“Are you visiting Bratislava?” a man asks us. He wears a white buttoned shirt and approaches my friend Deanna and me in the garden courtyard, behind the Heydukova Street Synagogue, the Orthodox synagogue in the capital of Slovakia.
“Yes, we are just here for the weekend. Where are you from?” I reply.
He is from Israel, traveling through Europe on a kosher cruise. I switch to Hebrew.
The man smiles and seems pleasantly surprised that I speak Hebrew. We have a conversation about where I learned Hebrew, and about what Deanna and I are doing in Bratislava. I am delighted with myself for being able to keep up in a language I haven’t spoken in a long time. He mentions that minutes before, in the sanctuary for Shabbat morning services, he sat next to a person who spoke Slovak but no English. The two were able to communicate using Hebrew. Hearing this story is one of my favorite moments during the trip so far: realizing how a Jewish language can connect Jewish people around the world, regardless of where we live.
I arrived at the Petržalka Train Station around 1:30 p.m. on Friday. It didn’t take long to find Oliver, the Global Jewish Pen Pal who was hosting us during our stay in Bratislava — he has lived in Bratislava his entire life but was holding a medium-sized Israeli flag sideways under his arm.
Oliver had meticulously planned a packed itinerary for our weekend in Bratislava. Two hours after our arrival, we headed to the Museum of Jewish Culture. The museum sits right on Židovská Street (Jewish Street), the single area of the city where Jews were allowed to reside from 1599 until 1840. The museum is inside one of only two original surviving buildings on the street. Finding a Jewish Street in towns throughout Europe always comforts me; I am proud to be a Jew back on a Jewish Street.
I was surprised that in the short 15-minute walk from my hotel to the museum we passed a public, outdoor exhibit about a synagogue that once existed in that very space. I learned that the synagogue survived the Holocaust, only to be torn down in the 1960s by Communists building a bridge.
Throughout the weekend I would come across many plaques dedicated to well-known Bratislavan Jews, stolpersteine in memory of where Jews once lived, and a memorial to Raoul Wallenberg, a Swedish humanitarian who saved thousands of Jews in German-occupied Hungary during the Holocaust.
The director of the Museum of Jewish Culture gave us a private guided tour of the museum. It was small and simple, with a few rooms focused on the basics of Judaism: what is kashrut, what is a Torah scroll, what are the Jewish holidays. The museum is intended as an educational resource for non-Jewish Bratislavans and students. It is state-owned, a component of the Slovak National Museum, which has eight separate buildings, each about one minority in Slovakia. This is different from the Jewish Community Museum, an independent private museum I visited later that weekend, established by the Jewish Community in Bratislava. Its exhibits concentrate specifically on Jewish life in Bratislava and the surrounding region.
But the city is not just home to sites of Jewish heritage; there is a small, but present, Jewish community as well. After visiting the Museum of Jewish Culture, we walked up a hill to reach a building with a room on the bottom floor where Reform Jews meet for Kabbalat Shabbat services every other week. I thought about how unfortunate it is non-Orthodox groups are relegated to renting an area from a local building as opposed to meeting in historical, preserved synagogue buildings as the Orthodox do. While I prefer the smaller size of European congregations compared to American congregations, it would be nice if prayer groups of various Jewish backgrounds could be housed in actual synagogues.
The service began and I recognized most of the tunes from my Conservative American Jewish upbringing. We got to Adon Olam, and the rabbi, across the room, asked what tune Deanna and I knew. We told him, and he began to sing. Afterward, he asked for another tune.
“Our community doesn’t know the tune we just sang,” he said. “Each country and community has a different tune. Our community does know that one,” he said, referencing the second tune I suggested.
As we stood in a circle after services, holding glasses of wine in preparation for kiddush, one member asked us how our services in the United States differed from what we just experienced in Bratislava. The Bratislavan Jews were as interested to learn from us as I was to learn from them.
While we walked back to the hotel that night we discussed Jewish identity with Oliver. He asked if we planned to raise our eventual children as Jewish. “Do you ever bring your children to synagogue?” I replied. Instantly, he said no.
I was puzzled. A wave of sadness passed over me, as I thought about the possibility of Oliver’s heritage being lost with future generations. Oliver found out later in life that his father was Jewish. His mother is not Jewish. Oliver decided to delve into Judaism and became committed to the community. He found a place that welcomed him and he is clearly knowledgeable about local Jewish life. Yet, even though his Judaism was hidden from him for years, he is now doing almost the same thing with his children — keeping them out of the Jewish community. He explained that his wife is not Jewish, and so they have decided to wait until their children are older, and then perhaps give them the choice to see a synagogue.
I understand giving children a choice. I have observed that many European Jews become more involved with Jewish life when they are older — compared to some American Jews — because of the sense of choice they have with religion. But a part of me wonders why Oliver doesn’t feel a stronger pull to keep his family connected to Judaism.
Judaism is very present throughout the old town of Bratislava, in one way or the other. As we walked around throughout the weekend, Oliver pointed out the Jewish Community complex, and Ohel David, the Jewish senior citizen home. The synagogues have limited, if any, security — it is a very safe city, and Oliver has never experienced antisemitism.
Antisemitism, though, is not the only thing that can lead to a decline in Jewish life. I hope that Bratislavan Jews find a way to continue passing Jewish culture and practices on for years to come. PJC
Madison Jackson is a graduate student at the Chatham University MFA program in Creative Nonfiction Writing. She lives in Squirrel Hill and is the founder and executive director of the Global Jewish Pen Pal Program. She is traveling throughout Europe this summer and writing for the Chronicle about Jewish life in diverse locations.