Can you point to Romania on a map?
I highly doubt that most people have met a Romanian, let alone a Jew from Romania. The truth is that the country was once a bustling epicentre of Yiddish and, believe it or not, secular Jewish culture. Very few people are aware of the fact that Romania is the home country of Elie Wiesel, the famous Shoah historian, and the birthplace of Imber’s Hatikvah- the Israeli national anthem. I am willing to bet that even fewer people are aware that klezmer, the violin music heard in movies such as 'The Fiddler on The Roof', was born in the foothills of Moldova’s villages. But I am not here to talk about the past.
The present is what concerns us.
With a few shuls and a small Jewish community centre in the heart of Bucharest’s Old City neighbourhood, the current Jewish community which is made up of 9,000 strong is striving to survive culturally amid dwindling numbers. Although out of the hundreds of thousands that once inhabited the country only a few remain, their presence can still be felt.
From the single store in the entire country that offers Kosher food to the small community centre in the middle of Bucharest, Jewish life might seem really difficult and terse, but once you get to know the people that make up the entire community, it is immediately obvious that, in fact, the opposite is true.
As a result of the lack of funds needed to rebuild once extravagant shuls and expand Jewish life outside the private sphere, gatherings in people’s homes and in hotel conference rooms are still common. The truth is that it is people that make up the community. Ultimately, it is their struggles that bring them together, not the buildings in which they congregate. The main point is that they stick together no matter what.
For example, in 2013 David Finti, a young Jewish activist stationed in Bucharest suffered third degree burns as a result of a horrid accident. The community quickly responded with donations and support which prompted Israel to send aid and have him airlifted back to a hospital where real medical care was present. Finti survived the ordeal only to publicly express his gratitude to the community but also to Israel.
Nothing is more indicative of Jewish culture than theater. The Jewish State Theatre, located in a secluded spot of Romania’s capital not only acts as a secondary community centre, but also as a place where the next generation is educated through a dying art form. From Avram Goldfaden’s plays to current more classical pieces such as 'Driving Miss Daisy', old and new generations enjoy shows in Romanian, Yiddish and Hebrew.
Yet tragedy struck the theatre only a few months ago when a fire burned the roof and caused it to collapse inside the building, destroying most of everything of value. The community quickly responded by offering donations, but also by asking for help from their wealthier relatives in Israel. In the course of a few months the theatre was back in it’s original shape. What struck me as amazing is the fact that the theater group still put on plays in front of the construction site of the building knowing full well the importance they played in keeping the Jewish community unified.
What is the moral of their story?
Romanian Jewry has gone through some terrible times. From the fascist Iron Guard state to the Soviet-style totalitarian regime under Ceausescu, there has been a history of Jewish persecution in the country that is abhorrent. In fact, Hannah Arendt once referred to Romania as the most anti-semitic country in Europe. The fact that the current small yet bustling community is striving to keep Jewish-Romanian culture alive is something that should be commended.