wherever you are in Europe, you will find some manifestations of the Jewish culture,” she added.

Bloch and Hosta both speak of their hope that the European Day of Jewish Culture will, on an annual basis, boost efforts to create a comprehensive series of European Jewish itineraries, rather than a hodgepodge of discreet sights. Hosta cites as inspiration the Camino de Santiago — the historic Catholic pilgrimage route that stretches across the entire northern Spanish coast, and which has recently seen its profile elevated by a new generation of history-minded travelers.

“The American people would come to Europe and ask for their roots, and we had nothing to give them,” said Bloch, referring to the years before the AEPJ. “We had no routes to follow, no sites, to show them.”

Hence the European Day of Jewish Culture was born in Strasbourg, France, where a branch of B’nai Brith — then headed by Bloch — began organizing local tours of Alsatian-Jewish sites in cooperation with the local municipality. The event quickly expanded to include countries throughout Europe by 2000; between 20 and 30 countries now participate annually.

The event is of interest to American visitors, naturally, but Bloch emphasizes its role in engaging Europeans with Jewish culture. In much of Europe, she noted, synagogues are closed or open only on a limited basis, especially to non-worshippers. Anti-Semitism and fear of terrorism are ever-present concerns in the modern age.

“On Jewish heritage day, we open all the sites, all the synagogues,” she said. “And in 10 years we have had no negative incidents, nothing. And this is a beautiful thing.”

Traveler’s Resources: http://www.jewisheritage.org/jh/edjc.php

The continent-wide Days of Jewish Culture open Europe’s Jewish past to Jews and non-Jews.

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