In 1999, when organizers conceived the first European Open Day of Jewish Heritage, the Continent was a very different place.
Back before Y2K, we spent pesetas in Spain and lire in Italy (and what bargains we got with our U.S. dollars!). We marveled at the novelty of zipping through borders without stopping; only the changing road signs indicated we’d crossed into another country. That thrill was often followed by a pang, at least for Americans disappointed at losing hard-won passport stamps.
East of Vienna, borders were firmer but softening. English was still rare in a region long isolated behind the Iron Curtain. Scores of Jews had escaped post-Communist chaos for Israel, leaving smaller communities to care for Jewish landmarks. Their erstwhile neighbors, struggling to adjust to a new society, had bigger fish to fry than restoring long-defunct synagogues or crumbling cemeteries.
It was against this backdrop that in August 1999, Jewish heritage sites coordinated a single-day open house across five Western European countries — France, Italy, Spain, Germany and Switzerland.
Where the Holocaust had decimated Jewish culture just a half-century earlier, guardians of this fragile legacy aimed to raise awareness and appreciation.
The concept was simple. Locals could walk into, and look around, the historic synagogues they passed by each day; hear melodies silenced by war and emigration; and learn about a rich, shared but largely unknown history from neighbors in their midst. The idea of “openness” was particularly significant, given that many Jewish places were (and are) closed to the public, or active only on holidays.
Twenty years later, the European Days of Jewish Culture has evolved into one of the Continent’s premier Jewish events. It is almost certainly the biggest, geographically speaking: More than two dozen nations have joined the party, which stretches from the British Isles and Scandinavia to Turkey, Georgia and Azerbaijan.
Along the way, the festival’s name has also changed. The “Days of Culture,” plural, are still coordinated around the first Sunday in September, but programming now spans August through Chanukah, with many countries mounting events throughout the fall.
An event that began with synagogue tours and guided walks through Jewish quarters now includes Sephardic music concerts and klezmer jams, open-air film screenings, Hebrew workshops, book talks and poetry recitations in Yiddish and Ladino.
Such events can offer tourists rare entrée into the Jewish life of smaller towns off the well-trodden heritage route. An impressive 420 towns and cities participated in last year’s edition, highlighting the breadth and diversity of European Jewry.
It’s an annual reminder that more than one million Jews live in Europe today. Chabad houses and kosher eateries are sprouting around the Continent. Jewish museums and Holocaust memorials have opened by the dozens, attracting international attention and audiences.
A wave of restoration efforts has revived scores of historic cemeteries and shuls; many, like the Art Nouveau synagogue in Subotica, Serbia, are proud local landmarks. In cities like Berlin and Krakow, Jewish culture has even acquired a certain kitschy cool among the hipster set.
All that is good news, at least for travelers interested in European Jewish heritage. I don’t have to tell you the bad news — that Jews from Latvia to Lisbon feel increasingly under siege from rising anti-Semitism.
For its 20th anniversary, the EDJC decided this year’s theme would be the movement itself — a mission invigorated by gathering clouds of hate. “Due to the rise of the extreme right in Europe, we are faced with a serious threat,” reads the official announcement. “We see the promotion of Jewish cultural heritage, being an integral part of European history, as a key factor in the prevention of anti-Semitic stereotypes and prejudices taking root.”
Europe is increasingly multicultural, yet one can spend years in Barcelona or Helsinki without ever knowingly encountering a Jew. And so for many Europeans, Jews are a controversial and somewhat negative abstraction: George Soros on a billboard, Israel on the TV news, the Holocaust unit in history class.
That reality underscores the importance of Jewish visibility for the EDJC’s overwhelmingly non-Jewish audience. It is harder to demonize Jews as conspiratorial financiers — a perennial trope of European cartoons — when they’re a goofy couple in an Israeli rom-com. And it encourages locals, whether natives or immigrants, to cherish temples and traditions as part of a shared heritage.