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January 6, 2020

New York’s Hidden Jewish Gems

New York, New York- a city that doesn't sleep, as Frank Sinatra calls it. The opportunities of what to do are far from few, many of which you might not have known existed! New York has many cultural Jewish gems– some obvious, some tasty, and some hidden to only the most observant and curious. Go: explore and discover the city of immigrants, food, and history. We promise you won’t be disappointed.   Lower East Side Conservancy New York’s Lower East Side was once the place to be for new arrivals to America, being both its most famous immigrant neighborhood and the birthplace of the American-Jewish community. It’s a living, breathing historical and cultural Jewish gem, and still boasts an active community today. The Lower East Side Jewish Conservancy is an organization which preserves, shares, and celebrates this heritage across the 32-blocks, designated as a historic district. You’ll be hard pressed not to find what you’re looking for- there are numerous synagogues, restaurants, and museums to keep everyone happy and interested.           Hebrew Free Burial Association What do Mel Brooks’ grandparents and Jewish inmates of Rikers Island have in common? Both have been buried by the Hebrew Free Burial Association (HFBA). As its name suggests, the HFBA bury Jewish New Yorkers for free; it’s the largest free burial society outside of Israel. The organization is cross-denominational, working to ensure that recently deceased Jews of all persuasions are given a full Jewish burial, in line with Jewish law. The HFBA is a reflection of modern 20th-century history, burying mainly locals from the immigrant and current community. They’ve also buried Jewish victims of World War II, and the Spanish American War, shipping bodies back from as far away as Manila and New Guinea.     Tenement Museum   While not strictly a ‘hidden’ gem, the Tenement Museum is still a fascinating insight into Jewish new Yorker lifestyles. The action takes place on the Lower East Side (you’re beginning to see a theme here, right?), or 97 Orchard Street, to be precise, which was home to a mind-boggling 7000 working class immigrants. Visitors can go on a guided tour around the building and around the neighborhood, recreating 19th-20th-century immigrant life.  There are also a range of other activities, known as ‘Tenement Talks’: free readings, discussions, performances, and screenings about  New York's history, population, and culture.       Congregation Ohab Zeded   Known formally as ‘The First Hungarian Congregation Ohab Zedek’, the synagogue has, like most of its congregants, schlepped to various places across the city: established on the Lower East Side, before moving to Norfolk Street, then Harlem, it has settled (and stayed put) at its current location (118 West 95th Street). Harking back to other areas of Jewish history (and entry of our blog! poss link here to ‘Spain quarters’ blog), it is built in a striking Spanish-Moorish style. On an important side-note, it’s also well-known for attracting large numbers of Orthodox Jewish singles. They say Orthodox Jewish dating in New York is tricky, alas here’s the solution!       Yonah Schimmel Knish Bakery It would be impossible to use ‘Jews’ and ‘New York’ in one breath without coming to the obvious common denominator– food! With the slogan, ‘One world. One taste. One knish. That’s it!’ and the claim to produce ‘The World’s Finest Knishes’, Yonah Schimmel’s knishes are something that you just have to try for yourself. He has perfected his knishes since opening in 1910. What are knishes you ask? They’re a fried roll of dough, stuffed with various fillings – such as meat, kasha, or potato. We recommend you discover them for yourself.       Congregation Shearith Israel Although we usually associate Jewish New York with typically Ashkenazi things, such as bagels and Woody Allen, it turns out that the first Jews in New York were actually Sephardim (yes, we are being serious)! Congregation Shearith Israel (also known as ‘The Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue’) is the oldest in the US, dating back to 1654. Like the Sephardim, the congregation was forced to migrate around New York, before finally settling in its present-day West 70th Street location. It’s also the official birthplace of the Orthodox Union (and the infamous OU logo). For its history and some of its famous members (including three gunsa macher Judges), this synagogue begs a visit.         Triangle Fire The deadliest disaster to strike New York until the 9/11 attacks 90 years later, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory disaster is important for many reasons. The Brown Building stands as a monument to the 146 Jewish and Italian immigrants killed by a massive fire and locked doors, and is both a National Historic Landmark and a New York City Landmark. Most of the Jewish victims were buried in the Hebrew Free Burial Cemetery (another entry on our list) with tombstones referring to the fire. For a modern memorial, time your visit with ‘Chalk’, an annual project by local New York filmmaker Ruth Sergel, where local artists walk across the city, chalking the names and ages of the victims onto their former homes.   Guss’ Pickles  Much like his pickles, Guss’ backstory makes for a vibrant, and enticing read. Izzy Guss arrived from Europe over 100 years ago, selling pickles ‘old country’ style from his, now legendary, pickle stand in the Lower East Side. His pickles have become a symbol of New York itself according to the official slogan, ‘Imitated but never duplicated’. They’re one of a kind, and are indeed world famous – they’re now even available in supermarkets. For the real deal and to sample delights such as the Guss Sour, Guss Sour Tomato, or even the Guss Sauerkraut, visit the original site, for a pickle ‘prepared with love like in the good old days’.           Spanish Portuguese Cemeteries Three hidden away Jewish cemeteries, one tucked behind a block of condos in the middle of Manhattan; the other two further downtown, are the legacy of North America’s oldest Jewish congregation, Shearith Israel (also featured on our list). The first, in Chinatown, is the oldest Jewish cemetery in North America and hosts the final resting places of 22 American Revolution veterans and the first American-born rabbi. The second, amongst Greenwich Village townhouses, still has twenty headstones standing. The third cemetery is just off 21st and 6th Avenue, with 250 graves (some still legible), and is perhaps the most picturesque and evocative of a bygone era.           Emma Lazarus plaque, Battery Park Battery Park is synonymous with New York’s immigrant past, but did you know that this impression is largely due to a plaque inscribed on Lady Liberty? Emma Lazarus, a famous American-Jewish poet, wrote her 1883 sonnet ‘The New Colossus’, to celebrate America as the land of freedom and destination for the ‘huddled masses yearning to be free’– amongst them, her fellow Jews. Part of the poem is inscribed and mounted onto the Statue of Liberty, dedicated in 1955 to New York City. As if that wasn’t Jewish enough, the plaque itself is set in a stone gifted from the State of Israel to the Sisterhood of the Spanish and Portuguese synagogues (another entry on our list).

