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A Search for Jewish Culture


Sometimes it's not wise to read the fine print in the Blue Guide.

Before I did so, Salonika seemed quite cheerful. The cafes lining the broad harbor of Greece's second-largest city teemed with young adults plugged into MTV. The city market overflowed with produce, flowers, olives, flayed lambs, live chickens, wheels of cheese and a rainbow of fish. Public gardens burst with blooms as children played ball and their parents chatted on benches nearby. Even the traffic careened about with more glee than malice.

But to quote the Blue Guide: "The population was suddenly increased by the influx of 20,000 Jews banished from Spain by the Edict of the Alhambra (1492)." And in the following paragraph: "During the [Nazi] occupation most of Salonika's Jewish population (c. 60,000) was deported to Poland, never to return."

Suddenly this huge emptiness filled me. My travel overseas has been largely confined to the Mediterranean -- Spain, Portugal, Morocco, Greece and Turkey -- and thus I had been shielded (had I subconsciously shielded myself?) from the Holocaust. But this emptiness was proof I had not sidestepped the living shadow of that terror.

The Blue Guide to Greece, one of a dependably thorough series of British travel guidebooks, went blank when I sought a site at which to focus on this emptiness. Monuments of ancient Rome, of Byzantium, of Turkish occupation it dutifully pointed out. But not one word of a synagogue or a cemetery or a Jewish quarter.

How could nearly 500 years of Jewish culture be eradicated in the lapse of only 50 years? Perhaps it was willful neglect on the part of the Greeks. Were Jews considered synonymous with the hated Ottoman Turks? The Jews indeed didn't arrive in such numbers until they were exiled after the Roman Catholic Spaniards recaptured Granada from the Moors. Certainly the Jews wouldn't have settled in Salonika unless the ruling Ottomans had welcomed them. So perhaps the Nazi deportation of Jews in the 1940s completed, in Greek Orthodox eyes, the repatriation of their homeland that occurred politically with the military victory over the Turks in 1912.

When these thoughts sent me traveling back to previous trips overseas, a pattern emerged. I realized that each trip had a note of a missing or vanishing Jewish presence -- none, however, as sad as the emptiness of Salonika.

In Turkey, inland from the Aegean port of Izmir, are the ruins of the city of Sardis. The partially restored synagogue there was imposing. The narrow hall showed evidence of agrand mosaic pavement. A Hebrew inscription found nearby suggested the building was a gift from the Roman Emperor Lucius Verus, who ruled from 161 to 169 C.E. The importance of that ancient Jewish community survived within that stately ruin.

In Spain, I felt a Jewish presence simply because in Toledo two synagogues still stood largely intact. The Sinagoga del Transito and the Santa Maria la Blanca survived because they were converted, as expressed in the name of the latter, into churches. Both were erected after the 1085 recapture of Toledo from the Moors and represented a period of accommodation toward Jews and Muslims that lasted until the Inquisition 400 years later.

The Sinagoga del Transito adopted the florid, incised plasterwork of the Moors. Mimicking the Arabic inscriptions from the Koran common in mosques, Transito had Hebrew calligraphy worked into its interior design.

But the ornate Transito had nothing over Santa Maria la Blanca when it came to solemn beauty. The latter retained the whitewashed interior of Moorish horseshoe arches supported by columns with finely carved capitals. This simplicity of design bespoke a quiet faith in its designers and congregation.

Both synagogues harmonized Jewish and Muslim traditions and suggested how well both cultures once thrived together.

Keeping faith in Portugal

In Portugal, miraculously, a tiny flame of Judaism still burns. Two hours north of Lisbon is Tomar. I visited principally the Order of the Knights Templars' Convento de Cristo, which stands atop a bluff just south of town. But its museum staff was on strike; its heavy, fortified portal was shut tight.

After descending into Tomar, I headed for what the guide book described as a small 15th-century synagogue. The modest building, too, was shut, but a sign indicated that the keys were at a neighbor's. I rang the bell.

"Sorry," came a woman's voice from the balcony above. "Closed today." But when I pointed to myself and announced, "I'm Jewish," she beckoned me closer. Momentarily, her door opened and her husband appeared, key in hand, and took me to see the synagogue.

Half a floor below street level, the square room contained four slender columns that held up a squat, Gothic vaulted ceiling. Mementos from the past, mostly Hebrew writings and turn-of-the-century photos, lined the white walls. He was obviously very proud of the building he cared for.

The Jews of Portugal, many of whom had fled from Spain, also suffered the torments of the Inquisition.Those who didn't leave were forced to convert. But some of those Marranos, as they were called, held onto their Jewish traditions in secret. Tomar was one of the few Portuguese towns where Jews were able to keep at least some semblance of faith generation after generation. On this visit, four years ago, the caretaker told me Tomar was about to get its first rabbi in 400 years.

The Jews of Morocco -- south of the Straits of Gibraltar from Spain -- did not have to endure such persecution. At Moroccan independence from France in 1956, Jews there numbered over 300,000. About 98 percent of that figure have emigrated since, mostly to Israel, France, Canada's Quebec province and the United States.

I had the bright idea once when in Marrakech to visit the Mellah, or Jewish quarter, of the medina, the old city. As the Blue Guide to Morocco promised, a crumbling gate with a Hebrew inscription above marked its entrance. Within, a warren of shops sold mostly dry goods, although some specialized in potions and curiosities. I distinctly remember dried lizards suspended above shop openings. These didn't seem to be Jewish-run enterprises, particularly the goldsmiths that lined the streets elsewhere in the medina.

