Visiting a Romanian Synagogue, 1999

    Issue Number 25, September 1999          
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Outside the Romanian Synagogue


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The Saddest Synagogue

By Barbara F. Lefcowitz

It was the saddest synagogue I’d ever seen.

Concealed behind a factory for ball-bearings and a pizza kiosk in a Moldavian town called Barlad, the nameless synagogue was the only survivor of the town’s two dozen prior to 1942.

No, it was not the location that made me feel sad nor was the small building the least bit shabby. No swastikas, graffiti, scuffed or peeling paint. In fact, its wooden facade had recently been painted a rich gold and if one looked outward from the synagogue’s carved door, two splendid old chestnut trees blocked out the view of the factory and kiosk.

But it was precisely that fresh gold paint plus the brilliance of the newly restored frescoes inside, along with the polished liturgical objects, that made me feel deeply sad the moment I arrived. The caretaker, a very old bent-over man with milky blue eyes, greeted us with a surprisingly hearty “shalom.” And though I of course returned his greeting, I felt even sadder having done so.

Sylvia, a retired New York City junior high school principal and the only other Jewish person in our group, not only disagreed with me when I beckoned her to a corner and tried to express my feelings, but implied that I was being both disrespectful and ludicrously melancholy, “the very traits the gentiles hate us for.”

Actually the “gentiles” seemed far more curious than hateful. For several, it was their first time in a synagogue. Anywhere, ever.

You’re crazy if you think this place is typical, I wanted to tell Laurice and Betsy, two Methodists from Georgia who had volunteered along with me and a dozen others to teach English and play with the neglected babies incarcerated in state-controlled orphanages, the latter one of the many horrendous legacies of the Ceausescu era. But I never got a chance because both women were so entranced by the gleaming bronze menorah and candlesticks, the deep red velvet-robed torah locked inside a glass showcase and the silver kiddish cups that the caretaker had polished bright as mirrors, I could never penetrate even an edge of their continuous ooo’s and ah’s, accompanied, of course, by the continuous clicks and flashes of their cameras. The same for Janet and her husband Bill, a retired psychiatrist who spoke often about the skills of his many Jewish colleagues--especially when I happened to be sitting across from him at dinner-- and 90 year old Alice, whose Jewish grand-niece lived in Israel; for Wayne the reborn Buddhist who had a large Spiderman tattoo on each upper arm ; for Randall and his girlfriend Stacey-Jane.

Even Jim, a young computer maven from Silicon Valley who tossed darts of nasty wit at everything from Romanian food to the country’s impoverished old women lugging baskets of tomatoes they might sell for a few lei at the market, found the synagogue “awesome.”

“I never realized the aesthetic power of your Jewish liturgical objects.

My objects? I ignored his pronoun, said that I feared he was missing the point--a comment he either didn’t hear or chose to ignore, so I said, “See that ivory-covered prayer book?”

“Incredibly amazing.”

“Sorry. But I find it a lot more amazing that nobody will ever again leave his fingerprints on a single page of that book. Like nobody will ever again light those candles, drink wine from those kiddish cups. Or get married in this place. Or say the prayers for the dead.”

“But this stuff’s unbelievable. Look at those frescoes. The gold lions, the Tree of Life, and that awesome blue...”

“You know who’s the only person to see those frescoes? Except once or twice a year when a group like us happens to visit?”

The Frescoes

Jim was running his hand along the fringes of a prayer shawl which hung from a burnished hook. “Wow, what stitching. I’ve never seen such intricate work.”

“Yeah, that’s the point. Nobody except that old caretaker who says he doesn’t know what happened to everyone when they left on the trains, nobody except him ever sees those stitches. Or those frescoes. Or anything else.”

“But don’t you find it touching that every morning the old guy still cleans and polishes all this stuff?”

I wanted to reach out and slap Jim across his freckled Irish face. Then grab the Nikons and Minoltas away from Laurice and Betsy and the other men and women who kept on piously snapping pictures. It didn’t take much imagination to slide right down their voices into living rooms with doily-covered sofa arms and china clocks shaped like Swiss chateaus where in a few weeks they’d be setting up their slides--

Now just look at this next picture, Mary Beth. One day after work we went to a darling little synagogue. A place where Jews worship. Just look at all that precious gold and bronze.

Instead of slapping him, I told Jim I didn’t find it touching at all. Tragic was more like it. I knew I was on the verge of tears and wished I could say in Hebrew the Kaddish, the prayer for the dead, but I only knew the first line, yiskadal v’ yiskadash sh’meh rabah . . .Better than nothing. I retreated past the group to a dark corner and mumbled to myself the few words I knew, a little sliver of the Kaddish for this beautiful dead building and all the beautiful dead things the caretaker polished every morning just as if--

Certainly my own small ritual for this saddest of synagogues was better than giving in to my anger when Jim said how the wrought-iron grillwork of the balcony was really cool. And who knows? The sadness might have sustained me until I could get back to my hotel room and write a long letter about the last of Barlad’s synagogues to someone I knew would understand, one of my faraway American friends. . .

The Entrance to the Sancturary

It wasn’t so much Betsy’s comment that did it, about how lucky I was to be Jewish and be able to pray in such a place, but her wish to take a picture of me standing by the locked up Torah.

“You fool, you idiot, don’t you realize this is not a synagogue but a cemetery? And that goes for all the rest of you, too. For you Janet, for you Bill, for you Alice, for you....A cemetery Hitler made! It may seem at first like a museum but it’s really a cemetery. . .”

The intensity of my anger made even the old caretaker’s milky-blue eyes stare wide open with shock despite his limited command of English. Everybody except Sylvia, who was standing across from me with a smirk on her face, rubbing one of her fingers repeatedly across another, the gesture--I’m not sure if it’s Jewish or not--that said shame, shame on you....The only right thing to do was to shout out, “Shame on YOU, Sylvia....”

And I’m glad I said it, just like I’m glad I said what I did to the rest of them, even though they looked more puzzled than when they’d first entered the building and saw two stone tablets engraved with a list of names in both Hebrew and Roman letters, after each name a date in May of 1942. Yes, I know they meant well, even Betsy when she managed after all to snap a picture of me, my face so deeply red with rage it must have matched the velvet Torah cover, a prize-winning shot no doubt.


Detail of Wood Carvings next to Door

from the September, 1999 High holiday Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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