Bucharest’s lost Sephardic world: A letter and photos from 1904

Lazar Ascher, president of Bucharest’s Sephardic Kehilla, president of the Bucharest Sephardic Jewish Primary Schools Society, early 1900s.


Today’s “guest blogger” from the past is Lazar (Lazaro) Ascher, a board member of several Sephardic organizations in Bucharest, Romania, in the 19th and early 20th centuries. He was a brother of Moscu Ascher, the noted Jewish philanthropist and educational reformer.

In this letter, Lazar writes about Bucharest’s “Spanish Jews” (Sephardim). The synagogue he describes is the Great Spanish Temple, also called Kahal Kadosh Gadol and Kahal Grande. That beautiful building, seen in photos below, stood at 10 Nedru Voda Street from the 1810s until the Iron Guard pogrom of 1941, just months before the Holocaust began.

You can find the complete 1904 letter and other correspondence from Sephardim of that era in Ángel Pulido’s book Sephardic Jews and the Spanish Language.


EXCERPTS FROM A LETTER TO
SENATOR ÁNGEL PULIDO, MADRID

[Translation from Spanish
© 2016 by Steven Capsuto]

Bucharest, February 16, 1904.

I was… overjoyed to learn that you are writing articles about the Spanish Jews, and that you want me to send photographs of our Synagogue and School. I’m glad to say I acted quickly and had photos taken of two parts of the Synagogue’s Moorish-style interior and of the facade. I also had pictures taken of our Jewish Community Schools for boys and for girls. I hope these are of use…

Great Spanish Temple of Bucharest, 1904.

The Synagogue, built in 1817 and rebuilt in 1852, has 350 seats for men downstairs and 150 for women up in the gallery. The left and right galleries have entrances separate from the lower-level entry.

Great Spanish Temple, Bucharest, looking toward the bimah, 1904.

Great Spanish Temple, looking toward the organ, 1904.

Our Community has had its Boys’ School since 1730. The school did not originally have its own space, but in 1817 four rooms were built for it on the grounds of the synagogue, and in 1894 the current building was erected. It is overseen by a five-man Committee. The Institute bears the name “School for Sons of the Spanish Israelite Community”…

The Spanish-Jewish Primary School for Boys. It was previously known simply as the Talmud Torah, which is what the sign over the door says. By 1904, this and the girls’ school were prestigious private elementary schools whose students attended free of charge, thanks to  funding from the Halfon family foundation.

Our Community has had its Girls’ School since Continue reading

Jewish women beyond the balcony, Pt. 1: Romania

In a Jewish magazine from the 1890s, I recently spotted a letter to the editor from a Sephardic Jew in Romania. It was like many other letters in old periodicals, except that in the middle, he slipped in this gem of a story about an Ashkenazic shul in Bucharest:


…During the High Holidays, I attended a Selichot service at an Ashkenazic synagogue at 2 o’clock in the morning, attracted there by a strange event that, at least to me, was completely new. This is because the chanting of Selichot was performed by a woman, with a self-assurance and a voice that would put the most talented Hazzan [cantor] to shame. Strangely, not only was the Hazzan a woman, but so was the person serving as Shamash, and so was the whole congregation. This happened daily at 2 a.m., and we men had to remain segregated. Honestly, it was curiously interesting to note the devotion and silence with which the congregants listened to their officiant praying. The Kaddish, however, was not included…

—Haim Cohen, Bucharest, Oct. 23, 1891
Il corriere israelitico, vol. 30, no. 6, p. 132
Translation © 2016 Steven Capsuto


These few sentences tell us so much about what was happening then. On the one hand, some congregations were already seeking ways for women to participate more fully in prayer services (sometimes in segregated services, sometimes not). On the other hand, such services were so rare that even Mr. Cohen, who was very active in Jewish life in a major city, had never heard of such a thing.

This got me thinking about the changing role of women in 19th-century Judaism. And that reminded me of letters in other 19th-century Jewish magazines, which talked about an early form of Italian bat mitzvah, similar to a kind that was already gaining traction in some German synagogues.

So for this week’s main post (which will be online this Wednesday), I’ve translated some letters that appeared in Jewish magazines at the time, describing girls’ religious initiation ceremonies in Italy in the mid-1800s to early 1900s. These group ceremonies, held annually, combined elements of Jewish bar mitzvahs with some of the visual aspects of their Catholic neighbors’ First Holy Communion ceremonies.

Stop by the blog this Wednesday.

Exterior of the Great Spanish Temple of Bucharest in 1904

We don’t know what Ashkenazic shul Haim Cohen visited that night, but we do know which Sephardic synagogue he belonged to: the Great Spanish Temple of Bucharest (Kahal Kadosh Gadol), seen here in 1904. Built in the 1810s, it was in use until its destruction in a 1941 pogrom.