Once we declared here that we would visit Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia, we expected people to say, “How quaint! How interesting! What an unusual place to visit.” Instead, we invariably heard, “Why Bratislava?” And in Prague, when we announced our next stop, the reaction was, “Why do you want to go there?” Amazingly, even in beautiful Bratislava itself, residents asked in wonder and bemusement, with no hint of being impolite: “Why would you want to come here?”
Folks in Bratislava are not used to tourists. It is not, as they say in the travel trade, a “destination.” No tourist buses crowd the streets like in Prague. No Israelis swarm here. And even if tourists come, we were told, they are ultra-Orthodox Jewish tourists visiting Budapest who take a taxi to Bratislava for a quick visit to the tomb of the revered early 19th century sage Rabbi Moshe Sofer (the Chatam Sofer), and then scoot back to Budapest without so much as a backward glance.
Which is too bad, for Bratislava is a lovely place to behold — despite a long-time resident’s semi-jocular remark: “It’s a pleasant town to live in, but not to visit.”
Known also as Pressburg, Bratislava has a special place in Jewish history. Jews have been connected to this city for more than 800 years, and may even have been here (like in Budapest) with the Roman legions. Since the 1700s it has been an important center for organized Jewish life. Hebrew and Yiddish book printing thrived — always a mark of a community’s importance. In the 100 years between 1830 and 1930, about 340 Jewish books appeared, as well as Hebrew and Yiddish newspapers and magazines.
In 1940, nearly 15,000 Jews lived in Bratislava, about 12 percent of the general population. Services were held in three shuls and in 14 Chasidic shtibls (prayer rooms). During World War II, few of the Bratislava Jews survived the combination of German racial laws and Slovak state anti-Semitism, sponsored by the fascist leader/priest, Father Tiso, and other church leaders who cooperated with the Germans. Of the 90,000 Jews in pre-War Slovakia, only 15,000 survived.
In 1947, the Jewish population in Bratislava was 7,000, bolstered by survivors who made their way to the capital from outlying towns and villages where Jewish life was not reconstituted after the war. During the following years, several thousand Jews went to Israel, so by 1969, the population had declined to 1,500. Today, 720 Jews are registered in the Jewish community.
An active synagogue functions under the leadership of a bright, energetic, 38-year-old American Chabad rabbi, Baruch Myers, who is secularly educated (a rarity among Chabadniks, for Lubavitch discourages non-Jewish higher education). The synagogue is part of the modern communal offices complex, and consists of a large, well-lit room, divided partly by a partition to create a woman’s gallery. The kehilla’s kosher kitchen serves meals to the elderly for less than $1. The community also runs a small kindergarten, but admits only children who are halachically Jewish (born of a Jewish mother).
Bratislava’s grand synagogue, built in 1926 in the elaborate 19th century style, with six great white columns, is the only pre-World War II shul still standing in the city. But this imposing edifice, with a beautiful interior, is rarely used nowadays.
At Sabbath services we noticed a mixture of older men, all Holocaust survivors, middle-aged men, and a couple of young adults, about 15-20 in all. All the pain of the Jewish past is borne by these old men. You look around the shul and see, even more than a half-century later, the suffering etched into their faces. At one table, a man in his late 70s looks sadly out the window. Who is he remembering? Another snoozes during the davening, a third man is missing an arm. Some of the middle-aged men sit, but do not participate. Two or three younger men with obviously Slavic faces are either converts or on their way to conversion. No teenagers were present; nor did we see any father-son duos, which is always the hallmark of Jewish continuity.
The only youngster in shul, of any age, was the rabbi’s 6-year-old son, who sat in the hollow of the prayer stand behind which his father was giving the sermon in Slovak. (Yes, Myers took the trouble to learn and master the local language.) No old women were seen in shul, but there were two of college age, one a Jewish teacher from South Africa, the other a gentile from Bratislava who, after working for a Jewish camp, decided to convert.
