A Look Inside Jewish Romania

Bucharest, Romania I find myself in Eastern Europe for the “International Festival of Yiddish Theatre,” having been invited by the country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Romania holds the chairmanship of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance in 2016 and has invited the New York based National Yiddish Theatre – Folksbiene to present a play of which I’m part. It is the first time an American and Romanian theatre company join forces to present a Yiddish work.

Romania was once home to hundreds of thousands of Jews, the third highest Jewish population after Poland and Russia. The play’s director tells us the story of a Yiddish actor, Moshe Yasur, who grew up in Bucharest and how during World War II the government gathered the Jews into the town’s center and opened fire. Any survivors, of whom Moshe was one, were welcome to go back home and continue about their daily lives.

Today, there are an estimated 3,500 Jews in the entire country and most of its Jewish life is saturated in Bucharest, the capital. Amid Shabbat preparations I learn there are three separate services taking place, reminding me of the old joke of one Jew left on an island who builds two synagogues (“That’s the one I don’t attend.”).

The Coral Temple is the capital synagogue where the Chief Rabbi serves. We enter the cathedral like sanctuary and hear a choir and cantor lead the Friday night prayers with about thirty people in the large hall. For those of us who understand Hebrew, this is the power of liturgy, connecting communities from all over the world regardless of physical location.

As we pray, I look around at the high ceilings and wonder: could this synagogue have once been filled to capacity?

As the rabbi delivers his sermon in Romanian, a young man enters our row.

“Would you like me to translate?” he asks.

Little did we know, but this young man would become our unofficial guide and friend throughout our time abroad.

After services we make our way into a back room for Shabbat dinner. The tables are filled to capacity.

“This is reserved for the choir,” says one man.

“You can’t sit here,” says another.

“Or here.”

Our company, six of us, start to back away. Suddenly, the young man reappears.

“I’ll be heading over to the JCC for dinner,” he says, “You’re welcome to join me.”

And then with a smile, adds: “The atmosphere will be a bit more welcoming.”

At the JCC, the mood is entirely different. Dozens of young families, children running about, stand in stark contrast to the somber mood of the Coral Temple.

We’re welcomed inside and tables upon more tables are added.

Our guide tells us it’s a Leonard Cohen themed Shabbat with Cohen’s songs printed in a pamphlet at each of the many tables. (We discover a picture of Bob Dylan on the inside jacket which causes a bit of a scurry for the dinner’s organizers). After singing “Dance Me To the End of Love” in Yiddish, my father leads a Yiddish song and we lead some wordless melodies.

The next day my father and I make our way along with a friend to the city’s Chabad, where an old synagogue once stood. There are about two-dozen worshippers inside including our guide from the night before.

After Shabbat lunch our guide offers to take us around town. We happily accept his offer.

Our first stop is Symphony Hall. Insomuch as it’s Shabbat we are not carrying any money but our guide works his charm and inside we go. This is a sanctuary. Built in 1887, the interior is majestic, with a mural of the country’s history on the walls and acoustics that require no microphones.

Over our walk we learn a bit more about our new friend.

Cristian was born to Jewish parents though he did not know he was Jewish growing up. Neither did his parents. His grandparents were Holocaust Survivors; his grandfather lost a wife and child in the war. His grandparents raised his parents not as Jews but only told them two things: 1) Remember that you are Jewish and 2) Marry Jewish. When it came time to marry, the families arranged for a “shadkhen,” a matchmaker, to find a Jewish partner.

When Cristian was a young teenager his Romanian public school started religion classes and it was at this point his parents decided enough was enough. They told him and his older brother that they were Jews and thus started Cristian’s own religious journey. His parents took them into town to see a Purim play and enrolled him in a Jewish summer camp as well. Cristian became involved in his youth group becoming president and slowly became more religious. His Hebrew name is Moshe Aryeh.

Cristian took us to the city’s Holocaust memorial that stands in front of the police station. The language on the plaque is emphatic and asserts the Romanian government’s own complicity in carrying out the murder of the Jews and the Roma. This notion of a nation accepting responsibility stands in stark contrast to other European countries.

I note the tombstones that have been collected as part of the memorial. Hebrew names, Yiddish names. A father, a mother, a kohen, a levi. A whole community in these shattered bricks.

Over our walk, Cris tells us how at one point he considered attending a yeshiva in New York so to become a rabbi.

“Which one?” I ask.

It so happened it was the same rabbinical school where I received my ordination.

We tell Cristian he should attend our play on Tuesday as our guests, a play that explores the first wedding among Holocaust survivors post World War II. Taking place in a displaced persons camp, characters from the survivor’s past, with mythic Jewish names, come back to haunt the protagonists, as Elijah the Prophet seeks out the Messiah to ensure he comes and gives the wedding his blessing.

“Ah, something light,” Cris jokes.

The Torah portion that week tells of Abraham’s great hospitality, welcoming in three messengers of God into his tent. I thank Cristian for his overwhelming graciousness and hospitality, and offer teasingly, that perhaps we three are his messengers.

We laugh and continue strolling through the streets.

Mincha, the afternoon prayers, arrive and we make our way back to the Coral Temple.

The rabbi asks my father to lead a Yiddish song.

He sings an old Yiddish, Hasidic song: “A string of pearls, a golden flag, Messiah the son of David sits from afar. He holds a goblet in his right hand and makes a blessing over the entire land. Amen, this is true, let Messiah come this year.”

Afterwards, the rabbi becomes irritated.

