DOCUMENTING JEWISH ART
AND ARCHITECTURE IN BULGARIA
The Jewish community of Bulgaria survived the Holocaust intact. Immediately following World War II, however, approximately ninety percent of Bulgaria's 50,000 Jews immigrated to Israel. Those who remained found their lives and institutions controlled by the Communist Party; religious life during this period was almost eradicated. The reign of Communism also greatly damaged the community's art treasures: grand synagogues were abandoned or appropriated and valuable sacred and ritual objects were sold or plundered.
Since the fall of Communism, the Jewish community has been revived and efforts have been initiated to restore existing synagogues in such cities as Sofia and Plovdiv. Today numbering some 5,000 souls, the Jewish community has succeeded, with the aid of new legislation, in reclaiming several properties.
A research team from the Center for Jewish Art conducted an expedition to Bulgaria in August 1998 to document ritual objects, synagogues and cemeteries in the capital city of Sofia and cities and towns near the Black Sea. The research team, led by senior researcher, Boris Khaimovich also included Einat Ron and Gila Pollak, researchers from the Ritual Objects Section of the Index of Jewish Art, researcher Benyamin Lukin, architect Zoya Arshavsky, and photographer Zev Radovan. Researchers completed documentation of eight synagogues, over one hundred ritual objects from collections in Sofia and Plovdiv and several cemeteries.
The Bulgarian Jewish community claims an ancient heritage tracing to the destruction of the First Temple, when a small group of Jews arrived in the Balkan Peninsula after passing through Asia Minor. Based on the discovery of coins from the Bar Kochba revolt found in the area, historians maintain that Jewish slaves arrived after the failure of the revolt in 132-5 CE.
Additional evidence of Jewish settlement in the Balkan Peninsula during the time of the Roman Empire is provided by a stela from the village of Gigen. Inscribed on the stela, which may be seen today in the Sofia museum, is Yosefus archiesynagogus, meaning Joseph, head of the synagogue. A mosaic floor from a second or third century synagogue in the ancient city of Plovdiv provides further proof of Jewish settlement.
Due to periodic migrations in the following centuries, three distinct communities developed: the Greek-speaking Romaniots, Sephardi Jews fleeing Spain and Portugal at the end of the fifteenth century, and Ashkenazi Jews. Despite the diversity of their origins, by the seventeenth century most of these Jews had joined together to form a single community following the Sephardi tradition, whereas only a small Ashkenazi community endured. In all, the artistic legacy of the Jewish community of Bulgaria represents a magnificent patchwork of Turkish, Spanish and Greek sources, together with influences from Eastern Europe, such as Poland and Hungary.
These pinecone- shaped Torah finials, dated 1863, have a dedicatory inscription to the community of Yambol (Jampol), whose Jews, in eastern Bulgaria, were transferred to Istanbul after the Ottoman occupation.
Bulgarian Torah scrolls are adorned with mantles, as in other Balkan Jewish communities. Although differing in shape (elongated, cylindrical or trapezoidal) these Torah mantles are all decorated with Ottoman motifs and techniques. This Torah mantle is notable for its luxurious embroidery. A silver dedicatory plaque sewn to its front is dated: the year of the keter (crown), referring to the actual date, 1860
An Austro-Hungarian type Torah coronet is encircled by twelve oval medallions inscribed with the mishnaic verse of Rabbi Shimon, mentioning three of the four crowns: Kingship, Priesthood, and that which excels them allthe Crown of a Good Name. This Torah coronet and the ruins of a nineteenth century synagogue are all that remains of this once vibrant community of Vidin, one of the most important Jewish centers on the Danube during the Ottoman period.
A shiviti parokhet embedded with studs has a menorah composed of verses from Psalm 67. This decorative use of studs, most probably of Ottoman influence, is very common in Bulgarian textiles.
Synagogue Architecture and Cemeteries
The documentation and research work of the Center for Jewish Art is indispensable in aiding the efforts of the Bulgarian Jewish community to reclaim its invaluable artistic heritage, one of the gems of Jewish cultural tradition in the Diaspora. At the same time, the study of this national culture will give our researchers a deeper understanding of the development of the art of the Ashkenazi, Sephardi and Romaniot communities.
Bulgarian synagogue architecture and decorations reflect significant Ottoman influences. The synagogue in Samokov (pictured above), once home to a very wealthy Jewish community, was built in 1884. This tile-roofed rectangular synagogue is adorned with large arched windows (at right) on the lower level and oval windows on the upper.
Pazardzik, once home to a wealthy Sephardi Jewish community of 1,500, is today home to only one hundred Jews. A complex of buildings once included two synagogues and a Jewish school; the large synagogue is used today as a storage space, the other, as a coffeehouse. Pictured above is the interior of the large synagogue. There are four wooden pillars in the center of the synagogue, probably once used to support a canopy over the bimah, and a wooden ceiling carved with geometrical patterns. The central pillars are reminiscent of other synagogues of the former Ottoman Empire.
Researchers documented the one remaining synagogue in the ancient Macedonian city of Plovdiv (Philipopolis), built by Philip, father of Alexander the Great. Constructed in 1875 and renovated in 1923, the synagogue is located in the Jewish quarter at the base of the mountain where the old city was built and serves the700-strong community.Pictured is a detail of the pediment above the Torah ark.
Two synagogues were documented in Varna, which was once a large Jewish center on the Black Sea and is now home to one hundred Jews. Pictured here is the Sephardi synagogue built at the end of the nineteenth century, which is virtually a ruin, with only four remaining exterior walls.
This expedition was carried out with the generous support of the Fanny and Leo Koerner Charitable Trust, Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Steven Spielberg's Righteous Persons Foundation in cooperation with the Project Judaica Foundation of Washington, D.C., Mark Talisman, President.