Like in America, the intermarriage rate is 50 percent. A curious fact: the assimilated Jews in prewar Bratislava married Jews — but the postwar Jewish children intermarry. Still, Myers has performed several marriages during the past few years.
We stayed at the simply appointed, comfortable, community-owned hotel, the Chez David. As spare as its rooms are, so impressive is its kosher restaurant, which is patronized mostly by local Slovaks. The talented and imaginative chef serves meals that are not only delicious, but artistically presented; they could be photographed for Gourmet magazine. The Chez David is ideally located, a few minutes away from the historic Old Town and a short walk from the synagogue.
In the Old Town, accompanied by the president of the
Jewish community, Peter Salner, we noticed a Cafe Mikva. But he told us that neither the owners nor the patrons know what a mikvah is. It is so named because an old mikvah used to be located on that street. The Old Town, with narrow cobblestone streets and a large, imposing square, is an esthetic entity, with fine old buildings, a market on one side, and upscale shops and an elegant cafe on the other. Posters are seen everywhere advertising the many concerts, plays and folklore evenings available almost nightly in Bratislava. A short walk from the Old Town stands a rather large memorial to the Jews killed during the Holocaust.
The dollar in Slovakia makes everything rather inexpensive. The rabbi and members of the community are warm and welcoming. When we arrived at Chez David, Salner was waiting for us to show us around; he returned later that evening to escort us to the shul. And once we met the rabbi, he immediately invited us to his house for the Sabbath meals.
To get to Bratislava we flew with the reliable and efficient British Airways to Vienna. Once there, we used our Eurail Flexipass obtained in the United States. Not only do the passes save you money — more important, they save you the hassle and waste of time in long lines at ticket counters.
So the next time anyone asks you, “Why Bratislava?” tell them it’s a beautiful town in the heart of Europe, with a rich Jewish past.
For information on the Eurail Flexipass, call (888)
342-7245; for information on Bratislava, visit “>www.chaverim.sk or
A Reason to Party
After Osama bin Laden demolished the World Trade Center, then-New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani made a point of dining out in Manhattan. Last week, after two more bombings, Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert went one step further.
Olmert persuaded hundreds of citizens to join him for a fressfest in the downtown Ben Yehuda pedestrian street. Rock groups blared, lights twinkled, steaks sizzled, wines were tasted. Chefs baked the world’s longest challah and a kugel worthy of the Guinness Book of Records.
The four-day food fair opened, as planned, a few hours after five Americans and two Israelis were murdered in an bombing at a cafeteria at the Hebrew University. The opening was not callous commercialism, but a deliberate act of defiance.
Ilan Siboni, owner of the Darna Moroccan restaurant, was offering couscous, savory cigars and oriental grills from an improvised, open-air kitchen. On that first night, he sold out. He — and his customers — were refusing to let the terrorists win.
"We choose for life; they choose for death," said Siboni, who opened his first Jerusalem restaurant 27 years ago. "Despite everything, we decided to go out. If we do what they want us to do, we can just stay at home and be miserable. You see how Jerusalem people react. It’s what we have to do."
The food fair launched a nine-week summer festival of events designed to revitalize Ben Yehuda, which has been targeted by bombers and abandoned by shoppers. Future events this summer will include a local fashion week and a schoolbook fair. An advertising campaign — on television, radio and newspapers — is urging Israelis to take a break in Jerusalem.
The city fathers noticed that people preferred the suburban Malcha shopping mall because it was enclosed and guarded. So they enclosed and guarded Ben Yehuda, too. They erected barriers at all entrances and renamed the paved street the "Open Mall." Police checked everyone coming in. Paramilitary border guards, armed with automatics, patrolled the streets.
A young mother, Rena Schwartz, brought her 3-year-old son, Ben, to the food fair. "I was a bit afraid," she confessed, "but I trust the security. It’s lovely here. People are walking about freely. That’s how the summer should be."
Angels Bakery greeted them off Zion Square with the record 66-foot-long challah. The Israel Chefs’ Association, a quarter of whose 500 members are out of work because of the tourism slump, flaunted the biggest kugel and the biggest kubeh, a popular Middle Eastern delicacy.