“We cannot impose a timeframe upon redemption,” the rabbi asserts.

“It’s a prayer,” I offer.

“It’s not!” the rabbi suddenly shouts. “It’s heresy! These are lies in the house of worship!”

The room becomes tense and action is frozen as in a play. Still, I strangely feel comfortable engaging in debate. There is a part of me which feels like we’ve reentered a shtetl world, with great arguments being waged over a single word or whether a chicken is indeed kosher.

“It’s not heresy,” I reply quietly. “Imagine Jews, children. Maybe they didn’t know the words to Maimonides principle, ‘Ani mamin.’ But they knew this song. It’s a poetic interpretation, a longing for redemption.”

The rabbi, having calmed down a bit, seemed to accept this analysis and then insisted we sing Ani Maamin.

Soon it was time for Maariv and we left feeling quite out of place. Still, the sense of being an outsider resonated seeing as were guests, foreigners and strangers in a strange land. We were thankful for our Cristian/Moshe for his hospitality that stood in stark contrast to the type of welcome we received in the more formal settings.

On our walk back home, we focused on a positive experience that took place at shul: a dueling kaddish. Two old Jews recited kaddish, the memorial prayer, never in unison, one in a higher pitch and faster, one slower and deeper and both in their own unique accents. That kaddish was worth the price of admission; in each word and vowel dwelled so much feeling. Neither of these old men spoke any Yiddish or Hebrew and so all we could say or communicate was “amen” and “brikh hu,” the prayer’s traditional responses. At night, we went back out into town and entered a souvenir shop. My friend started schmoozing with the shopkeeper.

“When I was twenty-five,” said the shopkeeper, “my parents told me I was a Jew.”

We told her about the JCC, the warm atmosphere for children there (as the shopkeeper had a son) and invited her to go. It seemed we had stumbled upon yet another player in the cast of characters of modern day Jewish Bucharest.

Later at night in our hotel room, my friend and I watched a women’s basketball game between Israel and Romania. Israel happened to win, entering into the finals for European Championship for a first time. This coincidence of Israel athletic teams playing in Romania while a Yiddish Theatre Festival took place only reemphasized the sense of national revival of which we were part.

Monday night the festival opened and my father presented a piece on the history of the founding of Yiddish theatre created by Avrom Goldfaden. A panel of photographs adorned the lobby where we learned the history of the Yiddish theatre, how this particular State Jewish Theatre was established in 1941 during the war as Jews were still fearful for their lives. Forbidden from performing in Yiddish, the actors were Jews and quotes from their diaries are also hanging for visitors to read.

At night, my friend and I went back into town and noticed a pack of Israelis.

Together we remarked at the oddity of the state sanctioning Jewish theatre while simultaneously participating in the destruction of a community. Do the audiences who attend today know this history?

“Why have a theatre here?” he then asked. “Just to show what was once Jewish?”

Art is life, I explain, and in addition to recalling what once was, it’s also a type of emphasis on Jewish life in Bucharest today.

Finally, the night of our play arrives. Our American company flew in early to work with the Romanian actors and we’ve been staging and running lines over the past few days. The Romanian company is composed of non-Jews except for their director who is also taking part and her daughter. To me, there was an eeriness having Romanian actors play Jewish survivors in a very place of Jewish life. Simultaneously, their participation also emphasized the interconnectedness of everything: our communities, our art, our unquenchable desire to live.

“A Jewish wedding, after so much suffering, after so many mass graves,” the non-Jewish actors say, reciting H. Leyvick’s words, the playwright. Would Leyvick ever have imagined that his play, composed shortly after the end of the war, would one day be brought to life in a cast of mixed creeds on an Eastern European stage?

My character, the young survivor/Messiah (a heavy role), only appears in the second act. As I entered the stage, I was mindful of where I stood and the tradition I was part of, as well as the scolding we received in synagogue over demanding the Messiah’s arrival just a few days ago. Those who stood on this stage lived and died as Jews, played and practiced as Jews. While the outside world may have been hostile, the theatre provided a bit of a sanctuary and oasis from the world’s terror. In this way, even the stage can become sacred.

Our director toasts us. In a few moments time, we’ll be celebrating Hanukah, which commemorates the rededication of the ancient temple. And just as the Maccabees and Israelites started anew, so too does this Jewish theatre, with a renovated building and a staff of dozens.

After the play I met Cristian in the lobby.

“I was not quite prepared for that,” he shared. It hit home for him as he imagined his grandfather’s second wedding, having lost his wife and child during the war like the play’s lead character.

“Thank you so much for coming,” I replied.

Together over drinks in the lobby I suggested Cris reconsider rabbinical school, inviting him to imagine what a revitalized Jewish community might look like under the vision of a young, open and charismatic leader. We agreed to stay in touch.

On my flight home overlooking the Carpathean mountains, I thought of Leyvick’s words that stood at the centerpiece of the play we performed.

“A Jew must have three strengths,” Leyvick wrote, “Strength to die, strength to live and strength to wait.”

This quote captures the sentiment I’m left with returning to New York. Romania, birthplace of Yiddish theatre, once home to thousands of Jews, was nearly destroyed during the Holocaust. And yet, even during those trying times, Jews lived, synagogues stood and a theatre thrived, showing the power of spiritual resistance amid unspeakable horror. Finally, the saga of Jewish life continues with its waves of ups and downs, waiting for redemption. And who knows, maybe this year our world will finally herald its arrival.

This story "A Look Inside Jewish Romania" was written by Avram Mlotek.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Forward.
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