Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Passover in a Land of Jewish Ghosts Once-Teeming Synagogues Sit Empty, Awaiting a Rekindling of the Eternal Light

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Passover in a Land of Jewish Ghosts Once-Teeming Synagogues Sit Empty, Awaiting a Rekindling of the Eternal Light

Article excerpt

BARCELONA

This Passover I am in Spain, land of Jewish ghosts. Spain was once a place where Jewish piety and poetry flourished. Now it is full of neglected sites and abandoned synagogues. Fewer than 50,000 Jews remain.

Although Spain's history is particular, its outlines are sadly familiar. To travel almost anywhere in the world as a Jew is a tour of loss. It's a tour I've been taking: I have spent several months on sabbatical seeking out vestiges of Jewish life in Asia, in the Middle East and now in Europe. Each country I've visited - whether Buddhist, Hindu, Islamic, Christian or Communist - bears marks of a once flourishing Jewish population.

With rare exceptions, there are three kinds of synagogues that survive at all. There are those that whisper their history through the faded remnant of a Jewish star on a stone above the arch of a building now serving as a mosque, a church or a department store. There is the historic synagogue, no longer in use, that is preserved by the waning Jewish community or the government as a monument to what once was. And there is the synagogue that still functions, but all too often only for the handful of older people who still care, and who pray with the ever-present consciousness that no one will come after.

Many of these empty buildings, like those in Eastern Europe, are a mute reminder of the mass murder of World War II. The synagogues in Poland and Lithuania were filled one day and empty the next. Others reflect the emigration of entire communities to Israel or the United States because of persecution, economic deprivation or cultural isolation. And some represent a gradual ebbing away, the slow fade of a minority swallowed by a much larger culture. Intermarriage, absorption, indifference: the trifecta of modern disappearance.

During the morning service at Istanbul's Ashkenazi synagogue in early March, I was asked if I could read the Torah, because no one there knew how. The man leading the service was standing in for a rabbi who had died years earlier. In Yangon, Myanmar, the country's sole remaining synagogue was open on Saturday morning. I entered and sat by myself for a half-hour, watching curious tourists wander in, take pictures with their phones and leave. Finally a Chinese woman spotted me and, sensing my confusion, said, "No minyan." There was no prayer quorum. I was waiting for Jews who would never come.

In country after country I have sat alone in sanctuaries that were once teeming, remembering the opening lines of Lamentations: "How does the city sit solitary, that was once full of people! How like a widow, that was once great." Those lines are read each year on Tisha B'Av, when Jews mourn the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. How often, I wonder, have Jews recited those lines and realized they will soon apply to the very synagogues in which they sit? …

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