Around the world: Looking for Jews

When we traveled much more than we do now, Tracing the Tribe always looked for signs of Judaism.
Many years ago, when we lived in Iran, we visited Isfahan, from where my husband’s family had migrated to Teheran in the mid-1850s. Our itinerary included the various Jewish quarters and old synagogues of Isfahan and I convinced my husband to travel 30km on a gravel road in a mini-bus to the ancient Jewish cemetery at Pir Bakran (below). Unexpectedly, we even met a very distant cousin on the mini-bus that day and were invited to share eggs cooked over a fire, tomatoes and bread.

Some years ago, I wrote about our visit to this cemetery here for the IAJGS Cemetery project. For more outstanding photos of the cemetery, view here. One of these days, I will scan in my own photos of our trip.

In Shiraz, we visited cousins by marriage, walked through the old Jewish quarter, visited synagogues and community institutions.

In Teheran, I accompanied American visitors to the old Mahalleh – the old Jewish neighborhood – when it was really most unfashionable to go there.

In Guadalajara, Mexico, we ran the gauntlet of phone calls to be approved to attend a Shabbat service at the guarded Jewish club.

In Catalunya – Barcelona, Girona (see image right), Besalu, Lleida and elsewhere – we visited the silent stones of once important Jewish communities.

Massachusetts resident Lynn Nadeau does much the same, and detailed her travels in this story in the Jewish Journal Boston North. The story covers Rome, Palermo, Belize and Argentina.

— Split, Croatia: She found a third-floor room in Diocletian’s Palace that the only Jews in the city – six men – used as a synagogue. the nearest rabbi was 300 miles away in Zagreb.

“In Argentina (and wherever I travel), I look for the Jews. I go down streets called “the Jewish quarter,” but often the streets are empty of Jews and contemporary Jewish life. My Jewish tour of Palermo, Sicily, was paltry. Although there was lots of history, I was able to find only one Star of David and one candelabra in a Norman palace.”

— Hania, Crete: Nadeau walked through narrow alleys on Succot to pray with a handful of local Jews.

— Syracusa, Sicily: A closed abandoned mikvah – no sign of a synagogue.
She also finds existing vibrant communities, such as in Rome, in a heavily guarded Munich shul, in a Sephardic synagogue with a sand-covered floor on the Caribbean island of St. Thomas, on Barbados, and in the third largest Jewish community in the world, Buenos Aires.

She describes the museum of Temple Libertad, built in 1897, with photographs, wedding gown displays, information on Jewish gauchos, and also covers the 1970s wave of anti-Semitism and the “disappeared,” as well the tragic bombings in 1992 and 1994.

Nadeau sums up her searches:

“But my searches have resulted in a deeper identification with Jews of other nationalities, in a feeling of pride because of the depth and breadth of our Jewish family throughout the world. My searches have added the excitement of a detective novel to my travels, and a deep satisfaction in finding that the spirit of Jewish studies and customs live on, despite all the global obstacles we have faced and overcome.”

What have you discovered on your travels?

Read the complete story at the link above.

Canada: Yiddish oxen, tractors in Saskatchewan

The Yiddish Book Center (Amherst, Massachusetts) sends out periodic newsletters on books and events.

The latest update, just received by Tracing the Tribe, has several interesting items, particularly a Yiddish book on a Saskatchewan farming community and an update on the Hania, Crete synagogue fire and attempts at rebuilding its destroyed library.

Learning how our ancestors lived is key to understanding who they were and how they coped with local conditions.
When, in 1911, Michael Usiskin arrived in the Jewish settlement of Edenbridge, in northeastern Saskatchewan, he and the other pioneers struggled.

Weather conditions, isolation and other factors contributed to their attempt to form Jewish cultural life. He recorded this life in his 1945 Yiddish book, Oksn un motorn (Oxen and Tractors).

To learn more about this book, click here.