Rafi Yefet, association president, revealed the secret of the distinctive, gigantic "Jerusalem kugel": 220 pounds of lokshen, 600 eggs, 110 pounds of sugar, 55 pounds of raisins and a gallon of olive oil. Bake slowly for five hours, three with a high-tech oven.
"Jerusalem Buys Blue and White" read a streamer across a side street. Old men licked cornets outside an ice cream parlor that had put chairs and tables back on the sidewalk. Yuppies nibbled goat cheeses from the Sataf Dairy’s stall.
Fancy French restaurants — Arcadia and Cavalier — offered quality dishes at knockdown prices: fillet steak in wine sauce for 29 shekels (about $6), "rostbif" for 25. The El Gaucho Argentine restaurant was grilling huge steaks alfresco. Shanti (Sanskrit for "peace") peddled vegetarian salads.
A Lubavitcher Chasid with a wispy white beard invited passers-by to lay tefillin. He had few takers. They had come out for fun, not devotion, to make a point, not to worship.
As Olmert, shadowed by his bodyguard and spokeswoman, put it: "This is the strongest and most relevant manifestation by the people of Jerusalem that nothing will break our spirit. This is where we belong. Nobody can force us out."
If the food fair was any guide, he was right about the people of Jerusalem. The rest of Israel seems in no hurry, however, to weekend in the lonely capital. And foreign tourists are still as hard to find as a silver coin in a Jerusalem kugel.
‘It Was Chaos’
Closed for the Duration
Whenever there’s a wave of terror in Israel, the nation’s hotels come up against a wave of cancellations, and the country’s entire tourist industry — from five-star hotels to souvenir hawkers — goes into a slump. But in a few months the terror and fear subside, and the tourists come back.
Not this time. "The tourism industry has never had a crisis of these proportions since the country began. Little by little it keeps getting worse, and nobody can see the end of it," says Mira Altman, director-general of the Tourism Ministry. "Hotels are closing, travel agencies are closing, tour guides haven’t worked in a year. The tourism industry is simply collapsing."
The crisis began in October 2000 with the outbreak of the intifada, and people stopped flying to Israel. Then came Sept. 11, and people stopped flying anywhere. Now two wars have to end — the one against Israel, and the one against America — before Israel’s tourism industry climbs out of depression. This could take years. The question is: If and when the wars end, will tourists wishing to visit Israel again have hotels, tour operators, guides and such to accommodate them?
The industry is now in a survival mode, firing workers, trimming services and slashing expenses like mad, trying to stay afloat in anticipation of "the day after," Altman says. "We’re not doing any marketing, any advertising," she adds.
The statistics for the year beginning October 2000 are in now, and they’re bleak. Some 40,000 of the 180,000 tourism employees lost their jobs. Industry-wide income fell from $4.2 billion to $2 billion. Hotel occupancy fell by 60 percent. Scores of the country’s 350 hotels closed whole floors, and 32 shut down altogether.
Hardest hit were Jerusalem — the No. 1 destination for foreign tourists — and the other cities that depend heavily on overseas visitors — Tiberias, Netanya and Nazareth.
The city of Jesus’ birth was counting on millennium tourism to boost its economy. Three big hotels were built in advance of 2000: the Renaissance, Marriott and Howard Johnson’s. All three closed in the last year, as well as the city’s five other, smaller hotels.
Some hotels are considering retooling and becoming office buildings. A couple of the smaller ones have turned themselves into immigrant hostels.
Now that the Jewish holidays are over, another 15-20 hotels are expected to close — bringing the country’s total to about 300, down from 350 a year ago. "I hope 300 is the bottom and it will go no lower," says Avi Rosenthal, general manager of the Israel Hotels Association. "But I don’t know. The way things are going, we can expect a few thousand more hotel rooms to shut down, and a few thousand more employees to be fired."
How to Fly if you look Middle Eastern