While it's well advised not to seek out guides in Morocco, I sought directions to the synagogue. The 8-year-old I gave a dirham to led me into a blind alley of residential buildings. No synagogue was apparent. "Here," he said at a nondescript open doorway. He entered; I followed, and we climbed steep stairs to the second floor. He pointed to a curtain. I stepped toward it and shrugged, "Where?" He answered with a shove that sent me through the curtains and into the murmur of recitation.

The six elderly men in black homburgs sitting around the perimeter of the two-story room lifted their eyes from their reading to stare at me, the intruder. But their voices didn't falter. They stared and chanted softly. God bless, I was wearing a hat. So I nodded hello and sat down. Their eyes turned downward. Not a word was lost. I felt very awkward and certainly out of place. After a few minutes, I backed out of the room and descended the stairs alone.

That was almost 20 years ago. An article in the March/April edition of Historic Preservation, the magazine of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, gave assurances that the Marrakech synagogue has kept its congregation. And congregations are still active in cities like Tangier, Rabat, Fez and Meknes. But the gist of the article was in cataloging the hundreds of forsaken synagoguesthroughout the country and in reporting the efforts to save the ones that can be salvaged. Surely the Jewish presence in Morocco will remain vestigial at best.

So how different, if I may throw this essay for a loop, is Baltimore from Morocco? Let's suppose I was a traveler who came to

Baltimore in search of a Jewish presence. Here's what I would find:

In East Baltimore, on Lloyd Street, sits Maryland's first synagogue, built in 1845. This handsome Greek Revival building is now a museum, a relic left by an immigrant community. And nearby, a few delis remain on Lombard Street, a faint reminder of the once-boisterous retail scene there. I still mourn the loss of Stone's Bakery.

The flame still burns, however, at the B'nai Israel Synagogue on Lloyd Street, where its Orthodox congregation is nearly 125 years old. Gilbert Cummings, the congregation's executive secretary, said the membership of about 200 families represents remarkable growth from the 50 families of five or six years ago.

The turning point, he says, occurred with the restoration of the synagogue. Before that, the roof leaked and the sanctuary was unusable. Services were held on the ground floor. Now, "on high holidays the seating for 200 men and 200 women is completely filled," he said.

Mr. Cummings said he believes that B'nai Israel has a "a very bright future" because planned development on the east side of the Inner Harbor should bring more Jewish families to the area.

Downtown, at Howard and Lexington streets, are the hulking remains of the buildings that once housed the retail giants, Hochschild-Kohn, Hecht's and Hutzler's. The former mansions of these department store magnates and of other prosperous Jewish families of the late 19th and early 20th centuries line Eutaw Place all the way to Druid Hill Park.

Today, the most prominent ghost from that bygone era is Oheb Shalom Temple on Eutaw Place. Its eternal flame was extinguished 35 years ago, when its 67-year-old congregation moved to the Upper Park Heights neighborhood.

Another impressive synagogue, Shaarei Tfiloh, built across from Druid Hill Park in 1920, is a survivor, but just barely. In the 1930s and '40s, says its current rabbi, David Herman, the congregation had about 2,000 members. The sanctuary's seating capacity of 1,400 attests to the congregation's former strength.

Now, membership is 70 individuals, but that's up from 46 three years ago. Further growth won't surpriseRabbi Herman, who says: "I see a regentrification of the city. People are realizing they left behind a rich, beautiful architecture and services" like that at Shaarei Tfiloh.

Not far away, at 2501 Eutaw Place, is Beth Am Synagogue. Rabbi Ira Schiffer says the current congregation, not formally affiliated with any Jewish denomination, is the third to occupy the 1920s building. He said a large part of the congregation of 500 membership units (individuals and families count as a unit) lives in Mount Washington.

As to the future of Baltimore City's Jewish population, he said: "If anything, you're starting to see a new movement back into the city, in Federal Hill, Bolton Hill and Fells Point."

The Bolton Street Synagogue in Bolton Hill, which began as a spinoff from Beth Am, is the center city's newest congregation. Harold Weisbaum, recent past president of its congregation, said membership units (70 percent of them families) have risen recently to 115 from 90. He attributes that growth to the start three years ago of a Sunday school. Bolton Street's is an unaffiliated congregation.

The strength of the city's Jewish community remains in the Upper Park Heights area of Northwest Baltimore. Much of this Orthodox population is concentrated between Greenspring Avenue and Reisterstown Road. An influx of Iranian Jews has added even more vigor to this area.

But many Reform and Conservative Jews, in particular, have migrated to Pikesville and Randallstown and, most recently, to Owings Mills.

A saddening flight

This flight to suburbia, which began after World War II, makes me sad. While it is neither the sole nor largest instance of middle-class flight, it is indicative of the precarious state of Baltimore's future. The city's middle class continues to flee instead of looking for solutions to the city's problems.

It's ironic that while many Jews physically live outside the city, they maintain important philanthropic ties with institutions such as the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and the Baltimore Museum of Art. Perhaps this is an indication that the Jewish community's soul remains in the city.

So to the Jewish community in suburbia, here's the word. Now couldn't be a better time to return to your roots. Housing, and grand housing at that, in neighborhoods like Mount Vernon, Bolton Hill and Charles Village is particularly affordable. Take advantage of the vacuum in demand. Move back. The heart of Baltimore welcomes you.

"I'm hopeful for a revival," said Rabbi Schiffer, adding: "It will be a natural disaster if Baltimore goes down the tubes."

Scott Ponemone is an artist and a layout editor for The Baltimore Sun.

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