Readers may remember the devasting fire at the Hania, Crete synagogue that destroyed its library. Many people have already donated books to rebuild that important resource. The drawing at left is part of director Nikos Stravroulakis’ drawing of the town.
Click here to read the thank you message from Stavroulakis and his staff. Read the names of those who donated books and see an interactive map, as well as a list of books they still need.
Subscribe to the National Yiddish Book Center’s newsletter.

Yom HaShoah: 2,000 memorials database, April 12

On April 12, Yom HaShoah – Shoah (Holocaust) Remembrance Day – commemorates Jewish communities that vanished all over Europe. It also marks the results of pogroms following the creation of Israel in Arab countries.

The Israel Genealogical Society has a database of nearly 2,000 memorials and monuments for such communities. They are in cemeteries and towns, synagogues, forests and also live in street names.

IGS invites readers to search the database and see if your ancestral towns have memorials in Israel, see photos of them and note their locations. Here’s the search box:

Search parameters:

— Select the “country” list to see all lands where Sephardim used to live. According to IGS, the project is dedicated to an Algerian Jew who perished in Auschwitz.

— Search by town name, region name, or country; near town, country, or location of the monument in Israel.

— Places may be listed with different spellings depending on pronunciation in native language or in Yiddish.

— Search by “is exactly,” “starts with” (three-letter minimum), “contains”(three-letter minimum).

— Search by Hebrew name of the community.

— If you can’t find a memorial in Israel that you know is there, search by country (today) name of that location.

— Use creative spelling.

Readers aware of memorials in Israel not found in the database are invited to send in photos and documentation so locations may be added.

JGSLA 2010: Volunteers needed

Frequent conference attendees will tell you that an excellent way to meet new people and connect with those sharing your interests is to volunteer in various ways before or during the conference.

JGSLA 2010 has put out a public call for volunteers, via conference volunteer coordinator Lois Rosen. (See below for some important jobs that need the right person now!)

A major conference like this relies on an army of volunteers in so many areas. Some jobs can be done from home prior to the conference, others are focused on helping during the conference.

Do you have time to help before or during the conference?

During the conference, help is needed in all areas to help staff important locations, such as registration, hospitality, resource and more.

Volunteering your time adds to the success of the event, and also helps you meet new people and make new friends.

Here are just some of the possibilities:
Hospitality volunteers/Greeters
Registration volunteers
Resource Room staff
Film Festival or Screening Room staff
Tour chaperones or guides
Computer or tech support volunteers
Outreach to are synagogues
Outreach to area Jewish organizations, schools, or youth groups

and many more opportunities!

Before the conference, there are other jobs that need to be done. Frequent conference attendees who arrive early know all about bag-stuffing! But there’s much more.

Volunteers needed now:

Banquet Journal: Volunteers needed for Ad Solictor and Ad Layout.

Volunteer Scheduling Coordinator: This is a major job and carries a perk (free conference registration).

Carpenter/Artist: For the handy creative types out there: A carpenter/artist volunteer is needed to create a directional sign post for the Market Square event. This needs include arrows showing the distance to, for example, Minsk or Warsaw. Tracing the Tribe is assuming distances will be measured from Los Angeles.

There are many other jobs you can do. See the next Tracing the Tribe post which details some ways that you can help, no matter where you live.

Click here to learn all about volunteering for the JGSLA 2010 event or email volunteer coordinator Lois Rosen for more information.

Hong Kong: The Shabbat experience

Although Tracing the Tribe is now in Melbourne, I wanted to report on my Shabbat in Hong Kong.

I attended Friday night services with Garry Stein (an old Jewish genealogy friend from Toronto) at the United Jewish Congregation (liberal). Melodies were a mix of old, new and nostalgic There were Jewish faces and Asian faces, but most of all, there were singers. This is a singing congregation.

UJC’s premises were carved out of space in One Robinson Place (70 Robinson Road), which includes two tall residential towers, the multi-floored JCC and the original Ohel Leah historic synagogue.

