Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The Last Synagogue in Latvia

Fran, my traveling companion, is the author of today’s blog on our day in Riga.

This is incredible as this blog is being written while listening to downloaded Klezmer Music. It is more relevant as we started this day searching and successfully finding the only synagogue in all of Latvia. Easily missed, we located our destination by finding Michael Freydman, the caretaker, standing (with yarmulke) within the courtyard.
Michael was friendly and funny, greeting us warmly, and telling us about the status of the structure. He jokingly referred to the permanent apartment of the police who guard the building 24/7 after a bombing there years ago. The “apartment” consisted of a van up on blocks. He informed us that the building was under renovation and we couldn’t go in, but agreed to let us see the small downstairs hall currently in use for services. Michael was born in Riga and described speaking Yiddish growing up. He laughingly offered to teach us Yiddish when we told him we were going to the Yiddish Institute in Vilnius. He read us a Yiddish commemoration plaque for the memory of the Jews massacred by the Nazis during WWII. The plaque was written in Yiddish so it would be familiar to the (Orthodox) congregants as they only use Biblical Hebrew for praying.

While the main synagogue was burned, the priests from the nearby church protested to the Nazis that burning this synagogue would do too much damage to the area, thus it alone survived. Inside the sanctuary we saw dedicated seats donated by descendants of a Jewish family that were slaughtered at Rumbala. Michael translated the Hebrew at the front of the Synagogue as “The house of mine will be the house of prayer for all nations.” Laughing he told us that American Jews have a few additional commandments to the standard ten. #ll Don’t be pessimistic, #12 Look on the bright side, #13 Elbows akimbo (have an attitude), #14 Buy low, sell high. His humor seemed very Jewish and easily spanned geographic distance. Visiting the synagogue was a very poignant and moving experience and our conversation with Michael added considerably to the experience.

We found this interesting article about the synagogue in the Baltic Times.

As we departed the synagogue we noticed a life size image of a scantily clad woman holding out an apple which seemed like an ironic contrast to the synagogue.


Next we went to the Doma area and found a large fountain around which were located a number of unusual buildings. The focal point was the Blackheads House which was originally built in 1334 and renovated since. The Blackheads were an association of unmarried merchants. The name came from their patron saint, the Moor Maurice.

Next door to that was the somber grey building housing the Museum of the Occupation that told the story of Russian/Nazi control of Latvia and the attempts by both regimes to destroy the culture, infrastructure and spirit of the Latvians. It showed life in the gulags in Russia where many were deported. A small section was devoted to the Holocaust and the impact on the Jewish community. It also described how the Russians blamed the Jews for the policies imposed by the Russians. The difficult conditions under the Russians caused many Latvians to be receptive to the Germans.

We stopped at a cafĂ© for a cold drink before heading back for an Eastern European nap (sounds more like a cultural experience that way), before going out once again. We have been searching for the Art Nouveau section (Elizebetes Iela) but never seem to make it there. We keep going in circles but found new sights and sounds anyway. Today we saw an art class sketching at St. Peter’s, two flutists, and several street musicians. We also came upon another center, populated by a younger crowd where a rock band would play later. We had been looking for another church concert, but couldn’t find it. That allowed us time to meander and find some beautiful architectural adornments to the facades of buildings.

We ended our day returning to last night’s restaurant, this time eating outdoors as the threat of rain no longer haunted us. Oh, I forgot, in our wanderings we found a scrumptious dessert/coffee place and had a decadent chocolate delight. Of course, now we are back at the hotel, recapping the day and planning for tomorrow, our last full day in Riga. We definitely are going to the Jewish Museum along with the intent on finding Elizabetes Iela (Street).

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