Local people, places, travels and simchas

Bagels in Vilnius

Jake Levine and the Vilnius Bagel Project

Native Tucsonan Jacob (“Jake”) Levine can be credited with bringing the bagel back to Vilnius after 70 years.

Levine, 25, a Catalina Foothills High School graduate who holds an M.F.A. in Poetry from the University of Arizona, is living in the Lithuanian capital for a year as a Fulbright Fellow. Since his family emigrated from Lithuania to the United States, he proposed in his Fulbright application that he return to explore his history and heritage. A Birthright Israel trip had ignited his interest in world travel and the exploration of his cultural past.

Jake, his roommate Menachem Kaiser, of Washington, D.C. (also a Fulbright Fellow and fellow teacher at the University of Vilnius), and some local artists devised the idea of reintroducing bagels to the city. The Vilnius Bagel Project began with a recipe from Wikipedia. Posters and fliers announced the event that in mid-October attracted “200 curious, hungry, slightly mystified Vilniusites” from all walks of life, according to Kaiser. Made with rudimentary equipment, the pre-boiled and baked plain, sesame, and poppy bagels were served with cream cheese, tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, lox and capers at a restaurant outside of Vilnius’ Old Town. Jake and Menachem demonstrated to the crowd how to build a bagel sandwich.

Before the Holocaust, Vilnius — once known as the Jerusalem of the North — boasted over 100,000 Jews. Ninety-five percent of them were murdered by the local population and the Nazis. For the past 20 years, Lithuania has been an independent parliamentary democracy. Despite intermittent anti-Semitism, Jewish life freely exists, having re-emerged in this Eastern European city.

Egyptian highlights

From Oct. 4 to 18, Elaine Marcus and Bert Landau sailed on the Oceania “Ancient Legacies” cruise through the Mediterranean, with stops in Greece, Italy, Turkey, Syria, Cyprus, Israel, and Egypt.

Elaine Marcus and Bert Landau on the bimah of the Eliyahu Hanavi Synagogue in Alexandria, Egypt

In Cairo, Bert joked about the “fast” bumper-to-bumper traffic, with cars separated by inches. (I covered my eyes on our cab ride from the airport to the hotel back in 1982.) The city of Alexandria caught their attention far more than Cairo and the pyramids — namely, the Library of Alexandria and the Eliyahu Hanavi Synagogue.

The pair found the library magnificent. It was built in the shape of a disc, facing the Mediterranean and evoking the image of the Egyptian sun illuminating the world. When someone requests a book, a copy is printed and bound especially for the patron within about 10 minutes.

The Eliyahu Hanavi Synagogue was most memorable. One needs an appointment to visit this Sephardic house of worship; the compound is guarded by the Egyptian government. According to our travelers, the synagogue and grounds are huge and well-maintained. The interior boasts Italian marble columns, stained-glass windows, giant menorahs, and a collection of Torah scrolls from bygone neighborhood synagogues that once served a Jewish community of 70,000. The building is essentially empty except for 17 elderly Jews known to live in the city, three of them males. There are no younger Jews to replace them. The Jewish gentleman who showed Elaine and Bert around was employed as the Alexandria agent for Air France; however, taking care of the synagogue was his real love. The compound formerly housed a large Jewish school, but today, it is home to a public school and other rented space, providing essential funds for maintaining the 150-year old structure. The synagogue receives financial support from donations, and matzah, for example, is imported from Israel for Passover.

Jewish Germany and Italy

Margo and Ron Gray spent most of October touring Germany and Italy. The title of their historical bus tour of Germany, “Worlds of Our Fathers,” hit home, as Ron’s parents and Margo’s father emigrated from Germany to the United States. This trip afforded Ron some closure, seeing where his parents spent critical years living in Berlin before being allowed to leave in May 1941. Margo and Ron witnessed places of persecution, yet saw how Jewish suffering has been memorialized, Jewish culture has been preserved, and the new German-Jewish community, mainly from the former Soviet Union, is thriving.

Margo and Ron Gray at the Roman Coliseum

The Jewish Museum Berlin exhibited the social, political and cultural history of German Jewry from the 4th century to the present. The Berlin Shoah Memorial, an above-and-below ground exhibit, memorializes European Jews who were exterminated. The couple viewed “Stumbling Stones” — brass plates on sidewalks in front of houses where Jews, gypsies, homosexuals and political dissidents lived before deportation to concentration camps. Each marker names the person, birth date, date and destination of deportation, if known.

The Grays toured the remains of the glorious Oranienbergerstrasse Synagogue, where his parents were married. Ruined during World War II and rebuilt as a Jewish community center, the former sanctuary has been transformed into a museum, with another room used for Shabbat services. On Shabbat Rosh Chodesh, they prayed at Berlin’s Rykestrasse Synagogue, Germany’s largest Jewish place of worship that was also restored after the war, with Ron accepting the fourth aliyah during the Torah service.

In Rome and Florence, as in Berlin, the 19th century synagogues stand proudly above the neighborhood buldings. The pair viewed the Great Synagogue of Rome with its fascinating museum containing gorgeous tapestries. Other exhibits included papal edicts restricting Jewish life, and items depicting the culture and integration of Libyan Jews who immigrated to Rome after Israel’s Six-Day War. “A trip to the ghetto in Rome would not be complete without a lunch of crispy, fried artichoke hearts and anchovies rolled in pumpkin flowers, both authentic Jewish delicacies,” said Ron. They also attended Shabbat services in the Great Synagogue of Florence with its breathtaking Byzantine-style interior, and dined after Havdalah at Ruth’s kosher vegetarian restaurant.

In its heyday, the original ghetto in Venice supported six synagogues. Today Jews pray in only two sanctuaries: the Schola Levantina in winter, which has the best heat; and the Schola Spagnola in summer, which has enough capacity for Rosh Hashanah. Margo and Ron ate at Gam Gam Kosher Restaurant where the cuisine ranged from Italian pumpkin soup to Israeli hummus. “You know you are in Venice when the gondolier goes table to table, serenading for some euros,” the couple agreed.

So many highlights: a boat trip on Lake Como, a soccer game, an opera at La Scala … and so little space.

Time to share

Happy secular New Year. Keep me posted — 319-1112. L’shalom.