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December 20, 2019

Spain's Top 10 Must See Jewish Quarters

Whether you’re out sun-seeking or sightseeing, Spain has more to offer than just good food and good weather. Home to the original ‘Sephardim’ (‘Spanish Jews’ in Hebrew), Spain is rich with stories and evidence of its Jewish population’s history and culture, right up to the community’s 1492 Expulsion. So wherever you find yourself roaming the country or exploring the city, there’s always something new and unexpected to discover: synagogues built like mosques and converted to churches or statues of Jewish celebrities, Spain has it all, with some breathtakingly beautiful views. Cáceres- Barrio de San Antonio A UNESCO World Heritage City since 1986, this isn’t the least of Cáceres’ charms. Fascinatingly, the city is an early example of religious coexistence; Cáceres was populated by Jews, Moors and Christians in the 11th century. Stop by the Old Jewish Call and observe the one-story houses stacked on top of one another in all of their chaotic glory, and the Plaza Mayor, where Jews sold, shopped, kvetched and plutzed. The nearby Cáceres Museum offers a wealth of information, and for the more eagle-eyed tourist, around the corner at number 30 Barrio de San Antonio de la Quedabra Street is a street sign recalling the city’s past Jewish population – two stars of David.   Girona - Catalan Jewish Museum, the Centre Bonastruc ça Porta And now to Spain’s very far East – Girona. Girona’s beauty – the hilly Capuchins to the east of the river Onyar; the modern town on the plains of the west – is breathtaking and varied. Nowadays, Girona is a popular day trip for tourists from Barcelona. It’s Jewish past, dating from the late 9th century, isn’t completely obvious at first glance; for that, you have to dig a little deeper. Take a visit to the Centre Bonastruc ça Porta – the Jewish Museum, within the boundaries of the Jewish ‘Call’ (quarter) and the site of Girona’s last synagogue–details all areas of medieval Spanish-Jewish life, including the most famous Jewish Gironan of all, the celebrated Talmudist Nahmanides.     Barcelona Barcelona – city of Dali, Gaudi and good food. But did you know that Barcelona’s ‘Aljama’, Jewish community, was one of the largest of medieval Spain, comprising 10% of the city’s population? After the 1391 attack on the city and 1492 expulsion, all that’s left of Barcelona’s magnificent Jewish heritage is the layout of its streets. For some light-hearted relief, the Barcelona Jewish film festival and European Day of Jewish Culture celebrations take place in the city on the first Sunday of September.   Besalu The community of Besalu began as an overflowing community (think synagogue on High Holidays)from the nearby Call of Girona, and, like most good Jewish communities, produced some well-known doctors (amongst them notables like Abraham des Castlar, personal doctor to Peter IV of Arragon, and Bendit des Logar, two of the leading physicians of the time). Besalu’s main claim to fame? It has one of the only three medieval mikvehs throughout Europe. If the heat gets too much, take a look around a fancy house of the time: the Cultural Centre Curia Real, a former home of notable Jewish family the Astrucs, has cultural clues and all round interesting items to satisfy your curious urges.   