Fall for Jewish Culture Across Europe
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Fall for Jewish Culture Across Europe

Annual Jewish Event Casts Spotlight On Heritage Off The Beaten Path

The eastern French region of Lorraine — home of the quiche — harbors all kinds of treasures amid its medieval walls, elegant chateaux and golden hillsides, where champagne grapes flourish under a hot autumn sun. Over the centuries, boundaries shifted back and forth between countries; local dialects, mixing Germanic, Gallic and Sephardic elements, evolved alongside a complex Jewish heritage.

This fall is the ideal time to explore that heritage, as the European Day of Jewish Culture casts a spotlight on Lorraine’s rich Jewish tradition.

Visitors to Metz — a Gothic city on the Moselle with a new branch of Paris’ Centre Pompidou art museum — will have the chance to hear Les Polyphonies Hébraïques de Strasbourg, as well as Olivier Messaien’s “Quartet for the End of Time,” composed in a German labor camp. At the vintage cinema in nearby Marly, you can catch a Jewish film series, or you can tour the historic synagogues of Metz, Verdun and Nancy — a stunning baroque city — during a season of open-house programming.

Originally conceived as a single-day, Continent-wide event, the Day of Jewish Culture has expanded its festivities throughout September and, in some cities, all fall. This year’s theme, “Jewish Languages,” is particularly enticing in a part of the world where distinctly Jewish idioms — Yiddish and Ladino chief among them — evolved alongside dozens of official languages, and where hundreds more dialects still flourish.

Most of the official events take place this Sunday, Sept. 4. But anyone in Great Britain can find a historic synagogue to tour during the month of September, when shuls from Reading to Rochester take turns hosting “open-house” events, exhibitions, author talks … even klezmer in London’s Regents Park.

And tourists in Palma de Mallorca, a medieval seaside city on Spain’s Jewish heritage route, can savor Jewish culture throughout September — a cinema series and an exhibition, “Languages of Judaism,” which resonates on an island that already has two languages (Spanish and Catalan) and a local dialect (Mallorquín).

Rashi Synagogue, Troyes. Wikimedia Commons

What makes the Day of Culture so special — and so different — from American Jewish festivals? Well, for one thing, the European audience is almost entirely non-Jewish, drawing from local populations who take an interest in their region’s history.

For another thing, the Day of Culture events — open houses, reservation-free tours and public activities — offer a more relaxed, tangible experience than visitors may otherwise encounter. Access to synagogues and Jewish sites is ever more restricted across Europe; as security tightens in response to rising violence and anti-Semitism, fewer venues are available to those without advance reservations.

For some communities, the Day of Culture is the impetus for grand unveilings. In Stockholm, the big day comes on Sept. 18. That’s when Bajit, the Swedish capital’s brand-new Jewish community center, hosts its grand opening with a concert of Jewish music, stand-up and nigun artists, Israeli ballet, children’s workshops, a smorgasbord (of course) and a flash mob on the roof.

And in Troyes, a medieval city in France’s Champagne region, the Day of Jewish Culture is the occasion to celebrate a newly renovated synagogue — in the hometown of Rashi, the Talmudic scholar who lived and died here nearly 1,000 years ago. A popular destination for its half-timbered houses, cobblestoned streets and Alsatian flavor, Troyes boasts a 150-strong Jewish community with predominantly North African roots.

But those roots extend much further at what locals call the “Rashi Synagogue,” in the restored courtyard on the spot where the great scholar taught and the bet hamidrash where he prayed. Visitors will have the opportunity to follow a “Rashi itinerary” through the streets trod by Troyes’ hometown hero, who his modern-day adherents view as a model for French diaspora Judaism.

The Jewish Quarter, Troyes. Wikimedia Commons

Farther south on the French Riviera, a community still reeling from the Bastille Day terrorist attack will host a series of public events on the second and third weekends of September. The lovely little stone villa, La Monada, that houses the Antibes Jewish Center will open its doors amid the palms of Juan les Pins; the bustling resort of Cannes will host a Jewish calligraphy exhibition at its whitewashed synagogue.

And in Nice, where July’s terror called into question the social cohesion of a Mediterranean crossroads, the North African Sephardic sounds of the band Nekouda will feel like a rebuke to ethnic conflict. After a program on the distinctive Jewish idioms of the Côte d’Azur, a public Shabbat service is planned at the elegant, white-brick temple — a gesture of optimism for a pluralistic France.

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