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Unlocking Plovdiv’s Jewish Past

Ari Greenspan

Although Plovdiv, Bulgaria’s second largest city, was once home to a vibrant Sephardic kehillah, much of the city’s Jewish history has been forgotten. But cobweb-filled rooms and padlocked closets have never stopped a Mishpacha reporter before, and this time, as well, this Balkan gem revealed more than a few of its hidden treasures

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The first time I went to Bulgaria, it was for a bris. It wasn’t just any bris, but the first bris that was done on the eighth day in this former Communist country in over seven years. Actually, there were two brissim that day: a teenager and the baby.

I soon realized that there was something very special about the baby’s family. First, both the mother and the father were Jewish, something that is quite unusual these days in Bulgaria or any former Communist country. Second, both the grandmother and the great-grandmother of the baby were fluent in Hebrew. How did they learn Hebrew in a country where religion and religious instruction were banned?

The grandmother, Emma Mezan, who is from Plovdiv, told me her story. She was a young girl in the 1950s, when Communism was at its height. One day she decided to surprise her mother, Sarina Molcho (the baby’s great-grandmother), by cleaning up the apartment and making a meal so that everything would be ready when her mother came home from work. When it was time to set the table, Emma looked for a tablecloth. Not finding one in the usual place, she peeked inside a closet and there she found a big old cloth which she didn’t recognize. Since the cloth didn’t quite fit the table, she took a scissors and trimmed it to size. After the table was set, Emma sat down and waited patiently for her mother to return home.

When Sarina opened the door, her initial expression of delight quickly changed to one of horror. “What have you done to my father’s tallis?” she screamed. “What’s a tallis?” Emma replied. At that moment, Sarina understood that she needed to pass on to her daughter everything she could about Judaism.

Whatever Sarina did must have worked. Emma was able to pass on her knowledge of Judaism to her children and the bris of Emma’s grandson, which took place three years ago, was the first one to be performed b’zman in close to a decade. Today Emma is one of the central figures in Jewish education in her town.

Since that first visit I’ve been back to Bulgaria a few times, but I’ve never spent a Shabbos in Plovdiv. When I mentioned the idea to Emma, I could sense a kind of yearning. Together with the new religious committee chairman, we decided to make a community-wide Shabbos. We never dreamt how special it would be.

 

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