No matter how far and wide we travel, visiting well-trod or more exotic places, it is always gratifying to find sites or enclaves that are connected to our Jewish heritage. Amid the myriad of magnificent churches and imposing statues and structures around the world, the sight of a synagogue, a Judaica museum or a Magen David on an old dwelling evokes a sense of pride and a warm feeling of familiarity.
Spain, for example, is filled with testaments to Jewish life past and present. In Madrid there are several shuls, such as the Orthodox Sephardi synagogues Beth Yaacov and Jasdei Lea.
In historic Toledo, which had one of the largest Jewish populations in Spain, before the expulsion of the Jews in 1492, the Jewish quarter is a significant place to visit. The Synagogue of El Transito was built in 1336, and then converted to a church after the expulsion. The building now houses the Sephardi Museum.
On the outskirts of Toledo, a former synagogue now called Santa María la Blanca is also a museum. Erected in 1180, it is considered the oldest standing synagogue structure in Europe. It is owned and preserved by the Catholic Church, but no major changes were made to the building.
In Cordoba, the Jewish quarter is one of the most famous in Spain. The city boasts the only 14th-century synagogue in Andalusia and the only synagogue in Spain that was never turned into a Christian building. Another significant site in the quarter is a monument dedicated to Maimonides.
Barcelona had a rich Jewish culture during Spain’s golden age. One of the main attractions that remain is the ancient ghetto and the fifth-century Main Synagogue of Barcelona. Today, only its subterranean level is open to visitors Italy, too, has a wealth of Jewish sites. In Rome there are 13 synagogues, mostly Sephardic.
The synagogue of Ostia Antica, the ancient seaport near Rome, is one of the oldest in the world. The remains of a 4th-century synagogue constructed on the site of a synagogue from the 1st century BCE were discovered there.
Another interesting shul, the Synagogue of Rome, Longotevere Cenci (1874-1904) has a unique Persian and Babylonian design. The museum in the synagogue chronicles the history of Rome’s Jews.
An important relic in Rome is the Arch of Titus, opposite the Roman Forum.
Built by the Roman commander to commemorate his victory over Judea in 70 CE, it depicts a parade of Romans carrying vessels from the Temple in Jerusalem.
Venice is the only Italian city that has a Jewish ghetto which has remained intact. It includes five synagogues, a Jewish bookstore, publishing house, social center, rest home, Jewish museum, yeshiva, and kosher grocery store and restaurant. The oldest synagogue in the ghetto, the Tedesca, (1528), contains the Museum of Hebrew Art.
In Florence, the Synagogue of Florence (1882), regarded as one of Europe’s finest examples of blending Moorish style with Arabic and Byzantine elements, is considered one of the most beautiful buildings of 19th-century Italy. The interior features massive walnut doors, a central dome, wood and bronze carvings, marble floors, mosaics and tall stained glass windows.
Adjacent to the synagogue is a building that houses the Florence Jewish Museum, which .provides a history of the city’s Jewish community from 1437 to the present.
In another part of Europe, The Czech Republic offers some diverse places of Jewish interest, such as the Jewish Museum of Prague. The city’s Jewish community town hall is also well worth a visit. And there is a clock with Hebrew letters that goes counter clockwise.
The 13th-century Alt Neu Shul, or The Old New Synagogue, is the oldest functioning synagogue in Europe and perhaps the world. It serves as Prague’s main synagogue, with prayer services, weddings and bar/bat mitzva celebrations.
In neighboring Slovakia, there are many sites that attest to the Jewish community life that once flourished there. Those sites now form the Slovak Jewish Heritage Route. Comprised of synagogues, cemeteries, monuments and museums, the route has 24 officially demarcated sites across the country.
In the capital, Bratislava, places of Jewish interest include the Museum of Jewish Culture; the Chatam Sofer Memorial; the Holocaust Memorial; and the Heydukova Street Synagogue. Built in the 1920s, this Orthodox synagogue is the only remaining shul in Bratislava that still functions as a house of worship.
While many synagogue structures in Slovakia still stand, very few are used for religious purposes, as very few Jews remain. However, as landmark buildings, many retain their Jewish façades, architectural design and intricate interior ornamentation. Many are used by the state as art galleries, museums, cultural centers or schools.
One of the most impressive functioning shuls in Slovakia is the Orthodox synagogue in Presov, the third-largest city in Slovakia after Bratislava and Kosice. Built in 1898, the three-story Moorish-style edifice was restored in the 1990s, its imposing architectural design enhanced by splendid ornamentation. The immense synagogue contains the Barkany Collection, an exhibition of Judaica gathered from the large Jewish community in the 1920s.
Synagogues on the route that are used for cultural purposes include the Art Nouveau synagogues in Trenchin and Nitra; the Orthodox synagogue in Zilina; the synagogue in Liptovsky Mikulas; the Moorish synagogues in Senec and Samorin; the nine-bay synagogue in Stupava; and the Status Quo synagogue in Trnava, which houses the Jan Koniarek contemporary art gallery and concert hall. Across the street from the Status Quo is the Max Gallery. An Orthodox synagogue renovated as a contemporary art gallery and concert venue, it won an award for the best restored religious building in Slovakia.
The route also includes the Park of Generous Souls in Zvolen, dedicated to the Slovak citizens who helped save Jews during the Holocaust. Its two outstanding features are the Threshold of Life and the Obelisk of Hope.