I am sorry that I have not been good about blogging about my travels recently. In honor of Rosh Hashanah I thought I would share some highlights from Jewish sites Michael and I visited on recent travels.
There have been Jews in Georgia for the past 2,600 years. In Tbilisi, we found two synagogues and attended services at the main synagogue on Friday night.
During Friday night services they appeared to be auctioning off aliyot for services on Shabbat morning. The whole process took place in Georgian so I was not able to determine how much they were going for. I have seen it in Moscow on the high holidays and in a Persian synagogue in NY on a Saturday morning, but this was my first time seeing the process a day in advance of the actual torah service.
In the resort town of Batumi there used to be a large Jewish community and a synagogue still remains. We stopped by and although the building was locked we chatted with one of the leaders of the community who was running a camp. He said that the Jewish community has been on the decline for decades as Jews continue to intermarry and leave for Tbilisi, Israel, or the US. It was fun to find a synagogue in a smaller city, but sad to hear the community is experiencing such difficulties.
On our Yerevan map we saw a Star of David representing a synagogue. It was on the outskirts of the city and required a cab to get there. Michael’s superb Russian skills came in very handy as almost everyone in Armenia speaks Russian, while their English skills are more limited. He showed the driver the map and he seemed to think he could get us there. The Star on the map was not on a specific street so it was hard to tell exactly where the synagogue was located. The driver found the general area, but did not know where to go from there. He was very nice and jumped out of the car with a map and started asking people on the street. He probably spoke to ten people until someone advised him where to go. We pulled into a parking lot with lots of different alleys, which is where the synagogue was presumably located. After a few minutes of walking around we found the synagogue up a stair case. It looked like a 3-story house with a Star of David on top. The Star was unique in that one of the sides looked like a mountain to resemble Mount Ararat.
The Rabbi greeted us as we walked in. We spoke in a combination of Hebrew and Russian. He was thrilled to have visitors to show around the synagogue. The sanctuary was a very small room, but it meets the needs of the community. There are under 1,000 Jews in Yerevan. He said kosher meat comes in twice a month from Georgia and they are thinking of opening a kosher restaurant to cater to the needs of the Israeli tourists who visit.
The Rabbi and Michael wrapped tefillin together. It was pretty cool to witness the putting on of tefillin in Armenia, not a moment I ever could have imagined. A funny moment occurred when the rabbi asked if we wanted a picture together. We both said yes, thinking it would be nice to have a picture of us together in the sanctuary. However, he meant a picture with Michael and him. He reached out to put his arm around Michael’s shoulder and looked at me to take the picture.
Our visit to the synagogue concluded when he proudly poured us a glass of pomegranate wine. He oversees the kashrut of a fruit wine facility and wanted us to taste the wine. I am not usually a fan of sweet wine, but it did taste pretty good.
Surprisingly in both Armenia and Georgia the synagogues have no security and you can just walk in. It speaks well to how comfortable Jews feel in both countries. On the other hand, Istanbul had some of the tightest security I have ever seen. In order to go to a synagogue you need to hire a tour guide in advance and send him or her a copy of your passport to get cleared. There have been synagogue bombings in recent years and many of the sites are hidden from eye sight unless you know what you are looking for. We walked by one of the largest synagogues a few times and never saw it. There was a bomb proof fake facade built, only once you passed through metal detectors inside could you see the original facade of the building.
We went inside the main Ashkenazi synagogue, however we could not go into the Sephardi synagogue because there was a wedding taking place. Most of the synagogues that once existed are no longer there. They are turned in to everything from art galleries, coffee shops, and even a factory. In some of the converted buildings it is still possible to see some of the original decoration including stained glass windows.
There is one kosher restaurant in town. It was hidden on the second floor of a building. You had to enter through a shady staircase and a dark hall. It did not appear the restaurant even had a bathroom, but I did see running water! The food left some things to be desired, but I was happy to be eating meat.
In the coming year may your travels lead you to explore interesting Jewish communities and build your own community at home. The more I travel and see the world, the more I appreciate the freedoms and vibrancy of the Jewish community of America. We are truly blessed.
May you and your family have a year of health, happiness, peace, and a year for which you will have only the best of reasons to thank G-d. Shana Tova U’Metuka!
From Russia with Love,