Some years, given a world full of tempting travel choices, I have a tough time honing in on the top five or so destinations. Not this year. 2014 looks to be an exciting year of Jewish rebirth and rediscovery for places as far afield as Latvia, Jamaica and Poland. Meanwhile, as Jewish life continues to coalesce and flourish in the big New World cities, L.A. and Sao Paulo offer some clear advantages this year. These are the places I’m most excited to explore in 2014 – and here’s why:
1. Warsaw, Poland: Because seven decades after the Holocaust wiped out a thousand-year Jewish history, Poland has its first national Jewish Museum – and a tentative burgeoning of Polish-Jewish culture. The Museum of the History of Polish Jews opened in 2013 as a cultural center, with a program of concerts, films, lectures and temporary installations.
This coming fall, the core exhibition – supervised by a U.S.-led, international team of historians and showcasing the complex history of Poland’s Jews – will premiere in a 43,000-square-foot gallery. The award-winning building design is intended as a symbol of the new face of Warsaw, a city completely rebuilt after World War II that is working hard to shed its stodgy, less-than-tolerant image in favor of an inclusive cosmopolitanism. That spirit – and the renaissance of Warsaw Jewry – will be on display in May, when the Jewish Center on Twarda Street invites all of Warsaw to its annual “Open Twarda Street” festival. More than 10,000 attended for the fifth edition last year, celebrating Jewish culture and Warsaw’s new diversity.
2. Los Angeles: Because a crop of blockbuster exhibitions highlights this city’s ever-greater Jewish cultural presence. Few cities outside Israel can boast such a rich array of Jewish activity, testament not only to a dynamic community but also to L.A.’s status as entertainment capital of the world. Last week, for example, I could have chosen from Yiddish nostalgia cabaret, Israeli modern dance, Jewish stand-up comedy, Jewish-authored theater and a celebrated Hebrew choir.
But this winter offers the special opportunity to take in several monumental exhibitions, which I plan to do while I’m in L.A. this month. The venerable Skirball Cultural Center recently unveiled the retrospective, “Global Citizen: The Architecture of Moshe Safdie,” to coincide with the completion of its Safdie-designed campus. Having arrived from the National Gallery of Canada, another Safdie building, the show (through March) explores the evolution of the celebrated Israeli-Canadian architect’s career.
Nearby at the Simon Wiesenthal Museum of Tolerance, “Anne” is a new permanent, multimedia exhibition about Anne Frank that is getting a lot of buzz; with a facsimile of her diary, a replica of her living space and an hour-long film, the exhibit is billed as the most comprehensive look at the teenager’s life and legacy outside of Amsterdam.
3. Sao Paulo later this year: Because once the World Cup is over, airfares and hotel rates will plummet across Brazil – but visitors will benefit from years of improvements in infrastructure, safety and tourist amenities. For Jewish life, Sao Paulo remains unequaled in Latin America: it is home to the continent’s largest synagogue (700 regularly come to Friday services), a massive Hebrew cultural center with more than 25,000 members and other hyperboles befitting its status as a global megacity. Sao Paulo may lack the seaside charm of Rio and the seductive, laid-back rhythms of more touristic cities – Recife, Florianopolis – but for 21st-century urbanity, humming Jewish life and advantageous timing, few places can match it during this year’s South American spring.
4. Riga, Latvia: Because while Lithuania is the ancestral home of so many Ashkenazim and Estonia has grabbed attention for its high-tech economy, it’s Latvia’s turn in the Baltic spotlight. This year, Latvia is the latest nation to join the euro zone, and its lovely waterfront capital, Riga, is a 2014 European Capital of Culture.
Riga has an 800-year Jewish heritage of its own – the modern community numbers 15,000 – as well as a past rich with Viking, Hanseatic and Russian influences, all of which are visible in the UNESCO-designated historic center. Latvians are eager to show off what makes their country unique; with the “Riga 2014” calendar of events, travelers will have plenty to enjoy, from an amber exhibit at the Natural History Museum to classical concerts, open-air parties, light shows and markets around town.
5. Jamaica: Because you can be part of the rediscovery of a unique Caribbean-Jewish heritage. I recently wrote about how the Jews of Jamaica are working to revive their centuries-old, multi-ethnic community with the first full-time rabbi in decades and the restoration of numerous Jewish historical sites, from Portuguese cemeteries to colonial merchants’ homes.
Most ambitious of all, an effort has been launched to promote Jewish tourism in Jamaica for the first time. Jewish visitors are invited to go beyond the sun-soaked hedonism of Montego Bay, touring Jewish sights in the colonial port of Falmouth and exploring the vibrant capital of Kingston – a little-visited city that is home to the synagogue and most of the island’s Jews. If you’re looking for a new Jewish twist on the Caribbean this winter, Jamaica is a solid bet.