Tourist Trap

Discovering Bulgaria

By Audrey Hoffer

Published October 27, 2006, issue of October 27, 2006.
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Bulgaria is on the doorstep of European Union ascension. Downtown, a billboard-clock displays the number of days until January 2007, when acceptance is anticipated. Sofia, the capital, combines elements of Bulgaria’s hopeful future with reminders of its past. Sleek shops sit on fractured sidewalks, next to the peeling facades of grim Soviet-era buildings.

Recently, I joined my husband on a World Bank business trip to the Bulgarian capital. While he worked, I explored the city’s Jewish life.

The exquisite Central Synagogue of Sofia, consecrated Rosh Hashanah 1909, wraps around the block near the Pirotska Street pedestrian mall, crowded with people, strollers and shops.

Frederich Gruenranger, a non-Jewish Austrian architect, designed the synagogue in the distinctive Moorish style consistent with Bulgarian Jewish history. Thirty thousand Spanish Jewish refugees moved to Bulgaria in 1492, and by the end of the 16th century, most Bulgarian Jews followed the Sephardic rite. The synagogue is domed, and horseshoe arches with dainty arabesque lacework top long, slender windows.

A decorative wrought-iron metal gate embellished with Jewish motifs separates the spacious surrounding courtyard from the sidewalk. On a cool, cloudy afternoon, I peered through the gate’s Stars of David. The security officer inside rushed over to let me in, and perfunctorily peeked into my shoulder bag.

“Welcome to the largest Sephardic house of worship in Europe,” said Georgi Hristov, a retired lieutenant who is now resident synagogue historian and guard, with a beckoning sweep of his arm. “The Budapest synagogue is bigger, but it is Ashkenazi,” he added, donning a white yarmulke as we walked into the sanctuary.

The cavernous space beneath the grand blue dome dotted with 460 yellow Stars of David is stunning. The air was fluid and spiritual and mysterious all at once. Colored stucco adorns the walls, and tiles, some blue and others burgundy, form stars on the floor. A white marble frieze inscribed with the Hebrew words for “Remember who is standing before you” frames the Holy Ark. A majestic golden-brass chandelier resplendent with another 460 Stars of David is the spectacular focal point.

Worshippers in this impressive space are given a choice of coffee or tea after morning prayers, but schnapps is obligatory. For special occasions, glasses of rakiya, the national drink, are brought out on platters as part of the celebration.

And there is much to celebrate for the Jews of Bulgaria, who have long enjoyed confident, fearless lives.

“Relations in Sofia are very good now” with the Muslim community, Hristov said with conviction. On the High Holy Days, the head of the Muslim community comes to the synagogue. “Last Hanukkah the Bulgarian president lit the first candle, and the head of the Orthodox Church was also present.”

But his voice turned solemn when he went back in time. “In March 1943, the Jews were gathered… with their 40-kilogram suitcases. The trains were ready for deportation. At this moment, our Patriarch stopped the trains and they were all saved,” he said, referring to King Boris III’s intervention in the deportation of Jews to Nazi death camps.

On the grass behind Santa Sophia Church, which was built sometime around the year 500 C.E., three 6-foot polished cement-colored granite slabs commemorate King Boris III and Queen Giovanna; Dimitar Peshev, deputy speaker of parliament, and dignitaries of the church, for their successful struggle to save Bulgaria’s Jews during World War II.

The bright sun shone on City Hall across the street from the church the afternoon I came to read the Hebrew, English and Bulgarian inscriptions acknowledging the royal family, heads of the church and “enlightened public figures, writers, doctors, lawyers, workers, ordinary citizens” for rescuing all 49,000 Jews.

There is still a genuine admiration of Jews today, even in unlikely places. Venturing down white marble stairs to explore the lower level of my hotel, the Sheraton Sofia Hotel Balkan, I peeked into the Antiques Shop Edmond. Athanaska Popva, 55, who was presiding over the multitude of items, greeted me with a smile. When I expressed interest in Judaica, she gently laid several pieces on a velvet cloth.

According to Popva, some Jewish pieces have a special spirit. “Here in Sofia, we like Jewish people [and treasure their art],” she said.

Jewish works of art are rare in Bulgaria because families hold onto them. I loved an ornate silver menorah. It could have been the memento of Sephardic Jewry I yearned for, but the $1,500 price tag was a bit steep.

I returned to the synagogue one afternoon to join the religious school’s 11 children as they talked about the contract between God and the Jewish people.

We sat around a long table that was covered with a white oilcloth, and the cantor, Shlomo BenAvram, 28, offered instruction, history and practical advice. “Before praying it’s nice to give tzedakah, because then the prayer goes up to Hashem in the heavens,” he told the group.

Children with Jewish mothers will become b’nai mitzvah in the synagogue. Those with gentile mothers will go across the street to Beit Shalom, the newly renovated cultural center in the lemon-colored building topped with a white Star of David.

On the Sabbath, the packed services flew by with loving embraces of the Torah and enchanting Sephardic melodies. I managed to follow the all-Hebrew prayer book, with many Mi Shebeirach (prayers for healing), passionate Amens and a final resounding Ain Kelohenu in Ladino.

Over a lunch of cucumber salad, banitsa (pastry) and ayran (yogurt), Shlomit, an Israeli woman, sat beside me on the wooden bench. She was accompanying her husband here in Sofia as he explored a real estate deal. If the deal goes through, she said, they would be traveling back and forth from Israel often, which would be fine with her. “I have a warm feeling here,” she said.

At that moment, I thought it wouldn’t be so bad if my husband joined the small World Bank office in Sofia and we relocated to the city. Where else would I be greeted with schnapps and bid farewell with “Vaya con dios!”?

Audrey Hoffer is a publicist and freelance writer in Washington, D.C.

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