Following services, we went up to the Sabra Coffee Shop in the JCC for Shabbat dinner. The large space was transformed into separate dining rooms for two groups. The food was excellent and the company – a real mix of individuals – even better. One Chinese woman who attended is studying ethnomusicology at Hong Kong University and focusing on Jewish music, another young man is Brazilian; there are Americans and other nationalities.

On Shabbat morning, Ohel Leah was my choice. This wonderfully restored synagogue is across the courtyard from the JCC’s Garden Terrace function room. The courtyard also has a playground well-used by the young children.

As OHL is an Orthodox congregation, women sit upstairs; the mechitza is an openwork grill surrounding the three-sided balcony. The acoustics are excellent, and the Torah scrolls in their silver Sephardic cases (tik) are masterpieces. The congregation uses the ArtScroll siddur and Stone chumash.
Everyone who read or participated had beautiful voices – it was a pleasure to be part of this Shabbat service. A sit-down kiddush followed. Among the familiar faces of people I had spoken to all week wasa new one: Howard Elias, who is both the Jewish cemetery warden and Hong Kong Jewish Film Festival organizer. Tracing the Tribe bets you didn’t know there was one!

Kiddush included baked salmon in a delicious sauce, Chinese cold noodles, dressed cucumber salad, tomato salad, even hummus and eggplant salad. The community’s excellent challah is superb; dessert was a strudel-ly pastry. Howard said this was regular kiddush fare, adding that I should see it when there’s a simcha!

Howard grew up in Toronto, was a USYer, and lived very close to my TALALAY cousins.

During the zemirot singing after the meal, visiting Rabbi Jackson – from Ireland – offered a melody for one popular song that sounded very much like the Mighty Mouse cartoon theme. I won’t forget that one very soon.

Over the past week, I’ve received many private comments from readers who have visited Hong Kong but never knew about the Jewish community, the JCC or attended a Shabbat service.

If this destination is on your radar screen, do try to visit, attend a Shabbat service, check events and meet the community – I’m sure you’ll enjoy the experience.

Don’t forget the 11th Hong Kong Jewish Film Festival, set for November 13-21, 2010.

I am looking forward to my return trip March 21-25 to this diverse, welcoming and interesting community.

Hong Kong: Day One

Following a relatively comfortable – although 10 hours long – flight from Tel Aviv, Hong Kong International Airport is an eye-opener.

Having grown up with JFK and LAX airports, “busy” was not an unknown quantity, but this airport is something else. An immense physical space filled with crowds of people.

Despite some long walking stretches, escalators up and down and a train to another terminal, everything was very efficient. The car service driver was waiting for me when I emerged from baggage claim.

I had been expecting cold, wet weather, but it was a warm 20C following yesterday’s cold 8C, the driver told me. The 40km drive from the airport to the hotel in Mid-Levels was fast, no traffic at all, until we hit HK proper. It was a bit misty – think Los Angeles morning mist – but the hills were spectacular, as well as the views from the bridges.

This large bustling city is filled with very tall, slender buildings. When you don’t have much land, the only way to go is up.

Mira Hasofer, the Hong Kong Jewish Community Center’s program director, called to make sure everything was fine and to confirm our arrangement to meet at the JCC’s traditional Sunday night BBQ dinner.

It was a short walk up (emphasis on the “up” as in “up hill”) from the Bishop Lei hotel as I had to stop at a few places along the way looking for nail polish remover. My brand-new manicure had completely distintegrated. Three shops, not one had any remover at all, not even one bottle. Tomorrow I may just go for a new manicure.

There is major security at the JCC: a guard out front who checks passports and other papers and asks many serious questions in a friendly manner, and two more in a glass-windowed office watching everything. There is a metal detector and a check of bags. It reminded me of attending services at the Guadalajara (Mexico) synagogue

Downstairs, I met Mira, her attorney husband Menachem and her father Moshe. Originally from Sydney, Mira and Menachem, have been in HK about eight years and have three young children, the youngest only 3 months.