Toledo Toledo, close to Madrid, is the city of walls, silk and swords and one of the most important Jewish cities of medieval Europe. Other than the famous ‘Escuela de Traductores’ (School of Translators), the Jewish quarter (‘Juderia’)’s two remaining synagogues (out of Toldeo’s original ten) are unmissable. The Sinagoga del Transito is a two-in-one attraction - built in 1366, nowadays it contains the Museo Sefardi, detailing medieval Jewish life in Toledo. The Sinagoga of Santa María la Blanca also has an interesting story – permission to build it was granted when the King was in love with a Jewish woman. It was later converted into a church. The path of true love never did run smooth…   Oviedo- Asturias. Known as the ‘Capital of Paradise’, unfortunately, nothing original of Oviedo’s Jewish heritage remains in the old Jewish quarter.  The city is, however, skilled at commemorating what used to be there. There are many things to ‘not’ see in Oviedo: wander over to the Campoamor Theatre and look for ghosts –below your feet is what used to be the Jewish cemetery, memorialized by a plaque on the side of the theatre. In Juan XXIII Square, a lonely plaque on a pharmacy tells readers that they are in the historic Jewish quarter. Most excitingly, perhaps, just east of the theatre, is the commemorative statue of Woody Allen. Yes, you’ve read that correctly. And no, we don’t see the connection either.   Estella The only quarter on our list which was built between a castle and a former prison’s bridge, Estella’s community was the third richest and most powerful in the region. Walled in on its remaining three sides, it is this which hopeful tourists come to see. Perhaps the second most famous Jewish wall in history, it’s 300 meters of white limestone, topped with part of a remaining tower. Unfortunately, no actual remains of any other Jewish community buildings are present. Two churches within the quarter – San Pedro de la Rua and the Santa Maria jus del Castillo – are former synagogues. Climb up Zalatambor Castle for some spectacular views.   Segovia The undulated shape and seven gates of the Segovian Jewish quarter sets it apart from the rest of the city. Segovia’s Jewish history is what might best be termed ‘hidden’. There’s a hotel on the site of a famed converso rabbi’s house. Large arches stand, without their gates. Where there was once three synagogues, two dedicated Talmud schools, a Jewish hospital, cemetery, butcher, ovens and baths, there are now a collection of generic buildings with some lovely scenery and views – the community was forced to liquidate their assets at the time of the expulsion.   Happily, within the quarter is the Jewish Quarter Educational center, which is also the former home of an illustrious descendant of converted Jews.   Tudela The Jews of Tudela were a bit different from most other communities on our list. They were the last Jews to leave Spain, holding out against the expulsion edict until 1498. They are also responsible for bringing to the world-famed Jewish scholar, Judah Ha-Levi and famed 12th-century traveler Benjamin of Tudela. The Jewish quarter is divided into the old, ‘Vetula’, and linked to the new quarter by two parallel streets. Vetula’s top attraction is the Old Synagogue, and the ‘Manta’ – roll – of Tudela, a list of conversos (forced converts) from the 17th century. The new quarter is just a stroll away, the place where the Jews took in other Spanish-Jewish refugees and clustered together during their last 6 years in the country.   Monforte de Lemos  To the North, and to a very distinct community in Galicia. The Jewish community of Monforte de Lemos was known for their silk and silverware trades. Unusually, the community here were permitted to come and go as they pleased, unlike other Jewish Calls throughout medieval Spain. Pescaderías street offers some of the best views of the city, including 700-year-old walls and watchtowers. The house of the most important family, the Gaibores, still stands in the quarter, and is definitely worth a visit. Carry on walking a little further and you’ll encounter the ritual baths, the site of the old synagogue and the city’s old prison.            

