At sundown on Tuesday, May 18 this year, the festival of Shavuot will be celebrated. We will once again commemorate the time centuries ago when the first fruits of the harvest were carried to the holy Temple and presented as an offering to God. Shavuot is the last Jewish festival in springtime, and it’s a great time to travel to another country and celebrate with individuals of another culture, joined in a common experience. The world over, we light candles, decorate our rooms with greenery, eat delicious dairy foods, study the Torah, and read from the Book of Ruth.
I’m thinking about Romania as a possibility this year. It’s certainly a country with a rich Jewish heritage, as well as a beautiful countryside to revisit.
Jewish History in Romania
The first Jewish settlers were believed to have arrived in Romania thousands of years ago, as part of Roman legions invading the region. Then during the Middle Ages, immigrants settled in parts of Romania, followed by larger numbers from Spain after its expulsion of the Jews in 1492. By the 16th century, the Romanian Jewish community had evolved into a relatively large and prosperous group, and by the 1920s, almost 800,000 Jews lived in Romania. After the later turmoil of the 20t h century, from the Holocaust to the Communist reign, the Jewish population decreased significantly Only an estimated 9,000 — 15,000 Jews call Romania home today. But in today’s Romania, you can still see traces of its proud Jewish heritage. Nearly 100 well-maintained synagogues dot the countryside, along with more than 800 Jewish cemeteries. I’d like to celebrate a Jewish festival day in a country which so tenaciously holds on to its heritage.
Today’s Jewish Community
Encouragingly, about half of the synagogues are in regular use. Romanian anti-Semitism appears to be at an ebb, and the country’s relationship with Israel is stable. Signs that the community is holding to its roots include Sunday morning programs on Jewish subjects, centers for historical studies, and Talmud Torah classes for youth. Bucharest’s Jewish community is quite active, and there are outposts of Jewish culture scattered throughout the country. As one measure of its stability, 10 different kosher canteens are in operation by various communities, and three ritual providers make kosher meat available. The current resurgence in religious practice also is an encouragement to me as I consider a return visit to Romania.
Sightseeing in Romania
As a seasoned traveler, I would be less than honest if I didn’t admit that the pull of Romania is not just a religious one. I always welcome any reason to spend time in a country with which I’m less familiar. From my brief time there, I know what treasures Romania has to offer to a curious tourist. Here are just a few of the sights on my must-see list:
- In Bucharest, the Choral Temple, built in 1857, features Moorish turrets and lavish interiors. It’s the largest active synagogue in Bucharest today. I’d also like to stop by the Museum of the History of the Jewish Community, which features books and artwork by Romanian Jews.
- In Islai, I plan to visit the National Theatre, decorated in French-eclectic style and featuring a renowned auditorium with excellent acoustics. I must re-visit the Great Synagogue of Iasi, the oldest surviving prayer house in Romania and second oldest synagogue in all of Europe.
- In Brasov, the Council Square is worth a stop. Build by the Saxons with massive stone walls and bastions, it’s reputed to be the spot where the Pied Piper led away the children of Hamlin. The Bran Castle, infamously known as Dracula’s Castle is also located in this Transylvanian mountain city.
- Piatra Neamt, situated in the Carpathian foothills, is home to the Ba’al Shem Tov Synagogue, a wooden structure built in 1766.
A Romanian Shavout Celebration
But the centerpiece of this trip must be an authentic Romanian celebration of Shavout. I’m still learning about some of the rituals and customs. Somehow I’ve become most fixated on the foods! I know that the typical palacsinta tortes (blintzes) are made in Romania with a mixture of mushrooms, lemon, dills, and cheese. They also serve their mamaliga (polenta) with white cornmeal, to signify purity. Given the diverse backgrounds of Romanian Jews, the cuisine is quite eclectic.
Most of all, I hope to attend prayer services at one of the historical Romanian synagogues. And I’m practicing the Romanian version of the blessing that is said when the Shavuot candles are lit:
“Burikh Atu A-d-y-n-o-y E-l-o-y-h-a-y-n-I Melekh Hu-Oylum Asher Kiddshuni Be-Mitsvoysoyv Ve-Tsivuni Lehadlik Nayr Shel Yoym Toyv.
Burkh Atu A-d-o-y-n-o-y E-l-o-y-h-a-y-n-I Melekh Hu-Oylum She-Hekheyuni Ve-Kiyyemuni Ve-Higgiuni La-Zzman Ha-Zze.”
If you have any other suggestions for how I can enjoy Shavout in Romania, please let me know.