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The Sad End of Romanian Jewry

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In a classic Yiddish theater song from the 1920s that is still popular today, Aaron Lebedeff, known in his day as "the Maurice Chevalier of the Yiddish stage," opened with a striking cantorial-style refrain: "Roumania, Roumania, Roumania, Roumania."

The first verse declared:
"Once there was a beautiful land - Roumania!
Life was so good!
No cares, just wine,
Mamaligeh (Romanian polenta),beautiful girls and merriment!"

Lebedeff was exaggerating the charms of the Eastern European nation, which even before the rise of Nazism was known for its virulent anti-Semitism. Between 280,000 and 380,000 Romanian and Ukrainian Jews were killed by Romanian civilian and military authorities in Romania and areas it controlled during the Second World War. Still, the majority of Romanian Jewry survived the Holocaust. In 1947, there were still around 430,000 Jews in the country.

During successive decades, most left for Israel. Romania's communist dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu, allowed Jews to leave in exchange for billions of dollars in secret payments from Israel and world Jewry. Today, there are probably fewer than 10,000 Jews remaining, many of them aging and poor.

But in a strange twist of history, even as the indigenous Jewish community falls away, Israeli investors, businessmen, companies and products have been building a growing commercial empire in the East European state.

According to Bucharest Business Week, Romania hosts over 5,000 companies with Israeli capital. Elite coffee, Prigat juices and soft drinks and Sano cleaning products are just a few of the Israeli brand names on sale in Romanian supermarkets. Bank Leumi has branches in all the major cities.Food conglomerate Tnuva opened a dairy production facility outside Bucharest a few years ago with a planned capacity of 60 million litres of milk a year. Israeli developers completed construction this year of the largest shopping mall in Eastern Europe, outside Bucharest. Some of the best hotels, casinos and cafes in Bucharest are Israeli-owned. Wandering the streets of Bucharest, one often hears Hebrew being spoken.

It is a little sad and strange to compare this vibrant economic activity with the plight of the few Jews who remain.

When my wife and I spent nine months in Bucharest in 2007, we made friends with one couple in their 80s who had decided not to leave the only country they had ever known when most of their friends emigrated. In failing health, they barely made ends meet on meager government pensions. Forced to grapple with a dysfunctional and corrupt public health system, this unfortunate couple faced a grim daily struggle to survive.

Efforts are underway to revive the community. The opening of the Lauder Reut school in a renovated Yiddish theater in 1997 was a significant step. It quickly won a reputation as one of the best private schools in the city.

Students learn all their subjects in English, which they begin studying in kindergarten. By the time they reach second or third grade, most have achieved a remarkable mastery. They take Hebrew, taught by emissaries from Israel and locally based instructors, three times a week beginning in first grade.

But many of the students have only a tenuous connection to Judaism. Some have Jewish grandparents or great-grandparents, some have Israeli fathers who came to do business and married Romanian women. Some have no connection whatsoever. In a survey, when asked to state their religion, many children wrote "orthodox" -- by which they meant the Romanian Orthodox Church.

During our stay in Romania, we didn't experience any expressions of anti-Semitism, although some Israeli friends did encounter racist remarks from time to time. Most Romanian racism nowadays -- and it can be virulent -- is directed at the country's significant gypsy or Roma population.

Traveling around the country, one often sees abandoned synagogues, unused for 30 or 40 years. We visited a town in Transylvania called Deva and were introduced to the head of the Jewish community, which numbered seven. The youngest member was in his 40s and had no children. We were taken inside the once-gorgeous synagogue with beautiful stained windows, two galleries with lovely wooden carvings and an ark with an intricately embroidered red velvet covering. But there were holes in the ceiling, mold grew on the walls, the dust was several inches thick and the wooden pews were turned upside down or piled on top of one another. On one bench, we found discarded candlesticks, menorahs and even some beautiful Torah crowns lying abandoned.

It seemed like a fitting metaphor.