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Jack Gottlieb
February 13, 2020

Remembering the World's First Jewish Ghetto

Not a year goes by without a tourist walking into the Venice Ghetto asking where the concentration camps are or were. This question, unfortunately, reflects a lack of understanding as to why the Venice Ghetto was founded on March  29, 1516 and maintained for centuries–all of which had nothing to do with the Holocaust. That is not to say that the Venice Ghetto was not involved in the Holocaust. It was decimated by the Nazis in 1943 when most of its inhabitants perished in the Auschwitz concentration camp. It never recovered until this very day when only 20 Jews now live in the Ghetto itself. Two memorials, The Last Train and The Holocaust Memorial Wall, situated in the Ghetto Square bear witness to this tragedy. The distinction between the two types of ghettos is important. The Nazi Ghetto was set up as an interim solution to the ”final solution’, the other as a means of segregating a group whose values were deemed harmful or dangerous to the common good. Main square at the Venice Ghetto (photo credit: Wikimedia) Members of my family who managed to survive the first kind of Ghetto reported a litany of horror stories about their experiences. My mother watched from the woods as the Kovno Ghetto in Lithuania was liquidated. My uncle was lucky enough to escape the Lida Ghetto in Belarus before it too suffered the same fate. Obviously, no redeeming features will ever be reported from this type of ghetto. The Venice type of ghetto, for all it’s negatives, those of density, segregation and restrictions, did have a positive side to it. It provided protection, business opportunities and amazingly enough, a sense of community. In an effort to close the gap between the misconception and reality of what the Venice Ghetto is and what it represents, the city of Venice has embarked on a year long program of events to mark the quincentennial of its founding.  It was kicked off nearly a month ago by an opening ceremony at the Fenice Opera House attended by local, national, and international dignitaries. I was fortunate enough to wrangle an invitation to this event as well as the launch earlier that day  of an important book called The Venice Synagogues. It was written by Umberto Fortis, professor of Italian literature, coordinated by Toto Bergamo Rossi, Head of the Venetian Heritage Council, and published by Assouline Books, a prestigious book publisher. The book describes in rich and glorious detail five important synagogues of the Venetian Ghetto and stands as a symbol of the rich Jewish culture which blossomed regardless of, or despite the hardships imposed on the Ghetto Jews. Left to right: Jack Gottlieb, Toto Bergamo Rossi, Valentina Nasi Marini Clarelli, Sebastien Ratto-Viviani When I leafed through this book I definitely had the sense that Jews in the Venice Ghetto were thriving, and that Jewish culture was flourishing, unlike the Nazi Ghetto where Jews were being killed and their cultural heritage was being erased. Rossi was quite right in describing this hand-bound book ‘as not just another high end collectible but as a work of art’. Kudos to Assoulin Publishing who is contributing half of the proceeds to the Venice’s synagogue restoration project which, unfortunately, is still short of the 8 million dollars it needs to begin. In stark contrast to the joyous air at the book launch was the air of solemnity later that evening of the opening ceremony at the Fenice Opera House. The former was a celebration of life, the latter a commemoration of evil. Before giving way to Mahler Symphony No.1 (by the way, banned by the Nazis as degenerate), the keynote speaker of the event, Simon Schama, the noted author of the Story of the Jews and subsequent TV series, delivered a riveting commentary on the evolution of the ghetto. He explained that “history is not always a trip down memory lane”. And  events like the Venice Ghetto, the Holocaust and the recent bombings in Brussels are a stark reminder against complacency-that just when we think that things could not get worse, they unfortunately do! Specifically, he commented, “an event we think that we had left behind in a particular period or in a particular moment crashes into our present lives and leaves us at great risk!” Playing the Mahler Symphony at the Fenice Opera House (Photo: Jack Gottlieb) Thus, the central existential issue for Jews through the centuries, whether we are discussing medieval Venice, Nazi Germany or modern-day Islamic countries is simply an issue of cohabitation, the problem of living together with Jews in the same neighborhood, city, or country. What we see in common between the Venetians, Nazis, and Islamists is enmity and intolerance; there are individuals, groups, and, sometimes, nations who react, sometimes violently, to the idea of sharing the same urban space with Jews. It is inconsistent with their worldview to tolerate the presence of a group with a belief system somewhat different than their  own. The answer to discrimination and hatred is to educate. And what better place to start this education than the place where it all started-The Venice Ghetto. That is why today my organization, the World Jewish Heritage Fund, is releasing for free an ebook about the year long commemoration of the Venice Ghetto. To do this, we have created the first ever interactive digital travel book about the ghetto, which gives you access to key sites, events, trails, guides, and tours – all at the click of a button. A Journey Through the Venetian Ghetto eBook (Photo: WJH) We hope that giving people access to the story of the Venice Ghetto, we can prevent other Ghettos from being created-for Jews and non Jews alike. Ronald Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress, said it best at the commemoration when he stated, “when you face the past with complete honesty, you actually create a much better future – for your children, for your country, and for all people.” Amen!

