What do Elie Wiesel, the late Lauren Bacall and pastrami all have in common? Just ask Count Dracula: he'll tell you they all come from Romanian bloodlines. The motherland is still brimming with remnants of Jewish culture, including more than 800 synagogues and 700 cemeteries. Whether you're seeking heritage sites or pristine nature, look no further than Romania.
"It'll blow your mind," marvels Tzell Travel's Aharon Steinberg. The longtime New Yorker recently led a tour to the central European country where he spent his first five years of life. What began in the Medieval Old Town of Bucharest and waxed magical amid the woodlands and castles of Transylvania culminated in an emotional journey to his birthplace, the northeastern city of Iaşi (pronounced "yash").
Formerly the capital of Moldovia, Romania's second-biggest city was once home to the nation's largest and most enlightened Jewish community. Three centuries after the first Jewish presence was documented by the banks of the local, Iaşi had emerged as one of Europe's most distinguished centers of Jewish learning. Hacham Bashim was headquartered there in the 17th century, and Yiddish Theater debuted in its heady ethers, in 1876. Though Iaşi was once called "the city of the hundred churches," it was also known for its synagogues -- 127 of them.
Much has changed since the Steinberg family left in 1959. Now the landscape is dotted with retail chains such as Geox, and caffeine can be scored at not one but two Starbucks. Streets like the one where he grew up tend to have new names. But the ancestral building complex "hasn't changed a bit since we left," he told jccgreenwich.org. Only now, as an adult, Steinberg can better appreciate its choice location near the National Theater along Iaşi's version of Fifth Avenue.
Less gracious is the reception he seems to have met with when he took the group for a glimpse of his family’s former home. As Steinberg recalled, the current residents “started hollering, ‘Get the hell out of here!’ It was a little bit unsettling. I didn't say anything, because whatever you say won't help.”
He quickly ushered his charges past the courtyard and back onto the street. “We all left, but I thought: that's not right,” said Steinberg. “So I left the group outside and I went back myself. I walked through the same squeaking double doors. He remembers passing several neighbors when someone asked him, ‘What are you looking for here?’ “ This time the mood was calm and friendly. “I said, ‘Listen, I'm not here to reclaim property. If my parents didn't want to do that, I certainly am not interested.’ They looked at me. They almost kissed me. These poor people! Nowhere to go. They know exactly what they did. One of the guys was so happy and he said, ‘Come see my apartment.’ He said, ‘This was of Mrs. Applebaum.’ It was like a railroad apartment. There's no flooring. You feel the cement under the carpet. He said he'd tell ‘the owners of the Steinberg’s apartment’ not to worry.” That worry was of course because Romanian law grants former owners to reclaim property that still exists. According to Steinberg, “It’s easy. You simply go to the municipality and check the archives.”
“That was the most emotional part of the trip,” he reflected. The next biggest heart tug was visiting the Iaşi Jewish Cemetery, which reminded Steinberg of its famed counterpart in Prague. “Before the Second World War, Jews were the majority of the town population -- almost 60 percent,” he said by way of explaining the Iaşi burial’s 80,000 graves. As Steinberg reported, weeds and shrubs help tell the story of the Jewish community’s fate from 1940 and up. “People came and took care of the graves of their loved ones, but the graves of people whose family is gone? You cannot walk there. It's completely overgrown.”
Asked about other Jewish sites to visit in Romania, Steinberg mentioned the Cathedral wooden synagogue in Piatra Neamt. Legend has it that the Ba'al Shem Tov, the founder of Hassidism, prayed in an earlier, masonry synagogue that stood on the same spot. These days part of the synagogue, where the women used to sit, has been renovated and is being used on a daily basis for Jewish prayer. “You can see the chairs with the name of the people engraved there,” said Steinberg, adding, “Today there are 57 people, though only 20 or so can attend High Holidays because the rest have disabilities.” Jewish-themed tourism is a work in progress in Romania. “They’re very much about developing Jewish heritage, but obviously budget is a huge issue."
But there are lots of other reasons to visit, per Steinberg. The country is apparently ideal for nature lovers. "The canyons and lakes are just gorgeous,” he enthused. “There is nothing you can compare it to anywhere in the world." A case in point is the Transfăgărașan Road. The 66 miles of hairpin turns cut through Transylvania's Făgăras Mountains, past rivers, waterfalls and staggering heights. Here Steinberg is not alone in his enthusiasm. Former Top Gear host Jeremy Clarkson called the twisty Transfăgărășan "the best road in the world."
It has also been labeled "Ceauşescu's Folly." The communist dictator ordered the project in 1970, a couple of years after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. A combination of unchecked grandiosity and anxious strategic planning led him to create rapid military passage across this strategic stretch of the Carpathians in the event of a new Soviet adventure. More than six million pounds of dynamite went into clearing the northern face, and that's not counting the human casualties and injuries.
After tacking tacking between the highest peaks in the country, Moldoveanu and Negoiu, Steinberg recommends cooling your heels one of two chalets in Cârțișoara, Sibiu County. During the summer, they’re reachable by car on the Transfăgărășan Road, and the rest of the year by a cable car from the "Bâlea Cascadă" chalet. For addtional Romanian attractions, head over to www.tzell.com.