Estonia for all

The Old Town of Tallinn (photo credit: BARRY DAVIS)
The Old Town of Tallinn
(photo credit: BARRY DAVIS)
I’ll go out on a limb. I’ll guess there aren’t too many Israelis who have sampled the delights of Estonia. Hands up all those who even know where Estonia is.
Come to think of it, anyone who follows political developments in this part of the world – this time I’ll guess that accounts for the vast majority of us – may be aware that the aforementioned Baltic state has generally shown a kind face in our direction. That sometimes extends to the Estonian points allocation for Israeli entries to the Eurovision Song Contest, too.
In fact, Estonia was amenable to ethnic minorities in general, including its Jewish citizens, from the word go.
Approximately 200 Jews, 70 of whom were volunteers, fought in the 1918-1920 Estonian War of Independence.
Shortly after the state gained independence, a Jewish school was opened, and today’s Jewish educational institution operates from the same site, which forms part of the complex of the Jewish Community Center in Tallinn. There is also a deftly designed fine-looking new synagogue there, opened 10 years ago, which replaced the ad-hoc prayer service arrangements that had largely been the order of the day since the original 1885 synagogue was bombed by the Soviets in 1944.
The fervor of the early days of the Zionist organization also had an impact on the resurrected local Jewish community, and movements such as Hashomer Hatza’ir and Betar set up shop in Estonia. The founders of Kibbutz Kfar Blum and Kibbutz Ein Gev included Jews from Estonia. Meanwhile, in Estonia’s second-largest city of Tartu, the local university has a Chair of Jewish Studies, and there were Jewish students there in the late 19th century.
Just to put you in the geographical picture, Estonia is located at Russia’s western extremity, with the Gulf of Finland to the north and Finland on the other side of the water. To the south lies Latvia, one of the other two Baltic states, with Lithuania next on the way southward. Sweden sits over the Baltic Sea to the west.
Naturally, that means there is a lot of coastline to Estonia and with a population of just 1.3 million – around 15% of our population and with more than twice the territory – Estonia also offers plenty in the way of natural open spaces. You could, if you wish, head north from the capital, Tallinn, for the delightful island of Aegna, which is home to all manner of flora and fauna.
There are also plenty of intriguing archeological remains, dating back to the 13th century.
My recent sojourn in Estonia caught the country in the grip of winter, and the countryside was largely blanketed in white, but I discovered there was plenty to see and do in the two biggest cities. In terms of size, everything is relative. Tallinn has a population of around 450,000, while Tartu has just 93,000 residents.
That makes getting out and around easy, with the public transport system in Tallinn – buses and trams – efficient and clean. While in Tartu, I got about on foot, even with the temperature hovering around the freezing point.
The Old Town of Tallinn is, as one might have expected, quaint, with cobblestone streets and remnants of the medieval walls and watchtowers lovingly preserved and presented. Estonia is largely a flat country, but there is a natural mound in the center of Tallinn. The elevated spot not only offers a vantage point for surveying the Old Town and nearby streets, it also takes in some lovely edifices, as well as the prerequisite tourist traps, such as souvenir shops. St. Nicholas Church has been deconsecrated, but its 13th-century architecture is still pleasing to the eye. It also hosts various musical events, including concerts that feature in the annual MustonenFest, which takes place every January and is followed by a program here. The three-week Israeli leg of the festival ended earlier this week.
I soon discovered that music – particularly sounds of a choral persuasion – are integral to the Estonian national identity. Veljo Tormis, considered one of the most important composers of choral music in the 20th century, died the day before I arrived. On my first evening in Tallinn I attended a tribute concert to Tormis, which had clearly been arranged overnight, at the Estonia Concert Hall. The performers included an orchestra and no fewer than three choirs, all top-notch with singers of all ages and both genders.
Not far from Kadriorg Park – a sprawling green lung not far from the beach that dates from the early 18th century and incorporates several museums – lies the site of the Tallinn Song Festival. The said event takes place every five years when 30,000 choristers perform for crowds of over 100,000. It is there that the so-called Singing Revolution took flight in the late 1980s, whereby growing numbers of Estonians gathered there to sing Estonian folk songs, to cock a collective heritage-rooted snook at the Soviet authorities. It must be quite something to hear tens of thousands of people singing in unison in an event that dates back to 1869. If you happen to be in the neighborhood in June 2019, make sure to get on down there. A giant statue of 20th century Estonian composer and a choir conductor Gustav Ernesaks, who played a pivotal role in the Singing Revolution, overlooks the grounds.
Meanwhile back in the park, a visit to the Kadriorg Art Museum will help you get a handle on some of the antecedents of contemporary Estonian art. The museum is housed in a well-kept Baroque palace that Tsar Peter I gave to his wife Catherine, and displays 17th-century Dutch paintings through to early 20th-century paintings by Estonian artists. A five-minute stroll away at the Kumu Museum you can catch some of the envelope- pushers of the Estonian arts community during Soviet times, such as Kaljo Põllu, Olav Maran and Ülo Sooster. The Kumu was voted winner of the European Museum of the Year Award of 2008 by the European Museum Forum, and judging by the exhibitions I saw there, it was a richly deserved accolade.
Estonia is a very different kettle of fish than Russia, its giant neighbor just the east. Indeed, there is an overriding sense that more than a quarter of a century after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, Estonians still relish their freedom and their Western lifestyle. That comes across loud and clear in Tartu, a couple of hours or so of driving to the south of Tallinn.
The Estonian National Museum opened there a few months ago, seemingly not just a repository of Estonian folklore artifacts but as a celebration of the national heritage. Its exhibits reflect the wide slew of cultures and tribal origins that pertain to the region.
An anti-Soviet ambiance pervades the sprawling edifice, which is located at the end of a runway in an open area. The Estonian National Museum was founded in Tartu in 1909, just prior to independence, with the express purpose of protecting and nurturing the history and culture of Estonia. The new, funkily designed, facility pounds the same mind-set beat.
If all that culture-imbibing makes you feel peckish, both of Estonia’s major cities offer plenty in the way of gastronomic delights, including Indian food. In the Old Town of Tallinn you can even fine excellent vegan victuals. If you are looking for historic vibes while you refuel, the Pegasus eatery not far from St. Nicholas Church in Tallinn caters to that. Pegasus has long had a rich history of hosting the local intelligentsia, and it was there in the 1980s that the Estonian Heritage Society was reborn.
That, in turn, spawned the revival of the local Jewish community.
The writer was a guest of the Estonian Foreign Ministry.