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January 2, 2020


  Looking to tantalize your taste buds? Look no further! Israel’s Top 10 Ethnic Restaurants are sure to get your appetite going, whether you are looking for meal suggestions or just want to try something new this blog has something in it for everyone. From Persian delicacies in Tel Aviv, via eastern European feasts in Haifa to Moroccan meals in Beer Sheva, we recommend you try them all!   Ha’Sabich Shel Ovad, Givatayim At number 2 is Ha’Sabich Shel Ovad – or translated, THE Ovad’s Sabich. Whether the ‘The’ refers to owner Ovad or the sabich sandwich (pitta with aubergine, hard-boiled eggs, salads and tahnini), both are infamous and classically Israeli with a fresh, modern twist. Make the schlep to Givatayim and you won’t regret it; we’ll bet that this is the best sabich you’ll find across not only Israel but the middle east and the world. Kebab Emuna, Beer Sheva Since 1958, hidden away in Israel’s desert south, lies the legendary True Kebab. No, really – Kebab Emuna translated is ‘True Kebab’. Go for the Iraqi kebab; stay for the colorful and plentiful salads served alongside. And to tell people you’ve discovered the one, the only, the ‘True Kebab’. Azura, Jerusalem As the sun rises over Jerusalem, the smell of traditional Iraqi and Kurdish food escapes onto the street. If you’re craving homemade sofrita or kubbeh soup, both Iraqi-Kurdish delicacies, or just curious, this is your stop. Much like the other attractions in central Jerusalem, the food is unmissable and it’s best to arrive early to get a seat.   Maayan Ha'Bira, Haifa Haifa is famous for the Baha’i gardens, Elijah’s Cave and Maayan Habira. Whether you’re after a beer and a buzzing atmosphere or some of its famous chopped liver (so what if it’s better than your mom’s? We won’t tell), it’s the place to be. Make it a Tuesday night to hear some legendary live jazz. Café Glida Yonek, Haifa Or, if you’re after rival Eastern European Haifa-based cuisine, Café Glida Yonek’s Romanian kebabs (made with a closely guarded top secret recipe) are to die for, as are their various, carefully prepared steaks. Its authentic atmosphere will be a certain trip highlight.    Salimi, Tel Aviv Take a break from the Tel Aviv market at Salimi, the Persian restaurant around the corner. Off the tourist track (no flashing cameras and Hawaiian shirts here, please) you’ll eat some of the most appetizing and carefully selected gourmet grilled food. Your best bet is the Sabzi, a rich, herb-based soup, or their famous gondi dish, also known as the Iranian matzoh ball. It’s just what you need to prepare for a second round of hard bargaining. Ha'Kosem, Tel Aviv Ah, falafel – similar to other items on our list, a trigger for heated debate amongst Israelis. Tel Aviv’s Eric Rosenthal – nicknamed ‘The Magician’, he’s just that good – has made traditional Israeli fare into a highly-regarded art form, starting with his infamous gourmet falafel. Not up for it? There’s also shawarma, sabich, and shakshuka to tempt you. Chacho, Netanya In a city well-known for its large French and Russian populations, it’s strange to think that at the top of our list is Netanya’s very own, erm, Libyan restaurant. Yes, you read that correctly – for over 40 years, the Vatori family have fed the European hordes their epic North African offerings, with sumptuous stews overnight on a kerosene stove, or freshly grilled meat with a side of couscous. Don’t like what’s on offer? Come back tomorrow – the menu changes frequently, keeping wannabe patrons on their toes. Yakuta, Beer Sheva Picky eaters – here’s one for you! Well, if you like North African food, that is. If you do, then Yakuta, in Beer Sheva, will personalize your dish to just the way you want it. Our pick is the delicious, authentically-Morrocan tagine, served in an earthenware pot. There’s also a huge menu, so there’s something for even the fussiest. Morris, Jerusalem Greek and Persian food is alive and well in the heart of Jerusalem at Morris, named after the owner who personally supervises the food being offered to his customers. There’s only the best on offer here – from a quick arak with friends, to classic, family-feeding Persian charcoaled grills. Whether it’s an entrecote steak, duck liver or skewered sweetbreads you’re craving, this is fusion cuisine at its finest.  

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