Mira introduced me to a number of community members who were also enjoying this Sunday night tradition, including Rabbi Stanton M. Zamek and Rabbi Martha Bergadine of the United Jewish Congregation and their two children. Rabbi Zamek is the Purim Spiel person. I’m looking forward to attending that production!

I especially enjoyed meeting Mira’s father, Moshe. His family originally left Bushehr (southern Iran) in 1904 for Palestine, then to Bombay. Regular readers of Tracing the Tribe may remember that the ancestors of Samy Yecutieli (Caracas, Venezuela) were also from Bushehr. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that the two families knew each other back then.

Moshe’s family went to Bombay and back to Israel again. We kept wandering in and out of Farsi mixed with Hebrew and English. Moshe knew our cousin Sassoon z”l Menashy’s father, Menashe, in Bombay. Menashe – son of Moshe ben Israel Dardashti – was a wedding singer and sang at most of the community’s events. Moshe’s father was also a singer and participated in those events.

Visiting HK and looking for a kosher BBQ buffet dinner? Visit the Jewish Community Center on Sunday nights, from 6-10pm. It’s also a good place to meet the friendly local community.

The chefs barbecue on the patio outside, and treats include meat, chicken, turkey, fish, a chicken wok dish (as well as baked potatoes, french fries and other treats). There’s also pasta, various salads and platters of delicious fresh salmon sushi and sashimi as well as baked salmon.

Don’t miss the desserts, there’s a fudgy brownie cake that is a MUST, along with other sweet treats and fruit.

The buffet, in the Garden Room, has a view of the 150-year-old Ohel Leah historic synagogue (see photo above left). Mira’s husband Menachem explained that there are few buildings of that age left in HK. In the absence of zoning restrictions, they’ve most all been torn down to put up new towering buildings.

Ohel Leah was named for the mother, Leah Gubbay, of of David Sassoon’s three grandsons. The land where the synagogue stands was purchased when the site was far above the city, and given to the Jewish community. The foundation stone was laid May 1901; it was dedicated April 1902.

In 1905, the Kadoorie family funded the Jewish Recreation Club on part of the synagogue grounds. Its facilities included a large hall, restaurant, bar, library and billiards room, a tennis court and a wide lawn with Victoria Harbour views.

Originally a Sephardic community, Ashenazim from Eastern Europe arrived during the 1880s, 1890s, and 1930s. In 1937, property below the club was given to the community by J.E. Joseph. Named Beit Simcha – in memory of his mother – the property was purchased to preserve the harbour view, to house the rabbi, along with a ground floor mikvah.

During World War II, HK was occupied by the Japanese, community members were placed in POW camps; the synagogue was requisitioned by the Japanese. The Torah scrolls were smuggled out and hidden during the war. The synagogue did not have serious damage but the Club was destroyed. In 1949, the Kadoorie famiy funded a new club on the same site.

Menahem said that when the Sassoons first bought the land, the area was not desirable and no one wanted to live there. Today, however, the neighborhood is a prime district filled with beautiful tall apartment buildings.

There’s more to the saga. The Club included a large field gradually surrounded by these tall blocks. The once-undesirable plot of land was now worth a pile of money. The community’s Trustees of the community decided to develop the land. In partnership with a local developer, two residential towers were built, with a percentage of the apartments in the two 40-story towers belonging to the Trust.

Also part of the agreement with the developer was that a Jewish Community Center be built. Today, the facility has some six floors, including a Jewish day school, library, kosher supermarket, meat and dairy restaurants, an indoor swimming pool, function rooms and offices. It is also completely wireless!

There was some controversy over whether the historic synagogue should be preserved or destroyed. Luckily, it was preserved, and completely renovated while retaining the original feel. In 1997 work began and the building was rededicated on October 18, 1998.

In 2000, UNESCO Asia-Pacific Heritage Awards recognized the conservation and restoration project with an Outstanding Project Award for Cultural Heritage Conservation.

The JCC also has the Sabra Coffee Shop – a glatt kosher meat restaurant that also offers a Wednesday evening buffet, the Waterside Restaurant (informal dairy) and the Coffee Bar. The facilities also include a Kosher Mart retail shop.

