Josh Kaplan

Why I'll always visit synagogues abroad but never at home

You can tell a lot about a city by how it treats its Jews


A picture taken on June 8, 2017 shows an interior view of the Grand Synagogue of Paris (Synagogue de la Victoire), in Paris on June 8, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / JACQUES DEMARTHON (Photo credit should read JACQUES DEMARTHON/AFP via Getty Images)

February 23, 2023 12:42

There’s a routine among people my age when it comes to going on holiday. After the location is picked and the flights booked and the debate between hotels and Airbnbs successfully resolved (always go hotel) there comes the question of what you’re actually going to do while you’re there.

I’m not sure what happened back in the days before WhatsApp, (I presume people bought little books and thumbed through them like cavemen and just showed up hoping the places were still open) but the way it goes now is that you put the call out through whatever app your friends are on and receive back a deluge of information.

You get Google docs with links to maps, you get screenshots of iPhone notes, you get little titbits from people and have to put it together yourself to create something that vaguely looks like 48 hours’ worth of the most optimised fun you can manage.

When I get these tips, I use a few, ignore some, but one thing I always try to block out some time for is seeing a city’s synagogue. You can tell a lot by a city by how it treats its Jews and there’s no better reflection than its houses of prayer. In the last year, I’ve visited a synagogue in every city I’ve travelled to … but not one in London where I actually live.

Last summer in New York, I trekked uptown to Temple Emanu El, the largest synagogue in the city and one of the largest in the US. The scale, the ambition, the way it seamlessly blended into the Upper East Side landscape, it was all reminiscent of the way that Jews in New York are baked in, part of the furniture.

Nothing is that old there, and the world’s oldest hate seemed to be slipping out of fashion when the skyline took shape in the 1800s.

But in Europe, unsurprisingly, it’s a very different experience. To seek out a synagogue or Jewish area in a major European city is to look out for a few different things — sometimes a plaque commemorating a massacre, sometimes a telltale menorah carved into the stonework, but always the presence of local police.

Last Rosh Hashanah, I was in Rome and walked significantly out of my way to find the ornate Great Synagogue of Rome, on the banks of the Tiber.

The police stopped me 100m away and wouldn’t let me even enter the synagogue grounds, let alone the building. I tried explaining that I was Jewish, that it was Rosh Hashanah, that I’m sure the congregation wouldn’t mind one person sitting in the back but no dice.

And in Berlin towards the end of the year, I visited the Pestalozzistrasse Synagogue, a gorgeous old building beautifully restored after the war. A building that, if it was in America, would be on a Main Street and proud, but because this is Germany, it was hidden in a courtyard behind some buildings and a security gate and didn’t have any signs marking it out lest it be a target.

In Paris, while looking around the synagogue on a rainy Shabbat in January, I bumped into a man who’d made aliyah but came back to visit his old congregation. He said he left Paris after the 2015 supermarket siege and never looked back but missed the beautiful old shuls.

Each visit I’ve made to a synagogue reveals the truths of its Jewish life far better than anything else. It’s also one of the most intimate ways of seeing a new city. To understand how Jews lived and sadly very often how Jews died, is a way of feeling connected to a place you’ve never been before.

To see that there were people like you there long before you ever dreamed of visiting.

But then I come back home to London. And I never think of going to shul. Maybe its because it reminds me of Saturday mornings hauled out of bed to go to cheder, maybe it’s because there’s so much familiarity around me that I don’t need to enhance my sense of belonging.

Maybe it’s because going to shul at home is a religious statement, not an aspect of tourism.

So everywhere I go, I’ll keep exploring Jewish life, and then I’ll stop as soon as I get home. Call me the wandering Jew.

February 23, 2023 12:42

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