There are seven synagogues in Hong Kong today. Ohel Leah, three Chabad branches, and a Progressive/Reform congregation.

The community even has a glossy magazine, Jewish Times Asia, the first – and only – regional community publication, distributed in nine countries.

Tomorrow, I’m doing the Escalator Walk with a community member and we’ll visit The Lanes – lots of shops. Mira assures me that on the way back there are some excellent manicure places, so I may do that.

There is a Hong Kong Jewish Historical Society, and more on that later in the week.

Cairo: Rededication, Maimonides synagogue, March 7-9

Yves Fedida of the International Nebi Daniel Association has announced the dedication of the restored Moses Maimonides (Rab Moshe) Cairo Synagogue and Yeshiva on March 7-9, in Cairo, Egypt.

The event is by invitation only. Read below to learn how to request an invitation.

See a video (9:47 minutes) on the Maimonides project and visit the association’s website, available in several languages.

Learn about the synagogues of Egypt here. To see a short video on Alexandria’s synagogues, click here. This is the El Nabi Daniel synagogue in Alexandria:

Cairo’s Rabbi Moshe complex – and another nine synagogues in Egypt – are historical heritage sites under the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities.

Through an extensive restoration program, the Supreme Council of Antiquities – with the help of the Jewish Community of Cairo – has completed the renovation of the Maimonides complex.

The rooms have niches where, until recently, sick people of all faiths and genders would spend the night praying for recovery or fertility.

The synagogue adjacent to these rooms was built in the early 19th-century. The yeshiva suffered recurring flooding from underground water and the synagogue was badly damaged in the 1992 earthquake. The restoration has been a painstaking effort returning the compound as faithfully as possible to its original splendour .

The three-day event program includes visits to synagogues and cemeteries, music presentations, history talks, refreshments, brunches and dinners.

– Dinner in the communal centre of the main Synagogue, Shaar Hashamayim, built in the early 20th-century and faithfully restored in its rich decorations.

– Visit to Fostat (Old Cairo) where the oldest remaining synagogue in Egypt stands, believed to have been first built around 340BC.

The pre-Islamic Ben Ezra Synagogue which has also been perfectly restored was the synagogue where Rab Moshe prayed and held services as the head of the Jewish community of the time. The famous Geniza Papers were found at the Ben Ezra Synagogue and the new Geniza museum in the Ben Ezra complex has a number of reproductions of these papers.

– A visit to the also recently restored Moussa Dar’i Synagogue built by the Karaite community in the 1920s. It features Art Deco lotus flower columns and an imposing dome.

– Finally, a visit to the Jewish cemetery at Bassatine, in the southeast outskirts of Cairo, a vast site that has not been easy to maintain.

The Jewish Community of Cairo has made heroic efforts to defend it against a highway overpass and squatters’ buildings which have encroached on the territory itself. Most of the marble tombstones have been stolen in 1967 so that the majority of the tombs are today unidentifiable. However, the Cairo Community has built a perimeter wall and continues to landscape the cemetery and guard it against vandals. It maintains a list of a number of tombs that have been identified.

Events on Sunday, March 7 start at 2pm at the complex, with a presentation, Ladino music, prayer, refreshments, history of Maimonides, history of Jews in Egypt, Arabic songs and a program by the Supreme Council of Antiquities. At 6pm, attendess will have an oriental Egyptian dinner at the Shaar Hashamayim Synagogue.

On Monday, March 8, attend a meeting at the Ben Ezra Synagogue, a presentation on Maimonides and his letters discovered in the Genizah, and brunch, followed in the evening by a 9pm dinner reception.

On Tuesday, March 9, attendees will visit the restored Karaite Synagogue, hear the community history. There will be optional tours of other synagogues and the Bassatine Cemetery.

Attendance is by invitation only, which can be applied for from the Cairo Jewish community. Email here or here for more information.